A guided tour of the city

A trip to the Mount of Olives for tourists and residents – with an optional add-on for those who don’t mind the extra walking

Jerusalem 520 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Jerusalem 520
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
How many times have you been faced with the embarrassing situation of guests from abroad or another city in the country asking you for a guided tour of Jerusalem? The assumption that residents should know how and where to take visitors seems logical, but too often we are taken by surprise and don’t really know where to go and what to show.
We hem and haw and mumble something… Mahaneh Yehuda? Perhaps the German Colony, with its fancy restaurants and boutiques? Maybe Mea She’arim, to see what it looks like to live on another planet? And, of course, there’s always the Old City. But where exactly should we begin that tour, and how do we gauge reasonable walking distance with so many things to see? Well, for the week after the somber atmosphere of the first nine days of Av and before we plunge into the animated atmosphere of the pre-High Holy Day period, here are some suggestions, adapted for experienced walkers, as well as those who are not such avid hikers.
Omer Shadmi, a passionate young tour guide, has agreed to provide some suggestions for a few guided tours that allow residents and visitors alike to discover and/or rediscover the nation’s capital.
“Any serious tour of Jerusalem should start at the Mount of Olives,” says Shadmi. “The panoramic view is not only breathtaking, but it is also an important location from which to get a sense of the spirit of the city, looking toward the Temple Mount and the entire Old City.”
How to get there depends, of course, on where you are coming from, so this would be the perfect time to turn on the GPS or any other directional device and find your way to the Seven Arches Hotel. At the end of the main road in the A-Tur neighborhood, which leads to the panoramic view, you can take a short ride on one of the camels at the camel station that has been there since June 1967.
“Take a long and wide-ranging look,” suggests Shadmi. “Look at the golden Dome of the Rock, the dome of Al-Aksa Mosque, the sealed golden gates from which the Messiah will enter the city.”
Once you’ve had your fill of the stunning view, Shadmi suggests you turn back as if you were heading toward Mount Scopus and, after a few steps, look to the right. A small mosque, once a church, is almost hidden behind the trees.
“The Arabs changed its function from a Christian place of worship to a Muslim one,” explains Shadmi, “but they decided, as they have done in many other places, to keep the original name, so we have the Ascension Mosque, built on the ancient Crusader church called the Ascension of Mary.”
Why would the new rulers keep track of the old regime, even in a place of worship? Shadmi explains that it was common practice in the days of Sultan Saladin to preserve one vestige as a reminder of what was there before. Christian worshipers were allowed to use the place for prayers one day a year, on the day that marked the Ascension of the Virgin, according to the Russian Orthodox rite. In fact, the Mount of Olives, the largest and oldest Jewish cemetery, has three mountaintops, and on each of them there is a church.
“While two of them have become mosques, the third has been turned into a hotel that has one of the most beautiful views – the Seven Arches,” says Shadmi.
Continuing on the main road of A-Tur, with the Seven Arches at your back, you can see on your right a small fence that leads to a cave, the Grotto, which, once again, amalgamates more than one culture. It is believed to be the grave of three women, each of a different faith, “as if someone is trying to tell us that we are not as different as we might think,” says Shadmi.
At first (according to archeologists), there was only a sarcophagus (apparently from the end of the Roman empire) on which a small mosque was built during the 17th century. The first tenant of the site was believed to be Pelagia who, according to Christian tradition, was born in Antioch in the fifth century CE. In the first part of her life, she was an actress and engaged in licentious behavior and was apparently much in demand among gentlemen even across the sea. It is said that men would commit suicide because they were not chosen to enter her good graces.
“But all things come to an end,” says Shadmi, continuing the story. One day Pelagia came across Bishop Nonnus, who sermonized about the punishment for sinners in the world to come.
“Pelagia, who was a pagan, began to weep and told the bishop her life story and vowed that from that point on she would renounce her sinful behavior and walk in the righteous path.”
Pelagia was baptized and began the next chapter of her life. She gave all her possessions to the poor and made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem dressed as a man.
At the end of her journey she reached the Mount of Olives, where she lived an ascetic life (still disguised as a man) and spent most of her time praying.
IN THE same place, according to Jewish tradition the small cave is the grave of Hulda the prophetess, who is mentioned in the Bible during the days of King Josiah (seventh century BCE). She is buried there facing the gates named after her, the Gates of Hulda in the Old City, leading to the Temple on Mount Moriah.
“And then came the Muslims,” continues Shadmi, “who regard the site as the tomb of a woman named Rava’ad Aludayah, a prophetess among the early Muslim mystics in the seventh century CE.” The road that crosses the neighborhood of A-Tur bears her name.
A few meters ahead, a large French flag waves in the breeze atop another church – the Pater Noster. It is there, according to Christian tradition, that Jesus taught his followers the Pater Noster (“Our Father”) prayer. Inside the building, the words of the prayer are written on the wall in 150 languages. As for the French flag, the church belongs to the order of the French Carmelites.
“In fact,” Shadmi says, “the Mount of Olives is regarded as a place of redemption for all three faiths, hence its great importance for all. For Christians, it is where the redemption will start. The Muslims believe that on the Judgment Day, thin arches will link the Mount of Olives with Al-Aksa Mosque, allowing only the righteous to march through them over the flames of hell, which will open its gates just below, and the wicked will fall to their death.
As for the Jews, some traditions say that the Messiah will come from the Mount of Olives on his way to the Temple Mount, awakening the dead from their graves on the slopes of the cemetery.
“It all finally comes here. This is the most important location for all,” says Shadmi.
The guided tour of the Mount of Olives ends a little below with two important churches on the right side of the road. The Russian church with the golden onion domes overlooks Gethsemane, the last place where Jesus hid before being taken by the soldiers of Pontius Pilate. A little farther up is the Church of all Nations, built right after World War I in the hope that the world would never again experience such a horror. On the way, large stones steps lead to the tombs of two prophets – Haggai and Malachi.
“There is someone who officially guards the area and has the keys to the tombs,” Shadmi explains, “but you can never know if he is there or not. It is a matter of luck, which goes well with this site, anyway.” FOR THOSE who feel like walking more, Shadmi suggests continuing up the road to the Lions’ Gate, the gate the Israeli paratroopers broke through to the Old City in the Six Day War with heavy fighting until they reached the Western Wall and stopped for a fervent prayer. For Christians, the gate marks the entrance to the Via Dolorosa.
“The four animal sculptures are leopards,” Shadmi points out, “usually mistaken for lions. They were placed there by Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent to celebrate the Ottoman defeat of the Mamelukes in 1517. According to legend, the sultan before him, Selim, dreamed that lions were going to eat him because he had plans to build inside the city, which apparently did not please the Lord.”
To obtain a reprieve from heaven, the sultan promised that he would protect the city by building a wall around it. “And that’s how the lion became the symbol of Jerusalem,” Shadmi says.
Once inside the walls, it is a short walk along the Via Dolorosa to the Western Wall.
As a final recommendation, Shadmi suggests, “On your way, take the time to visit the Austrian Hospice in the Muslim Quarter.
And if you can, climb the stairs to take a look at the city – it is more than worth the effort.” •