A morning on Temple Mount
The Temple Mount is part of the Old City of Jerusalem and a site revered by Jews, Christinas and Muslims, and has a dramatic history, which carries on to the present day.
For people of the Jewish faith, it is the holiest site. It is the site of the Holiest of the Holies (Tabernacle), containing the Ark of the Covenant. The first Temple was built by the Israelites under King Solomo around 3000 years ago around it. Following its destruction by Nebukadnezar about 450 years later, a new temple, known as the Second Temple, was built, which was later extended by King Herod shortly before the birth of Jesus Christ. During the lifetime of Jesus Christ, it is said the Apostles met at the Temple, and according to the Gospel of John Jesus confronted the money-changers here. It was razed by the Romans during the Siege of Jerusalem in 70 CE. Today, the Muslim shrine of the Dome of the Rock stands on the remains of the temple, under which the Holiest of Holies is thought to be buried deep in the rock. In Muslim faith, Mohammed ascended into heaven during his Night Journey from here, its site marked by the Al-Aqsa Mosque.
Due to the sensitive situation between Israel and Palestine and the Temple Mount not just being right in the middle geographically, but religiously contested and claimed by at least two religions, access to the Temple Mount is somewhat limited. At present, the Temple Mount is assigned to Muslim prayer only but open to everyone regardless of faith. However, not many Jewish people visit – be it the political situation, be it the reluctance to standing on the Holiest of Holiest – and prefer to pray at the Western Wall, the only remains of the Second Temple. While the Al-Aqsa Mosque is a working Mosque, the magnificent Dome of the Rock remains sadly locked up most of the time, and is not accessible to non-Muslims.
I really wanted to go there on my first trip to the Holy Land and had skirted around the checkpoints to the Temple Mount on the day before, which were all guarded by armed police. It did not look like you could just access it! When the security situation allows, the Temple Mount is open to non-Muslims outside Muslim prayer times, which is generally between 07:30 and 10:30 and 12:30 and 13:30 in winter and 08:30 and 11:30 and 13:30 and 14:30 in summer, Monday to Thursday. If the security situation requires, access can be denied at no notice at all and the compound closed.
So… I got up bright and early, at 07:00, but delayed myself buying the Rav-Kav and taking a second breakfast, sitting in the sun in Yafo Street…
I then took the tram, my favoured Jerusalem mode of transport, to Damascus Gate, dawdled at the market stalls that were just opening up, and bought myself a cotton scarf, which I thought might come in handy – I had forgotten to put one in my small backpack, and I admit to having a whole pile of such souvenir scarves at home!
By the time I rolled up at the Dung Gate, a brisk ten-minute walk from Damascus Gate along Hagai Street, it was about 09:30, and I was greeted by a long line of people, maybe 200m long. Thankfully, it moved fast, and soon we moved into the shaded bit. Even in November the sun is very hot, even in higher-altitude, cooler Jerusalem – I can imagine in the warmer months you’ll need a good sunscreen and a lot of water. I started chatting to another woman and we wondered whether we might still get in? However – around 40 minutes later, we reached the small airport-style checkpoint, had our bag screened and were let onto the covered walkway that leads from near Dung Gate into Temple Mount. Some men get asked more questions – perhaps for security reasons?
From the wooden walkway, we got an excellent view of the Western Wall, and people-watched a little.
But the excitement to enter the Temple Mount was too large, so we soon moved on. First stop once we passed through the high gate in the Western Wall onto a large marble plaza, the forecourt of the huge but architecturally rather modest Al-Aqsa Mosque. Since it was outside prayer time, there were only a few people – and definitely is the Mosque out of bounds to non-Muslims.
A few steps up, on an even larger square, sits the gleaming Dome of the Rock, recently refurbished, and its Dome re-gilded. The pretty Cupola of the Chain is open and accessible, but the Dome of the Rock, now an Islamic Shrine, stands on the Foundation Stone (“the rock”) of Jerusalem. According to the Koran interpretation, it was Abrahams oldest Son Ismael who was due to be sacrificed on this stone.
The present Dome of the Rock got its looks and colourful looks from Iznik-style tile cladding under Suleiman the Magnificent around 1550, while the lower marble cladding dates back to the much earlier Umayyad foundation. Its now glowing golden dome was black until the Sixties, when it was replaced with gold-leaf bronze plates, and re-gilded in the 1990’s following a gift fromt eh King of Jordan.
Initially, the Dome of the Rock was an open domed structure like the neighbouring much smaller and possibly older Dome of the Chain, seen in the foreground here, which remains open and is covered in wonderful Iznik tiles. Like its magnificent neighbour, it was a colourful history and was used as a Christian chapel by the Crusaders who identified the Temple Mount as the site of the Martyrdom of Saint James, one of the Twelve Apostles. He is the Patron Saint of Spain and Portugal, by the way, and his relics are venerated at Santiago de Compostela in Spain. The Camino de Santiago, the most famous European pilgrim route is dedicated to him.
Tiles, tiles, and more tiles! They are of Ottoman origin and are in the Iznik style, though a lot of shops in the Old City will tell you that tiles on the Dome of the Rock came from their workshop when it was renovated – which may or may not be true, the Dome was certainly renovated plenty of time due to earthquake damage and damage from the elements.
At last, after admiring the Dome from every angle, I sat in the empty plaza for a bit, looked at the few surrounding structures, only for my gaze to return to the magnificent shrine, and then, walked down King Faisal Street and straight onto the Via Dolorosa into a different age and a different piece of religious history. Only in Jerusalem!
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!
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.
For multiple journeys and when using public buses elsewhere, the best way to avoid buying single tickets is to buy a RavKav electronic smartcard. You can then charge this at ticket machines on the tram and for Egged, as well as other transport companies throughout Israel. Convenient Outlets are the Jerusalem CBS (Second Floor, on the far corner on the right as you stand facing the platforms – there are some really small signs), the City Pass Customer Service Office on 97 Yafo Street just by Ha-Davidka Station (somewhat funny opening hours) and at the Ha-Pa’amon Mall on King George Street just by Yafo Centre tram stop. It’s free, you fill in a form, they take a photo, and it takes less than five minutes.
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.
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.
Religious theory and religious history are highly debatable subjects, and in this part of the world often intertwined by politics. Please note I have no intention to offend any one’s faith and beliefs. I Here are some links from different faiths that you mind helpful in further illustrating the history of the Temple Mount:
Emerging Truths: Ark of the Covenant
IslamicCity: The Night Journey
Links marked with an asterisk (*) are affiliate links. This means if you make a purchase through these links, I will earn a small commission at no extra cost to you.