First published March 9, 2022 and reproduced here by permission of the Morning News and SCNow.com.
As you might expect Jerusalem is very old, but NOT continuously inhabited as is Damascus, Syria. It dates back about 6000 years. Jerusalem’s first appearance in Egyptian writings is about four thousand years ago. In modern times Jerusalem looms as a notable international city with important claims to it from Hebrews/Jews, Christians and Muslims; just recently (late 2017) the United States has recognized it as the capital of Israel, but not yet so recognized internationally but for three other countries. Though originally named as the City of Peace or the City of the Foundation (some early names may also have indicated its hills), it has rarely actually seen much peace, at least not in modern times. I have been there five times.
The city first prospered under ancient Egyptian rule about 2000 BC and started to grow. Babylonian immigrants including Abram/Abraham appeared about 50 to 80 years after Hammurabi’s rule (about 1750 BC) , but mostly left the cities to the local tribes, eventually called Jebusites. Not until about 1000 BC did Abrahamic/Hebrew descendants occupy Jerusalem, making it their capital under King David (and for a time called the City of David). The revival of Babylon under General Nebuchadnezzar in about 600 BC led to Jerusalem’s destruction, but then it was rebuilt about 70 years later. Then came Alexander the Great’s Seleucids (headquartered in Damascus), overthrown by the Maccabees and then the subsequent, mostly political conquest by the Romans aided by Pompeii’s army; exasperated by a Jewish civil war, by the Jewish Zealots and the general Jewish attitude, the Romans burned the city to the ground and carted off the Temple treasures to finance the building of Rome’s new Coliseum (there was so much gold in Jerusalem that the international value of gold then dropped by 50%). Then a long period of choppiness as local power shifted to Constantinople, although Muhammad favored the city starting in about 640 AD, but he retained Medina as his capital. The European Crusaders made it prominent again, for a short time. Eventually, the Mamluks and Turks infiltrated by the Mongols assumed control about 1200 AD and started the city on its modern path of building and importance. The English came in for a short time after World War I and then the modern state of Israel since 1948 with shared control, assuming total control after the 1967 Six Day War, leaving Jerusalem solely in Israeli hands, sort of. However, the city is still governed with cooperation of the Palestinian State, a few Sunni Muslim families and the State of Jordan (particularly the area of the Dome of the Rock and the Holy Sepulcher). The Old City is divided into four sectors: the Muslin/Arab sector, the Armenian Sector, the Christian Sector and the Jewish Sector. Technically the city is unified, but really divided into West Jerusalem and East Jerusalem, the East is mostly Arab/Muslin. Modern Jerusalem has about 900,000 people, about 63% Jewish and almost all the rest are Muslim (only 3% now Christian).
Assuming you enter Israel by air, you will land in Tel Aviv, for reasons of security and geography. Tel Aviv is a favorite site for Americans to buy expensive apartments arising over the ocean. It has become a government agency and international embassy site (only a handful of nations recognize Jerusalem as the Capital) and the financial center for Israel. If you tour Tel Aviv you could be in any financial center around the world, but note its great beaches, artist shops, shopping areas, the Joffa sites and Old City Joffa and its multiple restaurants. Take a cab, shuttle, bus or train up to Jerusalem; the new high speed train is proving to be a visitor favorite. Remember government offices and most restaurants observe Shabbat, Friday sundown to Saturday sundown.
Start your tours of Jerusalem at one of four popular sites: King David Hotel Plaza/Zion Square, Temple Mount, The Government complex, or the Museum complex. You can walk locally, but you will need cabs, buses or Ubers to transfer around. Side trips are mandatory: Yad Vashem, Mount of Olives, Masada and the Dead Sea and Bethlehem (depending on Palestinian government grace and security).
Let’s start at the King David Hotel Plaza/Zion Square; this famous five star hotel was built in 1929 with Egyptian-Jewish money, bombed by the Zionists in 1946 (because it was a symbol of British power) and ironically, the seat of the new Israeli government until 1950. This is one of the City’s famous gathering places, almost 24 hours a day; do not be surprised to see soldiers and security just walking around carrying weapons or sitting at an outdoor café (many with whimsical names like “The Blues Brothers Café”)– some soldiers allow photos - that’s all normal. The Jaffa gate is right across the square with David’s Tower/fortress (but actually built by Herod); outside is a major bus station and looming on the hill beyond the station is what some Protestant folks think is the “Place of the Skull” of Jesus’ execution. Nearby you can descend into what many Protestants also think is the Garden Tomb. Actually, inside the Old City gates, but also nearby, is the Roman Catholic site of Jesus Tomb, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, and the last five Stations of the Cross. In fact, you can backtrack the Via Dolorosa to its origins in the Muslim Quarter. The Way is maintained by the Franciscans although originating in the Muslim Quarter near the Wailing Wall at Antonia Fortress. The Franciscans use it each Friday to trace Jesus presumed route (but recall the whole place was burned to the ground by the Romans) from his Roman trial (probably actually held at Herod’s Castle) to Golgotha, what they call the “Fourteen Stations of the Cross.” Feel free to go off route to explore the Old City and its architecture, its many old homes, shops (they will think you idiot if you don’t negotiate prices) and cafes (but use a money belt) and be prepared to walk many steps up and down, remembering you are on a hillside. Don’t miss the important Hatorah Synagogue in the Jewish Sector; many of the Catholic churches have important architecture and fabulous inner decor.
The area of the Wailing Wall and the Dome of the Rock on Temple Mount is very interesting in its own right. If properly dressed, and the men with Yamichas, tourists are allowed to approach the Wall, men on the left and women on the right, to pray, mediate or insert prayer cards, with separate worship sites on each side. Once, avoiding guards and barriers, I walked deep under the hillside discovering that the Israelites were tunnelling under the Dome and also going down deep along the old wall of the Third Temple (I measured at least ninety feet down from where I was standing, already underground). Occasionally Gentile tourists are allowed to enter the plaza of the Dome of the Rock, but it was never I. Nearby is a fascinating private museum called the “Temple Institute's Holy Temple Visitors Center” which has excellent models of Noah’s ark and each temple, including plans for the “next one.” The Center has built thousands of articles needed for the next temple including harps, clothing, vestments, serving pieces and furniture; together with the government they also produce Temple Shekels each year. The Israelis discount the true second temple since the Greeks (Antiochus Epiphanes about 170 BC) desecrated it with a pig sacrifice and Antiochus’ statue in the Holy of Holies and again Pompeii by entering the Holy of Holies, so they call the next temple the Third Temple, although it really will be the Fourth Temple (the Temple numbering also depends on whether you consider Herod’s Temple to be “new” or not). Hezekiah’s pool or the pool of Siloam is also nearby out the Zion Gate but is not much to see these days. But across the street is an important Holocaust monument (The Cellar) and nearby Oskar Schindler’s grave in the Catholic Cemetery.
The area of the modern Government complex is carved out of a hillside, called “the Givat Ram;” and is quite grand. Several of its buildings are the most spectacular in the City including the Supreme Court and the Knesset (like our Congress, but only the House) with its giant outdoor Menorah. Other buildings include three Agencies, the first was the Ministry of the Interior, and office space for support staff. A new project will add a few high rise buildings to the complex. Much of the Government Complex was developed with private money, the most prominent from the Rothschild family; most of the buildings have been expanded over the years. The buildings are open to the public on most weekends or by private tour. The Prime Minister lives in a fashionable upper class neighborhood, not far away; the President’s Palace is several miles away. Interestingly, looming nearby is the impressive Bank of Israel.
Across the street from the Government Complex is the magnificent Museum Complex and its extraordinary Shrine of the Book, which is shaped as the urns wherein were found the Dead Sea Scrolls. On the other side is the Hebrew University and its famous gardens. The main buildings of the Museum Complex also include the Israel Museum. Expect to spend all day here. Probably start in the Israel Museum: the story of the Hebrew/Jewish people from antiquity with wings dedicated to archeology, Herod’s temple (wonderful model of the Old City and the Temple), Fine Arts, Jewish Culture, the Youth and the outside Art Garden. The emphasis is on Jewish artists, of course, such as Marc Chagall, Abel Pann and Aeruven Rubin, but there are some important European pieces here, too by Picasso, Rodin, Rembrandt and Pissarro. Life size mockups of homes and synagogues are scattered throughout the complex with important personal pieces of everyday life. The museum’s collection of modern art is the best in all Israel as is its international collection of Torah scrolls. Be awe struck by the Shrine of the Book, and don’t be embarrassed by a tear or two as you recall Jewish history, many before you have shed such (about 1 million visitors per year), remembering that in the 1800’s German Higher Criticism created the popular belief that the last half of the Book of Isaiah was written over the first three hundred years of Christianity, long after Jesus: Wrong! A shepherd boy flung a few pebbles into a Quram cave in 1947 and uncovered a huge collection of manuscripts from before the time of Jesus, carefully preserved in pottery jars, and you guessed it: including the ancient Book of Isaiah and no less than the modern version. Ironically, mixed in were shopping lists, Roman orders, and letters back and forth from Rome to Jerusalem and the still mysterious Copper Scroll (which some believe outlines the location of the Arc of the Covenant, hidden from about 680 BC).
The city holds 22 synagogues, 45 churches and 7 mosques, but at one time there were 40 mosques, some now either too small “to count” or hidden. There are 35 important museums in Jerusalem, most important ones covered above, but you should also visit, given enough time, Bible Lands, the Biblical Zoo, the Tower of David (fortress), the Museum of Islamic Art, the City Hall Visitors Center, Mini Israel (kids and adults both admire its miniatures of the city), the Rockefeller Museum (emphasis on the British period) and the Wolfson (the Wolfson is an important architectural piece in its own right, the museum is complementary to the Israel Museum, with another, similar fabulous collection).
Yad Vashem, the world’s most significant Holocaust Memorial was initiated on forty-five acres to the west of the City on Mt Hazel in 1953. It has added buildings and collections over the years with the recent addition of an impressive triangular prism of concrete and glass. It now includes five major sections or collections. The finest art collection (over 10,000 pieces) from Jewish artists killed during the Holocaust is carefully tended here. It’s most famous more modern works include the Valley of the Communities, the Heroes of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, the Children, Janus Korczak and the Memorial to the Departeess. There is an extensive listing of Righteous Gentiles maintained here some with dedicated olive trees.
Masada is a must see. The Masada fortress complex was developed by Herod for both defense and two palaces for his huge family (about 60 immediate family members) and of course it is the site of the famous martyrium of a Band of 960 Zealots (all but four) before the Romans breached the hill top; the Zealots were led by Eleazar ben Yair who is famously quoted as saying “ We choose death rather than slavery; we will never serve the Romans or anyone else except for G_d.” (but, be aware that this Josephus history and quote is rejected by some scholars). The Israeli Armored Corps often uses this site under torch light for induction of officers; most school children come here at least once. It is the second most visited site in all of Israel. At my current age, I will take the tram up the hill rather than the paths. Along the road southward to Masada, you pass the caves at Quram of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Dead Sea itself and the Jordanian border, heavily armed with hardware and electronics, and several Kibbutz. Some Kibbutz welcome tourists as they sell tourists goods, history books and bathing spas in Dead Sea water.
I love Middle Eastern food as you learned in Haifa (by now you know, I just like food, no matter where it’s from). Jerusalem has foods from all over the world, but the many kiosks, cafes and food stalls excel in local foods - you cannot go wrong particularly with the Hummus, in these small places (it’s called street food), and of course they are cheaper than restaurants. But I have favorite restaurants (over 1000 total indoor dining, restaurants), too, that include the four restaurants of the King David Hotel, the several Fefferberg family (they are Schindler’s List survivors) restaurants (I have been to two of them) also the Kahns Cave (with Jewish entertainment designed for Americans), Simmi, Eucalyptus, Machneyuda, Chakra, Azura, Adom, the Holy Rock Café (been there twice), Hummus Ben Sira and Trattoria Haba.
A humorous vignette: On one trip the government requested that I get a new Passport. So, that Monday morning I faithfully went to the US Consulate in East Jerusalem (the US embassy not yet moved). Well, although expecting me, the Americans were not happy to see me, and in addition said there was a lawyer strike, so they told me to come back in two weeks (my hotel was good for only 3 more days). I stormed out the door in hot anger (plus I knew they already had all my data in their computers) but decided to ventilate to a Masoud agent nearby (easily recognizable, by the way). He greeted me and then laughed when I complained about “those Americans.” He asked if I wanted his help, and I said “sure.” So, he and a companion took me to one of their lawyers about five blocks away who went right ahead with all the paperwork, photos and fingerprints. Plus, the lawyer did not even charge me. You can image the Americans’ surprise when I marched back into the Consulate the same day at 2 PM with all my paperwork in order and a traveler’s check for the passport fee. I picked up the new Jerusalem US passport the next day and have kept it as a souvenir along with the letter of thanks I wrote the Israeli Ambassador in DC and his kind response. By the way, when I left the Consulate, the Agents said they didn’t want me walking around East Jerusalem, although I had no fear, and called me a cab back to my hotel.
Shalom. Are you ready for the New Jerusalem?