Earth’s Spiritual Center: Ancient Sites and Sacred Places
For many visitors, the Old City is Jerusalem, a vessel of more than 4,000 years of human experience. For the three great religions of the Western world, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, it is one of the holiest of cities.
Punctuating the massive 16th-century city walls that Suleiman the Magnificent built atop ancient Roman ruins, eight fortified gates provide access to the Old City. The two most important, the Jaffa and Damascus gates, lead into a warren of alleys and the distinctive sights, sounds, and scents of four ethnic districts and their markets: the Muslim Quarter (the largest and most full of character), the Christian Quarter, the Armenian Quarter, and the Jewish Quarter. Here in the heart of ancient Jerusalem there are no physical borders, but neighborhood divisions are hard to miss.
Many of the principal sites are practically on top of one another. The sumptuous, silver-domed El-Aksa Mosque is the largest and the most important place of Islamic prayer after Mecca and Medina. Revered by Muslims, the Temple Mount, the biblical Mount Moriah, is marked by the 24-karat-gilded Dome of the Rock, built circa A.D. 690 on the site where the prophet Mohammed ascended to heaven on a winged horse.
It is also revered by the Jews as the site where Abraham was called upon by God to sacrifice his son (Isaac to Jews and Christians, Ishmael to Muslims), and is believed to have been the site of the altar of the first and second Temples of Judaism, since destroyed by invaders. Nearby is the Western (more descriptively, the Wailing) Wall, the last remnant of the walls that enclosed and supported the Temple Mount, and the holiest place of prayer in the Jewish world.
Jews were barred from the area while it was under Jordanian control from 1949 to 1967. Try to be here when Orthodox Jews welcome Shabbat with prayer, song, and dance as the sun sets every Friday evening and it becomes an open-air synagogue. Each year tens of thousands of Christian pilgrims follow the Via Dolorosa past the Stations of the Cross on the route Christ is believed to have taken as he carried his cross to his crucifixion. Standing above Calvary (biblical Golgotha), the Church of the Holy Sepulcher is Christianity’s holiest place, covering the sites of Jesus’ crucifixion, burial, and resurrection.
After a day spent wandering the densely packed maze of the Christian Quarter’s souk, rich in the scents of spices and sizzling shashlik, there is no better respite than to collapse at one of the Formica tables of Abu Shukri for a sampling of his hummus.
Everyone in Israel begins a meal with hummus (mashed chickpeas seasoned with tahini, a sesame seed paste) and no one tires of something so simple and delicious. After mopping up your plate with warm pita bread (bring your own napkins), you’ll understand why. The new Israeli cuisine may be poised to take off, but basic Arabic street fare has been a Middle Eastern favorite for a few thousand years. The best dishes are the mezes, or appetizers, which invariably include the celebrated hummus.