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Jerusalem

Listed under Historic Towns and Villages in Jerusalem, Israel.

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The Old City of Jerusalem, perched upon sacred Mount Moriah, has been a place of holiness, devotion and spiritual love since archaic times. An ancient Semitic tradition tells that the rock atop the mount was held in the mouth of the serpent Tahum, and that the site was the intersection of the underworld and the upper world. It was also the location where Abraham had built an altar on which he prepared to sacrifice his son Isaac. From this altar, Isaac’s son Jacob used stone for a pillow and spent the night sleeping upon Mount Moriah. Upon waking from a visionary dream, the stone sank into the earth, to become the foundation of the great temple that would later be built by King Solomon. This hallowed site, known as Bethel, meaning ‘Gate or House of Heaven,’ was also a holy place of the harvest deity Tammuz.

The earliest archaeological traces of human settlement are from 3000 BC and excavations have shown that a Jebusite town existed on Mount Moriah, called Urusalim, meaning ‘Foundation of God’. To the Jewish people it is Ir Ha-Kodesh, the Biblical Zion, the City of David and the site of Solomon's Temple. For the Romans it held a sanctuary of the god Jupiter. To Christians it is where the Jesus spent many days of his ministry, and where the Last Supper, the Crucifixion and the Resurrection took place. Also venerated by the Muslims, it is where the prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven. As a holy city there is perhaps no other place on the planet that has been visited by more pilgrims.

About 1000 BC, Urusalim was captured by King David and renamed Jerusalem, meaning the ‘City of Peace’. David’s son, King Solomon, completed the first temple of the Jews in 957 BC and there installed the Ark of the Covenant. Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon destroyed this temple in 586 BC and a second temple was completed by 515 BC. This temple did not, however, enshrine the Ark of the Covenant as that sacred object had been hidden beneath Solomon’s Temple to protect it from the Babylonians. More than 1700 years later a group of nine Frenchmen, known as the original Knights Templars, spent nine years excavating at the ruins of Solomon’s temple. According to legend, they retrieved a vast wealth of gold bullion, hidden treasures, and the Arc of the Covenant. While the existence and exact location of this Arc are not currently known, the Templars soon became one of the most powerful religious and political institutions in medieval Europe.

Over the centuries Jerusalem was captured by Alexander the Great, and controlled by Hellenistic, Egyptian and Seleucid empires. In 64 BC, the Roman general Pompey captured Jerusalem, ushering in several centuries of Roman rule. During this period Herod created the famous Western Wall (also called the Wailing Wall) as part of the supporting structure for the enlarged Temple Mount. In 6AD the Romans turned the governance of Jerusalem over to a series of administrators, the fifth of whom, Pontius Pilate, ordered the execution of Jesus. In the year 135 AD, the Roman Emperor Hadrian built a temple of the god Jupiter upon the foundation of the Second temple of the Jews but this temple was itself demolished by the Byzantines after the empire became Christian.

The conversion to Christianity of the Byzantine Emperor Constantine and the pilgrimage of his mother, Empress Helena, to Jerusalem in 326 inaugurated one of the city's most prosperous epochs. According to Christian legends, Empress Helena discovered the relics of the 'True Cross of the Crucifixion' at the place of the Resurrection upon Mt. Calvary. To commemorate this site the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was constructed in 335, apparently upon the foundations of an earlier Roman shrine dedicated to the goddess Aphrodite, and it soon became the supremely sacred pilgrimage destination in all of Christendom.

Jerusalem was captured in 638, six years after the death of Muhammad, by the Muslim Caliph Umar. Soon after his occupation of the city, Umar cleared the Temple Mount, built a small mosque and dedicated the site to Muslim worship. The most imposing structure the Muslims found in Jerusalem was the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Nearby the Arab conquerors undertook to build a more spectacular edifice, the Dome of the Rock. The site chosen was the same rock where previously had stood the Jupiter temple of the Romans and before that, the two temples of the Jews. There was also another reason for the Muslim veneration of Jerusalem. A certain passage in the Koran, the ‘Night Journey,’ links the Prophet Muhammad with Jerusalem and the Temple Mount. According to this passage, Muhammad and the Archangel Gabriel rode on a winged steed called El Burak and alighted at Temple Mount where they encountered Abraham, Moses and Jesus. Gabriel then escorted Muhammad to the pinnacle of the rock, which the Arabs call as-Sakhra, where a ladder of golden light materialized. Climbing this ladder, Muhammad ascended through the seven heavens into the presence of Allah, from whom he received instructions for himself and his followers.

At this site, known in Arabic as Haram al Sharif, the 9th Caliph, Abd al-Malik, built the Dome of the Rock in 691. Often incorrectly called the Mosque of Umar, the Dome of the Rock, is not a mosque for public worship but is rather a mashhad, a shrine for pilgrims. Adjacent to the Dome is the Al-Aqsa Mosque where Muslims make their prayers. Designed by Byzantine architects engaged by the Caliph, the Dome of the Rock was the greatest monumental building in early Islamic history. The Muslims in power before and after the Dome's construction tolerated Christianity and Judaism, welcoming pilgrims of both religions to freely visit the Holy City. This era of peaceful coexistence ended in 969 however, when control of the city passed to the Fatimid caliphs of Egypt who systematically destroyed all synagogues and churches. In 1071 the Seljuk Turks displaced the Egyptians as masters of the Holy Land, and closed the pilgrimage routes.

The prohibition of Christian pilgrimage by these less tolerant Muslim rulers angered Western Europe and became a contributing cause of the Crusades, a series of invasions that culminated in the capture of Jerusalem in 1099. The Christian Kingdom lasted almost 90 years, during which time the Dome of the Rock was converted to a Christian shrine and named Templum Domini (meaning Temple of the Lord), the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was rebuilt, and hospices and monasteries were founded. The city was recaptured by the Muslims again in 1187 and ruled by them, with the exception of two very brief periods of Christian control, until the 19th century. The Jews, who had been barred by the Christian crusaders, returned from the 13th century onward, by the middle of the 19th century nearly half the city's population was Jewish, and in 1980 Jerusalem was officially made the capital of Israel.

Besides the sites discussed above, the following places are also much visited by pilgrims in the Holy City. For Jews, the most venerable locations are Mt Zion, the traditional site of King David's tomb, and the Western Wall. Devout Christian pilgrims will visit the fourteen stations of the Via Dolorosa, or 'Way of Sorrows'. Additionally, there are the shrine of the Ascension on the summit of the Mount of Olives, the garden of Gethsemane, and Mt. Zion, the site of the Last Supper. In the Dome of the Rock, beneath the ancient sacred stone, is a cave-like crypt known as Bir el- Arweh, the Well of Souls. Here, according to ancient folklore, the voices of the dead may sometimes be heard along with the sounds of the rivers of paradise.

Photos: The Holy City of Jerusalem

Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem

Interior of the Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem

Hasidic Jew praying at the Western Wall, Jerusalem

Futher Information on Jereusalem from Sacred Sites.

Written by  Martin Gray.

Other expert and press reviews

“Old City of Jerusalem and its Walls”

'As a holy city for Judaism, Christianity and Islam, Jerusalem has always been of great symbolic importance. Among its 220 historic monuments, the Dome of the Rock stands out: built in the 7th century, it is decorated with beautiful geometric and floral… Read more...

Written by press. UNESCO

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