There are few places on earth that offer so many sites of historical and religious importance as Jerusalem, and walking through the symbolic centre of the Holy Land can offer a deep insight into who we are and where we have come from.
Visiting Jerusalem was to me the highlight of my time in Israel, not because of the markets or the nightlife, but for the chance to walk in the path of Crusader knights, to see the hill where the Romans crucified Christ, to see the Dead Sea Scrolls up close, and to connect with the history and events that forged the beginnings of modern Western theology and society.
To most people history is just a long and gladly forgotten lesson at school, a bunch of broken rocks arranged in a vague pattern or a ruined building that doesn’t even look that pretty. Many people dismiss history as the bland drivel given out by package tour guides as they drag the sheep like tourists around a few ancient sites that no one in the group really cares about. They snap a few pictures and then move on, eagerly awaiting the next stop at a bar so they can get a cool drink.
And yet something tells those very same tourists that they should still at least make an effort to see these historical sites. Even if they aren’t religious, even if they have no concept of the history behind them, even if they are simply ticking off the list of must see sites given to them by their guidebook, they are compelled to visit. Why?
It is because the history of a city or a country feeds into its entire heritage, its culture. The history of a place determines who we are as a society and tells us where we have come from, how we have become who we are, and all of that gives us a deeper connection to a place than a bit of sun and alcohol next to the pool ever can.
And this is why on a recent visit to Jerusalem I found my deepest connection with the Holy City to be in its past.
I openly admit to being a huge history geek, a passion kindled by fantasies of being Indiana Jones as a child and endless hours spent in the library reading and dreaming about ancient civilisations. Yes I know, I never did have many friends growing up!
But when I got the chance to visit the Holy Land all those hours spent reading about the Templars and the Crusades when I was a kid, all that time in the library sifting through the stories in the Bible and trying to sift fact through fiction by matching them up with the realities of biblical archaeology all came rushing back.
That burning need to spend all those hours of study and escapism in the fascinating history of this enigmatic city was once again rekindled, and my trip to Jerusalem gave me the chance to live that history, to walk in the footsteps of the people and the events that shaped the heritage of three of the worlds largest religions and made our world what it is now, for good and bad.
Because that is what history is, it is not just a connection to our past, but to who we are today.
I couldn’t wait to see the sites that I had spent so long reading about, and my first day in Jerusalem was spent exploring some of the most enigmatically profound sites in modern history.
A walk around the 16th Century ramparts built by Suleiman the magnificent was a relatively modern site to start the day with, but it did bring into sharp focus just how small an area it is to have been the focus of all three modern monotheistic faiths. Surrounded by the mount of olives, the temple mount and the dome of the rock, and filled with the various sites where Jesus himself walked, preached and was crucified, where the prophet Muhammed journeyed to, where Crusaders, Romans and a dozen other armies fought and conquered was an intense feeling, and all at once explained and complicated the issue of why this is one of the most fought over and controversial patches of land in history.
It was the walk around this ancient part of the city that really drew into focus the reason why Jerusalem was – and to many still is – considered the spiritual center of the world. The walls contain a world that is timeless, beyond any and all modern trivialities, yet in many ways still ruled by them. Jerusalem is a world in itself that you can very easily lose yourself in.
And that is exactly what I did, on a literal level as well as an intellectual one. Taking a few photographs and wandering aimlessly wherever my fascination took me like some excited cat chasing a red dot, I soon found myself separated from my friends and completely and inexorably lost in the labyrinth that is the marketplace of the old city’s Christian and Muslim quarters. This wasn’t a bad thing entirely, it did at least give me a bit of time to myself to simply soak in the sights, sounds and atmosphere of this timeless city.
But that wasn’t enough to satiate my need to feel the history that I was surrounded by, and I was lucky that Jerusalem was ready and willing to show anyone who cared to listen exactly where it all began, at the City of David.
Jerusalem’s history is far more than a mere tourist attraction, the city itself is also a living, breathing archaeological excavation and part open air museum, and I relished the chance to explore the site myself.
The City of David is one of the most significant historical sites in all of Jerusalem and is one of the city’s biggest historical tourist draws. This working archaeological site and vast tourist attraction is where David himself (of Goliath fame) first founded the capital of ancient Israel in 1850 BCE and started the Davidic dynasty. This is the city at the ancient heart of Jerusalem, where kings and prophets made history and many pages of the bible itself were written.
This attraction is a historical wonder on par with the great Pyramids of Giza, it is the very beginnings of what we now know as our modern history and society in the West, yet it is still a wonder lost on so many of the tour groups wandering around blindly snapping pictures and wandering why they are walking through flooded underground tunnels.
But to me each stone told a story, each tunnel held a tale of soldiers conquering and sacking the ancient city, of civilians fleeing for their lives from the war that waged above them. Each winding street bore witness to Jesus himself going about his daily life, of his disciples spreading word of a new religion, they saw Roman soldiers occupy and then lose the city and English Crusader Knights battle with Muslim forces in an ideological war.
This is arguably where modern Western civilisation began to form in so many ways.
But Jerusalem is more than just the old city and the archaeological park. The city – old and new – is filled with sites of extreme significance to one faith or another as well as history itself. To take a short walk from the City of David and visit the Western Wall, even as someone who has no interest in or time for organised religion, was special precisely because it was a sacred site to so many other people, sacred because of the loss of a temple built by King Herod and levelled by the Romans in 70 ACE.
Simply being there, feeling the stones, walking the streets, I could feel that history come alive just as easily as I could when I was squeezing myself into the tunnels of the Great Pyramid at Giza or setting eyes on Machu Picchu for the first time.
The history of the world is told in stories, and what greater stories are there than the tales of Jesus of Nazareth, Kings David and Herod, Alexander the Great, Saladin, Jacques de Molay? What greater tales are told than those set down in the various religious texts that have shaped much of modern western society?
Jerusalem is a city that has been forged by these tales. It is a city that has sat at the birth of entire civilisations and at the crossroads of history itself.
You don’t need to be religious to understand the importance of these sites, but you do need to understand their roles in history, the connection you can get to that history simply by walking in the footsteps of those stories and the deep understanding you can get as a result of the relevance these sites have to who we are as a society, as a people.
This is what Jerusalem was to me.
Modern Jerusalem is of course far, far more than its ancient history. It is a city filled with stunning architectural and artistic wonders, contemporary culture, a new dynamic hipster scene and old traditional ways of life, a city that is bursting with young, fresh vibrancy whilst at the same time stuck in centuries of dogmatic rule and religious oppression. Jerusalem is a city that is almost at constant ideological war with itself, on the one hand it can be very open and friendly, but on the other very harsh and unwelcoming in parts, with areas such as the Mea She-Arim neighbourhood ruled by strict religious orthodoxy and standoffish almost to the point of hostility to strangers.
Modern Jerusalem was an enigma I barely scratched the surface of, because for me it was the history and the heritage so deeply ingrained into the fabric of who and what the city was that spoke to me.
And like anywhere else a big part of trying to understand modern Jerusalem lays in first understanding its past.
My first visit the the Holy City was far more than just another city break. This was my chance to walk in the footsteps of history in a way that can be experienced in only a few other places on the planet, and my short time there only allowed me to scratch the surface.
I need to go back, and soon.
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This article was written in partnership with iTravelJerusalem and TBEX. The views and opinions expressed are entirely the authors own based on personal experiences when travelling and are honest and factual without any bias.