Time-Travelling Through the Invisible Cities of Jerusalem

A kaleidoscopic view of one of the world's oldest continuously settled cities.
Procession Jerusalem Israel
Pilgrims carry crosses through the Via Dolorosa during Good Friday celebrations, walking the alleged path of Jesus Christ. Photo: Lior Mizrahi/Stringer/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Jerusalem is like an archaeological layer cake. The modern 21st-century city is built atop many cities that existed here in different centuries. I see these cities in the catacomb-like labyrinth that extends under Jerusalem. I see them in the sacred Western Wall where thousands come to pray. I see them in the narrow lanes, where stopping suddenly creates a gridlock. Two hooded Roman Catholic monks jostle past me; they could easily be extras from a medieval crime thriller. A little girl stares raptly at a stall with an array of wide-eyed dolls on display. An old lady flashes a toothy grin from behind a mountain of dates, her full set of pearly whites belying her years. I try to absorb the sights and sounds around me even as I am coaxed and cajoled into entering every shop I pass.

I’m used to the frenzied pace of Mumbai and yet, as I stroll around old Jerusalem, I feel overwhelmed. Its alleys are seemingly unchanged since ancient times when prophets walked here spreading divine messages and kings built imposing citadels. Even today, these streets throb with a peculiar energy.

My reverie is interrupted by a shopkeeper singing “Ichak dana bichak dana.” I pinch myself to make sure this is real. The heart of Jerusalem—one of the most coveted and disputed bits of land in the world—is the last place that I expect to be serenaded by a Bollywood classic. I realise it’s just another attempt to lure me into a store.

This is the city about which writer and historian Simon Montefiore wrote: “Jerusalem is the house of the one God, the capital of two peoples, the temple of three religions and she is the only city to exist twice—in heaven and on earth.” Jerusalem finds mention in the Bible (Old Testament), the New Testament, and the Koran. It is one of the oldest continuously settled cities in the world as well as a theatre of great violence through time. Walking around, I realise that Jerusalem might be a single dot on the map, but in reality it is an assemblage of cities past and present, above and below, real and invisible.

souk jerusalem israel

Colourful, chaotic souks sell a profusion of spice mixes, fine carpets, dry fruits, street foods, daily needs, as well as tourist memorabilia in the Muslim quarter of the Old City. Photo: Yadid Levy/Age Fotostock/Dinodia

City of Kaleidoscopes

According to the Old Testament, the history of Jerusalem began in this tiny corner of the world, otherwise known as the Old City. Oddly enough, all my visual cues for the city so far are from the 2013 action horror film World War Z, where it is depicted as the last safehold against an apocalyptic zombie outbreak. The city I encounter ends up being equally thrilling, it feels like being inside a kaleidoscope. My senses explode with the constantly changing whirl of colours, smells, and sounds in the tiny cobblestone pathways. No matter which monument I keep as my central axis, the lanes spread around it in the same haphazard way, like the hundred arms of a giant octopus.

I enter through the 16th-century Dung Gate, closest to the Western Wall, and in a few hundred metres I am right inside a warren of markets, private homes, and profusion of historical monuments; 220 to be precise. The one square-kilometre of the walled city forms the centre of what we know as the Old City. It is divided into four parts, the Muslim, Christian, Jewish, and Armenian Quarters, each with its own peculiarities. It is small enough to walk through aimlessly and map-free, discovering art galleries, archaeological sites, biblical references, and museums at unexpected turns.

In the lanes that make up the Via Dolorosa, the biblical path supposedly taken by Christ on the way to his crucifixion at Golgotha, there are as many camera-toting tourists, and cats rummaging in corners, as there are priests of all denominations. Stations along the path mark significant spots like the place where Jesus fell for the first time, and where a pious woman wiped his face. Today, this is a pilgrimage route as well as a place to see all kinds of self-proclaimed prophets and eccentrics.

Jerusalem is the holy land for Christians, Muslims, and Jews and has sites sacred to all three faiths. Photos: Godong/Robert Harding/Dinodia (cross); Ahmad Gharabli/Staff/AFP/Getty Images (woman); Robert Gallagher/Aurora Photos/Dinodia (man)

Jerusalem is the holy land for Christians, Muslims, and Jews and has sites sacred to all three faiths. Photos: Godong/Robert Harding/Dinodia (cross); Ahmad Gharabli/Staff/AFP/Getty Images (woman); Robert Gallagher/Aurora Photos/Dinodia (man)

Shops sell everything from dates to spice mixes with names that sound like music to my ears—zaatar, ras el hanout, mahlab. At kiosks, I get fresh falafel with the creamiest hummus, and pickled veggies in radioactive pinks and reds. Pita sandwiches are dexterously built with generous scrapings of chicken and lamb from the spit. Shop after shop sells a fascinating assortment of religious bric-a-brac featuring everything from miniature Jewish menorahs to colourful Islamic prayer rugs. The moment I dawdle, I’m deluged by sales pitches. One flirtatious shopkeeper leans out, praises my eyes, and then tries to sell me a giant shofar, a Jewish ceremonial instrument made out of a ram’s horn. I make a quick exit into yet another lane.

City of the Bible

Jerusalem Israel

A Palestinian Arab offers pilgrims and tourists rides on his donkey atop the Mount of Olives, believed to be where Jesus entered Jerusalem. Photo: Oren Rosenfeld/Getty Images

Negotiating the narrow alleys of the Old City through crowds of pilgrims and tourists, I nearly collide with two jolly looking old men, carrying a tottering stack of books. I pick up a book that falls out and return it to its owners. They smile and one asks, “India?” On learning that I speak English, he starts talking about his travels to the subcontinent and hands me a copy of a book, saying “Keep it. It will help you.” The brightly coloured book cover has no title. I flip it open and see that it is the New Testament. These are the first evangelists I have ever met: Grizzled octogenarians from Texas who’ve travelled halfway across the world with the singular purpose of spreading the word of their god.

As an erstwhile student of literature, I had always viewed the Old Testament as a magnificent epic and a literary reference point. However, in Jerusalem, the spiritual centre of the world, it seems like it truly belongs inside my knapsack with my map and brochures, a bonafide guidebook to this place.

This especially seems true when I visit the City of David, a place where every unearthed find corresponds with events and personages from the holy book, conflating myth and reality. Located outside the Old City’s southeastern gate, in the Palestinian neighbourhood of Wadi Hilweh, this is one of the most excavated places in the entire country. Coins, jewellery, and stone seals found here date back to approximately 1,000 B.C. reflecting the neighbourhood’s historic value. However, like many other sites in Jerusalem, discoveries by Israeli archaeologists at the city of David are often debated as they feed into the idea of Jewish nationhood and help establish historical claim to the land.

I see numerous ongoing digs at the site. In 2005, Israeli archaeologist Eilat Mazar discovered what was believed to be the palace of King David, resulting in a flurry of interest. Despite the many opinions about King David and his mythical or real palace, my tour through this ancient city is charged with excitement. Old rocks come to life as my guide reads from the Bible while taking me around, relating stories of erstwhile inhabitants like some modern-day prophet. I follow him up stairs cut into the side of the hill, down into ancient water tunnels, and out to observation points offering spectacular views over east Jerusalem’s historical spots. I see the imposing Jewish tombs cut into the very rock of the Kidron Valley. This necropolis, the most important burial site in Israel from the 1st millennium B.C., is right below the urban sprawl of Silwan. The living and the dead share the same hillside. Lithe cats skirt the parapets of flat-topped houses. Clothes hung out to dry flutter under the shadow of dish antennae. And below, ancient bones turn to dust in stark rock tombs. Across is the green speckled Mount of Olives believed to be closely associated with Jesus Christ and on its slope lies one of the most sacred Jewish cemeteries. As I take it all in, I can’t shake the feeling that I am walking right through pages of the Bible, one of the greatest stories ever told.

City of Stones

Dome of the rock shrine Jerusalem Israel

The Dome of the Rock shrine with its shining gilt roof and mosaics in jewel shades is the most notable structure of the Old City skyline. Photo: Marji Lang/Getty Images

I begin to sense the difficulty in separating the cities of the past from present-day Jerusalem. For every step I take in the now, there is another me, wafting about like an apparition in the invisible cities that lie buried. All that remains of them are their stones. Up on Temple Mount, enshrined in the Dome of the Rock or Qubbat al-Sakhra, lies a single rock known as the Foundation Stone or the Al-Sakhra. It marks one of the most significant religious sites for both Judaism and Islam. It is said to denote the exact spot where Abraham offered to sacrifice his son Isaac to God, as well as the place from where Mohammed rose to heaven on a divine steed.

In front of its magnificent gilded and blue mosaic exterior, a ginger cat sprawls out lazily. Another friendly tabby rubs against my guide Gaby’s legs and jumps into her lap. I take a picture of them, and in the background capture a couple of stern-faced policemen, a permanent feature on this hilltop. In spite of them, this mosque built in the 7th century A.D. remains a selfie lover’s dream backdrop.

A few streets down from the Temple Mount, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre encloses the most significant rocks in all Christendom. I see hundreds of pilgrims of all ages climb the steep stairs to see the Rock of Calvary below an ornate Greek Orthodox altar, believed to be the exact site of Jesus Christ’s crucifixion. Serpentine lines form around the shrine over the rock tomb where, it is believed, Christ was buried and rose to heaven. The third stone is the large Anointing Stone where Christ’s body was apparently prepared for burial. The air thrums with the collective prayers and religious fervour of hundreds of pilgrims. Like them, I too place my hands on the heavily perfumed stone slab and feel the cool surface, shiny with scented oils.

West Wall Jerusalem Israel

Visitors make their way to the Western Wall tunnels where ongoing excavations reveal the city’s layered history from ancient to medieval times. Photo: Menahem Kahana/Staff/AFP/Getty Images

The next day, viewing the city’s skyline from the top of Mount Scopus, a hill in northeastern Jerusalem, I encounter yet another type of stone—the monochromatic limestone that is the city’s basic building block. At first glance this is not a conventionally beautiful city, and yet there is something riveting about it. It’s a desert city, with uniform buildings clumped around spired churches, skinny cypresses, and clumps of pine trees. In the midst of it all, the imposing dome of the Qubbat al-Sakhra glitters in the morning sun. Further west lie newer neighbourhoods studded with ultra-modern towers. Everything is cast in the neutral palette of Jerusalem stone, cloaking the differences in age and time, of Jewish and Palestinian neighbourhoods, in an ageless garb.

City of Tunnels

An extensive subterranean network exists underneath Jerusalem’s Old City, running along the length of the Western Wall. Down in this underground city, I leave 2016 far behind. It is a remarkable site with well-preserved halls and cisterns as well as explanatory exhibits and audio-video installations. The tunnels offer valuable insight into the history of the city and form a piece of the larger jigsaw of Jerusalem’s ancient blueprint. No excavations are permitted in the Temple Mount area where the holy sites of the Western Wall, the Dome of the Rock, and Al Aqsa mosque are centred. This makes these tunnels even more important in terms of the historical perspective they provide.

Just as I start getting used to the slight dankness in the air, I get a strong whiff of perfume and fresh flowers. A small entourage jostles past me. It comprises a beautiful young girl in her bridal finery, her giggly bridesmaid carrying a wedding bouquet, and the bride’s mother, who shepherds them along. This seems like an unlikely place for the trio, but the mystery is solved when I see them make their way to the Western Wall, which is the spot considered closest to where the Jewish Holy of Holies once existed. I follow them down the path, one ear tuned to my guide’s narrative. The history of the tunnels is nearly as dark as the place. It carries the weight of three millennia of wars, destruction, and bloodshed, and the intertwined histories of Jews, Christians, and Muslims. The bride’s excited chatter echoes through the place and fills it with a momentary lightness.

West Wall Jerusalem Israel

Many Jewish brides come with their hopes and prayers to the Western Wall. Photo: Paula Bronstein/Staff/Getty Images News/Getty Images

City of Night

It is by serendipity that I find a friend from my college days in Jerusalem. A post-doctoral fellow in history at the Hebrew University, he has been living in the city for two years and has an interesting perspective on its goings on. He shows me Jerusalem by night. With a vague idea of the end destination, we set off on another Old City jaunt, splashing through puddles, past shops with half-closed shutters. This seems like a new city, different from the one I have seen so far by day. I am thrilled to discover my country’s longstanding connection with the city as my friend tells me about an 800-year-old Indian hospice, a one-time dwelling place for Sufi saint Baba Farid, and a place for Indian Muslims to stay on their way to a Mecca pilgrimage. Exiting Old Jerusalem through the arched Damascus Gate, I turn back for a final look. The mist curls around the yellow street lamps just inside the gate, bathing the place in an other-worldly glow. In my mind, this is what a time portal would look like. Walk through and poof…you are in another era.

We walk down rain-slicked Jaffa Street and into the modern city that has grown around Jerusalem’s ancient core. We pass dog walkers, kids practicing tricks on their bicycles, and folks under bobbing umbrellas. Our next destination is Downtown Jerusalem for its buzzing nightlife. Restaurants, cafés, movie theatres, and bars line the various squares of this 21st-century Jerusalem, trying to be a mirror to young and trendy Tel Aviv. It is post 9 p.m. but still far too early for this place to really get going. We wend our way from the main road to chic Aristobulus Street, known for its cool grungy bars and edgy graffiti. At 4:20, a local dive with oodles of character and easy camaraderie, I try arak, a sweetish aniseed liquor, and the Israeli lager, Maccabee. The night stretches into the wee hours lubricated with drink, easy banter with the friendly bartenders, and my companion’s propensity for obscure Hindi film songs. There are lone night crawlers tapping away at their smartphones and groups of friends discussing life and knocking back shots. In this very modern Jerusalem, the night belongs to the young and restless.

Jerusalem Israel

Downtown Jerusalem presents the modern face of the city where the young come to eat, drink, and party. Photo: Lorenzo de Simone/AGF RM/Dinodia

Jerusalem is much like a matryoshka doll. There are cities within cities and some of these are real while some exist only in stories. And sometimes, when the line between them blurs, everything from a miracle to an apocalypse seems possible.

There is a psychological phenomenon called the Jerusalem Syndrome. Before I visited I read of numerous instances of it but thought it absurd—a woman who thought she was giving birth to baby Jesus, a man who thought he was Samson and could rip the bricks out of the Western Wall, another who wanted his hotel to cook him a Last Supper. But now, having glimpsed these several cities for myself, I can begin to understand how the impossible can seem possible here. In this tally of cities, I too have added my own. And the Jerusalem that I have consigned to memory is this city of words, one that is perhaps as mythical as the real one.

Decoding Jerusalem

Old City Jerusalem Israel

Lanes of the Jewish Quarter in the Old City are flanked by walls clad in the characteristic Jerusalem stone. Photo: Lucas Vallecillos/Age Fotostock/Dinodia


Hotel World
With super views of the Old City, the King David Hotel is a Jerusalem icon. Just like the city, this hotel has seen it all—a terrorist bombing, a war, and near collapse. It has been in the 1960 film version of Exodus by Leon Uris. From heads of state like Bill Clinton to rock stars like Madonna, this hotel has seen a host of celebrity guests
(www.danhotels.com; doubles from $550/₹36,850).

Unscrolling the Past
Take a look at the well-preserved Dead Sea Scrolls, a collection of fragments of Hebrew scriptures and non-biblical writings dating back to around 250 B.C. These scrolls are displayed in the Shrine of the Book, a remarkable architectural structure at the Israel Museum shaped like the giant lid of an earthen jar in which the scrolls were originally found (www.imj.org.il).

Tower of Light
Aptly named The Night Spectacular, the Tower of David’s sound-and-light show is an unmissable extravaganza. The display uses the historical structures as a backdrop for 3D projections and graphic reconstructions. Epic sound effects and light wizardry add to the spectacle recreating the history of Jerusalem from antiquity to modern times

Lord of the Drinks
Tucked away in a lane, off the arterial Jaffa Street, lies the bustling family-run bar and restaurant, Barood. It has cheerful tables in the courtyard, a well-stocked bar, endless Guinness on tap, a daily-changing menu, and a relaxed vibe. Open late on Fridays and Saturdays, Barood hosts some of the best bands in the country (31 Jaffa St, Feingold Courtyard; +972-02-6259081).


Vendor Jerusalem Israel

All kinds of plain, sweet and spiced, leavened and unleavened breads are sold in and around the Old City. Photo: Eitan Simanora/Axiom/Alamy/Indiapicture

Food Facts
When in Jerusalem, especially in the western side of the city, a lot of stuff on your plate will conform to Jewish dietary laws. The Jewish kosher laws, which stipulate what can and cannot be eaten, are complex. Here are a few basics for visitors.
• Pork is non-kosher for Jews as well as a forbidden food among Muslims. Don’t expect any ham, bacon, or pork sausage while in Israel.

• It is non-kosher to mix dairy and meat and most breakfast spreads in Jewish hotels eschew cold cuts. Most restaurants don’t serve dairy-based desserts like ice creams. However there are plenty of delicious milk substitutes, sorbets, baklavas, and other flaky pastries to compensate.

• During Passover, a different set of food restrictions apply including the elimination of bread from the Jewish diet.

Bible Brainer
The Hebrew Bible is also known as the Tanakh, an acronym of the book’s three main sections—Torah, Nevi’im, and Khetuvim. The Tanakh overlaps with the Christian Old Testament with a few differences in categorization and arrangements of the different books. The Christian Bible also includes the New Testament which chronicles the life and teachings of Jesus Christ and the spread of early Christianity.

Gates Galore
There are eight historical gates leading into Jerusalem’s Old City. The main entrance is through the Jaffa Gate built in the 16th century by Suleiman, the Ottoman sultan. Herod’s Gate leads into the Muslim quarter. The grandest of these, the Damascus Gate on the northwestern wall, leads into a bustling marketplace. The ancient Dung Gate was once used as the exit through which the city’s garbage and waste matter was carted out and is also the closest to the Western Wall. Lion’s Gate opens into the Via Dolorosa and has big cats on its crest. Golden Gate, also called the Gate of Mercy, is built into the wall of the Temple Mount. Sealed for centuries, this gate is supposed to open miraculously when the Messiah arrives. The 16th-century Zion Gate leads to the Jewish and Armenian quarters. New Gate is the eighth gate of the city which was built in the 19th century to allow Christian pilgrims easy access to their holy sites.

When walking around the city, several kinds of headgear can be seen. From the tiny knitted kippahs worn by modern orthodox Jews to black kippahs and fedora hats of the conservative Haredi Jews and the large furry caps known as the shtreimel worn by married Jews of the ultra-conservative Hasidic group. Apart from ethnic and racial diversity, Jews are divided according to their approaches to Judaism and the headgear they sport. While not strictly headgear, the Jewish propensity for payot or long and fascinating side curls is another characteristic feature that varies from group to group.


The Guide

Western Wall Jerusalem Israel

The Western Wall is one of the holiest places for Jews. Visitors write their prayers on little notes and place them between the cracks in the wall. Photo: Jon Hicks/Getty Images


Jerusalem is to the west of the Palestinian territory of West Bank. Its political status is contentious with both Israelis and Palestinians staking claim on the city as their capital. Eastern Jerusalem is regarded as Palestinian territory by the international community while Western Jerusalem is the Jewish part. However, these boundaries are nebulous and change as per the latest negotiations between the two nations as well as Israeli occupation of certain zones. At the centre of Jerusalem lies the Old City, considered its spiritual heart. It is surrounded by a four-km-long wall with seven gates, 34 towers, and a citadel. It is divided into four quarters—Christian, Armenian, Jewish and Muslim—each with religious sites, shops, and private homes.

Getting There and Around

There are direct flights from Mumbai to Ben Gurion International Airport which is the closest airport to Jerusalem. To get from the airport to the city there is the Egged bus service (ILS21.50/₹372), licenced private taxis (about ILS280/₹4,850) as well as shared vans called sherut (ILS65/₹1,125). Night trips via taxis cost 25 per cent extra (9 p.m. to 5.30 a.m. daily; from 4 p.m. onwards on Fri and holiday eves). Within Jerusalem visitors can travel by bus, light rail, or metered taxis. The Old City is a car-free zone during the day, easily traversed on foot.


Indian travellers can download a form from www.israelvisa-india.com and submit it at an Israel Visa Application Centre in New Delhi, Mumbai, or Bengaluru. A passport valid for six months is required, along with listed documents. Processing time is 5-7 working days and costs ₹1,500 plus a service charge of ₹900.

Need To Know

• Israeli security protocol can be daunting and visitors are subject to questioning and numerous checks.

Passports are not stamped upon entry into Israel.  A stay permit and an exit permit are issued to all travellers at any point of entry.

• Carry USD, the preferred currency to exchange for ILS (Israeli New Shekel) at a money changer.

• Shabbat is the Jewish day of rest which begins at sundown on Friday and ends at sunset on Saturday. As Jerusalem is a religious centre, Shabbat is observed fairly strictly in the Jewish parts of the city. Most Jewish businesses, shops, and restaurants are closed and buses and light trains do not operate. Only taxis ply. The city becomes quite traffic-free and conducive to exploration on foot.


Jerusalem has two main seasons—summer and winter with a few weeks of spring in April. Summers (June-Sep) are hot and dry with temperatures going up to 40°C. Winters (Dec-Mar) can get chilly with temperatures hovering around 0°C at night.

Appeared in the August 2016 issue as “Invisible Cities”.

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    Diya Kohli is Senior Associate Editor at National Geograpic Traveller India. She loves the many stories of big old cities. For her, the best kind of travel experience involves long rambling walks through labyrinthine lanes with plenty of food stops along the way.

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