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What Is Jerusalem Known for & Famous For
The city of Jerusalem has been considered a coveted jewel for thousands of years. Its unique position at the heart of three of the world’s major religions has profoundly shaped its history, geography, and culture.
Jerusalem is known for being the cradle of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. Key people and events in these religions’ histories have left their imprint on this ancient city, from the remarkable architecture to the conflicts that still rock it today.
Pilgrimages to Jerusalem are constantly carried out by the adherents of the three faiths and by nonbelievers drawn by the city’s rich history. In this article, I’ll zero in on some of the most significant sites, people, and religions the Holy City is famous for.
The city of Jerusalem is central to the Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. All three are among the most major religious groups in the world, with the latter two having the most adherents.
Judaism and Jewish history are intimately linked. The Old Testament is considered both a religious and historical record.
Islam, too, has origins in Jerusalem. The Muslims claim to be descendants of Abraham and consider several sites within the city sacred to their faith.
Furthermore, the Christians accept both the Old Testament and New Testament as religious and historical records on which their religion is founded.
Believers of all three faiths make pilgrimages to the city of Jerusalem to pray or worship at the sites sacred to them.
3 Major Religions
There are three main religions practiced in Jerusalem:
The majority of the population (a little over 74%) identifies as Jewish, close to 28% identify as Muslim, while a little under 2% identify as Christian.
Judaism, Islam and Christianity
Here’s what you need to know about the three main religions practiced in the city:
In Judaism, Jesus’ rejection as the messiah or a divine being is absolute. Rabbis and other Jewish religious leaders maintain that Jesus did not fulfill the requirements and descriptions of the prophesied messiah.
Consequently, the Jews are still looking forward to the coming of the messiah even in these modern times.
Jesus is revered in the Islamic faith, although not for being the son of God. They don’t believe him to be so. However, they do consider him to be an important prophet.
The Jesus described in the Quran is distinctly different from the one described in the Bible, but in the Islamic account, he is also born of a virgin and has the power to perform miracles.
The New Testament of the Bible points toward Jesus Christ as the promised Messiah the Jewish people looked forward to in the Old Testament.
He was a being at once human and divine, the very son of God himself who had come in human form to die for the sins of the world.
The prophet Muhammad ibn Abdullah is referred to as the “seal of Prophets” or the last prophet. He was the spark that brought Islam to life and the flame that keeps it alive to this day.
According to Islamic tradition, Muhammad lived in Mecca, where God came and bestowed a divine revelation upon him. This revelation would later be written down and become what is now known as the Quran.
The prophet Muhammad zealously preached this faith and what began with one man became a religious empire that swept through the Middle East and later took the rest of the world by storm.
The second king of Israel, King David, is a key figure in Judaism and Christianity with his tribulations and triumphs well documented in the Old Testament.
David was once a shepherd boy who was anointed by the prophet Samuel to be king of Israel. He fought many historical battles and made Jerusalem his capital. In Christianity, he is believed to be the ancestor of Jesus Christ.
However, King David is perhaps best known for his encounter with the Philistine giant Goliath whom he killed with a slingshot.
The Old City of Jerusalem is a UNESCO World Heritage Site encompassing a 0.35 sq mile (0.9 sq km) territory that is divided into four unequal quarters.
The Christian Quarter is in the northwest, the Muslim Quarter in the northeast, the Jewish Quarter in the southeast, and the Armenian Quarter in the southwest.
A number of sites with historical and religious significance to the three Abrahamic faiths are found in the Old City. They include:
- The Temple Mount and Western Wall – Judaism
- The Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa Mosque – Islam
- The Church of the Holy Sepulcher – Christianity
Temple Mount (Haram Al Sharif)
The Temple Mount is also known as Har haBayīt or “Mount of the House [of God]” in Hebrew.
It’s a historically and religiously significant compound that crowns the top of a hill. It’s a sacred site to all three Abrahamic faiths that acknowledge it as the hill on which Abraham was instructed to sacrifice his son, Isaac.
The Temple Mount is especially important in Judaism for being the site of the first and second Temple, and in Islam for being the site where the Prophet Muhammad ascended to Heaven. It is the holiest place in Judaism and the third holiest in Islam.
Dome of the Rock
The Dome of the Rock was constructed on the Temple Mount by the Ummayad Caliph Abd al-Malik and is the oldest Islamic building that still stands today.
This magnificent shrine was built over a rock which was the very spot from which the Prophet Muhammad was believed to have ascended to Heaven.
This shrine’s breathtaking architecture and ornamentation follow the Byzantine tradition and are a sight to behold.
But perhaps the 20th-century addition of gold plating on the dome makes this monument the most recognizable landmark in Jerusalem.
A Divided City Israel & Palestine
Jerusalem is often viewed as a “city divided against itself”. I’ll cover the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine more in-depth in one of the following sections, but what you need to know for now is that the city has suffered through decades of conflict and war, leading to a distinctive separation between its two ethnic enclaves.
Wailing Wall (Western Wall)
The Wailing Wall is a section of Herod’s retaining walls that stands in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City. It is a sacred site to Jews as it was part of the second Temple.
Being outside the Temple Mount controlled by Muslims, this wall became the site of much weeping and prayer, hence the name.
The Wailing Wall is considered the holiest site of prayer for Jews, and millions of them make the pilgrimage here each year.
The southeast part of the Old City makes up the Jewish Quarter which boasts several interesting sites to explore.
The “Burned House” and the Herodian Quarter or Wohl Archaeological Museum were both burned down in 70 CE when the Romans besieged and breached Jerusalem.
The “Rabbinic Tunnel” runs along the Temple Mount’s western side and connects the Wailing Wall site to its northwestern corner where the Antonia Fortress is found.
The Herodian walls still stand on the eastern and southern sides of the Jewish Quarter, as do the steps and doorways that lead towards the temple.
This part of the Old City will be of interest to Jewish pilgrims and the average tourist alike.
Armenia adopted Christianity as its state religion in the early 4th century. What followed was the arrival and settlement in Jerusalem of a large number of Armenian monks.
The Armenian population grew to the point that when the Old City was divided, they were designated a quarter of their own.
The Armenians built several churches and citadels. But the most significant structure in this part of the Old City is the Tower of David citadel.
Follow the Route of the Via Dolorosa
The Via Dolorosa (translated from Latin as “Way of Suffering” or “Sorrowful Way”) is a sacred route through the Old City that stretches 656 yards (600 meters) from the Umariya Elementary School in the Muslim Quarter to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
The Umariya Elementary School is built over the ruins of the Antonia Fortress, where Jesus is believed to have been tried by Pontius Pilate and sentenced to crucifixion.
Between this site and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher are 14 Stations of the Cross.
According to Christian tradition, each of these marks a significant moment of Jesus’ journey to Golgotha.
Pilgrims from all over the world make their way down this route all year round, but especially during the Easter holidays.
Tower of David
The Tower of David sits near the Jaffa Gate and once was used as a fortress. This citadel is now a museum that uniquely showcases Israel’s 4,000-year history using:
Away from the exhibit rooms, tourists may climb the ramparts and take in the panoramic views of the Old City and the New Jerusalem.
Old City Walls
A centuries-old wall runs the length of 2.5 miles (4 km) around the 215 acres (0.9 sq km) of the Old City.
The Ottomans erected this beautiful golden limestone structure in the 16th century after conquering Jerusalem, and it now encloses an area of great importance to three different religions.
East Jerusalem is a hotly contested sector of the city. This area includes the Old City and the Temple Mount and has been the cause of dispute between Israelis and Arabs.
The Arab – Israeli war of 1948 resulted in the division of the city between Israel and Jordan. But after the Six-Day War of 1967, Israel completed its de facto annexation of East Jerusalem.
Being the location of so many sacred sites, it’s no surprise that conflict surrounds East Jerusalem. Today, the quarrel continues between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
The Jaffa Gate is one of the gates of the Old City that were constructed on the orders of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent when Jerusalem came under Ottoman rule.
The 20-foot (6 meters) high entryway of this gate is an L shape designed to slow down attackers entering the city.
This beautifully constructed gate is the main entry point that tourists take into the Old City. Once they go through it, the Tower of David waits to greet them.
Church of the Holy Sepulcher
The Church of the Holy Sepulcher is located in the Christian Quarter of the Old City, directly over the site of Jesus’ crucifixion and burial.
Constantine the Great ordered the construction of the first church on this site. Several cycles of destruction and restoration followed as Jerusalem changed hands between different empires.
In the 12th century, the Crusaders in the Holy Land rebuilt the church. Repairs and remodeling have been carried out over the centuries that followed.
Within the church is the Stone of Anointing, a stone slab where Jesus’ body was laid after being taken down from the cross and prepared for entombment.
Several chapels can also be found within the church, each with a special significance. But of most sacred importance to pilgrims visiting the site are the Rock of Golgotha and the Edicule.
The Rock of Golgotha is the very rock on which the cross of Jesus stood, while the Edicule is a shrine that encloses the ancient remains of the tomb where he was laid to rest for 3 days before his resurrection.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict that continues to rock the West Bank to this day began in the aftermath of World War I when the British assumed control of the area from the Ottoman Empire.
Britain was entrusted with establishing a “national home” for the Jews. At the time, only a minority of Jews lived in Palestine, with the overwhelming majority of the population being Arabs claiming the land as their own.
Large numbers of Jews arrived in Palestine between the 1920s and 1940s, most fleeing persecution in Europe.
As the population grew, the tensions escalated, with Arabs getting displaced by the Jewish settlers.
Today, the main issues that cannot be resolved involve the Palestinian refugees and Israeli settlements in the West Bank.
But of the greatest consequence are the sharing of Jerusalem and the establishment of a Palestinian state.
The Christian Quarter occupies the northwestern part of the Old City. It’s the location of several places considered by Christians to be holy. The most sacred of these is The Church of the Holy Sepulcher, which houses the sites of Jesus’ crucifixion and tomb.
Thousands of believers are drawn to the Christian Quarter from around the world to make pilgrimages to these holy sites. At the same time, non-believing tourists also trundle in to witness the remarkable architecture and art.
The Muslim Quarter is the largest of the four sectors of the Old City. It is spread over 77 acres (31 hectares) in the northeastern part of the city and directly borders the northern wall of the Temple Mount, as well as a length of its western wall.
The first seven Stations of the Cross along the Via Dolorosa are Christian sites located within the Muslim Quarter, while the Western Wall Tunnels that run underneath the quarter along the Western Wall and the Little Western Wall are Jewish landmarks.
Mount of Olives
The Mount of Olives is a site that is considered holy in Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. It is a limestone ridge with 3 peaks. The southern summit rising 2,652 feet (808 meters) above sea level is generally regarded as the “Mount of Olives” referred to in the Old and New testaments.
To the Jews, the Mount of Olives is the site where their long-awaited “messianic era” will begin, while to the Christians, the Garden of Gethsemane located on this mount was a place Jesus often retreated to.
Moreover, both Christians and Muslims believe that the Mount of Olives is the place from which Jesus ascended into Heaven.
The Western Hill that rises to an elevation of 2,510 ft (765 m) outside the Old City is what was known as Mount Zion.
While it now goes by a different name, it has not lost its significance with the Jewish people and Christians, who see it as an important location mentioned several times in the Old and New Testaments. It has been referred to as the City of David and the heavenly Jerusalem.
One of the most important sites on the hill is the Cenacle or Room of the Last Supper, where Christian tradition says Jesus and his disciples had their final meal before the betrayal and subsequent arrest, trial, and crucifixion.
Another important landmark is King David’s Tomb, although modern archaeologists and historians don’t believe it to be the actual site where King David was buried.
The Russian Compound was built outside the walls of the Old City. It was intended to be a place where Russian pilgrims to the Holy Land could be accommodated. By 1872, the grounds were home to:
- Men’s and women’s hostels
- A Russian consulate
- A mission
- A hospital
- The Holy Trinity Cathedral
The Russians lost control of the compound in World War I. However, years later, the State of Israel returned ownership of it to them.
Later still, however, Israel purchased the compound except for the cathedral and one more building.
The rest of the complexes in the compound are used for different offices and headquarters of the city’s government. However, many tourists still make the Russian Compound a must-visit site on their tour of the city.
The Kidron Valley is a 20-mile (32 km) valley stretching from the northeastern part of the Old City all the way to the Dead Sea. It forms a natural division between the Mount of Olives and the Temple Mount.
It’s significant to Jews and Christians for being the place where King Jehoshaphat defeated Israel’s enemies and served as King David’s escape route when his son, Absalom, rebelled against him.
Monastery of the Cross
The Monastery of the Cross was established by the Eastern Orthodox Church in the Valley of the Cross in Jerusalem.
It was built in the Early Muslim period and survived through the Crusader period, Mamluk period, and Ottoman period, albeit taking some damage that required restoration work.
A church within the monastery houses a hole in the ground from which a tree grew. According to Christian tradition, that tree was later used to fashion the cross of Jesus.
Lots of Churches, Synagogues, and Mosques
Being the center of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, the city of Jerusalem is one of the richest locations when it comes to these religions’ places of worship.
It’s no surprise that over 1,000 synagogues, approximately 73 mosques, and 95 churches have been established within the Holy City.
These buildings range from simple structures to majestic works of architecture and are some of the sites most visited by pilgrims and tourists alike.
The Crusades were a series of long and bloody wars fought between Christians and Muslims, with both sides looking to claim the Holy Land.
In 1905, Emperor Alexius I requested Pope Urban II for troops to help push back the invading Seljuk Turks.
Pope Urban responded by rallying all Christendom to reclaim the Holy Land from the Muslims. He was met with an emphatic response, and Christians made the arduous journey from the corners of Europe to Jerusalem.
Over time, religious military orders were established to protect pilgrims and would-be knights and warriors traveling to the Holy Land. The most well-known of these are:
- The Knights Templar
- The Teutonic Knights
- The Hospitallers
There were several Crusades fought in different periods over nearly two centuries. They include:
- First Crusade (1096-99)
- Second Crusade (1147-49)
- Third Crusade (1187-92)
- Fourth Crusade: The Fall of Constantinople
- Final Crusades (1208-1271)
One of the last standing Crusader cities, Acre, was finally captured by the Muslim Mamluks in 1291, marking the end of the crusades.
The rich cultural, spiritual, and religious background that Jerusalem boasts makes for a one-of-a-kind historical mosaic that you’ll be hard-pressed to find elsewhere. The city (and Israel as a whole) has survived through centuries of conflicts, all of which have contributed to the exceptional historical background that many tourists travel thousands of miles to see every year.
Jerusalem has been a critical city throughout history, falling into the hands of different empires and religious powers at many periods in time.
The coming together of these different traditions and religions makes Jerusalem one of the richest cities in terms of cultures, arts, architecture, and faith.
The city is undoubtedly one of the most important pilgrim and tourist destinations in the world.
- History: Jerusalem
- JSTOR: Jerusalem—A Divided City
- World History Encyclopedia: Jerusalem
- Encyclopedia.com: Jerusalem: Divided City
- Vox: Muslims love Jesus, too: 6 things you didn’t know about Jesus in Islam
- Tourist Israel: VIA DOLOROSA
- Israel Travel: Tower of David Museum
- The Times of Israel: Old City walls offer glimpse of Jerusalem’s richness
- Lonely Planet: Jaffa Gate
- Al-Monitor: Jerusalem’s Christian population dwindles further
- Embassies: Behind the Headlines: Facts and Figures – Islam in Israel
- The Jerusalem Post: So many synagogues in Jerusalem
- Britannica: Arab-Israeli wars
- BBC: Israel-Gaza violence: The conflict explained
- History: Crusades: Definition, Religious Wars & Facts
- Culture Atlas: Israeli Culture / Religion