I could now write about the fact that Israel is a country with an incredibly exciting mix of history and modernity and that the city of Jerusalem in particular carries this controversy more intensely than probably no other city in the world. That a trip to Jerusalem will give you unique insights into the most diverse religions and cultures, that Jerusalem is a crazy city full of highlights and sights that are thousands of years old and I could use adjectives like ‘breathtaking’, ‘impressive’ and ‘magical’.
But that would only be half the story. Yes, Jerusalem is fascinating and yes, I can only recommend this city to everyone. When you’re ready for it. Because the other half of the truth is: Jerusalem irritated me. Seldom has a place so depressed and at the same time so impressed me. And to this day I still have the slightest feeling that I have understood this city and I’m not sure that I can ever resolve this feeling.
Jerusalem: the city of the three religions
To be honest, I didn’t do a lot of research before my trip to Jerusalem. With full intent, because I wanted to go there inexperienced and not expecting certain impressions. Of course, a little general education is already there, in my case primarily from years of religious instruction at a Bavarian high school and listening to the Christmas story on cassette tape in 3rd and 4th grades has left more traces than I would like. Anyway – today I am neither religious nor a believer, I left the church years ago.
My knowledge about Jerusalem was limited to the relatively neutral information that Jesus started here a good 2000 years ago and that the three major world religions of Judaism, Islam and Christianity coexist in Jerusalem. We all know that the coexistence of religions does not always work so well, especially when there is little spatial distance. I’m not sure if there has ever been a war in human history that was not caused by religion. Well, and resources. People don’t like to share – not even their holy city. For each of the three religions, Jerusalem is of immense importance from a historical perspective. This naturally leads to tension – I felt this tension all over the city for the entire three days.
Old City, West and East Jerusalem: A brief (historical-political) insight
The most interesting tourist spots are in the old town of Jerusalem as well as in West and East Jerusalem. The Old City of Jerusalem is still enclosed today by its old city wall, which can be entered through a total of 7 gates. Within the city walls are the most important highlights and sights such as the Western Wall , the Tower of David fortress and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher .
The explosive thing about the old city of Jerusalem is that it is divided into four quarters: the Jewish quarter, the Christian quarter, the Muslim quarter and the Armenian quarter . Here cultures and religions live together in a very small space, which could not be more different.
Outside the old town, in the west of the city, you will find a modern, lively Jerusalem with many bars and restaurants. East Jerusalem or the Palestinian part of Jerusalem is predominantly Arab or Muslim and probably much less modern.
Why am I telling you all this? What still seems to work in the old city of Jerusalem does not work so well between the Arab-influenced East Jerusalem and the rest of the city.
The political status of East Jerusalem is a central component of the Middle East conflict, because from the Palestinian perspective East Jerusalem is the future capital of its own state, while Israel has viewed the entire city of Jerusalem as its capital since the conquest of East Jerusalem in the late 1960s.
De facto this means that, for example, two separate bus companies in West and East Jerusalem provide local public transport. The buses from the west do not go to the east and vice versa. As a tourist you can generally only look a little behind the facade here, you just stand relatively often in front of locked doors or road blocks, but nobody really explains why. Is access always denied here (for us because we are tourists or have the wrong religion) or are we only there outside of opening hours? Is there any Jewish / Muslim / Christian holiday that we don’t know about? No idea. You don’t argue. And it is probably exactly what, in the end, does not lead to a complete picture of Jerusalem for me. I don’t understand too much.
Security in Jerusalem
The question I have been asked most about my trip to Jerusalem is security. I can only say this much: I never felt unsafe in Jerusalem. And that was definitely not because of the excessive presence of people with machine guns in the city, not all of whom are in uniform.
It was explained to us that the strong police or military presence in Jerusalem only has the reason that the conscripts are doing their service or parts of it here (not in separate training centers as we do with us) Carry a weapon with you in your free time. Well …. ok.
As I said, at no point did I really feel unsafe, not even uncomfortable. I was out and about in Jerusalem early in the morning as well as late at night when it was dark (as a group of two women), even during the day there was not a single tense situation or unrest. You can find out about the current security situation at any time from the Foreign Office .
Arrival and first impressions of Jerusalem
The easiest way to get to Jerusalem is to book a flight to Tel Aviv. From Germany, various airlines fly direct to Israel in just 4 hours, the best thing to do is to look at Skyscanner * for a cheap flight.
From Tel Aviv you can be in Jerusalem by train, bus or taxi in around 45 minutes. It is already late in the evening when I arrive in Jerusalem by train and my first encounter with the city could not have been more curious. A man with a machine gun walks up the escalator from the underground train station a few meters in front of me, he’s not wearing a uniform. He holds the machine gun in his right hand and when he talks to his companion, he gesticulates with it as if it were a bottle of beer. I get a racing heart for a moment (and I am laughing something between amused and hysterical) and decide to keep a few meters safe distance. As if…
Once at the top, ready to change to Jerusalem’s only tram line that will take me to the hotel, while waiting for the train I witness a performance that I can’t classify. As a Frankfurt girl who is sometimes out and about at night in the station district or at the Konstablerwache, you know strange things. But everything can be classified somehow and has its own drawer. Not so the group of Orthodox Jews who have positioned themselves right next to the tracks in their white minibus, from which electronic music is booming at a deafening volume (weird electronic music, no longer so up to date).
A few of them sit on folding chairs or tables, most of them dance and jump to the throbbing basses with sidelocks and slightly crooked kippas, one even on the roof of the bus. Everyone drinks, nobody collects money in return for this musical and artistic performance. I’m confused. I didn’t know that Jews drink and party at all (at least not to that extent). And there is no begging either, I am missing my drawer. Later I found out that it was Na Nachs , a splinter group of Orthodox Jews who are convinced that the best way to get their personal good news, happiness and love to the people is with the electric party bus.
Welcome to (modern) Jerusalem. I’ve only been there for 10 minutes and the city seems pretty crazy to me. And I like crazy. I fall a little in love with Jerusalem.
Highlights and sights in the old city of Jerusalem
At this point I want to put an end to excessive personal impressions and instead I would like to give you a few solid recommendations and tips for your visit to Jerusalem. Despite all the conflicting feelings, Jerusalem is simply an incredibly interesting and really pretty city with a history that is second to none.
Many tourists only plan 1-2 days for their Jerusalem trip, after a good 2 days I didn’t even begin to feel “finished”. I therefore recommend at least 2-3 full days for Jerusalem to be able to somehow grasp the city.
As already mentioned, the old city of Jerusalem is divided into the Jewish, Christian, Muslim and Armenian quarters. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is even on the red list due to its endangered status. The transitions between the quarters are fluid and you can move freely in them. The old town is only about 1km² in size (which is really not much), but you will get sore feet in it. The alleys are too narrow and narrow, there are too many of them and many of them end time and again as a dead end unannounced.
Google Maps? Nice try. It helps a little, but many alleys are simply not marked or have no names or other names. Just let yourself go and be amazed.
If you are unsure about exploring the old town on your own, you can join a guided tour. This has the advantage that you get a lot of background information about the sights and are guided directly to the best spots without getting lost. Have a look around what options are available:
The Western Wall
The Western Wall with the Temple Mount and the gold shining dome of the Dome of the Rock in the background is probably THE symbol of Jerusalem. As one of the most important religious sites of Judaism and at the same time the western wall (that’s why it is called ‘Western Wall’ in English) of the Muslim temple complex, it has often been the scene of conflicts and unrest in the past.
Access to the Western Wall is easy and free after a security check. As soon as you leave the forecourt and go into the area directly in front of the Western Wall, you should pay attention to appropriate clothing (covered shoulders and knees). Men wear kippas. Photography is prohibited on the Sabbath.
Traditionally, small pieces of paper with prayers and wishes are stuck in the cracks of the wall (which I didn’t do because it didn’t feel right to me) – men and women do this separately, however. There is an area on the wall for men and one for women, although the women’s area is significantly smaller. Is it because of religious reasons? Yes. Even in Judaism, gender equality is only held to a limited extent.
For me personally, the Western Wall was the most impressive and at the same time the most depressing place in all of Jerusalem. The atmosphere is difficult to put into words. As I said, I am not a believer, but you cannot escape the buzzing thoughts, the pain, the suffering and the hope of the many people there. The thoughts and emotions of other people are pressing, some people may even overwhelm them with their severity. This place filled me with awe.
Temple Mount with Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque
Directly adjacent to the Western Wall is the Temple Mount, which is considered the third holiest site in Islam after Mecca and Medina. On the Temple Mount you will find the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock with its gold-colored dome (which you can see above in the background of the Western Wall). Both the mosque and the Dome of the Rock are generally not accessible to non-Muslims.
You can enter the Temple Mount itself, but only at certain times.
Opening times Temple Mount:
Summer Sun-Thu: 7.30 a.m. – 11 a.m.; 1:30 p.m. – 2:30 p.m.
Winter Sun-Thu: 7:00 a.m. – 10:30 a.m.; 12.30pm – 1.30pm
Unfortunately, the Temple Mount was completely closed for us due to the fasting month of Ramadan.
The Via Dolorosa is the path that Jesus Christ is said to have traveled before his crucifixion. Allegedly, lots of Christian souvenirs such as crowns of thorns and wooden crosses are sold along the Via Dolorosa (but each only one cross!) – I didn’t want to miss this carnival shop. But as it is in the old city of Jerusalem, despite Google Maps, I couldn’t find the street at all … and a few minutes later, when I had long since given up, I stumbled across perhaps the most famous part of the Via Dolorosa:
Here Jesus is said to have collapsed under the weight of the cross and to have supported himself at this very point.
The souvenir sellers with the wooden crosses and crowns of thorns I still haven’t seen anywhere – but trust me, they are there (I’ve seen photos).
The Holy Sepulcher
The end of the Way of the Cross is the Church of the Holy Sepulcher : According to tradition, Jesus Christ was crucified and buried here, and his grave is still there today. If you assume that Jesus Christ actually existed (just maybe without this thing with the miracles), then that’s crazy shit. The founder of one of the world’s great religions is buried here. That is already very impressive for me and it is certainly understandable that the Church of the Holy Sepulcher is one of the greatest shrines in Christianity for this reason.
From the outside, the church looks quite inconspicuous and is pretty hidden in the middle of the Christian quarter.
But: Please go inside. I made the mistake of not going in at first (you know one, you know all … at some point you saw enough churches …) and as a result I almost missed what really defines this place: the people who visit it. I wasn’t inside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher for long, but in those few minutes I saw scenes that moved me deeply. People who kneel in awe for minutes when they enter church. People who can barely walk and need to be supported, but who made it here in the last legs of their lives. People who cry with happiness.
The lump in my throat is so thick that I can’t stay in church for long and have to take a deep breath when I step outside. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher is emotionally just as difficult to digest as the Western Wall and is therefore one of the most impressive places in Jerusalem for me.
Incidentally, a very special story is hidden behind the ladder that leans against the outer facade of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher: this ladder has not been moved a centimeter for centuries, it is already at this point on photos from the 1850s. The reason for this is that not only are the three world religions not completely green in Jerusalem, but no fewer than six Christian denominations are also fighting over the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and rights of use for individual areas. This became too colorful for those involved in the 19th century and it was probably decided that all changes would require the church’s approval of all parties. And somehow you forgot to regulate who is responsible for the ladder. Or you couldn’t agree. And there it stands now, the immovable ladder.
Oh yes: a group of Ethiopian Christians or monks lives on the roof of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher (I suspect that it is the people dressed in white on the right in the picture on the next photo) and the key to the entrance to the church is owned by a Muslim family, who opens and closes the gate every day. Wasn’t crazy enough before.
Fast facts about the Church of the Holy Sepulcher : Admission is free, make sure you are dressed appropriately.
David Citadel (Tower of David) – Daytime and Night Spectacular
If you enter the old city via the Jaffa Gate, you will immediately find yourself in front of one of the oldest sights in Jerusalem, the Citadel of David . This is a fortress, the oldest parts of which are almost 3000 years old (seriously, Rome can pack up). Inside there is a museum that tells the history of Jerusalem in a very impressive way.
In addition, the Tower of David has its own Innovation Lab, which is continuously working on innovations in order to be able to bring the history closer to visitors in an even more exciting way in the future. During my visit I was allowed to stomp through the area with virtual reality glasses (very nice … and I almost fell into a virtual pool) and an escape room is planned in the near future.
Incidentally, you have a fantastic all-round view of Jerusalem from the various viewing platforms of the Citadel of David! For that reason alone, a visit is very worthwhile.