“This is the place where Jesus met his mother on the way to the Cross” the shopkeeper explains to me.
“And if you take the next street on your right, you can see where Pontius Pilate condemned Jesus to death”…
I am standing on the “Via Dolorosa”, said to be the exact same road Jesus took on the way to the cross. I have only one day in Jerusalem and my mission is to visit the most important holy sites of the city. The names in my guide book bring back memories of the Bible stories I heard over and over again in school…
The most holy sites in Jerusalem
1. The Via Dolorosa
One thing I definitely wanted to do on my one day visit to Jerusalem, was walking the Via Dolorosa! Not so much for religious reasons, rather for historical ones.
The Via Dolorosa (meaning the Road of Suffering) is located in Jerusalem’s Old City and is believed to be the route that Jesus took on the way to his crucifixion. The twisty road is 600m long and leads from the ancient Antonia Fortress (nowadays home to the Umaryia Elementary School) to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the place where Jesus is said to be crucified, buried and resurrected.
The Via Dolorosa has 14 sacred landmarks, known as the Stations of the Cross – nine along the road and the other five within the church. Christians have been coming to the city for many centuries to walk the path, but the most popular (and busiest) time to visit is during Holy Week, where literally thousands of pilgrims walk the route.The streets are signed with “Via Dolorosa” and each of the 14 Stations of the Cross are marked with a plaque in Roman numerals. (I must admit they are quite easy to miss!)
The first and second stations mark the area where Jesus met Pontius Pilate who condemned him to death. The third, seventh and ninth stations depict “The Three Falls”, the spots where it is believed Jesus stumbled along the road under the weight of the cross.
If you do not want to walk it on your own or you are looking for a more religious approach, then you can follow the Friday procession, led by Franciscans. They meet at 3pm at the Church of Flagellation, which is the 2nd Station of the Cross. Note that this is not a sightseeing tour but a religious experience, so it’s probably not a great thing to do if you just want to walk it and snap a few pictures.
2. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre
The Via Dolorosa leads to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, one of the most important shrines in Christianity. Many Christians believe that it marks the place where Jesus was crucified and buried, and where he rose again from the dead. It has been a special place of pilgrimage since it was founded in AD 326.
Inside, you can find the final 5 Stations of the Cross. The most important shrine seems to be the “Stone of Unction” or “Stone of Anointing”, believed to be the spot where Jesus’ body was prepared for burial after the crucifixion. It is customary for pilgrims to kiss the stone or rub it with oil and then wipe it with a cloth.The place where Jesus is said to have been buried and resurrected is the 14th station and is enclosed by a 19th-century shrine. There are huge queues to get a glimpse of the tomb.
The church is immense, as are the crowds, but the flickering candles of the various shrines give it a very evocative and mysterious feel.
3. The Last Supper Room
Outside the gates of the Old Town is “The Last Supper Room” aka “The Cenacle”, the place where Jesus and his disciples had supper on Holy Thursday. It is also said to be the room in which the Holy Spirit alighted upon the eleven apostles after Easter.
Once inside the Dormition Abbey, it is not easy to locate the exact room. At last, signs confirm I’ve found the right one. Inside, a group of American worshippers are singing psalms. Their hands raised towards the ceiling, they seem oblivious to what’s happening around them…
The proof that Jerusalem is a holy site for many religions and that many of those religions are intertwined can be found on this very same spot. The Last Supper Room is located directly above the Tomb of David, the burial place of the King of Israel. The majority of historians and archaeologists do not consider the site to be the actual resting place of King David, but it is nevertheless an important place of worship for Jewish people.
4. The Wailing Wall
One of the most known holy sites in Jerusalem is of course the Wailing Wall, a relatively small section of the Western Wall, connected to the Temple Mount. The Temple Mount is the holiest site in Judaism, which regards it as the place where God’s divine presence is manifested more than in any other place.
But Temple Mount is not only the most holy site in Judaism.
Muslims also revere Temple Mount and the Al Buraq mosque as the place where the Prophet Muhammad tied his Buraq (a mythical creature believed to have transported prophets) nearby during his journey to Jerusalem.
Entering the Western Wall Plaza means undergoing severe security controls. With the constant religious tensions in Israel, it is understandable that no risks can be taken…
Eleven gates to the Temple Mount are open to the Muslim public. Non-Muslims are only permitted to enter through the Mughrabi gate. Because of these restrictions, the Wailing Wall is the holiest place where Jews are permitted to pray.
Once through security you will arrive on the huge Western Wall Plaza. It can accommodate up to 400.000 people a day! Once you get closer to the wall, you will see that the plaza is divided into a male and female section. Jewish people rock back and forth, quoting the Tora. Into the cracks of the Wall, I can see little pieces of paper sticking out, containing prayers to God.
Despite the religious tensions that surround the place, I can’t help noticing how serene and respectful the atmosphere is here.
5. The Dome of The Rock
The unmistakably golden dome, situated on Temple Mount, can be seen from the Western Wall, the Mount of Olives, the Tower of David, and many of Jerusalem’s city streets. Contrary to popular belief, the Dome of The Rock is not a mosque, rather a holy Muslim shrine. It is believed to be the place where Muhammed ascended to heaven. Other Islamic scholars however believe that the Prophet ascended to Heaven from the Al-Aqsa Mosque nearby.
Non-Muslims are not allowed to enter the Dome, nor the Mosque, but they can wander around the sites outside. Note that access to Temple Mount is very limited and strict. Opening hours can change without notice. If you are planning on visiting, check out the Tourist Israel website for information on rules and entry regulations.
More things to do in Jerusalem
If you start off early, you can cram in a lot of things, even if you are only spending one day in Jerusalem.
1. Walking the walls
Walking the ramparts of Jerusalem is very rewarding and offers some of the best views across the old city. The walk is divided into two separate walks: the north side and the south side walk.
The north side walk is the longer of the two and runs from the Jaffa Gateto the Lions Gate. The south side walk begins at the Tower of David (beside the Jaffa Gate) and continues around to the south side of the city, ending between the Zion and Dung Gates, close to the Western Wall.
Each walk can be done in about an hour and plaques make the identification of landmarks easier.
Tickets can be purchased in the ticket office at the Jaffa Gate. One ticket allows access to both stretches of the ramparts.
2. Wandering the streets of Old Jerusalem
Even if you spend only one day in Jerusalem, make sure to take some time to wander the streets of the old town and The Shuk. Friendly but rather persistent vendors try to strike up a conversation at every corner and sell whatever it is they have: Christianity, Islam or Judaism all seem to intertwine here in the name of commerce…
But in the backstreets, you can still find some quiet corners allowing for some contemplation.
It is safe to say that even if I only had one day in Jerusalem, the city had an enormous effect on me and I would love to come back to stay for a few days. Jerusalem is the place where three religions come together, a place of contemplation, of meditation and peace but unfortunately, as often with religion, also a place of controversy and conflict…
Have you ever visited the holy sites in Jerusalem? Or have you been to another place that had the same overwhelming effect? Please share!