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Jerusalem, the Cradle of Civilization

Jonathan van Bilsen



September 27, 2020

Jerusalem, the Cradle of Civilization

I have always had the ancient city of Jerusalem on my bucket list, and continued to slide it toward the back, because the Middle East seemed somewhat volatile. Fortunately, two months prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, I took the plunge, flew to Israel and visited the wonderful city of Jerusalem. I must admit, I have never felt safer. In fact, I wandered out from my hotel on a Saturday night and walked 45 minutes to dinner, saw a movie (Downton Abbey, complete with subtitles) and walked back around 11 pm. The few people I saw on the street were friendly and I wondered where else in the world I would feel this safe.

Old Jerusalem is a city filled with history and dates back to somewhere around 3500 BCE. King David conquered the city and made it the capital of the Jewish Kingdom. His son Solomon built three temples about 40 years later and the western wall of the third one of them is still standing today. Modern Jerusalem has nearly a million inhabitants and is the country’s political and cultural centre.

Surrounded by ancient walls, the Old City is home to holy sites such as the Western Wall, Dome of the Rock Islamic shrine, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which dates to the 4th century.

The modern city of Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, a relatively newly formed country. Jerusalem's history dates back 5,000 years, when it was known as Gihon Spring. It was the main source of water for the original site of Jerusalem and it was what made a settlement possible. According to the Bible, King David conquered the city from the Jebusites and established it as the capital of the united kingdom of Israel around 1000 BCE. His son, King Solomon, commissioned the building of the First Temple. Being in the Middle east, an area which is constantly changing, Jerusalem has to focus on safety for its residents and tourists. Crime is low and the general population respects each other. Cleanliness is also adhered to with recycling bins placed throughout the city

Jerusalem’s entire city center area is now one large pedestrian mall. The city center’s core is Ben Yehuda Street, a pedestrian walkway, full of shops and restaurants. The area's renovation a few years’ back made for a welcoming experience, with its repaved Jerusalem stone walkway, classy street lamp posts, elevated seating areas, and dozens of small shops selling all types of products.

Mamilla Mall, is an upscale shopping street and the only open-air mall in Jerusalem. Located northwest of the Jaffa Gate, the mall consists of a 600 metre or 2,000-foot pedestrian promenade, which is lined with 140 stores, restaurants, and cafes, and sits atop a multi-story parking garage for 1,600 cars and buses, as well as a bus terminal. The mall incorporates the facades of 19th-century buildings from the original Mamilla Street and is filled with sculptures and art.

Of course the biggest attraction in Jerusalem is the old city, home to the Muslim, Christian, Jewish and Armenian Quarters. There are four main entrances to the Old City. The main one is the Jaffa Gate, which was built by Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent in 1538.

Shops and markets selling prayer shawls, rosaries, and ceramics fill busy alleys, while food stalls serve falafel, pita, and fresh-squeezed juice. No one knows for certain how many synagogues there are in Jerusalem, but if you include every worship-gathering the number could top 1000.

Entering the old city of Jerusalem is like stepping back in time. Men carrying freshly baked bread walk amid tourists and shoppers who are enjoying the quaintness of the cobblestoned streets. Pomegranates and other fresh produce is on display everywhere and souvenir shops can be found every few metres.

The entrance to the Muslim quarter is heavily guarded, once inside it is very safe to wander around the narrow streets and enjoy the shops. While most residents of Jerusalem in the 19th century preferred to live near members of their own community, there were Muslims living in the Jewish Quarter and Jews living in the Muslim Quarter. Many Jews moved to the Muslim Quarter toward the end of the century due to intense overcrowding in the Jewish sector.

The Mosque known as Dome of the Rock is an Islamic shrine initially completed in 692 CE. The Foundation Stone the temple was built over is believed to be the place where God created Adam, as well as the site where Abraham attempted to sacrifice his son. It is considered to be the place where God's divine presence is manifested more than in any other location, consequently Jews turn toward it during prayer.

The site's great significance for Muslims derives from traditions connecting it to the creation of the world and the belief that Muhammad's Night Journey to heaven started from the rock at the center of the structure.

In a bold move in 1967 Israel seized Jerusalem and the old city from Jordan. While Israelis saw this as the reunification of their ancient capital, Palestinians still deem East Jerusalem to be occupied Arab land. 

The first temple of Jerusalem was built in 957 by King Solomon. About 800 years later King Herod built a second temple, the Western wall of which is still standing today. Only a small portion of the original wall is visible, as the rest has been covered by Muslim houses.

To date the largest stone in the western wall uncovered measures 12 metres or 40 feet long, the height is 4 metres or 12 feet and its depth is nearly 5 metres or 14 feet deep. It weighs nearly 600 tons, the equivalent of two hundred elephants.

The Western Wall or Wailing Wall, is known in Islam as the Buraq Wall. The Wall is the holiest place where Jews are permitted to pray, though the holiest site in the Jewish faith lies behind it, in the Muslim quarter, under the Dome of the Rock.

The street in Old Jerusalem most sacred to Christians, is the Via Dolorosa where Pilgrims have retraced the steps of the crucifixion of Jesus since before the eighth century. It is about 3/4 of a km long and the final stations of the crucifixion and burial are within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre lies deep within the Christian Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem. It contains, according to traditions dating back to at least the fourth century, the two holiest sites in Christianity: the site where Jesus was crucified, at a place known as Calvary, and Jesus's empty tomb, where he is said to have been buried and resurrected.

The stone, where Jesus was laid in preparation of his burial is accessible, although its authenticity is questioned by scholars. In 312 CE, the Romans discovered three crosses near a tomb, leading them to believe that they had found Calvary. A church was built 20 years later and excavation revealed a rock-cut tomb that was identified as the burial site of Jesus.

Located a short drive from the old city of Jerusalem is the garden of Gethsemane, where, according to the four Gospels of the New Testament, Jesus was arrested the night before his crucifixion. Built in 1924 on the traditional site of the Garden of Gethsemane, the Basilica of the Agony enshrines a section of bedrock identified as the place where Jesus prayed alone in the garden on the night of his arrest.

There are several small olive groves on church property, all adjacent to each other. In 2012 carbon dating revealed some of the trees in the garden date back more than 1,000 years.

Israel is a country of vast turmoil and volatility, and has been for thousands of years and is considered the cradle of religion. The city is sacred to Muslims, Christians and Jews and is certainly a destination worth visiting, as soon as we can travel again.

Jonathan van Bilsen’s photosNtravel TV show can be watched on RogersTV and YouTube. To follow Jonathan’s travel adventures visit

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