Touring the city

The Jerusalem Development Authority offers free Shabbat tours

The Arab shuk, which proffers its colorful wares across the Old City’s Muslim and Christian Quarters (photo credit: ESTHER INBAR/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)
The Arab shuk, which proffers its colorful wares across the Old City’s Muslim and Christian Quarters
There are many options for things to do in Jerusalem on Saturday morning: sleep in, go to shul to hear the Torah reading (and stay for kiddush in the hopes that there will be plenty of herring), take a stroll and appreciate the lack of cars on the road, read a newspaper. The Jerusalem Municipality and the Jerusalem Development Authority offer another alternative for those seeking a Saturday morning activity: free walking tours of the city.
The tours, given in both English and Hebrew, leave at 10 a.m. from Safra Square every week. Tour guides rotate, as do the tours themselves, of which there are 35 different versions, with a new one added every year. The tours have been going now for approximately 20 years.
Vivian Nadir, a native Australian who immigrated to Israel 35 years ago, is a private tour guide with Jerusalem Guided Tours and one of the guides leading the Saturday morning tours.
“It always interested me, discovering new places in the country and in the city of Jerusalem,” Nadir says. “I like to know more information. The Shabbat tours were actually my first job as a tour guide 18 years ago.”
Among the tours on offer are the British Mandate, which is one of the longest, the Mount of Olives, the Jewish Quarter, Muslim Quarter, Christian Quarter, exploring various Christian denominations, Mameluke Jerusalem (focusing on buildings from the 13th to 15th centuries), the City of David, the Nahlaot neighborhood, Jaffa Road with stops at the Russian Compound and the old city council building, and King George Avenue with stops at the Bezalel Academy building, the Har-El Reform synagogue (the first in the country), the old Knesset building, and the former Muslim cemetery in Independence Park.
“I hope to show people things that they normally would just walk by,” Nadir adds. “They usually don’t know the stories behind these sites until they go on the tour. With the English-speaking tours, I build them more for the short-term visitor and focus on the historical places.”
Last Saturday, Nadir led a group of about 15 English-speakers from countries including Australia and Belgium on the Crusader Jerusalem tour. As the name suggests, it focuses on the history of the Crusader conquests of the city, beginning around 1095 CE, and the archeological remains from that period. Nadir pauses at sites such as Jaffa Gate, the Tower of David and the Cardo.
“I give an introduction to who the Crusaders were and why they came to Jerusalem, as well as the inheritance of the Crusader period, which is primarily architectural,” she explains. “Currently, in this political environment, the Palestinians might look at the Zionists as foreigner crusaders, and are hoping we’re going to disappear like they did. I suppose that’s one ramification. The architectural aspect is still very prominent in the Old City. The covering of the markets and all of the rooftops goes back to the Crusader period; a lot of it hasn’t changed. We have the Crusaders to thank for that. For instance, the market when you come from Damascus Gate. Also in the Cardo, that’s a remnant of that period, and it’s still very prominent. It’s amazing.”
Nadir’s favorite tour to guide is the one through the Christian Quarter. She emphasizes that taking people to places that they don’t generally get to see, and then watching their faces overcome with awe, are what make her job as a tour guide so special. The Christian Quarter tour winds through the Greek Orthodox sites and around residential streets that most people would not wander into on their own.
“They’re very different and interesting to see,” Nadir enthuses. “I think I open people’s eyes a bit with that one.”
The new tour for this year takes groups to the Supreme Court and the Knesset. Nadir says she had the chance to guide that tour for the first time last month and that it was a lot of fun. As a tour guide, it keeps her sharp to prepare for something new, and makes the job more interesting and fresh.
“I always say that if Britain has a pub on every corner, in Jerusalem there’s a synagogue on every corner,” Nadir shares jovially.
The rich history makes the city ripe for tourists and guides alike. But not all subjects are easy and comfortable. Nadir points out that whenever she explains the bombing of the King David Hotel, she is extremely careful about which terms she uses.
“It’s difficult,” she says. “I try and explain exactly what they did and why; the whole story. I tell them that at that time they were definitely acting as terrorists, but nowadays most Israelis don’t see them that way. It’s looked upon as something positive because it encouraged the British to leave earlier than they thought they would, and we have Israel now, thanks in part to that. But that’s probably the most politically volatile topic that I get to discuss.”
Nadir admits that she may have a certain bias and interpret things accordingly, as most people do. However, she remains vigilant in her aims to present an impartial explanation of Jerusalem’s varied historical chapters. She notes that no one in her groups has ever disputed anything she has said; participants have only added to her presentations enthusiastically, bringing her a lot of joy, as engaged groups make for the most compelling tours.
The tours are free of charge and are thus suitable for Shabbat observers. Nadir says she used to take groups up to the rooftop of the Austrian Hospice in the Old City because of its incredible view of the Temple Mount, but now there is an admission fee, so she finds other vantage points from which to show people the controversial site.
The tour group demographics consist mostly of tourists, but not entirely. Occasionally, Israelis will join the English-speaking tour because they prefer a smaller group. The one constant is that every week there are two groups in Hebrew and one in English, and the English group is always a mix of people from diverse countries, backgrounds, religious affiliations and perspectives.
Next week, the tour will be of the First Station and the German Colony. The following week will be “New to Jerusalem,” a tour that highlights the new additions and renovations to the city center, including Nahalat Shiva and Zion Square.
The theme of old and new over the span of 3,000 years is one that permeates every tour.
“A lot of cities have similar histories of conquering by different groups, but Jerusalem is unique because most other cities don’t have documented ancient history,” Nadir states. “In North America, the Native Americans were not documenting their history thousands of years ago. But here, we know everything. This is the cradle of civilization, and it’s all documented.
“I don’t think the continual conquering of the city is that unique. It was always squashed between big empires of the East and West. One empire wanted to enlarge itself, so Jerusalem was part of that.
“Now we’re in a relatively new, volatile situation. When Jerusalem was part of the Ottoman Empire, there were two coups, but it remained under the same sovereign rule for 400 years. That shows that it wasn’t such a volatile place. I hope that the State of Israel can endure like the Ottomans and that we’ll still be here 400 years from now.”
The city is constantly unfolding itself in multitudinous layers, and Nadir is quick to point out that even as a well-informed tour guide, she is always discovering something new, right along with the groups she leads.
For more information on upcoming free Shabbat tours: