Jerusalem by foot

Special Issue | This divided and tense city is less medieval theme park when seen apart from the tour groups

Issue: "Building a city," March 24, 2007

JERUSALEM- Most Americans visit Jerusalem as members of tour groups, and that approach has its advantages: You don't have to make arrangements or plan out the details yourself, you ride on a bus so your legs are fresh, and you have a guide who knows where the must-see sites are and when they are open.

But an alternative exists: If you like to plan your own schedule, spend as much time as you want at a site that interests you, and get the lay of the land by walking it, you can explore Jerusalem on your own. You'll learn by up-and-down experience that the city is hilly, with Mount Zion and the Kidron Valley both as advertised.

I can guarantee, based on walking Jerusalem from the Knesset building in the west to the Mount of Olives in the east over parts of six days, that you will get lost, since streets curve and are often poorly marked. I suspect that sometime you'll move from areas where the signs are in Hebrew, English, and Arabic, to areas where the signs are in English and Arabic, to others where the signs are in Arabic alone. When you see graffiti that equate the Jewish star to the swastika, it might be time to turn back.

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But I can also tell of the pleasures of wandering through the walled Old City, never knowing where the next turn will take you. Or the satisfaction of heading out a side exit from Hezekiah's water tunnel, walking east on stony paths and perhaps backyards to where you think the Garden of Gethsemane is, and hitting it perfectly. Or gaining a sense of recent history by stumbling across a plaque honoring Israelis who blew up a British officers club in 1947.

What follows is a circuit of my seven favorite Bible-related sites in old Jerusalem; I've ordered them by geography but also so you can get to the most-visited place early in the morning when crowds are sparse. Speed-walking would allow you to visit all these sites in one day, but more time is much better.

1) The spot most visited by Christian pilgrims is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which spreads over the traditional spot of both Christ's crucifixion and His temporary tomb. Although this is a must-see site, the church for my taste has far too much bling. And some parts-put your hand through a hole in the floor and touch the rock of Golgotha-seem too much like a medieval theme park.

I twice visited the holy sepulchre itself, the tomb that sits beneath an ornate structure under the basilica's dome. The first time was in the afternoon when 200 people stood in line for a two-second glimpse. But I had a different experience at a subsequent 8 a.m. visit, before the tour buses disgorged their passengers: I could kneel for an uninterrupted 15 minutes before the simple slab where Christ's body may have been placed. Not bad.

2) I say "may" have rested because a short walk away, through the Damascus Gate, is another candidate for Christ's burial spot, the Garden Tomb. You can see nearby the distinguishing geological feature, a cliff adjacent to the tomb that looks like a skull ("Golgotha" means skull in Aramaic). This tomb is not covered over by a church building, so you can get a good sense of physical surroundings and then enter the tomb itself, which is simple but elegant. No bling, and truth in advertising: Although it is adjacent to East Jerusalem's Central Bus Station, the Garden Tomb is garden-like.

3) A walk southeast through a Muslim area takes you to the Garden of Gethsemane on the lower slope of the Mount of Olives. The Church of All Nations is built over the spot where ancients believed Jesus prayed that the cup be taken from Him but that God's will be done-yet enough of the garden remains that you can see and get a sense of the olive trees that descend from those by which Jesus walked.

If you climb the Mount you'll pass by thousands of Jewish gravesites (and some Christian and Muslim ones as well). That's because the western slope overlooks the Kidron Valley, also known as the Valley of Jehoshaphat: Many Jews throughout the centuries thought that was the place where the dead would be resurrected, so they wanted to be buried close by. You should stop at the Dominus Flevit ("the Lord wept") Chapel, which is non-bling and offers a wonderful view of the old, walled city. The chapel is said to stand where Jesus beheld Jerusalem and wept over it.


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