Old City Walking Tour
Stepping back into Jewish history.
visiting the Flowers Gate Compound, Beit Dolgin, Beit Warsaw,
the spectacular scenic outlookof Beit HaTzalam, Beit Wittenberg,
Yeshivat Ateret Yerushalayim, the holy Kotel HaKatan,Beit Rand,
Beit HaMaaRavim, Galicia Courtyard and Neot David.
(Yeshivat Bein Chomot Yerushalayim)
in the heart of Jerusalem.
Jerusalem - The Old City
Click here to jump to:The Four Quarters
The Jewish Quarter
The Western Wall
The Muslim Quarter and Temple Mount
The Way of the Cross
The Armenian Quarter
In the film Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones threatens to blow up the Ark of the Covenant. His nemesis pats the ark and says: "You and I are just passing through history. This is history." That is the feeling one gets in the Old City of Jerusalem. Just walking through the narrow streets and alleys, never mind the shrines holy to three faiths, one is immersed in history.
The Old City covers roughly 220 acres (one square kilometer). The surrounding walls date to the rule of the Ottoman Sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent(1520-1566). Work began on them in 1537 and was not completed until 1541.
The Old City has a total of 11 gates, but only seven are open (Jaffa, Zion, Dung, Lions’ [St. Stephen's], Herod’s, Damascus [Shechem] and New).
Jews aren't worried about the Golden Gate being closed. As one tour guide put it, "If the Messiah came this far, he'd find a way in."
One of the closed gates is the Golden Gate, located above ground level and below the Temple Mount. It is only visible from outside the city. According to Jewish tradition, when the Messiah comes, he will enter Jerusalem through this gate. To prevent him from coming, the Muslims sealed the gate during the rule of Suleiman.
You may notice the original gates are angled so that you can't enter directly into the city without making a sharp 90-degree angle turn. This was to prevent enemies on horseback from charging full-speed, straight ahead through them, and to make it difficult to use a long battering ram to break them down. Also, you can see above some of the gates, such as Zion Gate, outside the Armenian and Jewish quarters, a hole through which boiling liquids could be poured on attackers.
The main entrance to the city is the Jaffa Gate, built by Suleiman in 1538. The name in Arabic, Bab el-Halil or Hebron Gate, means "The Beloved," and refers to Abraham, the beloved of God who is buried in Hebron. A road allows cars to enter the city here. It was originally built in 1898 when Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany visited Jerusalem. The ruling Ottoman Turks opened it so the German Emperor would not have to dismount his carriage.
The Old City is divided into four neighborhoods, which are named according to the ethnic affiliation of most of the people who live in them. These quarters form a rectangular grid, but they are not equal in size. The dividing lines are the street that runs from Damascus Gate to the Zion Gate — which divides the city into east and west — and the street leading from the Jaffa Gate to Lion's gate — which bifurcates the city north and south. Entering through the Jaffa Gate and traveling to David Street places the Christian Quarter on the left. On the right, as you continue down David Street, you'll enter the Armenian Quarter. To the left of Jews Street is the Muslim Quarter, and, to the right, is the Jewish Quarter.
A great way to visit the Old City is simply to wander through the labyrinthine paths and let yourself get lost. For safety reasons, it's best not to travel alone and to be careful about wandering beyond the main thoroughfares of the Muslim Quarter. It is also prudent to explore during the day, though the views of many of the sites -- when you know how to find them -- are often best at night.
Just inside Jaffa Gate, on the left beyond the Tourist Information Office, is a small enclosure with two graves nearly hidden beneath the trees. These are believed to be the graves of the two architects whom Suleiman had rebuild the city walls. They were supposedly murdered either because the Sultan wanted to be sure they could never build anything more impressive for anyone else, or because he was angered by their failure to include Mount Zion within the walls.
From the Jaffa Gate side of the city, the most striking landmark is the Citadel, which is marked by David's Tower, a misnomer given that the cylindrical structure dates from the 16th century. By contrast, the tall, square tower is 2,000 years old and was built by Herod. Inside the Citadel is a courtyard and museum with exhibits on the history of the Citadel and Old City.
The best way to immerse yourself in the city is simply to head straight down David Street from Jaffa Gate into the Arab market, the souk, where you can expect to be verbally accosted by shopkeepers trying to entice you into their stores and to keep you occupied long enough to buy something. It's a great place to bargain, but keep in mind the shopping tips offered under trip preparation.
As you make your way through the souk, you'll reach different forks. Head to the left to go toward the Christian or Muslim Quarter and the right to reach the Jewish Quarter. The path to the major shrines, the Western Wall,Temple Mount and Church of the Holy Sepulcher, are not very well marked, but anyone you ask should be able to direct you.
If you head toward the Muslim Quarter, or enter the Old City coming from the North from Mea She'arim or somewhere else off Suleiman Street, you'll want to look for Damascus Gate. This is where most Arabs enter the city and you'll find a bustling open-air market filled with people, carts, food and trinkets. Below the gate is a surviving arch built by the Roman Emperor Hadrian in 135 as the main entrance to the city he called Aelia Capitolina.
The current Jewish Quarter, which today looks almost brand new and usually sparkling clean, dates to roughly 1400. The oldest synagogues — the Elijah the Prophet and Yohanan Ben Zakkai — are roughly 400 years-old. These synagogues are below street level because at the time they were built Jews and Christians were prohibited from building anything higher than the Muslim structures.
In the main plaza, an arch stretches skyward where one of the walls of the Hurva Synagogue once stood. Originally the Great Synagogue, the Hurva was built in the 16th century, but was destroyed by the Ottomans. The synagogue was rebuilt in the 1850's, but was damaged in the 1948 war and then destroyed after the Jordanians took control of the Old City. The plan to rebuild the synagogue in its 19th-century style received approval by the Israeli Government in 2000, and the newly rebuilt synagogue was dedicated on March 15, 2010. Nearby is the Ramban Synagogue, named for Rabbi Moshe Ben-Nahman — the Ramban — who helped rejuvenate the Jewish community in Jerusalem in 1267, after it had been wiped out by the Crusaders.
Just off the plaza is the Cardo, which was a Byzantine road, roughly the equivalent of an eight-lane highway, that ran through the heart of the city. Today, a small area is preserved with some of the original Roman columns. Just beyond the columns is an underground mall with a number of Jewish stores and art galleries. This is a good place to purchase Judaica, and it is possible to haggle with shopkeepers. Compare the prices with the shops downtown before you buy.
The Jewish Quarter of today is located on the remains of the upper city from the Herodian period (37 B.C.E-70 C.E.). The Wohl Archaeological Museum contains what are now the underground remains of a residential quarter where wealthy families belonging to the Jerusalem aristocracy and priesthood constructed homes overlooking the Temple Mount. Some archaeologists believe the palace of the Hasmoneans (also known as the Maccabees) is among the ruins.
Since the 2nd century, refuse has been hauled out of the city through Dung Gate, hence the name.
Two gates lead into the Jewish Quarter. One, just outside the Western Wall plaza, is the Dung Gate. The other is Zion Gate. If you want to bypass most of the tourists, take the path from Yemin Moshe down the hill, across Jaffa Road and up the snake path along the wall to Zion Gate. This was the last gate constructed (in 1540), probably because Mount Zion was inadvertently let outside the city walls. In Arabic it is known as "the Prophet David's Gate" because it faces Mount Zion where David is supposed to be buried. Like other fortress gates, this was built in an L-shape to prevent armies on horseback from charging through the entrance. Today, you only have to worry about cars charging through.