Is it safe to visit the Mount of Olives?
In peaceful times, a trip up the Mount of Olives, for the stunning view over the Old City and the Temple Mount, is part of every itinerary of Jerusalem. Wonderful vistas aside, the Mount of Olives is also one of the sites where Jesus Christ is said to have been departed the Earth to be with God. Even older is the Jewish Cemetery, which has been present on the slopes of the hill for over 3000 years and to this day is a very sought-after burial place, as in Jewish tradition, the resurrection of the Dead will begin on the Mount of Olives when the Messiah comes.
The Mount of Olives is also located in East Jerusalem, which is considered “unsafe for tourists” by some. However – given the security situation at the time, and advice from either the foreign office of your country or local security forces, the Mount of Olives can be visited easily and safely by public transport or taxi, and even if you visit most sites, will not take much longer than two or three hours. If it’s just views you’re after, Mount Scopus provides a nice alternative.
I read reports that there are pickpockets on the buses, that people will be verbally aggressive towards visitors, but none of that happened to me! On the contrary – the buses were easy to find, drivers spoke a bit of English, and travelling with me were mostly Muslim women minding their own business, none of them unfriendly.
I started around lunchtime at Damascus Gate, walked to the East Jerusalem Bus Company station, picked up a Bus No. 75, its destination clearly posted, and paid my 5 NIS or so. It’s a ride along a very busy road at first, then a steep climb up the hill, and then a turn to the opposite direction… I was a bit puzzled, but from my experience of buses around here running round clockwork, I just kept calm and turned my GPS on. Of course, the bus dropped off at some hospitals, then did a U-turn and serviced some more hospitals while climbing further and further up the hill.
On the top, a tiny chapel marks one of the debated sites of Jesus Christ’s Ascension, guarded by a couple friendly Palestinians demanding 10 NIS entry fee. It is also a mosque, but Christian prayer is not a problem.
Unlike in town, there was hardly any one here – in front of me, just a young Romanian Couple. This chapel and the Church of all Nations, sadly, were the only places that kept fairly regular opening hours. It really is a tiny bare chapel, and all that’s in it is a footprint in stone said to belong to Jesus Christ (debated).
I walked past the Pater Noster Convent, another candidate for the ascension site, which was closed, along the road to the viewpoint, which was the only place that was somewhat busy with tourists – a couple of buses, but certainly no scrum.
That Sunday, there was absolutely nowhere to get food or drink on the Mount of Olives, no cafe, not even a tiny convenience store, and I was beginning to get hungry, my rations of water and kosher Oreo cookies dwindling fast. I politely declined the offer to visit the tombs of the Hebrew Bible prophets, which seemed to be incorporated into someone’s property, and started the walk downhill, along a narrow walled lane, which passed the extensive Jewish Cemetery, a sea of marble cubes with people paying their respects between them, past Dominus Flevit (closed for lunch).
Perhaps the most visually striking building on the Hill, the Russian Orthodox Chapel of Mary Magdalene, a 19th Century blue-and gold church right out of a Russian folktale, operated the most restrictive opening hours, only Tuesdays and Thursday, so yes, this was closed too!
At the bottom of the Hill, the lane led past the Gardens of Gethsemane, a tiny walled Garden full of gnarly olive trees, where Jesus Christ prayed in the night before he was arrested and crucified. The Church of All Nations next to it is a 1920’s addition to the Mount of Olives standing on Byzantine foundations, and incorporates the rock on which Jesus Christ is said to have prayed. Though not visually impressive, this was perhaps my favourite of the Jerusalem churches (along with St Anne’s Church in the Muslim Quarter) for its quiet contemplative atmosphere.
Last not least, now almost back on the main road, stood the Tomb of the Virgin Mary -a place that my (Western) guidebook didn’t bother to mention! It probably stems from the belief that Mary ascended to heaven in bodily form without actually dying in Western Catholic tradition, whereas Eastern Orthodox firmly believe that this is her burial site. It is actually worth a visit – very ornately decorated, cool and peaceful.
I noticed a few days earlier that, except for Via Dolorosa and the “big sites”, different churches within the Christian faith will have different sites that they deem important places of pilgrimage – I haplessly followed other worshippers into cramped caverns on the Via Dolorosa that are revered as the birthplace of the Virgin Mary (Eastern Orthodox) and some even more cramped caves at the Holy Monastery of the Praetorium (likewise, the site of Jesus Imprisonment is hotly disputed between the Orthodox and Catholics). Even with regards to the (empty!) tomb of Christ, no consensus could be found: while most visitors queue for a couple hours or more to squeeze into the tiny Aedicule at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Protestants stroll up to the Garden Tomb near Damascus Gate and amble through its nice gardens…
With my last day in Israel nearly concluded, I strolled back up the road and across to the Lion’s Gate, back into Jerusalems Muslim Quarter to a well-earned lunch at Lina Restaurant. For a last bowl of hummus, and then onto a bus back to Tel Aviv. But I hope this will not be my last trip to the Holy Land. In one week, I have barely seen what is considered the “major sights”. I went to Rachel’s Tomb and the Mount of Olives instead of taking a Day Trip to the Dead Sea, and I haven’t even moved south of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Next time cannot come soon enough !
The Old City is surrounded by city walls and incorporates the Temple Mount, which is of religious significance to Jewish, Christian and Muslim faiths. It is divided into four quarters according to different faiths. The Christian Quarter is the most touristy and crowded one, and contains the Church of the Holy Sepulchre as well as part of the Via Dolorosa. It’s probably safe at all times, although you won’t find many people here after dark. The Muslim Quarter is the largest quarter and includes the Temple Mount and the largest part of the Via Dolorosa. I found it safe to visit, but would not stray from the busiest bazaar streets after dark. It also has a lot of small shops – anything from clothing, household goods, produce and souvenirs, and the most authentic if not always cosy dining options. The Jewish Quarter is relatively small but contains the Western Wall, numerous historic synagogues, among them the Hurva Synagogue and the Four Sephardic Synagogies, , which you can visit, just remember they are usually gender-segregated, and there are some very nice cafes near Hurva Synagogue. I found that the nicest shops for quality Judaica were also in the Jewish Quarter. The Armenian Quarter is the most quiet, and a large part is occupied by the Armenian Apostolic Churches Jerusalem Patriarchate. There are few attractions, shops and restaurants here, but it is a lovely place for a quiet walk. The Old City is relatively small, so you are unlikely to get totally lost!
Best entry points are the Jaffa Gate (tram Stop City Hall) and the Damascus Gate (tram stop Damascus Gate). Be sensitive to the security situation, as some attackes have taken place at or near Damascus Gate in recent years. There is usually a heavier police presence at Damascus Gate because of this. Coming from the Mount of Olives, the Lion’s Gate is a lovely little gate with ancient reliefs and the Beginning of the traditional Via Dolorosa. If you are heading straight for the Western Wall by car or public transport, the Dung Gate is the most convenient entry point.
I found that for visiting religious places of the three Abrahamic faiths, you’ll never be dressed wrong with long trousers, long shirt and closed shoes (for men) and longish skirt below the knee and long shirt with no decolletage (for women). I took a cotton scarf with me as a head covering, which came in really useful. In more conservative neighbourhoods, even long trousers on women (my usual travelling attire) is considered immodest. Sadly, there were still plenty string vests and teensy shorts about in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which would not have been tolerated in a synagogue and probably no mosque, either!
Opening Hours on Mount of Olives
The Chapel of the Ascension is usually open 09:00 – 17:00 daily. Pater Noster Church is open 08:00-12:00 and 14:00-17:00 every day except Sunday. Dominus Flevit Chapel keeps seasonal hours, but should be open at least 08:00-11:45 and 14:00-17:00 daily. The Garden of Gethsemane and the Church of All Nations are open 08:00-12:00 and 14:00 – at least 17:00 daily.
For Opening Hours of religious sites, you can also check the Franciscan Christian Information Centre.
The tram (which goes by the fancy name Jerusalem Light Rail) is great way of getting round Jerusalem. Within the Old City, you’ll have to walk. The tram, coming from the Central Bus Station stops at City Hall (handy for Jaffa Gate, the more touristy entry to the Old City, heading into the Christian Quarter) then at Damascus Gate (one of the Arab Quarter entrances to the Old City and also the main Jerusalem Hub of the East Jerusalem Bus Company, on three plots spread around Damascus Gate).
Buses are plentiful and are operated by Egged, the national Bus Cooperative, in West Jerusalem (dark green buses, display destinations in Hebrew only) and by various companies under the umbrella of of the East Jerusalem Bus Company (white and blue, destinations in Arab and English).
You can pick up an Egged Bus pretty much anywhere in town, but due to its route simplicity, I mostly stuck to the tram.
The buses to Bethlehem and other West Bank Destinations, including East Jerusalem for the Mount of Olives, leave from three separate plots by Damascus Gate. The large open square right next to the tram stop, facing the Damascus Gate, is for buses to Bethlehem. Bus No.234 goes to Rachel’s Tomb (pedestrian?) checkpoint, and you have to cross into the West Bank by foot and walk or taxi to the Church of the Nativity. However…. you have ample opportunities to see the art on the Separation Wall near the Checkpoint. Bus 231 to Beit Jala goes closer to the town centre, takes longer, as it passes through the Beit Jala check point, and it’s still a 20min uphill walk to the Church of the Nativity. A bus ride costs just under 5 NIS.
For Mount of Olives, walk along a little further then turn left into a Bus Station. Bus No. 75 goes to Mount of Olives. It goes in a different direction first, but don’t worry. Just get off at Chapel of the Ascension/Rabi’a Al-Adawiya, which should take 10-15min from Damascus Gate. You will also find plenty taxis offering to take you there, but it is not really necessary. I walked from the Chapel of the Ascension to the viewpoint, then walked down past the cemetery to the Garden of Gethsemane – best do do in this direction, as its a very steep hill! When I visited (November 2018) I felt very safe walking on my own.
To get to Mount Scopus, either take the tram to Giv’at Hatahmoshet then take Bus 34 to the Hebrew University, or if you’re at Central Station, Bus 68 goes there, too.
I stayed in an AirBnB in West Jerusalem close to He Haluts Station. I highly recommend staying close to the Light Railway. You may find more quiet the more Western you go, whereas from Central Station East you’ll be right in the shopping and business district with a lot of dining options, too. With the Light Rail going at least every ten minutes even late in teh evening, it’s really easy to get around. The well-known Abraham Hostel, for example, is very centrally located by the Ha Davidtka Stop. Since I was travelling on my own on a budget of 500 EURO (for the entire week), hotels were out of the question this time.
Jerusalem has lots and lots of eating places. The Old City ones are touristy, as you would expect! As I travelled by myself on a budget I skipped the fancier places this time and stuck to simple cafe-style places.
My recommendations for the Old City are:
Abu Shukri (no website), conveniently very close to Via Dolorosa on Beit HaBad Street. It also has a large sign and crowds, so it’s hard to miss. It’s very basic, visited by locals and tour groups alike, the food (hummus and falafel and not much else) was okay and very reasonably priced for about 30 NIS with a soft drink. Usually closes before 16.00
Lina Restaurant (no website) is close by – look out for Station VIII of Via Dolorosa and it’s opposite. The menu is somewhat bigger than at Abu Shukri, also offers fresh juices. Altogether it looked tidier than Abu Shukri, regarding taste and price, it was similar. It has loads of electricity outlets for charging your phone, too!
My recommendations for Central Jerusalem are:
Maoz Falafel, 19 King George Street, Jerusalem. Kosher snack bar with really tasty falafel, but don’t expect tables and chairs – its just a hole-in-the-wall.
Hummus Ben Sira, Ben Sira St 3, Jerusalem. Another tiny cafe with a more expensive menu and more comfy seating!
Cofix – has outlets virtually everywhere. Everything costs 6 NIS – an unbeatable price, good quality coffee, but don’t expect comfy armchairs and newspapers!
Mahane Jehuda Market – it’s a food market, but one part has small cafes, and takeway stalls are just everywhere. Also nice for getting provisions if you are self-catering, supermarkets tend mto be much more expensive.
Jerusalem is easily explored on foot. Sandeman’s offers a free walking tour every day. For a tour of the city’s sights, Sandemans, Abraham Tours and Tourist Israel are good places to start looking, and all offer online booking.
When I visited, the situation in Jerusalem was safe and it was easy to visit Temple Mount, the Mount of Olives, and Bethlehem independently and as a solo female. These are the destinations on top of many travellers list, but I would highly encourage you to visit Rachels Tomb as well. I recommend before you attempt any solo excursions, that you check the advice of your country’s travel safety advice as well as the local news. Especially in the Middle East, the situation can change rapidly and without much notice. Unlike in some other countries, tourists are generally not a specific target in Israel and Palestine.
For hearing different sides of the story, something I highly recommend in a place as disputed and debated as Israel and Palestine, I recommend seeking out dialogue with both Israeli and Palestine nationals. A fellow traveller went on a Hebron Dual Narrative Tour and highly recommended it. I don’t think I would have dared to visit Hebron by myself either, due to the complexities of the zones and checkpoints, and this is the tour I would have gone on given more time.
I had a 2011 Bradt Guide* and WiFi in pretty all public places which was more than enough. The Bradt Guide does not include the Palestinian Territories and is well out of date regarding prices and accommodation options, but a new edition (minus Palestinan Territories!) is due out in summer 2018. Lonely Planet * includes the Palestine Territories and a new edition is out in summer 2018. I generally prefer Rough Guide * as it’s often stronger on history and culture and has more diverse accommodation and dining options, but its Israel and Jerusalem guidebooks don’t look like they have been updated in the last few years.
For a very extensive history of Jerusalem, I would read Jerusalem: A Biography * by Simon Sebag-Montefiore – at nearly 800 pages, it’s not an easy holiday read, though! Unfortunately I just started reading it after my trip. It will make you want to turn every stone, for which there would be plenty of opportunity with the Temple Mount, Western Wall Tunnels and the City of David all very close to each other and revealing many layers of this fascinating city.
I read Exodus * by Leon Uris, which is a somewhat Americanised account of the history of the Country of Israel, but it’s an easy read and was hugely popular when it first came out.
More information on Israel Immigration can be found at the Ministry of Tourism.
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