Nominally, Jerusalem is today the capital city of Israel
but has long been, and still is, one of the most contested places in all of history. In fact, there are few places on earth that could match Jerusalem for the sheer weight of history, which you can feel on every corner. That alone makes it a most intriguing place to visit. For the dark tourist there is the additional specific site of Yad Vashem
, one of the world's foremost Holcocaust
>More background info
>What there is to see
>Access and costs
>Combinations with other dark destinations
>Combinations with non-dark destinations
More background info: Jerusalem is ancient. Very ancient – one the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. And a probably more contested one than any other place on earth too.
It's been fought over in dozens of wars, for over three millennia. It was the heart of Jewish culture under King David, invaded and suppressed by the Romans (against whom Jesus, as in the historical figure, rebelled), in the Middle Ages it was conquered in the Muslim expansion, in turn became the main destination of the crusades, before Islam reasserted itself, was assaulted by Tartars and Mongols, became integrated into the Ottoman empire for several centuries, until towards the end of World War One
it became part of a British
Mandate administration before ending up part of the post-WWII
independent state of Israel
. Any of these stages warrant whole libraries of history books, but for our purposes this brutally short summary will have to suffice.
To this day Jerusalem remains the spot where all three of the great monotheistic religions clash, often quite literally, like nowhere else. Previously it was the place where the holy of holies of Judaism on Temple Mount was destroyed, twice, first by the Babylonians, later by the Romans (see also Dead Sea and Masada
). The Romans crucified Jesus Christ here, giving rise to Christianity. And centuries later it became Islam's third holiest site (after Mecca and Medina), as the Prophet Mohammed is said to have ascended to heaven here.
No wonder then, that Jerusalem is regarded as the premier religious focal point for Jews, Muslims and Christians alike. The latter are additionally split into Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Protestant, Armenian, etc. – to add to all the complexity. All three have major religious sites for pilgrimages here. Islam has the Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqsa Mosque, the oldest and biggest Muslim sites in Jerusalem, respectively. Christianity has the sites associated with Jesus, especially the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Via Dolorosa with its Stations of the Cross. And Judaism has the Western Wall (of the former Temple) in particular. The latter is also known as the "Wailing Wall" as it's a most significant place of Jewish prayer.
In more recent history, Old Jerusalem was ("re-")captured by Israel (from Jordan) in 1967 in the Six-Day War and has been claimed by the country as its rightful capital ever since. But because the UN
never sanctioned this claim, all embassies remain in Tel Aviv. In Jerusalem, tensions are, predictably, often running high between Israel's Jews and Muslim Palestinians. At the same time the various Christian denominations sit on the fence in the middle, as it were, all trying to coexist with each other somehow. It's hardly imaginable how any place could be historically, religiously and politically more complicated than Jerusalem is.
What there is to see:
The single most significant reason for a dark tourist to come to Jerusalem is that Yad Vashem is located here. As the prime Holocaust
memorial site in Israel
, it has a separate entry here:
- Yad Vashem
Other than that, Jerusalem's Old Town simply oozes the weight of ancient history as well as that of the current tensions in unparalleled amounts. In that sense it really is a unique place like no other on earth. And it has to be seen – and felt – to get it. No amount of abstract reading or watching documentaries can replace being there in person, if only for a few hours. It's a most intense experience.
Unless you are already an expert on Jerusalem's long and exceedingly complicated history I would recommend going on a guided tour. When I visited in August 2006 at a time of particular tension (well, war, actually, with Lebanon in the north), it was the only sensible way of doing it anyway, for security reasons alone. It also meant that certain parts of the Old Town were, again for security reasons, not included at that time, in particular Temple Mount and the upper stages of the Via Dolorosa (see background info above
). We did see all the ancient Christian parts, though, as well as the key Jewish sites, in particular the Western Wall. Security was extremely tight, naturally. And it is indeed a kind of odd feeling sitting somewhere in the shade to cool down from the blazing summer sun while there's a security guard sitting opposite fingering a machine gun whose barrel is pointing in your general direction.
When we were about to pass through the bazaars and narrow alleys of the Muslim quarter, our guide was especially tense, and asked me, as the tallest in the group, to be at the back to rake in any stragglers as she intended to get through this part at a good steady pace. There was no overt animosity or threat aimed at us directly, but as we were more or less rushing on to get to the Jewish quarter I noticed a Palestinian boy (maybe 10 or 12 years old) passing a police station and quite casually giving the intercom by the door a good whack (without doing any concrete damage). I saw this a as pretty remarkable sign of the tensions at play at that time … or all the time really in Israel/Palestine. It was only a quick, mostly symbolic act, but it served as a reminder of the mind-bogglingly complex situation Jerusalem is inescapably caught in.
A particularly concrete (again: quite literally) piece of evidence of the current issues of Israeli-Palestinian relations is the up to 25 feet (8 m) high wall built by Israel in the east of Jerusalem and the West Bank. Israelis refer to it as the "Anti-Terror Fence" (the more neutral term is "West Bank Barrier"), whereas Palestinians see it as yet more evidence of oppression by the occupiers. Its controversial status appears just as unresolvable as the entire Middle East conflict …
The wall is thus certainly a sight for the dark tourist too – it is strangely reminiscent of the former Berlin Wall
(though the latter was nowhere near as high), complete with watchtowers and exclusion strip (though no mines). Actually getting close to the wall as an ingenuous foreign tourist may not be something to be recommended, however. But you can spot the wall from some safer locations, e.g. from the Mount of Olives that is usually a stop on city sightseeing tours – for the main reason that it offers the best view over the Old Town and Temple Mount … but in the distance you can see the wall too.
in the heart of Israel
, roughly in the middle of the north-south length of the country, some 40 miles (60 km) south-east of Tel Aviv, and ca. 20 miles (30 km) west of the Dead Sea
Access and costs: easy by day tours or independently; not necessarily too expensive.
Details: A whole plethora of operators offer half-day or full-day tours of Jerusalem, either with pick-up from Tel Aviv, where the majority of tourists tend to stay, or from within Jerusalem.
Costs range somewhere between 50 and 100 USD for regularly scheduled group tours. Private tours are obviously much more expensive. Many stops on these tours are standard – but do shop around to compare the exact details and value for money. This can easily be done online in advance (including booking).
Note: if you want to explore Yad Vashem
more exhaustively, it may be better to go there separately (or twice, even), as the scheduled tours do not allow sufficient time!
Of course you can simply travel to Jerusalem independently and explore the place on your own. But you would have to have a good prior knowledge of the historical sites and a good sense of orientation to do this, especially in the maze of narrow alleyways in the Old Town.
To get to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv you can take a train (slow, but scenic), bus (quicker but a bit complicated for foreigners), or shared taxi/minibus, all for relatively little money (5-15 USD); or get a private taxi, which can set you back a full 100 USD, but is obviously the most convenient and safest mode of transport.
Time required: if by regular tour, between 4 and 10 hours, depending on the package; independently you can spend a lot longer here, of course. At least two whole days can easily be filled. For those with a taste for archaeology or with a particular devotion to the religious sites, much more time than that may be required.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
The other particular dark site singled out here for Israel
, the Dead Sea & Masada
will normally be done as a day excursion from Tel Aviv, but it's also possible from Jerusalem, if you happen to be based there rather than in more relaxed Tel Aviv.
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
Jerusalem is also the highlight of any tourism in Israel
anyway, especially cultural and history tourism, for all the obvious reasons. It would go too far to list all the historical sights this unique place has to offer – other online sources and guidebooks can do that much better than I ever could. For me personally, out of all those historic sights the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was the one that impressed me most, architecturally as well as the general atmosphere of the heavy weight of history. At the Western Wall, in contrast I found that all the security measures and the strict Jewish regime for access to the wall itself made me feel very alien and a bit uncomfortable.
For those on a Christian pilgrimage, several other places not too far from Jerusalem will also be high on the agenda, especially Bethlehem, Jericho, Nazareth or, further north, the Sea of Galilee, as well as many other Biblical sites.
Non-religious, purely hedonistic holiday-making mainly takes place on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, with Tel Aviv as its main centre, which is also the "party and nightlife capital" of Israel
- Jerusalem 1 - old town
- Jerusalem 2 - church of the Holy Sepulchre
- Jerusalem 3 - wailing wall
- Jerusalem 4 - Temple Mount
- Jerusalem 5 - old town buttresses
- Jerusalem 6 - the Wall in the background
- view over Jerusalem with Dome of the Rock right