Jerusalem is the holiest city on the planet. While Mecca, Rome, Varanasi, and Lhasa give it a run for its money in terms of religious significance, there’s no denying that Jerusalem is unlike any other city on earth, and should be explored on an Israel vacation. It has been the central city of Judaism for around 3,000 years and has played a massive role in the world’s two largest religions as well. Even for the non-religious, the city has undeniable appeal as it has massively shaped the culture of the world, and remains one of its most important points of ethnic conflux.
If culture and historical significance are central when planning your next overseas trip, consider Jerusalem as your next destination. It’s a city where the past lingers around every corner and comes alive with every step you take through its ancient streets.
Judaism’s Ancient Capital
While some dates vary, archaeologists believe Jerusalem was founded around 4,000 B.C., as there is ceramic evidence dating back to the Copper Age. According to biblical accounts, it wasn’t until the 10th century B.C. that King David took the city from the Jebusites and transformed it into the capital of the Kingdom of Israel. King David reigned for 40 years and then his son, Solomon, became king and constructed the First Temple in Jerusalem, the central place of worship within Judaism.
In the centuries that followed the glory years of King David and Solomon, Israel underwent rapid splintering and transition. The northern tribes of Israel split from the south, causing there to be two independent kingdoms, the northern Kingdom of Israel, with its capital in Shechem, and the southern Kingdom of Judah, whose capital remained in Jerusalem. In the following centuries, Jerusalem was conquered by the Assyrians, Babylonians, Greeks, and finally the Romans, right before the turn of the century. The temple was destroyed by the Babylonians, then rebuilt when the Persian King Cyrus allowed Jewish exiles to return to Jerusalem. This second temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 A.D.
While Jerusalem has undergone plenty of change and upheaval over the past 3,000 years, there are still many sites within the modern city that hearken back to the ancient past and capture the city’s importance within Judaism. Chief among these are the Temple Mount and the Western Wall. The Temple Mount is the area of the Old City where the ancient Temple of Jerusalem used to be located, while the Western Wall is a support structure built by King Herod in 20 B.C. and is all that remains of the Second Temple.
The Western Wall remains the most important site within all of Judaism. People of Jewish faith flock to it to pray alongside the wall or write requests on slits of paper and wedge them into the stones of the wall. Even if you’re not Jewish, visiting the Western Wall is a profound experience. It’s a lasting reminder of the ancient Jewish heritage, its profound religious tradition, and the tragic history that the Jewish people have endured for thousands of years. You can visit the Western Wall between 7am and sundown all days except Fridays, when it closes at noon, and Saturdays when it remains closed all day because of the Sabbath.
While the city as a whole remains significant within the Jewish faith, there are other key sites within Jerusalem that you can visit, on your Israel vacation, such as the Mount of Olives. The cemetery on the mountain has remained one of the most significant within Judaism as tradition holds that when the Jewish messiah arrives, the dead will be resurrected, starting with the people buried in this graveyard. The ancient Jewish prophets Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi are also buried on the upper western slope of the Mount of Olives.
You should also consider visiting the Israel Museum, which relates the history of the nation, but also contains the Shrine of the Book, which holds the Dead Sea Scrolls, the oldest manuscripts of the Bible that remain in existence. For a sobering reminder of modern history, visit Yad Vashem, Israel’s memorial to the Holocaust. The Hall of Names memorializes the six million Jews who died during the Holocaust and painstakingly collects the testimonies of survivors, with over 110,000 testimonies collected so far.
The Stations of the Cross
Of course, Jerusalem is not only important within Judaism. Within the Christian tradition, Jesus of Nazareth spent the last week of his life in Jerusalem, cleansing the Temple of money-changers and vendors and then being executed by the Romans, only to rise from the dead three days later on Easter Sunday. Because of its centrality within the Gospel narrative, Jerusalem is the holiest city in Christianity. Of all the sites pertaining to Jesus’ life within Jerusalem, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is the most significant and the holiest site in the Christian tradition.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre was built in the fourth century on the site of where Jesus is believed to have been executed, known as Calvary or Golgotha, and the tomb where he was buried and resurrected. Within the Christian tradition, there are 14 “Stations of the Cross,” which are meant to represent the path of Jesus from his trial to his execution, burial, and resurrection. On your Israel vacation, you can walk the original Stations of the Cross when visiting Jerusalem, which culminates at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
If you choose to walk the Stations of the Cross, you’ll pass down Via Dolorosa, or, the Way of Grief in Latin, which is the road Jesus walked down while carrying his cross on the way to his execution. While the street has been imagined as a wide boulevard within the popular imagination, depicted as such in films like Ben-Hur, Via Dolorosa remains a relatively small street within the Old City. If you visit during the Easter season, you’ll likely witness recreations of Jesus’ final walk filling the length of Via Dolorosa. It’s moving enough to simply contemplate these final moments of Jesus’ life when reading the accounts in the Gospels. To see the actual bricks where he walked and where pilgrims continue to follow in his steps is profound beyond words.
In Jerusalem, you can also visit the Monastery of the Cross, a Greek Orthodox monastery built over the trees that provided the wood that formed the cross Jesus was crucified on. The Mount of Olives also has importance within the Christian tradition as Jesus visits it many times within the Gospels. The Chapel of the Ascension commemorates Jesus’ ascension into heaven, while the Church of All Nations sits at the foot of the hill at the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus spent the night of his arrest. Nearby the garden is the Tomb of the Virgin Mary, where the Eastern Orthodox Church believes Mary, the mother of Jesus, is buried.
The Site of Muhammad’s Night Journey
Although it cedes primacy to Mecca and Medina, Jerusalem is the third holiest city within Islam. While the Quran never mentions Jerusalem by name, it is referenced by association many times throughout the text as the home of past prophets and an important city to the Ummah or Muslim community. Most importantly, it is the site of Muhammad’s ascension to heaven during the Night Journey in 620 A.D. According to the Quran and the hadith, the Prophet Muhammad rode his steed, Buraq, from Mecca to Jerusalem, and then ascended into heaven in the course of one night. Commemoration of the miracle is one of key events of the Islamic calendar.
In Jerusalem, the Al-Aqsa Mosque commemorates the Night Journey and is located on the site where Muhammad arrived in the city. The mosque is the third holiest site in Islam and its larger compound also includes the Dome of the Rock, the magnificent gold-capped shrine that has defined the city since it was originally built in the 7th century and reconstructed in the early 11th century. While you cannot enter Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock unless you are Muslim, Globetrotters of all faiths can visit the Temple Mount, on their Israel vacation, and gaze upon the majesty of these architectural and religious monuments.
Jerusalem’s Spiritual and Psychological Power
The spiritual power of Jerusalem is so intense, there’s even a specific psychotic disorder associated with visiting the city and being overwhelmed by spiritual fervour, even to the point of thinking yourself a prophet or messiah. This “Jerusalem Syndrome” afflicts individuals who visit Jerusalem and begin exhibiting psychotic tendencies despite no prior diagnosis of psychosis or severe mental illness.
While there are three types of the syndrome with varied exhibited traits, the popular variant is Type III. Type III describes individuals who visit the city and claim to discover that they are a prophet commanded by God to go about the city and preach. This usually involves touring the city alone, rigorously cleaning themselves, wearing a white toga often made of bedsheets, and heading out into public to recite holy texts or preach about the need to cleanse society of sins. While the psychological affliction affects people of all faiths, it is most common in Evangelical Christians. It affects around 50 to 100 people each year, usually around Easter, Passover, and Christmas.
While it’s unlikely you’ll be afflicted with Jerusalem Syndrome when you visit the Israeli capital, you will likely be overwhelmed by the city’s spiritual power. There’s no denying its significance and spiritual atmosphere. Jerusalem is a city that lives and breathes history and religion, where heaven and earth meet, and where legend becomes reality.
There are few more profound journeys a Christian, Jew, or Muslim can make than travelling to Jerusalem and experiencing its holy power first hand. Regardless of your religious conviction or ethnic background, a journey to Jerusalem, while on your Israel vacation, is unforgettable. It has the power to change the way you view the world and the stories that define it.