Journey to Jerusalem,'The City of Gold'
Updated: Jun 5
A pilgrimage to the Holy Land is as popular today as it has been for the past few millennia. I, too, went for the first time nearly five years ago and have subsequently revisited the Holy Land three additional times. Without ANY doubt, my impressions, interests, and observations of the Holy Land have changed, grown, and matured over the course of those visits. My feelings began with naive, spiritual awe but with successive visits, my fascination quickly evolved to history, archaeology, and ultimately politics ... but I'm not going there. The entire region, but Jerusalem in particular, is a very complex locale with DEEP ROOTED history, whose civilizations or rulers date along a temporal spectrum from the Canaanites, Egyptians, Israelites, Assyrians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Crusaders, Mamluks, Ottomans, British, to its present state. After four visits, much reading, and extensive research, I feel that I have SOME understanding of the area, although admittedly, very FAR from being an expert.
One concept, however, that has particularly struck me upon discussions with many people who have pilgrimaged to Jerusalem, and thereby what motivated me to write this blog, is their misguided impressions that the city they see before them today is a VISAGE of the city that Jesus "walked through." In reality, the architecture, the layout, and the feel of the Old City of Jerusalem today are VASTLY DIFFERENT from the city as it existed 2000 years ago. The roads, pavers, city walls, and buildings that one sees before them today have VIRTUALLY ALL been built MANY, MANY CENTURIES AFTER Jesus' time in Jerusalem, barring a few exceptions. It is those few exceptions that I want to highlight ... to illuminate the structures, or better yet ruins, that still exist today and can be visited, which WERE PHYSICALLY PRESENT during Jesus' days (circa ? 6 BC - ? 33 AD) as illustrated in the map below, and thereby perhaps, seen or visited by Him.
Of relevance, in 70 AD when the Romans destroyed the Second Temple, THEY RAZED JERUSALEM TO THE GROUND. Per Josephus, a reliable Roman AND Jewish historian of that time, Jerusalem sustained such decimation that it was nearly UNRECOGNIZABLE subsequent to that event. Thereafter, very few early Christians remained in Jerusalem due to persecution. Jerusalem was left to smolder in the rubble for over half a century until Emporer Hadrian visited the region in 130 AD and ordered the rebuilding of the city ... but NOT as Jerusalem, instead, as a pagan Roman city called Aelia Capitolina. It persisted as a pagan Roman city until the Byzantine era in the 4th century. Notably, during those 300 years, Roman authorities precluded the development or the maintenance of any residual holy places. Thus, many of the authentic holy sites simply disappeared.
Interestingly, the current Old City of Jerusalem is laid out on a grid that is nearly identical to the city plan constructed by the Romans in 135 AD. The current main streets and city gates can essentially be superimposed over the Roman blueprint. But THAT BLUEPRINT, remember, was implemented a FULL CENTURY after Jesus' days in Jerusalem and is quite different from how the city looked during Jesus' time. Subsequent to the Romans, EVERY SUCCESSIVE CULTURE built, modified, and then left their dusty footprints throughout the Old City. So yes, TODAY, we walk in a locale that Jesus walked in, but by no means do we walk on the streets he walked on.
So, if you visit Jerusalem today, what places can you explore that WERE ACTUALLY PRESENT, per historic and archaeological records, when Jesus walked through the city?
The answer is VERY FEW PLACES.
The Temple Mount and the Western Wall Tunnel
The Temple Mount is a massive, raised, rectangular, stone platform upon which stood the Jewish Temple. While its primary construction occurred during the 3rd century BC, the mount was reinforced and expanded by King Herod in about 19 BC. So at the time of Jesus, this mount existed and the 2nd Jewish Temple sat on top of it. That Temple was COMPLETELY destroyed in 70 AD. No part of the Temple exists anymore. (What IS on top of that mount TODAY is the most prominent structure of the Jerusalem skyline, notably the golden-domed 'Dome of the Rock'. It is an Islamic shrine built circa 690 AD by the Arabic Umayyad Caliphate and is in the exact location where the Jewish Temple formerly stood.) After the Temple's destruction, only the mount remained. Jewish faithful now pray along the Western Wall of the mount given that they are NOT PERMITTED to pray ON TOP of the mount. They pray in that specific location because that area of the mount's wall lies in closest proximity to the former Temple when it was in existence on top. The Western Wall can be visited by ALL, with segregated areas for men and women. Modest clothing and respectful behavior are demanded, as it is a Holy site.
Excavations have been done along the western wall, beneath the current Muslim Quarter, to fully expose its entire length. This excavated site is referred to as the Western Wall Tunnels and is where the western wall can be viewed at its ground level along a former Herodian street. Guided tours are offered through the tunnel.
The entire Temple Mount is original and dates back to Jesus' days. Along the southern wall of the Temple Mount are the Southern Steps that led to the entrances which allowed access to the top of the mount. The sages and rabbis were believed to have taught along those steps. The sealed-off former entrances can still be seen today. This area is part of the Davidson Center Archaeological Park near the Dung Gate.
Ancient Olive Trees in Garden of Gethsamane
The Mount of Olives is well known from the New Testament as a location frequented by Jesus and his disciples. It comprises a hill to the east of Jerusalem. At the foot of this hill is the Garden of Gethsamane. In that grove, there are a few ancient gnarled olive trees that botanists date to circa 1000 AD via carbon dating. While admittedly significantly younger than biblical events, it is noteworthy that the central cores, which are the oldest part of the trees, have completely rotted away and therefore could not be sampled. Secondly, olive trees have the ability to grow back from their roots if their trunk is cut down. Thus, they 'perhaps could have' been present during Jesus' time in the garden.
One Tower of King Herod's Citadel
Historians, most notably Josephus, have documented the vast complex that composed King Herod's palace and citadel, built circa 23 - 15 BC. His citadel had three large guard towers. It is noted in the Gospels that Pontius Pilate sent Jesus to Herod for questioning after his arrest. If Jesus indeed was taken to Herod, then Herod's palace would most likely have been the destination. During the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD, Herod's entire palace complex and the citadel were destroyed to the ground except for the guard towers. Today only one of the three guard towers remains and is incorporated into the base of the Tower of David, adjacent to the Jaffa Gate.
Ruins of Wealthy Residences in the Herodian Quarter
During the time of Christ, Jerusalem was described as having an Upper City, housing the wealthy residential area, and a Lower City, composed of poorer residences. Both of these neighborhoods were destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD. Archaeological excavations in the 1960s - 1980s, however, have revealed ruins of several previously lavish stone dwellings from the Upper City that featured numerous rooms, courtyards, and private mikvas. These ruins, called the Herodian Quarter, are located beneath today's Jewish Quarter and can be toured.
Pool of Bethesda (Beth Zetha)
Also known as the Sheep's Pools, these pools were just a few of several pools constructed in the Beth Zetha Valley north of the Temple Mount. (It is believed that the sheep were bathed here prior to being offered up for sacrifice in the Temple, hence the name Sheep's Pools). These pools were present during Jesus' time and held to be holy because of the miracle, attributed to Jesus that is said to have taken place along the pool's edge, in which He healed a paralyzed man. The ruins of these pools are located adjacent to St. Anne's Church near the Lion's Gate and can be toured.
Pool of Siloam
This pool, on the southern slope of the City of David, was a rock-cut pool first cut during the 2nd century BC. It, too, underwent significant improvement and modification during the years of King Herod. This was a pool that was frequently visited during Jesus' time and marks the traditional site where Jesus performed His miracle of curing the blind man, according to biblical scripture. Remnants of this pool have been excavated and can be visited. Access is via the City of David and can be combined with a tour of Hezekiah's tunnel.
THAT'S ABOUT IT!
On a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, however, you will be guided to MANY OTHER places of biblical significance where "tradition holds" that biblical events have taken place. These places are symbolically commemorated by churches or markers that have been erected at those sites, most often SEVERAL hundreds of years later. Bear in mind that no documentation remained concerning the sites that were considered holy, or about their precise locations. Inferences from oral and written bible stories combined with a yearning to identify locations where "Jesus walked", and rarely even graffiti by early Christian pilgrims led the Byzantine Christians to venerate various sites where 'they believed' evangelical events took place. Interestingly, the identification of some of those sites was later refuted during the Crusader period, reflecting the difficulties in authenticating the holy sites. Today, a host of sites exist that are "generally accepted" by biblical scholars. Examples of some of these sites are Church of the Holy Sepulcher (4th c. AD), St. Peter in Gallicantu (originally 5th c. AD), The Church of the Dormition (originally 5th c. AD), The Upper Room or Cenacle (? 12th c. AD), Via Dolorosa processional route (began during Crusader period but route modified MANY times and still remains unclear), The Garden Tomb (19th c.), among numerous others.
As a history geek, I am most enamored by tangible ruins and architecture that ACTUALLY remain from past civilizations. As you wander through the Old City TODAY you WILL be awestruck by the residual footprints of the many civilizations that inhabited that locale, PREDOMINANTLY of the civilizations subsequent to Jerusalem's near-total destruction in 70 AD. For example, you may pass by the columns of the Cardo or the remains of Forums left by the Romans. The Holy Sepulcher Church in the Christian Quarter and chapels in the Armenian Quarter built by the Byzantines. The Al-Aqsa Mosque and the magnificent Dome of the Rock, atop Herod's former Temple Mount, built by the Arabs. The Muristan Market and churches erected by the Crusaders. The pink and white ablaq façades of numerous buildings as well as the Islamic Madrasa schools contributed by the Mamluks. The innumerable vendors in the bustling souk CROWDED along the narrow paved alleys and the prominent defense wall around the Old City constructed by the Ottomans. Lastly, the rabbinical Yeshiva schools, the Hurva Synagogue and Square, and many tempting jewelry shops in the Jewish Quarter. Hence, you will experience a true AMALGAM of cultures and an OVERWHELMING of your senses. But with certainty, it is NOT an 'Old City' that would be recognizable to Jesus, as it appears today.
Jerusalem, 'The City of Gold', is a beautiful, vibrant, biblical, historic, and culturally-rich city that remains, today, the crossroads to the three Abrahamic faiths. It is shared sometimes peacefully, and sometimes not so peacefully, by Jews, Arabs, and Christians alike. But it is notable to keep in mind that how we SEE Jerusalem today is NOT the way it looked during Jesus' time.