Ever notice how exhausted you can get after even a short visit to the Old City? Yet the entire area within the walls is only one square kilometer in size.
Perhaps what wears out visitors is the congestion: the Old City’s historic sites, markets, shops, and residential homes are packed as closely together as sardines in a tin can.
The next time you head for the Old City, why not try for something more relaxing? There are some horde-less spots with fascinating histories that offer spectacular views while you breathe good, clean air.
One favorite is the roof of the Petra Hostel, found inside Jaffa Gate and built in the 19th century. From 1903-1930, it was run by the Jamdursky family as the second Jewish-owned hotel in Jerusalem.
It was also the city’s only kosher hotel, and close to the Western Wall, so many a Jewish traveler preferred it to the fancier Kaminitz on Jaffa Road. In fact, I read somewhere that British High Commissioner Herbert Samuel lodged at the Jamdursky on Sabbaths and holidays when he worshiped at the Hurva Synagogue.
You will be asked to pay five shekels in order to climb to the top, but it is worth the price for a unique view of the Tower of David and Omar iben Al-Khatab Square. The rooftop also offers a peerless view of domes and towers on the Mount of Olives and in the Old City, and the sight of a newly cleaned but empty water reservoir. Called Called both Hezekiah’s Pool and the Pool of the Pillars, it may have been the reservoir at which King Hezekiah met the king of Assyria in the 8th century. Later it became part of the city’s ancient water system and was in use until the 19th century.
The gardens of the Lutheran Hostel on St. Mark’s Street lead to a view in which the golden Dome of the Rock seems close enough to touch. A tall, cream colored bell-tower and black dome on your left belong to the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, constructed in 1898 with the visit of Emperor Wilhelm II. In the distance, you can see the Hebrew University on Mount Scopus, Brigham Young Mormon University sprawling on the slopes of the Mount of Olives, Augusta Victoria Church, and the tall tower of the Russian Ascension Church.
After reveling in the lush tranquility of the gardens, continue left on St. Mark’s Street to reach a metal staircase. Take it up to the Rooftop Promenade, which tops the Arab markets and offers a view of three Old City Quarters: the Moslem Quarter below and in front of you, to your right the modern buildings of the Jewish Quarter and, in the Christian Quarter, two domes atop the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the Church of the Redeemer, and the reddish Church of Alexander Nevsky in the Christian Quarter.
Angular tin roofs cover skylights that were opened by the Crusaders when the market was renovated in the 12th century. Bend down for a look inside, where shoppers and shopkeepers mingle.
A building with a red tiled roof is the Galicia Kollel, an institute for studying the Jewish Sources. Jews in Galicia purchased a large plot of land here in 1830, and for about a century scholars and their families lived here and worshiped in their Zion HaMetzuyenet Synagogue. After Arab riots in 1936 destroyed their house of worship and it became too dangerous to remain, the kollel was abandoned. It was rebuilt in 1982, and the students and their families have returned.
For a unique viewpoint, make your way carefully past the end of the promenade and look left. You will be standing above Painters’ Market Street, enjoying the multi-colored hustle and bustle from a safe distance.
Now for the Austrian Hospice, located on El Wadi Street (Rehov HaGai in Hebrew) and built in 1863 by the Austrian Catholic Church as the first national pilgrims’ house to appear in the Holy Land. At the time it was fairly small, with only a ground floor lobby and first floor rooms. But that’s really all that was needed: in the beginning only 20 pilgrims a year actually stayed there overnight.
Business picked up in 1869, when Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph traveled to the Holy Land after attended the opening of Egypt’s Suez Canal. And by the beginning of the 20th century there was so much demand that an entire second story was added to the building.
After World War I, the British commandeered the guest house and used it as a training camp for policemen. Later, following the division of Jerusalem in 1948, the Jordanians seized the building and turned it into a hospital for the Arabs of the Old City.
In 1987, after carrying out major repairs, the Austrian Hospice reopened and flourished — especially as its Viennese Coffee Shop is the only place in Israel that offers a variety of imported Austrian coffees. It is often packed with visitors stuffing themselves on apfelstrudel, sachertorte and linzertorte prepared by Austrian volunteers and sometimes served with whipped cream. Best of all, the Hostel’s rooftop provides visitors with a stupendous view of the Old City.
One spot with minimal congestion offers a truly unusual view. Located on HaKotel Street, just off Misgav LeDach Street, it overlooks the Western Wall. The Western Wall is only a small section of the Temple’s retaining wall, and was not part of the Temple itself. But its proximity to the Holy Temple has bestowed upon it a hallowed status and Jews can be found there in worship 24 hours a day. On the Sabbath Eve and especially during Jewish and national festivals, this is a sight that you don’t want to miss.
Our last suggested venue is found on Mount Zion, which is adjacent to the Old City instead of within its walls. Definitely worth a detour, and never ever crowded, this is the roof atop the Cenacle, also known as the Last Supper Room. According to many Christian traditions, it was in the Cenacle — located one story above the traditional site of King David’s Tomb — that Jesus and his disciples celebrated Passover before the crucifixion.
But what makes this rooftop so special to Jews? Despite specific provisions in the Jordanian-Israeli armistice agreement, Jews were not permitted in the Old City after the War of Independence. Mount Zion was the closest place in Jerusalem from which they could view the sacred Temple Mount and Jews would often climb up to this rooftop to pray. One of them was Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, Israel’s second president, who kept a special room here for just that reason.
Enjoy a marvelous view of the city, and especially a close-up of Dormition Abbey. Then look for a plaque that was placed here long, long ago, with the names of men, women and children who fell defending the Old City in 1948 and were buried within its walls. After Jerusalem was reunited in 1967, their bodies were reinterred in a special plot on the Mount of Olives.
Aviva Bar-Am is the author of seven English-language guides to Israel.
Shmuel Bar-Am is a licensed tour guide who providesprivate, customized tours in Israel for individuals, families and small groups.