The history of Jerusalem stretches back to 4000 BC and the Copper Age. We so readily associate the city with religious history today, it’s hard to believe that millennia passed before events unfolded here that would alter how humankind thinks of spirituality, morality, and its own place in the world. Today, a mix of historic fascination and pious devotion bring people to this city. No matter what brings you here, you’re sure to be mesmerized and captivated.
Jerusalem is the center of three of the world’s major religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. No other city in the world boasts such a dense concentration of religious sites, each more moving and powerful than the last. Little wonder: the history of Judaism here dates back 3,000 years, Christianity stretches back 2,000 years, and Islam echoes back 1,400 years. The city is home to about 1,204 synagogues, 158 churches, and 73 mosques.
The most rewarding visit to this ancient and celebrated city looks on all of its sacred sites with equal fascination and respect, regardless of their meaning to any one faith. After all, no other place in world means so much to so many.
City of David
The City of David, one of the world’s most magnificent archaeological sites, lies just outside the Old City of Jerusalem. It is a spectacularly preserved place, and marks the spot where King David established Jerusalem as his capital in the 10th century BC. Since then, it has been the ancestral and spiritual home of the Jewish people.
The sacred Talmud goes into great detail about Jerusalem’s significance to Jewish heritage. King David’s struggle to capture the city and his desire to build the Jewish Temple there hold deep personal meaning for the Jewish people. The temple was completed by David’s son, King Solomon, in 957 BC, only to be destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BC. But the Babylonians didn’t rule for long and The Second Temple was built by Persian leader Cyrus the Great. It not only served as an economic center, but it’s also believed that the word of God came from its hallowed halls and resonated from here to all nations.
The Second Temple survived several centuries of occupation—by the Macedonians, Ptolemies, and the Hellenic Empire. But it too was destroyed in 70 AD as the Roman Empire moved in to claim Jerusalem. (In the Book of Matthew, Jesus prophesied its destruction 37 years earlier.) The Romans proved victorious and banned Jews from Jerusalem.
Today, the Western (or Wailing) Wall is the only structure that remains from the Second Temple. Here, devout Jews gather to insert their written prayers into the nooks and crannies of its mortar. Of course, this is not the only site that draws Jewish people from all around the world. Temple Mount is said to shelter the Talmudic source of life, the site from where God gathered dust to create man. Because of its sacred power, many Jews will not walk on the Mount for fear of disrespecting the divine presence there. Jews within the city pray facing in the direction of the Mount. The Wall and the Mount are among the holiest and most pensive places on earth, and we’ll examine them as closely as religious law allows.
City of Christ
Jerusalem holds a critical place in the Old Testament. But it played its most pivotal role in Christianity in the life of Jesus. As a child, he was brought to the Second Temple to be presented. When he was only 12, he astonished the Jewish theologians here with his extensive knowledge of the Torah. He also attended festivals in Jerusalem and preached and healed in the Temple courts. He is believed to have had his Last Supper in an upper room, or Cenacle, on Mount Zion. This is also where the Apostles stayed when they were in Jerusalem and, by some accounts, the location of the very first Christian church.
Jesus was arrested in Jerusalem and put on trial here. He is said to have walked along the city’s Via Dolorosa, or Way of Sorrows, while bearing the cross. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher (revered as Golgotha or the Hill of Calvary) is traditionally believed to be the site of Christ’s crucifixion, burial and resurrection. It’s an especially moving experience to visit here, and pilgrims have been doing so since at least the fourth century.
Jerusalem holds additional significance to Christians. When Christianity was still new and had fewer followers than it does today, the devout were outcast by Roman rule. To identify each other, they etched the fish symbol onto their homes or shops. But even that was risky: Christians who were “outed” could have been killed. All that changed once Constantine took the throne of the Roman Empire. The powerful emperor claimed Christianity as his faith, creating a fertile environment for the religion to flourish.
City of Muhammed
According to Islamic tradition and the holy book of the Qur’an, the prophet Muhammed—said to have been a messenger of God—came to Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa mosque from Mecca on his famous “Night Journey.” He was carried through his physical and spiritual journey upon the white horse Buraq, who transported the prophets at their bidding. Upon arrival, he tied Buraq to the Western Wall while he prayed at the mosque. When he finished his prayers, the angel Gabriel ascended with him to heaven, where Muhammed led several other prophets in prayer. His travels complete, he returned to Mecca that very same night. For many, the gleaming Dome of the Rock at Temple Mount marks the spot from where Muhammed ascended.
It’s an inspiring story that has earned Al-Aqsa mosque a place as the third holiest site in Islam, even though it was the second to be constructed after the Masjid al-Haram, the massive complex in Mecca. It carries huge significance to the Islamic faith because it was mentioned in the Qur’an. Al-Aqsa is also the original qibla of Islam, or the focal point toward which Muslims face when they pray. The mosque was held in such reverence because it had been the sight of Muhammed’s ascension. Even after the great Muslim migration from Jerusalem to Medina in 624 AD, the prayerful continued to kneel in the direction of Al-Aqsa during prayer. Today, the Islamic qibla is Mecca.
But it is not Muhammed alone who has elevated Jerusalem’s significance and holiness to Islam. To dig more deeply into the inclusive messages of Islam is to see Jerusalem in a new and magnificent light. In the eyes of Islam, David, Solomon, and Jesus are also prophets of their faith. Why? Because according to their faith, God sent messengers to all nations and instilled in them a belief that they would then embrace and teach. And ultimately, every prophet preaches the “oneness” of God. It’s a comforting message, and one that is befitting of the holiest city on earth.
Experience the deep spirituality of Jerusalem during our Israel, Ancient and Modern Cultures trip. Click here for trip details!