This is a sponsored post.
Follow in the footsteps of the ancients…
On Sandemans Holy City Walking Tour
Have you ever wanted to walk in the footsteps of those who’ve lived, loved and laughed long ago? Jerusalem’s Old City is a place with thousands of years of history, an ideal destination to explore life as it was ‘Once upon a time.’
Of course, life isn’t always a fairy tale. But during a trip to Israel two months ago, I had the opportunity to learn all about the history of this beautiful city – both the good and the bad – with Sandemans NEW Jerusalem Holy City Tour. This in-depth four-hour walking tour that takes you through all four quarters of the Old City and up onto the Temple Mount, one of the holiest of religious sites in the world.
The tour, which begins at the Old City’s historic Jaffa Gate, gives a thought-invoking historical perspective that brings the romance, trials and tribulations of the city’s past 5,000 years to life.
Gary, our guide, began the tour by passionately explaining that the Holy City is the spiritual center of the world. Not only for the Jews, he told us, but for the Muslims and Christians as well.
Jerusalem has been the holiest city in Judaism and the ancestral and spiritual homeland of the Jewish people since the 10th century BCE. In Christian tradition, Jerusalem’s place in the life of Jesus gives it great importance, as Jesus taught and healed here. Jerusalem is also considered a sacred site in Sunni Islamic tradition, along with Mecca and Medina.
“All three religions here fit together like a beautiful puzzle,” Gary said.
After a short introduction to the Old City, we set off along age-old stone streets to explore the sights that are important to these three widely-practiced religions.
From the Jaffa Gate to the Zion Gate
An ancient citadel named after a King
Leaving the Jaffa Gate we strolled past an alley lined with shops, scenting the air with the aroma of exotic spices. We stopped in front of the iconic Tower of David. The tower, named after King David who reigned in 1010–970 BCE, is an ancient citadel that guards the Western edge of the Old City.
The Tower, with its fabulous Museum of the History of Jerusalem, is a medieval fortress with architectural additions from a later periods. It’s widely known for it’s superb sound and light show, called The Night Spectacular, that relates the story of Jerusalem from ancient times to the present. The Tower of David (and the Night Spectacular) is a must-see for any visitor who wants to put the country’s last 4,000 years into perspective.
Despite being called “The Tower of David”, the citadel has no actual connection to the ancient king, a mistake dating back to the Byzantine period, when a tower from the time of King Herod (the Tower of Phasael) was attributed to King David.
The room of the last supper
We walked further down the narrow street, hugging the walls as cars squeezed by. At the top of a staircase near the Franciscan Monastery, we entered the Room of the Last Supper, considered one of the holiest sites for Christianity in Jerusalem. It is thought that this is where Jesus and his disciples celebrated the ceremonial Passover meal that would become known as the Last Supper.
Interestingly, the chamber was once a mosque. Gothic stained glass windows of a gorgeous shade of cerulean blue brighten the room, where we saw an ornate mihrab (alcove) and Arabic plaques in the wall.
King David’s Tomb
In a cramped room a floor below the Room of the Last Supper lies the velvet-draped royal tomb of King David. You’ll need to pass by through prayer areas separated for men and women to reach it.
There is some question as to the authenticity of the tomb, we learned. According to the Bible, David was buried in the City of David, now an archaeological site that extends down from the southern city walls of Jerusalem’s Old City – but for two millennia people have been shedding tears and prayers here and there is a definite air of reverence.
As an aside, if you have time to return to this area later on, you can visit the nearby grave of Oskar Schindler, the man who saved more than 1200 Jews from the gas chambers, as told in Steve Spielberg’s Oscar-winning Schindler’s List.
The Jewish Quarter
Unlike it’s neighboring quarters, the Jewish Quarter is mostly residential. It has an airy feel to it, more peaceful than the bustling Muslim and Christian Quarters. It’s modern stone buildings are home to some 4,500 people. The quarter was mostly rebuilt after 1967 since it was heavily shelled during the War of Independence in 1948. Reconstruction was accompanied by extensive archaeological excavations and there are many interesting sites here, including the Cardo, an ancient Roman street that was once a marketplace.
Thursday, the day I took the tour, is a popular Bar Mitzvah day, when families walk, dance and sing their way towards to the Western Wall with drums, shofar, and a huge dose of enthusiasm. The air was filled with music, laughing and cheerful blue and white polka dotted balloons, shimmering in the sunshine.
The Western Wall
Our first sight of the Western Wall came from an overlook with an amazing view. Also known as the “Wailing Wall”, it is a site of extreme spiritual significance. One of the holiest of Jewish sites, I couldn’t help but feel humbled at being there.
There were crowds everywhere, but when I closed my eyes, I felt a powerful sense of awe.
The Temple Mount
Dome of the Rock
This tour is unlike most other Old City tours as it takes you up on the Temple Mount. To get there, you need to wait in the security line, which can take a while, so don a hat and lather on the suntan lotion as there isn’t much shade. There’s plenty of entertainment, though – Gary regaled us with legends and stories of Jerusalem as we waited.
I recalled, years ago on a previous visit, that my sister took me to the Dome of the Rock, an Islamic shrine located on the Temple Mount. The Dome of the Rock is a shrine, said to mark the site where the prophet Mohammed ascended to heaven. It is the oldest Islamic monument that stands today and absolutely one of the most beautiful.
When I visited with my sister, we removed our shoes and were shown inside by an elderly Muslim man. Today, it’s not possible for non-Muslims to go inside, but there is plenty to admire from outside.
The dome, originally made of gold, was replaced with copper and then aluminum. But the aluminum is now covered with gold leaf, a donation from the late King Hussein of Jordan.
The Al-Aqsa Mosque
Also lovely is the Al-Aqsa Mosque, less photographed and admired, but of great importance. It is the third holiest site in Islam after of Mecca and Medina.
We saw many groups of Muslim women sitting and studying or picnicking with their children on the Temple Mount. Then, as we exited into the Muslim Quarter through the Bab El Qattanin gate, we saw where they’ll take their children later – the Cotton Market, where about 50 vendors entice the children with toys and vibrantly colored candy.
The Muslim Quarter
Lunch at Abu Shukri
As we wound our way through the labyrinthine alleys of the Muslim Quarter, I was delighted when I found out that Abu Shukri was our lunch stop. Hummus!
I simply love hummus. I ate this spread, made from cooked, mashed chickpeas or other beans, then blended with tahini, olive oil, and lemon juice, nearly every day while in Israel, and, while I by no means sampled every restaurant that serves it, the best I tasted while in Jerusalem was at Abu Shukri in the Old City. According to GoJerusalem.com, they are known as “the ultimate arbiters of Arab-style hummus.” The numerous other dishes they served were equally delicious.
Gary gave us each the choice to eat at Abu Shukri with the group or go off on our own for lunch, and it was an easy decision for me. This tiny family-owned restaurant can get crowded, but it’s well worth the wait.
The Via Dolorosa
The Via Dolorosa, the Way of Sorrows, is the route, it is believed, that Jesus took as he carried his cross to the site of his crucifixion and burial. Each station represents an incident that happened along the way. As you exit Abu Shukri, you’ll be at the 5th Station, where it is said the Romans ordered Simon the Cyrene to help Jesus carry the cross.
We continued along the route, passing groups of pilgrims and camera-toting tourists, to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, home to the last five stations.
The Christian Quarter
Church of the Holy Sepulchre
The Old City’s Christian Quarter is a blend of souvenir shops and artists workshops, hostels and homes of nearly 4500 people. Rising above it is the huge gray dome of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
Thought to be the site of Jesus’ crucifixion and burial, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre has been a major pilgrimage center for Christians from throughout the world. Set on on the biblical hill of Calvary, the church here is said to have been built due to the lobbying of Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine, 300 years after the crucifixion.
Strangely, the church is shared by six Christian denominations, but due to centuries of rivalry, control of the keys to the church is in the hands of a local Muslim family, the Nusseibehs.
Gary led us through multiple rooms in the church, from the Stone of Unction by the entrance, to the Chapels of Adam and St. Helena, to the elaborate pink marble tomb itself.
I highly recommend this tour by Sandemans to all visitors to Jerusalem. You’ll learn a lot about the city, it’s history, politics and the people who live there.
If you have less time, or would also like a shorter introductory tour of the Old Ciy, Sandemans NEW Jerusalem tours also operate a free 2-hour tour, which is a great introduction to the city. I took both; each was different. And if you’re traveling elsewhere in Europe, check out Sandemans website, they offer tours in 18 cities.
A few tips for visitors:
- Modest dress is required for many of the churches and holy sites as well as to enter the Temple Mount. Please bring appropriate clothing – shorts are not permitted.
- Religious items such as Bibles or religious jewelry are also not permitted on Temple Mount. Also, no tripads, laptops, ipads, or Kindles are permitted. Sandemans will hold them for you if you’ve brought them to the tour by mistake.
- Temple Mount is closed to non-Muslims Friday and Saturday. The area may also be closed during the week due to security or holidays.
Disclosure: I received a complimentary tour in exchange for writing this review. However, although this post is sponsored, all opinions are my own.