Venturing into east Jerusalem: Volatile area or hot tourist destination?

Israeli tourists naturally steer clear of the area, but with all the sites to see, it’s a shame.

CCTV Footage of stabbing Attack Old City Jerusalem (Credit: Israel Police)
Jerusalem has always been the focus of the three major monotheistic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. However, when visiting Jerusalem, most Jewish Israeli tourists usually focus on the Jewish section of the Old City, and rarely venture out or explore other quarters. For the most part, this is due to lack of familiarity. In an effort to remedy this situation, I’ve prepared a different kind of journey through Jerusalem: a tour of tourist attractions in eastern Jerusalem.
Although east Jerusalem is part of Israel’s capital, due to security concerns, as well as lack of awareness, many Israelis steer clear of this area. This is a shame, because east Jerusalem, like the western part of the city, is full of important tourist sites.
I recently set out with my colleague, tour guide Yaron Hovav, to visit a number of important Christian sites in Jerusalem. Our tour began at the Damascus Gate, continued along Hagai Street and then finally reached the square in front of the Austrian Hospice. The tour is full of rich and interesting history tidbits, and you can visit these sites either on your own or as part of a free guided tour with the East Jerusalem Development Company, which was founded by Ilanit Tzemach in an effort to encourage tourism in east Jerusalem.
We decided to start our day off with breakfast at the American Colony Hotel, which is extremely popular among celebrities from around the world and offers one of the best breakfast buffets in town. The hotel is also a great starting point, since it’s located at 1 Nablus Road, near the Old City.
Our breakfast was more of a brunch, and included both western and Arab cuisine. Guests are welcome to enjoy their meal either in the dining hall or outside in the hotel’s charming courtyard. The meal costs NIS 130 and includes bread, pastries, Belgian waffles, spreads, omelettes, smoked fish, cold cuts and a variety of cheeses. Brunch at the American Colony is very popular, so it is best to reserve a table ahead of time.
Our first destination, St. George’s Cathedral, was just a five-minute walk from the hotel. The impressive edifice belongs to the Anglican-Episcopalian stream that grew from within Protestantism. It was built in 1898 and includes a botanical garden, a museum, and a hostel for Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land.
Built in the neo-Gothic style, the magnificent cathedral is the seat of the bishop of Jerusalem. It has played an important role in the history of the city, including serving as a pilgrimage site for British soldiers stationed in Jerusalem during the Mandate. To this day it exudes a pervasive sense of calm and holiness.
The cathedral is open all week long, but it’s best to make advance arrangements at (02) 628-3261.
Location: 20 Nablus Road, Jerusalem.
Armenian ceramics
The next stop on our tour was the Armenian ceramics store and museum run by the Balians, who are not a typical east Jerusalem family. Neshan, the patriarch of the family, was an Armenian from Turkey who moved to Israel in the 1920s together with his friend, Megerdish Karakashian, as part of a British government delegation brought to Jerusalem to restore the Dome of the Rock with Armenian tiles.
The two of them opened a ceramic workshop, which they ran together for several decades. Both Balian and Karakashian raised their families here since Armenians were being persecuted back in their native Turkey. After the two friends had died, their families split the business and the Balian Ceramics shop is still thriving to this day. In the factory store on Nablus Road, visitors can browse and purchase hand-made crafts.
Balian family members are ready to take guests on a tour of the family museum, but advance reservation is required.
Open daily except Sundays. Tel: (02) 628-2826.
Address: 14 Nablus Road, Jerusalem.
Golgotha and the Garden Tomb
The Garden Tomb is a pilgrimage site for Christian believers. In the 19th century, people began doubting whether the Holy Sepulcher in the Old City was Jesus’s actual burial place, and many Catholics believe that he was buried in the Garden Tomb.
In 1883, a British officer named Charles Gordon was touring along Nablus Road when he came across a skull-shaped mound, which he thought might be the spot where Jesus was crucified. After locating a small burial chamber, an ancient winepress and a water cistern at the site, Gordon also professed his belief that Jesus was buried there.
Thus the Garden Tomb was built on this spot, along with a circular walking trail and a burial cave. Throughout the garden you’ll find gorgeous flowers and shrubs, and many devout Christians love to come here to pray and sing.
The Garden Tomb is open from Monday through Saturday. Entrance to tomb is free of charge. Guided tours can be booked ahead of time: 072-329-0747.
Location: Intersection of Nablus Road and Conrad Schick Road.
Beit Schmidt
In the 19th century, many pilgrims began flocking to the Holy Land, which became an axis for commerce. The numerous pilgrims passing through needed a place to sleep and that’s how Beit Schmidt came into existence. The complex was built by German Catholics who wanted to provide shelter for other Catholic pilgrims in Jerusalem’s Old City. In addition, a Catholic girls’ school was built on the premises.
Rooms at the guest house cost only $50 a night, and the panoramic view from the roof is absolutely spectacular.
Entrance to roof: NIS 5. Entrance to museum: NIS 15.
Details: (02) 628-2032 .
Location: Intersection of Nablus Road and Hatzanhanim Road.
When you’re done touring, I recommend going back to the main road, walking toward the Damascus Gate and entering the Old City. Walk down Hagai Street and wander around the alleyways and enjoy the sights, or continue down the Via Dolorosa, believed to be the path that Jesus walked on the way to his crucifixion. You can stop for a coffee and some apple strudel at the Austrian Hospice (37 Via Dolorosa) or a quick lunch at Abu Shukri Hummus (63 Hagai Street). If you’d like to buy some souvenirs, you’ll find a nice selection at Muristan Square.
Every Thursday in November and December there will be free, three-hour tours (pre-registration required) on
Translated by Hannah Hochner.