The Old City of Jerusalem is very small – one kilometer in length and width. In this square kilometer, you will find the most sacred site to Jews around the world, one of the holiest sites in Christianity, and the third most important site in Islam.
On top of that, there are at least fifty churches, chapels, and monasteries within these walls. There is no other place in the world that contains so many holy sites. Besides the sanctity of the city, there is also a lot of historical significance. Jerusalem has been conquered many times during the four thousand years of its existence. During the conquests and its rebuilding, the city has grown more than twenty meters in height in some areas. Yehuda Amichai, one of Jerusalem’s greatest poets, wrote in one of his poems that no one, not even the archaeologists, has ever seen Jerusalem naked. In the coming sites, you will discover a little of the Old City’s never-ending richness.
Visiting Jerusalem’s Old City
Located in the heart of Jerusalem, the Old City has seven gates that are always open. Most tourists enter the Old City from the Jaffa Gate because it faces Jaffa Road and the western side of Jerusalem where most of the hotels are located. After passing through the gate, on the left, you’ll find the Ministry of Tourism’s information office where you can get free maps and information. The Jaffa Gate is also where many tours start.
BEWARE: some of the guides are illegal! They will offer you a tour and then take you into shops and pressure you to buy something. (There are also very good free, tip-based tours given by licensed guides that start from the Jaffa Gate.) All licensed guides must wear their tag, and you can ask to see it.
Jaffa Gate. on the right -the Ministry of Tourism’s information office.
The Damascus Gate is the most impressive of all the Old City’s gates. It leads north from the Muslim Quarter to the Muslim part of Jerusalem. The Lions’ Gate leads east to the Mount of Olives and the Garden of Gethsemane. Groups that go along the Via Dolorosa enter the city through the Lions’ Gate. The Dung Gate is the closest gate to the Wailing Wall. And the Zion Gate will take you through the Armenian and Jewish Quarters to Mount Zion, which contains the reputed room of the Last Supper and the Tomb of David.
There is a road that enters the Old City via the Jaffa Gate and leaves through the Dung Gate, but it is not advisable to travel to the Old City by car. It’s better to go by foot.
The four quaters of the Old City
The Old City is divided into four quarters – Jewish, Muslim, Christian, and Armenian. The Armenians received their own quarter because they were the first people to become Christian, back in 301 CE, and ever since then they have been coming to Jerusalem as pilgrims. Since the beginning of the 4th century, there has been a small Armenian community in Jerusalem. When the Crusaders came to Jerusalem, they defeated the Muslims and Jews who fought together on the same side and massacred them. The Crusaders did not harm the small Armenian community. Most of the Crusaders were men, and they married local women. The wife of Baldwin II (Queen Melisende’s mother) was Armenian.
Most of the Armenians who live in Israel today are not the descendants of those pilgrims or of the Crusaders, but refugees from the Armenian genocide. During World War I, and especially during the year 1915, the Turkish murdered between a million to a million and a half Armenians. In the Armenian quarter, you will see posters calling for the recognition of the Armenian genocide.
The Lion’s Gate leads to the Muslim quarter, which is the largest quarter. The total population of the Old City is about 36,000. Of these, 22,000 live in the Muslim quarter, 6,000 in the Jewish quarter, another 6,000 in the Christian quarter, and about 2,000 in the Armenian quarter. You might encounter other numbers, as each quarter strives to inflate its numbers. However, they all will agree that the Muslim quarter is the largest.