It is a surreal experience looking out across Jerusalem, the golden Dome of the Rock, glistening in the morning sun. This sight of Jerusalem’s Old City has barely changed in thousands of years, and has been a beacon for pilgrims of a multitude of faiths. For the first time visitor, there is undoubtedly a degree of trepidation whether the reality matches the romanticised notions of this most historically significant place. Ancient place names, so familiar from religious texts, now appreciated in a thoroughly modern light.
Having seen Jerusalem from afar, nestled amongst its many undulating hillsides, it is soon time to venture closer to the city itself. The first stop is the Garden of Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives. Even those with a passing knowledge of Christianity will likely have heard of this most notable of locations. Here the global draw of Jerusalem is palpable, with coachloads depositing pilgrims from the farthest reaches of the globe. Walking around the Garden of Gethsemane requires a penguin-esque shuffle on account of the constant stream of pilgrims. This slower pace however enables one to fully appreciate this small garden sanctuary, filled with extraordinary trees gnarled and writhing with age. The adjacent basilica is as enchanting on the inside as it is on the outside. One cannot help but look up to take in its intricately golden ceiling. The frescoes portray historic scenes with an ethereal appearance, ancient religious scenes within touching distance.
From the Mount of Olives, the next stop requires entering the city proper. On approaching the walls of the Old City, numerous archaeological excavations are readily apparent. Here, layers upon layers of history, covering thousands of years, are on show. Surely there is nowhere else in the world where different eras of civilization and occupiers are so visible in such a small area. For Jerusalem has been fought over and occupied by competing civilisations for millennia.
Once inside the Old City’s gates, one soon arrives at the Western Wall, one of Jerusalem’s most iconic sights. Segregated for men and women, this place evokes such emotion. Once suitably attired with a skull cap to cover your head, one is immediately swept up with the crowd ever closer to the wall itself. Every little crack and crevice is filled with small notes, thoughts, prayers and intentions, from pilgrims who have travelled from across the world to this very spot. Up close, the wall is uneven, weathered and all ears to the thousands of worshippers and the universal language of faith. How many dreams, hopes and aspirations have been spoken to this wall one wonders, for it is the perfect listener after all.
From the western wall, it is a short walk into the melee of narrow, atmospheric alleyways that make up the Old City. These chaotic streets throng with small shops, stalls and street vendors. It is unexpectantly Arab in character, a gentle reminder of the very cosmopolitan nature of this city. Here, religious sites equally abound, chief among them being Via Dolorosa and the stations of the cross. This road has been built over many times and is far removed from its religious origins, however the symbolism of this place is not lost.
It is then onto the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the site of Jesus’ crucifixion, the Calvary and Jesus’ empty tomb from where he was resurrected. Even if one is not religious, it is hard not to be enveloped in the emotionally charged nature of this most revered of places. The church is ringed by small chapels, their ornate decoration emerging in the dimly lit light. The remains of Jesus’ tomb are housed under a vast dome that affords shards of natural light, providing an aptly ecclesial ambience with the unmistakable fragrance of incense filling the air. On visiting the Church of the Holy Sepulcre one is certainly never alone to savour its unique atmosphere, with the crowd to enter Jesus’ tomb five deep. However, being surrounded by pilgrims who have travelled from near and far for this moment, speaking a multitude of languages, their emotion etched on their faces, is a gentle reminder of how Jerusalem really is like no where else. Having experienced the Church of the Sepulchre, it is soon time to submerge back into the crowded streets of the Old Town.
Whilst it is undoubtedly the case that religious sites abound in this most ancient of cities, and one is never far from a Biblical reference, Jerusalem has far more to offer than being simply a collection of religious sites. The Old City, with its alleyways, covered passageways and street vendors, selling everything from trinkets to freshly baked bread, rivals many of the great cities of the Middle East. This city is a unique melting pot of cultures formed by layers of ancient civilisations, and whether one is religious or not, well worth a visit.
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