Jerusalem’s Old Town in a Day

We crossed the desert to get to Jerusalem, although our journey from Jordan was considerably more comfortable in an air-conditioned car rather than by camel or donkey.

Over 3.4 million people visited Jerusalem in 2018, and America provided the largest number of those tourists who requested a religious service at a shrine, followed by Italy, Poland, and Indonesia. They wait in long lines for security screening so they can say their prayers at the Wailing Wall built by Herod the Great in 19 BC. The architecture throughout the old town is impressive, and you can feel the emotions running like a current through the crowds.

People also stand in long lines beginning early in the morning to enter the Holy Sepulchre church and climb the stairway to the Chapel of Calvary. Located in the Christian quarter of the old city of Jerusalem, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre contains the two holiest sites in Christianity: the place where Jesus of Nazareth was crucified and Jesus’ empty tomb, where he is said to have been buried and resurrected. Both sites are surprisingly approachable and were no more crowded than any other part of the old city, provided you can find them in the labyrinthine maze of buildings and streets.

Since it was consecrated in the year 335 AD, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre has been a major destination for Christian pilgrimages to the Holy Land. Within the church are the last four stations of the Via Dolorosa, which was the processional route Jesus walked through the old town of Jerusalem on his way to the crucifixion.

Two Muslim families have held the keys to the church for the past fourteen centuries, and they are responsible for unlocking the doors each morning and locking them at the end of each day. The symbolic arrangement was designed to prevent rival Christian sects from attempting to gain control over the church.

For more than 1,200 years, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre has been the site of the ritual of the Holy Fire on Easter Sunday. According to The (UK) Telegraph, “In past centuries, the Holy Fire was carried from Jerusalem all through the Orthodox world — by steamer to Odessa on the Black Sea to light the icon lamps of Russia, on mules to Damascus in the steps of St Paul, and by camel caravan to the churches of the Coptic Christians of Egypt. The mystery of the Holy Fire has been a secret for centuries, even though Muslims have long denounced it as a trick and Roman Catholics and Protestants give the ceremony a wide berth.”

Trickery or not, thousands of people buy candles to light every day in Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The fire is accompanied by prayers asking for miracles, and the flames are symbolic representations of the miracle of Jesus’s resurrection that reportedly happened on this very site.

As devout as these pilgrims are, they are still tourists, and there is plenty of evidence throughout Jerusalem’s old city that tourism is a thriving part of the local economy. You’ll find everything from embroidered cassocks and handmade lanterns to picture postcards and Israeli Army gear in stalls throughout the historic marketplaces.

Aside from the Western “Wailing” Wall and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, you’ll find dozens of other sites with familiar names throughout Jerusalem’s old city. You can tour the Upper Room where Jesus and his disciples had the Last Supper. You can visit the Tower of David, Mount Zion, and Gethsemane. You can see the Dome of the Rock, which is the oldest Muslim shrine in the world that is still standing. And if you get an early start, you can do it all in a single day.

Up next: Celebrating Mike’s birthday Indiana Jones-style in Petra, Jordan