In Search of the Religious Trifecta in Jerusalem

Kotel nightPlease note: The photo of the Kotel was not taken on the Sabbath, as that is strictly prohibited.

Jerusalem, the historic capital of Israel, is a city in conflict. Not just what one sees on the nightly news, but the city is in conflict with itself. Much of this conflict is centered around places more than people, and reminders of this are found throughout the city. Three of the most important of these reminders, the Western Wall, Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Temple Mount are not just sites of historic importance, they are active participants in the ever-evolving character of the city. Walk to Kotel

I first arrived in Jerusalem later than I had hoped, the sun was low in the sky, it was Friday and I desperately wanted to be at the Western Wall (Kotel) for the beginning of the Jewish Sabbath. I tossed my bags on the bed and raced towards the Old City of Jerusalem. Even though I have long studied the region, I was not prepared for the beauty, or confusion, of Jerusalem. The Old City, the historic heart of the city and indeed the nation, is walled with a series of gates offering entrance. Unfortunately, I’m directionally challenged and met my match with trying to discern the quickest route to the Kotel.

Then, out of the corner of my eye I saw them, rushing into the city through the Damascus Gate, two Orthodox Jewish men. I knew they were headed to the Kotel, so I followed them. Turns out they were fast, very fast. Like a bad spy, I was huffing and puffing, gently shoving past oblivious bystanders to keep up with my new friends. My hunch paid off though and before I knew it, we were at the security station to enter the Western Wall area. After a bag check, I emerged from the tunnel into a large square and to my left, there it was, The Wall.

The sun had finally set and the giant wall, the remnants of the Second Temple, was illuminated by a series of floodlights. Occupying every square inch of the plaza were thousands of people, some lost in prayer and others laughing and dancing. This was it, the big event of the week and I was there. I stood there for a while, I’m not sure how long, just observing. Even though I was allowed to approach the Wall as a non-Jewish person, I decided not to intrude upon the observances of the faithful.

What surprised me more than anything was the excitement and joy at the beginning of the Sabbath. It was a great celebration for most of the people there. Of course there were the penitent praying at the wall, ignoring the revelers and instead showing their devotion to God. But so many more people, friends, families and strangers, were just out having a great time. At one point a group of Israeli soldiers all linked arms and started dancing in a circle, singing and laughing.

I eventually left the Western Wall, somehow bumbling my way through the labyrinthine souks and towards my hotel. More important than just seeing the Kotel, living the joy and celebration of the holy area was the best introduction to the city for which I could have hoped.

9th Station of the Cross, Holy Sepulchre in Background

On Sunday I was awakened, like every day in Jerusalem, far earlier than I would have liked by the call to prayer emanating from the Mosque next door to the hotel. It wasn’t as annoying that particular day though, I wanted to be one of the first into the Old City.

People in Jerusalem aren’t early risers, that much can be said with certainty. I entered the city walls through the Lion’s Gate and was all alone in the souks, a slightly unnerving, but overall satisfying feeling. It was as if I had the whole city to myself. I’m not a terribly religious person, but I am spiritual and I do love history, both reasons made my walk along the Via Dolorosa an exciting adventure.

The Via Dolorosa, or Way of Suffering, is the supposed course Jesus followed as he carried his cross on the way to his crucifixion. The walk has been a site of pilgrimage for centuries, and I was eager to explore it. For as famous as it is though, it’s fairly confusing. After some missteps and wrong turns, I finished the route and arrived at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the ancient church built atop the site where Jesus died and was buried.

Church of the Holy Sepulchre

It was Sunday and the Church was a hive of activity. Adherents to several different branches of Christianity were all there, celebrating the Holy Day in their own, unique ways. It was exciting to see the variety and splendor of some of the observances. After wandering about the Church, I crossed the way to the Church of the Holy Redeemer to partake in one of the few English church services in the city.

The service was fine, honestly I could have been in Minneapolis or St. Paul, but for some reason it was important to me to be there. I wanted to participate in some of the spirituality I had seen so frequently throughout the city. I’m not sure I really achieved that, but it was an enjoyable morning.

Dome of the Rock

Later that day I sought to complete the Triple Crown of religious sightseeing, the Temple Mount. Jerusalem remains a divided city and this is very evident on the Temple Mount. This area was once the site of the Great Temples and today is home to some of the most important locations in Islam. The Dome of the Rock and Al Aqsa mosque are both still actively used, and the entire Temple Mount area is governed by an Islamic council. Entry to the sacred mount is limited in comparison to other attractions in the city, which means long lines and lots of people.

While it was nice to be on the actual Temple Mount, I was a little disappointed that non-Muslims weren’t allowed in the mosques. Al-Aqsa I can understand, but the Dome of the Rock is important to all three religions and I had hoped to gain admittance. Still, it was a beautiful day and the large Mount area provides some amazing views. There were small prayer groups meeting and discussing the Qu’ran, thankfully oblivious to the loud and somewhat annoying tourists milling about. I left the Temple Mount feeling unfilled, but reminded of the fact that it is more than a tourist site, it is indeed a place of pilgrimage and worship.

The trifecta of Godliness was complete, I had seen some of the most important sites in world religion; structures and sites that are worshiped by millions in every nook and cranny on the planet. More than just showing up and snapping some photos, I participated in these sites, I experienced, at least a little bit, what these places mean to the faithful. That’s the true gift of traveling in Jerusalem, not just seeing things, but living them along with millions of others, feeling inextricably interconnected with thousands of strangers.

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By: Matt Long

Matt has a true passion for travel. As someone who has a bad case of the travel bug, Matt travels the world in order to share tips on where to go, what to see and how to experience the best the world has to offer. Also follow Matt on Twitter, Facebook and

6 Responses

  1. Nahum

    You have managed to capture some of the beauty and complexity of Jerusalem. As someone who lives nearby and has long been captivated by this amazing place, I want to thank you for jumping in and trying to experience the city’s unique spirituality.
    Just wanted to mention – for Jews, the Temple Mount is not only a relic of ancient history, but a very real hope of the establishment there of “a house of prayer for all nations” as envisioned by Isaiah. That is in stark contrast with the Muslim prohibition of all non-Muslims from even uttering a quiet prayer on the Mount.
    I hope that you took advantage of some of the other historic spots in the vicinity. Within easy walking distance from the Kotel (Western Wall), you can find the Davidson Center (a museum dedicated to the history of Jerusalem), the Western Wall Tunnels (a fascinating journey underground to Temple times), the City of David (a world class archeological site that includes ancient waterworks and excavations from the Biblical period) and the newly rededicated Hurvah synagogue (destroyed in 1948, it was recently restored and is used for prayer, study and visits by tourists from all religions).
    Jerusalem is a wonderful mosaic, and a spiritual center for much of mankind.

    Reply
    • Matt Long

      Thank you for your kind comments as well as for explaining some of the importance the Temple Mount has for Jews. I did indeed explore many areas of Jerusalem, in all quarters including some of the ones you mentioned.

      Reply
  2. Adam

    It’s a pity that women aren’t allowed to enter the synagogue just off the Kotel. I hope you were able to make it back to the Western Wall on a day other than the Sabbath to at least walk up to it and feel its incredible presence. Leaving a prayer there was one of the strangest, most interesting things I’ve done on my trip. And the synagogue just off to the side (though women aren’t permitted on that section of the wall) is interesting to see first-hand.

    Also, I’m perfectly okay with not being able to enter the Dome of the Rock, out of respect for the Muslim faith. It’s a compromise made out of years of negotiations, for the betterment of all religions. Just like you were concerned about photographing the Western Wall during Sabbath, or even just walking up to the wall during Sabbath, it’s important to respect the wishes of those in charge of a religious site.

    Reply
    • Matt Long

      Absolutely agree. I tried to get that across in the piece, I absolutely respect the fact that it’s a site of religious importance first and foremost. BUT, part of me was still disappointed.

      Reply
  3. Laser

    It is incorrect to claim that “women aren’t permitted on that section of the wall.” They are indeed present there, and pray there. Just that as in all religious Jewish prayer, the women pray in a separate section. In this case, the women’s section is above and slightly behind the men’s section.

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    Reply

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