City life: Jerusalem

If you ask a question in Jerusalem, you may well get five different answers. In an ancient city where history, legend and scripture intertwine, facts can be elusive, but the stories still soar

By Tara Isabella-Burton
Published 8 Feb 2017, 08:00 GMT, Updated 8 Jul 2021, 11:36 BST


Photograph by Getty Images

There are two graves just inside the Jaffa Gate. Nobody knows whose they are. One story, says my guide, Arnon, is that they're the architects behind the Ottoman-era city walls, slain by Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent lest they ever create something as beautiful again. Another has it that the hapless architects were killed to prevent them ever revealing the wall's tactical weaknesses, or because the walls didn't encompass Mount Zion — associated with the ancient city of King David. "Or maybe they're just nobodies," he adds. "But that's not as good a story."

There's an old saying among Jewish families like mine — ask two Jews a question, get three answers. Here in Jerusalem, you get at least five.

There are so many stories here, lines are blurred. The tomb of King David, where Jews venerate one of the most important rulers in Jewish history, is almost certainly not at the shrine where young women in snoods now sit in silence with their Torahs and sometimes weep; even David's historical city lies today outside the old city walls. The Via Dolorosa — sacred to Christian pilgrims because of its association with Jesus's final walk to Cavalry for his crucifixion — first defined by Franciscan monks in the Medieval era almost certainly doesn't reflect the original route. The Al-Aqsa Mosque, on the Temple Mount — closed to non-Muslims — venerates the site of the Prophet Muhammad's Night Journey, as recounted in the Qu'ran; but the text doesn't mention Jerusalem, at least not by that name.

But in Jerusalem's tangled, stone-stepped, historically fraught Old City — one sq km that's home to about 4,000 Jews, 31,000 Arabs (mostly Muslims), 500 Armenians and countless pilgrims — topography, it seems, transcends truth.

"Facts have no place in Jerusalem," says Arnon. We're in the heart of the Old City, sitting on a bougainvillea-strewn terrace of the Lutheran Guest House, overlooking Jewish worshippers at the Western Wall, and the gold-glinting Dome of the Rock; the sloping green Mount of Olives in the distance. "Here, they're a hindrance."

For travellers — whether Jewish, Christian, Muslim, or secular — Jerusalem's power lies in its promise of the cosmic; a city that, for so many of its visitors, lies at the centre of stories about Creation (according to one legend, Adam's skull is buried here; according to another, divine creation started at Mount Zion) as well as about the end of days. "It's the only city in the world," Arnon says, "where history isn't just past and present, but future."

Arnon tells me about the time he explained to a family of Orthodox Jews how unlikely it was that David's tomb was really David's tomb. "They listened very carefully," he says, "then they said when are we going to the tomb? I want to read some psalms!"

It's that sense of faith that, even as an outsider, gives Jerusalem its propulsive, chaotic energy. Every other street in the Old City throngs with sellers of menorahs and rosaries, icons and incense; every corner has a church with a minaret built on top of it, a synagogue whose dome fades, on the sand-coloured horizon, into the dome of a church nearby. Crowds come in waves; by day, near the major sights, the city is packed with pilgrim groups and backpackers ("You can push!" somebody tells me, through the throng. "It's Israel!"). At dusk, the Old City is empty: moonlight falls over cobblestones. At the Church of the Holy Sepulchre — one of Christianity's holiest sites — standing on what many believe to be the execution and burial site of Christ, Russian Orthodox pilgrims wave sweet-smelling sprigs of basil as a bearded priest waves a candle; Catholics, Greek Orthodox and Armenians kneel to kiss the stone where Jesus was said to have been embalmed. Hanging over it are so many lamps — each one key to a different Christian tradition. Women kneel and weep; the younger ones help the older ones up the stairs to Calvary.

During my time in Jerusalem, I find myself welcomed wherever I go — partly because I don't obviously belong to one faith or tradition. "Jewish or Christian?" a seller calls out at me as I make my way across the low stone steps of the bazaar. He holds up a Star of David necklace in one hand, a cross in the other. I tell him my family is mixed — "Both."

He harumphs.

"Well, which do you like better?" I don't buy either.

Olive branch

A Palestinian taxi driver takes me to the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus is said to have wept before his arrest, and where the Basilica of the Agony (also known as the Church of All Nations) now stands. There I stop to talk to Faisal, an Arab Christian who's been a gardener there for 20 years; just like his father, and his father's father. He gives me an olive branch he's pruned (they say the leaves, boiled in tea, have special properties) and whispers at me not to tell, lest the other pilgrims want one too.

Beyond the Lion's Gate, I stop for a lavender-infused, white wine spritzer at the Austrian Hospice of the Holy Family (one of many historic guesthouses for pilgrims scattered around the Old City) on Via Dolorosa. It's a Habsburg-built palazzo surrounded by bougainvillea and oleander, where nuns (flanked by the stalwart Hospice dog, Benny — presumably short for Benedict) eat Austrian Sachertorte alongside blue-haired backpackers under an enormous, nostalgic portrait of the Habsburg emperor Franz-Joseph. I can hear the call to prayer; later, the church bells.

On my way out, the streets are closed; policemen stand guard with machine guns alongside a march that's passing by.

Men are in yarmulkes, some with beards and peyot (sidelocks sported by most Haredi Jews), some in the hats traditional to ultra-Orthodox Lithuanian Jews and Hasidim. Some women wear a snood — married Orthodox women cover their hair — some wear secular clothes. Everyone is dancing. Traditional Jewish music blares out from a sound system on wheels; an old bearded man, Joseph, from Jaffa, sees me standing on the sidelines and pulls me in.

It's two days before Rosh Hashanah — the celebration of the New Year — and the thousand-odd gatherers are participating in Selichot, the ritual making of amends through prayer, here celebrated by a march to the Western Wall (the outer wall of the complex of the Second Temple, built as an expression of faith after the return of the Jews from exile in Babylon). A 10-year-old girl patiently explains the theology to me in English; Joseph hands me a chocolate bar before vanishing behind a curtain — men and women are separated — for a series of starlit group dances.

I watch for a while; I wander on. It's just after sundown; the streets are barricaded now, to prevent any inter-religious violence. As I make my way into the Muslim Quarter, a group of Arab men, on their way home from the Islamic holy sites known to Muslims as Haram al-Sharif and to Jews as the Temple Mount, have gathered and are growing increasingly irritated at the closure of the street. I, however, am allowed to pass.

Walking through the Muslim Quarter, I pass men playing cards at plastic tables in undecorated tea houses. A group of young men call out to me, laughing, mocking my slight edginess.

"Come on," one says. "Let's take a selfie." We do.

Cosmic forces

Yesterday's tensions at the barricade are a reminder that despite the proximity of Jerusalem's religious traditions, the city is anything but unified. "It's not just three cities," Arnon remarks. "It's three cosmoses. Avoiding each other. Negating each other." In the walled, claustrophobic Old City, he says, the communities intersect without meaning to — "When a Muslim family puts a picture of their child up on the wall in the Arab Quarter, they're often putting it up against a section of the Western Wall" — against which so many Muslim houses lean.

Outside the Old City, Jerusalem has its ferociously separate spheres. There's the secular-Jewish Jerusalem of the New City: underground pop-up bars in former pickle-shops and gluten-free patisseries along Jaffa Street, and the newly renovated Mamilla Boulevard — where the windows all face inward, so that Orthodox Jews passing by outside don't have to see mannequins in lingerie. There's the East Jerusalem of the Muslim and Christian Palestinians beyond the Damascus Gate. Then there's the Jerusalem of the deeply Orthodox, the Haredi — from both Hasidic and Lithuanian traditions, as well as some Sephardim — who live in the neighbourhoods around Mea Shearim. Conservative, fiercely insular — English-language signs exhort the few tourists who visit to be modesty dressed, lest they 'seriously offend' residents — Mea Shearim is a prime example of a self-sustaining neighbourhood: a culture of inward-looking self-sufficiency born out of a world where centuries of discrimination — and violence — made putting up barriers seem that much more sensible than opening its doors.

My guide, Lea Schreiber, a woman from a largely Haredi family in Belgium, and one of an increasing number of women who provide neighbourhood tours, mostly to curious Israelis, takes me through the quarter. She shows me a free loan society — the Haredi don't charge one another interest for loans, but instead require an esteemed guarantor from within the community — where locals take care of their own; and points out the donation boxes (located outside ATMs and money-changers) for charitable causes. Lea also shows me 'Haredi Facebook' (many Haredi chose not to use the internet, or any other media that might be deemed to distract from their focus on God) — advertisements, death notices and pashkevil posters plastered outside the synagogue. She then takes me to shops selling modest clothing, religiously appropriate storybooks and media (National Geographic nature videos are among the rare nonreligious items on display) and glimmering silver Torah covers — the sort a wealthy family might buy to donate to their local synagogue.

"We look out for each other here," Lea says.

Even outside Mea Shearim, this fierce collectivism is integral to the identity of Jewish Jerusalemites. "In Tel Aviv," Itzik Kadosh, the owner of the Central European-style Cafe Kadosh on Jaffa Street tells me, "it's more like the West." People are cutthroat, competitive, he says. But in Jerusalem, people work together.

Nowhere is that more evident than in Mahane Yehuda Market (Jerusalemites just call it the shuk). A decade ago, the market was a teeming slum — the sort of place you'd avoided unless you were desperate for prickly pears or persimmons. Then, in 2002, a wealthy local merchant, Eli Mizrachi, transformed three of his stalls into a high-end cafe, Café Mizrachi, in the hopes of improving the market's reputation among the young. The plan was a success.

By day, the shuk is now equal parts traditional bazaar and artisanal gallery. Small pickle-and-cheese shops have been transformed into fromageries; chain bakeries, and tahini shops — boasting hundreds of flavours of the sesame paste — stand alongside fruit stalls.

But it's night when the shuk truly comes alive. As part of a collective deal, the shops hand over their keys each night to pop-up bars, transforming the space into a labyrinth of hookah pipes and beers.

I take a tour with Daniel Nahmias, a bright-eyed, manic 20-something with greased hair and infectious energy. He shows me the shuk bars; they include Casino de Paris, set in a former Mandate-era brothel — catering largely to 18-to-20-year-olds looking for a hedonistic break from military service — and the slightly 'Berlin-style', low-lit bars on the fringes, where those in their 30s go. We wander through archways and courtyards, and across alleys, to the Alliance House, an NGO-funded arts and performance space in a converted schoolhouse between the shuk and Zion Square.

Tonight, there's an immersive theatre performance going on in the basement. "They do experiments on people," Daniel tells me. "But, like, cool ones." I fill out a form and head into the basement, to be grilled about my insecurities, my regrets and my relationship with religion by strangers who look deeply into my eyes while filming me. One gives me a makeshift passport, a "new identity". "Welcome to the future," he says, and ushers me into a parking lot.

We move on.

Daniel takes us to HaMazkeka, a live music venue tucked away off Jaffa Street. Tonight, there's an Arab DJ playing. The crowd is mixed: boys in jeans, men in floor-length robes, women with curly hair and heels. The music pulses, the space — cramped, cavernous — echoes. The words of the music — in Arabic, in Hebrew — melt into the soundscape; all that's left is the beat.

We dance until dawn.


Getting there & around
El Al flies from Heathrow to Tel Aviv daily, while EasyJet flies from Luton. The most straightforward way to get from Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion Airport to Jerusalem is by taxi (325 shekels/£70), taking about 45 minutes; regular buses (90 minutes, 30 shekels/£6.50) leave from the Egged company's bus station in Airport City, a short shuttle from the airport itself, to Jerusalem's Central Bus Station.

More info
DK Eyewitness Travel Guide: Jerusalem, Israel, Petra & Sinai (2016). RRP: £20

How to do it
The best guesthouses for budget travellers can be found in the Old City — and you don't need to be religious to stay in a historic pilgrim's hostel, such as the Austrian Guesthouse, which offers dormitory beds from £22 per night, and private rooms from around £70. For a more luxurious experience of trendier Jerusalem, try the Herbert Samuel Hotel, where doubles start from £230.

Published in the March 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)


Explore Nat Geo

  • Animals
  • Environment
  • History & Culture
  • Science
  • Travel
  • Photography
  • Space
  • Adventure
  • Video

About us


  • Magazines
  • Disney+

Follow us

Copyright © 1996-2015 National Geographic Society. Copyright © 2015-2024 National Geographic Partners, LLC. All rights reserved