A tour through Jerusalem’s old city

For a city so great, so storied, and so spectacular as Jerusalem, a two-hour walking tour could never do it justice. I left the tour feeling like I’d just scratched the surface of understanding the invisible power this city has.

One of the oldest cities in the world, Jerusalem is holy for the three major religions in the world: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Today, the fight over this city remains, with both Palestine and Israel claiming it as their capital, and no widespread recognition by the rest of the world for either claim.

I arrived in Jerusalem on the Sabbath, or day of rest, for Jews. From Friday sundown to Saturday sundown the city turns quiet. Few buses, trains, cars, and people grace its streets. Walking around the city at night, I felt safe despite the eerie nature of a city so quiet on a Friday night. I meandered through the wide pedestrian walkways down to Jaffa Gate, a famous entrance to the old city. It was a beautiful and peaceful introduction to the city.

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Jaffa Gate

Lucky for us, free walking tours are still held on Sabbath and the old city still had many shops open.

The next morning, Paul, our tour guide, welcomed us to the city. He is a university student who grew up here.

Old cities are like onions

The city is said to have been created during the 4th millennium BC. Other things happening around that time include the invention of writing, Bronze Age, and the establishment of Egypt. Since, it has been “attacked 52 times, captured and recaptured 44 times, besieged 23 times, and destroyed twice.” (Do We Divide the Holiest Holy City?, Moment Magazine).

Now there’s no way I’m going to even attempt to get at the full history of this place, but I’ll cover a few highlights from our tour.

The Bible states that the city began when the King David reigned and claimed the city as the capital of the Kingdom of Israel. Known then as the City of David, the city became a sanctuary for Jews with the erection of its first temple, the Temple of Solomon.

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Paul joked that a running joke in Middle Eastern life was that nothing makes sense. Jerusalem, while it is said was founded by David, was actually first built by the Ottomans 500 years before David even got there. Its history includes so many different religions, traditions, beliefs, and histories that the stories don’t always correspond with reality.

Paul also shared a metaphor of old cities as an onion. You can peel back the layers to find more history. Today, Jerusalem has over 2,000 active archeological sites. Who knows what layers are still left to be uncovered? With its history of conquests, the city has been rebuilt too many times to count. You can see in its construction in the walls, where you can see different blocks of the same rock being shaped in ways that reflect the building of different eras.

The Armenian story

For our tour, we broke the city down into its four different quarters: Armenian, Jewish, Christian, and Muslim. We began in the Armenian quarter, which houses the oldest Armenian community outside of its homeland. Really seen as the first people to establish Christianity, the Armenians remained a minority throughout its time in Jerusalem.

Paul brushed over the controversy that defines its people even to this day: the Armenian Genocide. From my own research, I found more context on this holocaust executed by the Ottoman Empire in 1915. One of the first modern genocides, this story sounds sadly similar with deportation, mass murder, death marches, starvation, and forced labor as its methods of attack.

To date, this remains controversial. Turkey refuses to acknowledge the attack as a genocide. German Chancellor Angela Merkel branded the massacre as a genocide in 2016, which raised tensions between Germany and Turkey.

The Armenian people are defined by their astonishing resilience. Even today, it’s difficult to get into the Armenian quarter, as it’s walled up pretty heavily with few gates that allow access. Instead of walkways, the houses are built in such a way that they protect each other from attacks.

Because of their faith, there has also been controversy around separating this quarter officially from the Christian quarter. Many people, including the government of Armenia, have publicly stated their dissent of its separation. However, the division remains as the distinct language and culture of Armenians are neither Arab nor Palestinian. Armenians are officially recognized as Palestinian by Israelis and the United Nations and therefore receive the same persecutions and restrictions as other Palestinians.

The Jewish quarter

The Jewish quarter has two very significant areas that we walked through. The first was a true piece of history that was excavated. The first was the Roman cardo, or the ancient north-south street in Roman cities. A wide area, this was the place to be, with shops lining the edges, a large sidewalk covered by pillars, and games etched in a street as wide as a modern six-lane highway.

Paul told us to not get caught up in the official history or the names of the people who conquered this place. Imagine the lives of the other 99 percent, the people who fought the wars, shopped at the markets, and harvested the fields. Imagine Roman children meeting up every Sunday during market, while their parents shopped for goods, they would run into the street and play a simple board game that had been etched into the streets. A board game, Muehle, that remains popular today in German culture.

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The game Muehle etched in streets, most likely by Roman children

A synagogue that represents a city

Judaism is roughly divided in two major groups: Ashkenazi Jews who lived among Christians and Hasidic Jews who lived among Muslims.

One of the most storied synagogues in the quarter, the Hurva Synagogue, is a part of a strange story. Continuously destroyed and rebuilt, this synagogue was recently renovated by the government.

A Jewish family didn’t get along with his neighbors, so he abandoned his religion and converted to Islam. He then bought the piece of property next to the synagogue and put up a mosque.

So here, you see a synagogue renovated by Muslims and a mosque created by Jews. “Welcome to the Middle East,” Paul joked.

In a way, this synagogue represents the story of Jerusalem. This synagogue was destroyed and rebuilt dozens of times as new owners took over the city and implemented their beliefs and ways of life on the city.

A wall that defined the world as we know it

As the introduction to this place, we skipped past many areas, but one we spent a particular amount of time on looked pretty ordinary. To be honest, I was not that thrilled to take a photo of it. But, the story Paul shared so earnestly with us, became a highlight of the tour.

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Excavation of the Broad Wall

A four-year project, the city excavated this area because of a wall built 2,700 years ago. Hezekiah lived in the ancient middle east, the cradle of civilization. The Assyrian king died shamefully on his way to combat. During this time of unrest, citizens of Jerusalem rebelled in the only way they knew how: they stopped paying taxes.

A good king loved by the Lord and his people for his good work, he built a wall that resisted an attack from the might Assyrian, a people who had conquered every area they had reached.

Hezekiah built this wall, the Broad Wall, a seven-meter wall that held back an incredible force. During a siege, the wall never gave in. While there is controversy over how many lives were lost, no one debates that Hezekiah did in fact beat the Assyrians.

It was during this time that the Bible was being written. The foundation of Judaism was built in Jerusalem at that time.

At one point, Paul pulled out a map of the world that highlighted the major religions in the world. The Abrahamic religions, Christianity, Islam, and Judaism comprise a majority of the world’s population. Paul said that this wall preserved those religions. That wall protected the Bible, which was the foundation for Judaism.

Our world would look very different if Hezekiah had not had the foresight to protect the city during this crucial time in religious history.

I recognize that the connections Paul made here were sweeping, but his earnest nature pulled me into the story. Whether or not this wall had such a significant impact, we will never know. But this story brought me back into a different time and place entirely. And that is something in and of itself.

An end to an excellent tour

We wandered through the old city to other famous sights, ducking between shops and historical landmarks. I saw the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the site of Jesus’s death and burial. I saw the Western Wall. I saw Mount of Olives. I saw a lot. But those stories, I’ll save for another day.

But for now, I think there’s been enough history and story. So I leave you now, with more photos, hopefully hungry for more.

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