I first stepped foot in one of the world’s oldest cities. I was 25, and unofficially searching for my own life-enriching travel experience.
While I had enjoyed plenty of trips that were meaningful in their own right, I had yet to visit a city that seemed to ignite such fervour as Jerusalem. More than 3,000 years old, and at the heart of the world’s three major monotheistic religions, Israel’s capital city is and has been a centre of culture, conflict and celebration since its inception.
When I say there’s nowhere on earth quite like Jerusalem, it’s not just another overused adage, it’s simply and entirely the truth. The city balances cosmopolitan energy with a kaleidoscope of cultural influence that leaves you feeling like your very own posh Indiana Jones. And whether you find yourself there as part of a pilgrimage, a summer holiday or simply a weekend escape, Jerusalem and its four quarters offer a one-of-a-kind travel experience that you deserve to experience first-hand.
And so to prepare you for your visit, here’s the guide I wish I had read before visiting myself.
What are the four quarters of the Old City of Jerusalem?
First things first, Jerusalem as a whole is separated into two very different areas: the “modern” city and the Old City, the former of which surrounds the latter. And while there’s plenty of trendy restaurants and noteworthy places to visit in the modern area of the city, the Old City is the star of the show for good reason.
The origin of this much-contested and very ancient city dates all the way back to the 11th century, where the Hebrew Bible first described a heavily fortified city, surrounded by impressive walls – walls that still stand today. Throughout the rest of the city’s history, its governorship has changed hands many times and nowadays the city’s distinct diversity reflects its own complicated past.
The Old City of Jerusalem is currently divided into the following four neighbourhoods, called quarters:
- The Jewish Quarter
- The Muslim Quarter
- The Christian Quarter
- The Armenian Quarter
Here’s a map of the Old City to help make sense of the quarters:
Each quarter boasts its own collection of significant experiences so it’s absolutely essential to explore them all equally. And thanks to the Old City’s small size (less than 1 square kilometre), you can absolutely manage to enjoy most (if not all) of the quarters over the course of a couple of days.
What to do in the Jewish Quarter
Known colloquially to its residents as HaRova, the Jewish Quarter lies in the southeastern section of the walled city and you can reach it from the outside via Dung Gate. Much of the original quarter was destroyed during the 20th century but it would eventually be rebuilt under the supervision of the Israeli archaeologist Nhamn Avigad.
During this period of rebuilding, a few impressive discoveries were unearthed that you can see for yourself today: a 2,200-year-old depiction of the Temple menorah, remnants of the Burnt House (a building destroyed during the Great Jewish Revolt against the Romans from 66-73 CE), the Israelite Tower (dating back to 586 BCE) and most recently a pool built by the Roman Tenth Legion Fretensis.
I’ve seen the pool for myself and can vouch for it as a worthwhile landmark to visit. Still visible are the hundreds of terracotta roof tiles stamped with the name of the old Roman unit whom the structure is believed to have belonged to, as well as the steps leading into the pool and the white mosaic floor. It’s easy to imagine its past glory as a busy bathing spot for ancient Romans.
Make sure you also visit the Hurva Synagogue. First built in 1864, the structure has been destroyed more than once throughout history and was finally reopened in 2010. It’s an important symbol of Jewish heritage and has been depicted in many paintings and literature over the years. You can join a guided tour of the building and learn all about its local history as well as its international significance.