How to find some of Jerusalem’s hidden treasures

After the greatest tourist hits, here are some of the deep cuts of Jerusalem.

Outside Herod’s Gate (photo credit: REUTERS)
Outside Herod’s Gate
(photo credit: REUTERS)
It’s safe to say that no more ink need be spilled on Jerusalem’s crown jewels of tourism. Any local can tell you where to find the sites that adorn the covers of the guidebooks that tourists carry around the streets of Israel’s capital, and you’ll likely be able to fit the most famous spots into your schedule in a couple of days.
But does that mean that visitors should hop on the 444 bus to Eilat to tan for the rest of the vacation after they’ve spent 48 hours visiting the Dome of the Rock, Yad Vashem and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre? Most certainly not. After the greatest hits, here are some of the deep cuts of Jerusalem:
If you came to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv or Ben-Gurion Airport, you probably passed Lifta. As Route 1 snakes up the Judean Hills, it curves around the lip of the valley which contains Lifta.
A site that dates back to biblical times, when it was known as Nephtoah, Lifta was the only Palestinian village depopulated during the 1948 War that was neither repopulated nor destroyed.
And it’s located just a stone’s throw (maybe two) from Jerusalem’s Central Bus Station. Today, its official status is as a nature reserve, though in recent years there have been multiple attempts to advance plans for high-rise apartments at the site.
A gravel path from street level will take you down to a fig-tree-fringed natural spring that once fed the village, and is now popular as a summer swimming spot with haredi (ultra-Orthodox) youth, given the site’s proximity to the religious Givat Shaul neighborhood.
The path continues deeper into the valley, and the houses of the ghost village’s past residents begin to appear on both sides. Some of them date back to the Crusader era, and shards of pottery from bygone days dot the dry riverbeds.
The houses are trashed, with cans and bottles scattered about, and mattresses that may or may not be in use by squatters lie on the dirt floors.
But there are some gems. Some of the houses still feature the painted, original tile floors; others sport gorgeous modern graffiti on the walls.
Outside the Old City walls
Many of Israel’s famous sites are contained within the 2.6 confines of the Old City, but equally interesting things are to be found on the outside perimeter of Sultan Suleiman’s walls. In fact, picking a gate and a direction and following the walls back to where you started is a interesting way to spend an afternoon.
You’ll pass Zedekiah’s Cave between the Damascus Gate and Herod’s Gate, the ancient limestone quarry where the stone was cut to build Solomon’s Temple.
Admission is NIS 16, and exploring the cool and damp caverns that run underground hundreds of meters under the Muslim Quarter is a nice respite from the heat in the summer. Across the street is a juice shop that features not just the staples like orange and pomegranate, but also more exotic flavors like tamarind and hibiscus.
Within spitting distance from Herod’s Gate is the Rockefeller Museum (Sultan Suleiman St. 27), administered by the Israel Museum. It’s free, open on Saturday, features a gorgeous courtyard, is full of fascinating architectural gems spanning tens of thousands of years and is always woefully empty.
Soon after the Rockefeller, the Kidron Valley and Mount of Olives will come into view. The monuments in the valley, the so-called Tombs of Absalom and Zechariah are worth a detour, though they can also be enjoyed from afar, as can the golden onion domes of the Church of Mary Magdalene perched on the Mount of Olives. A more substantial detour will allow you to see the Tomb of the Virgin Mary, the Garden of Gethsemane, and a panoramic view from the top of the mount, if you so choose.
Continuing outside the walls, the Valley of Hinnom – or the Valley of Hell, where pagan Jerusalemites used to sacrifice children 600 years before the common era – features rock cut tombs, the St. Onuphrius Monastery, and many good spots for a snack and a rest.
Jason’s Tomb
Tucked away on Alfasi Street in the upscale neighborhood of Rehavia, not too far from the president and prime minister’s residences, is Jason’s Tomb.
Dating to the Second Temple period, and bearing stylistic similarities to Zechariah’s Tomb in the Kidron Valley, Jason was presumably a sailor, given the carving on a ship on the inside of the tomb. Though there are metal bars restricting entrance to the inside of the structure and about five minutes is an appropriate amount of time to spend at the site, there’s something incredible about stumbling upon a 2,000-year-old building on a quiet, leafy street full of apartments younger than the State of Israel. But then again, this is Jerusalem we’re talking about, so perhaps it isn’t all that surprising.
Ethiopian Church and Ethiopian food
Each wave of aliya brings something new to Israel’s melting pot. One of the best things the wave of Ethiopian aliya brought in the 1990s was the food. Ethiopian restaurants now dot the streets of Jerusalem. Reeking of incense and thumping Ethiopian pop music, it may seem like an intimidating prospect if you’ve never had Ethiopian food before, but bring some friends with you, this type of dinner is best shared with a group.
A large circle of tangy, spongy injera bread served on a tin tray and a bowl of key wot – a peppery, oniony beef stew – is the way to go for carnivores, or if you’re a vegetarian, be prepared for injera covered with dollops of lentils, salad and boiled potatoes, cabbage, carrots and spicy green peppers.
To walk it off, a stroll to the Ethiopian Church on Ethiopia Street (the residential buildings in the vicinity predate the state and are gorgeous) just off Hanevi’im Street, is an interesting outing.
Though it has odd hours, the compound is easily found and if you can get inside, the church is like one you would see in Addis Ababa, with carpeted floors and representations of the Lion of Zion.
Two recommended restaurants can be found near the Mahaneh Yehuda market:
Shegar Ethiopian Restaurant
Harav Haim Alboher Lane, between Agrippas Street and Jaffa Road;
Habesh Ethiopian Restaurant
5 Mashiah Baruchof Street.
Rock-cut tombs behind the Begin Center
It shouldn’t be a surprise that archeologist Gabriel Barkay’s most famous find was in Jerusalem. In 1979 he discovered two silver scrolls with the priestly benediction inscribed onto them in tombs near St. Andrew’s Church near what is now the First Station.
The tiny scrolls date to 600 BCE and are the oldest biblically related inscriptions discovered to date.
The tombs are now in the backyard of the Menachem Begin Heritage Center, which purchased the land, and if you find yourself a security guard who is willing to indulge you, you’ll be able to enter the museum for a few steps, exit through another door to a balcony, walk up a flight of stairs and explore the compound, where rich Jerusalemite families were once buried – complete with head-resting holes carved into the rock! And of course, the Begin Museum is a great museum in its own right, telling the story of one of Israel’s most compelling politicians. Reservations must be made in advance, as only guided tours are available.