Middle East

Sacred city


The religious heritage of Jerusalem is one that few cities can rival.


Jerusalem is a city in which religious highlights arrive in density. Crammed inside its square-kilometre-surface (0.4 square miles) are some 220 historic monuments, including a series of highly important sites. UNESCO listed it in 1981. Millions of people visit every year.

The old city was all there was of Jerusalem until the mid-19th century, when surrounding Jewish neighbourhoods started to emerge. A wall of four kilometres (nearly three miles) protects the old city. Inside is a dense labyrinth of streets and squares. Throughout an eventful and often turbulent history, these streets have been walked by everyone from beggars to merchants, great scholars, academics and slaves.

Jerusalem today features four distinct ‘quarters’ of Armenians, Christians, Jews and Muslims. They occupy each of the city’s four corners. “What happened was that people started to live around their religious sites,” says Simon Goldhill, professor at the University of Cambridge. “People kept close to their religious communities.”


The Armenian quarter is the smallest in the city. Armenians settled in Jerusalem in the fourth century. In the 12th century they built the St. James Cathedral upon the remains of a byzantine church. The quarter became the centre of Armenians in Israel. Today it is home to about 2,500 people. Their cultural history is on display in the Armenian Museum, located here. There is also the Armenian Patriarchate.

The Christian quarter evolves round the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which according to Christian belief was the site upon which Jesus was crucified and buried. The quarter was built by Christian pilgrims and features monasteries, hostels and churches. It also includes a busy market, which is one of Jerusalem’s many popular attractions. On sale are pottery, candles, ethnic costumes, mats, rugs, jewellery and more.

The Christian quarter also features the Via Dolorosa; the road Jesus is said to have walked from the place of Pontius Pilate’s sentencing, to Golgotha. Tour operators may tell you the stone steps are unchanged from older times, and that this is the very path Jesus walked. But academics say the original stones have long been swapped for modern ones. “People who walk the route where Jesus’s feet touched; that’s probably 40 feet below,” says Goldhill. “Even if that were the same route – which it obviously isn’t due to reconstruction – it would not be at the same place.”


In the Jewish quarter, the perhaps most famous feature is the Western Wall, towards whom Jews turn in prayer. Prayers are scribbled on paper notes and placed in between the wall’s cracks. The wall is located on the western side of Temple Mount; one of the most important religious sites in the Old City. The same quarter also includes the Burnt House; the relics of a family residence set alight when Romans captured the city in 70 A.D.

The Muslim quarter is the largest of the four. Most of the population apparently settled here after original Jewish and Christians moved to other neighbourhoods. Churches, mosques and some Jewish homes can be seen. It is home to the sacred site of the Dome of the Rock, which protects a piece of black stone from which Muslims believe Muhammad rose to heaven. It is also an important place for Jews, who believe it was here Abraham offered his son Isaac as a sacrifice.

Photos: maxmacs, Ryan Rodrick Beiler, silver-john [via Shutterstock.com].

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