We all know that each city we visit has its “must-see” sites and attractions. First-time visitors to Jerusalem usually go to the Western Wall, the Old City market and the Tower of David, to name a few of the city’s most famous landmarks.
But a city that dates back thousands of years, with rich history unlike any other on earth, has much more than meets the eye. So much so that even its own residents are sometimes not aware of what lies nearby, above their heads or beneath their feet.
I have spent many years photographing Jerusalem, and I have seen its many sides. Almost every time I went back to the city, there was something new I hadn’t seen before.
I recently teamed up with local tour guide Jacob Bildner, an expert in tours of the city, and together we set out on a special mission to uncover the hidden world of Jerusalem. Jacob was instrumental in helping me discover some of the city’s most fascinating secrets, from sites that are not accessible to the public to places that are literally hidden from sight. The rapport he has built with the communities connected to each site was invaluable in securing private access to many of those that we visited.
Exploring these sites was a mind-blowing and unforgettable trip to the past, unveiling even more layers of the holy city.
I have gathered eight of these hidden gems to show you a side of Jerusalem that you might not have seen:
The Kishle was established in 1834 to serve as a military compound. During the British Mandate in the Land of Israel, it was used as a police station and prison where Jewish underground members were incarcerated. Some prisoners left their mark on the walls, including the emblem of the Irgun (The National Military Organization in the Land of Israel), which can be seen close to the entrance.
Archaeologists excavating the site have unearthed findings from almost every period in Jerusalem’s history, from the fortifications of King Hezekiah during the First Temple period to the remains of Herod’s Palace, which stretched all the way to Mount Zion.
The Kishle was opened to the public in November 2015 and is now a part of the Tower of David Museum. It is accessible only with organized tours.
The Siebenberg House is one of the most intriguing hidden treasures of Jerusalem.
It all began when Theo Siebenberg, a European Jew who managed to flee Europe during World War II and reach the United States. By 1970, he had moved to Jerusalem and purchased a home in the heart of the Jewish Quarter.
Surrounded by history everywhere, he was eager to uncover the ancient Jewish heritage in the holy city. He began to excavate underneath his own home.
His years of excavations revealed a timeline of some 3,000 years of Jewish history in Jerusalem, all hidden under one house. Some of the astonishing finds included burial vaults from the First Temple period, an aqueduct and mikvahs (ritual baths) from the Second Temple period, incredibly preserved artifacts and more.
On one of the ancient walls you can even see black coal that archaeologists have confirmed is a remnant of the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 CE.
Following the excavations, Theo decided to turn his house into a museum which opened in 1987. The first floor of the house is renovated and modern, but going downstairs you literally step back in time into a completely different world.
The Siebenberg House is currently closed to the general public.
The Italian Synagogue
The story of this beautiful synagogue began in a small town called Conegliano Veneto, in northeast Italy, in the 16th century. The Jewish community of Conegliano used to pray in this very synagogue up until World War I.
Its Holy Ark, with remarkable golden carved wooden decorations, still bears e dedication to Rabbi Nathan Ottolengo, who passed away in Conegliano in 1615. By the end of World War II there were practically no Jews left in Conegliano and the synagogue was left abandoned. Following the war, a group of Italian immigrants decided to have the complete interior of the synagogue relocated to Jerusalem, which they achieved in 1952. The location chosen was an old stone compound in the heart of Jerusalem, where the synagogue once again opened its doors. It remains open to this day.
Another interesting fact about the place is that it’s probably the only synagogue in the country that is built above a Catholic chapel. The chapel was built in 1886 in the old compound, which at that time served as a school and hospice for pilgrims to the Holy Land called the German Catholic Institution. The institution was later moved to a different location, leaving the chapel behind. When the Italian Synagogue claimed its place in the compound, the chapel became an integral part of it.
In recent years the chapel underwent restoration by Italian artists who were flown in especially for that task.
The Italian Synagogue is also home to the Museum of Italian Jewish Art, showcasing Jewish life in Italy throughout history.
The synagogue and museum are open Sunday to Thursday; the chapel is open only for special occasions. Services are held on Shabbat and Jewish holidays.
Jason’s Tomb is an ancient rock-carved burial tomb dating back to the Second Temple period. Jason was a high priest during the second century BCE, as described in the Second Book of Maccabees. His name appears in the carved inscriptions on the walls of the structure.
The tomb, located in the heart of the Rehavia neighborhood, was discovered in 1956 when a new residential building was under construction. It was later decided to conserve the ancient tomb and not to go ahead with the building project. The tomb now nestles among the new and modern buildings of the Rehavia neighborhood, making it a truly hidden wonder. The contrast between the neighborhood and this ancient tomb is nothing short of fascinating, and is a true testament that history is everywhere in Jerusalem.
Just above the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and near the 9th Station of the Cross, there’s a tiny Coptic Monastery that many visitors have probably passed through. Hidden deep inside the monastery is an even tinier entrance followed by 51 stairs leading to Helena’s Well, which consists of underground medieval halls and a large reservoir of water. It was named after St. Helena, mother of Emperor Constantine the Great, who arrived in Jerusalem in the 4th century and who discovered where Jesus was crucified and buried. It is believed that when St. Helena built the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, she used water from this well.
To access the well you’ll need permission from the resident priest, who usually asks for a small donation to get you in. It’s worth it.
Little Western Wall
Everyone has heard of the Western Wall, the only remnant of the Second Temple and one of the holiest sites in Judaism. But did you know there is also a Little Western Wall, located nearby?
The Little Western Wall is in fact a continuation of the larger Wall, and is located inside the Muslim Quarter near the Iron Gate to the Temple Mount.
The ancient Western Wall is one of the four supporting walls that surrounded the Second Temple some 2,000 years ago. Its original height was around 30 meters (98 feet), and its length around 500 meters (1,640 feet), much larger than the part we see today. The famous part of the Western Wall, which is frequented by millions of visitors each year, was made accessible again after the 1967 reunification of Jerusalem when the Israeli military liberated the Old City and cleared space to build the Western Wall plaza. In the Muslim Quarter, however, many of the 13th century houses built on top of the Wall still conceal most of it to this day. The Little Western Wall is the only part that remained exposed among these houses, on this side of the Temple Mount.
Some say the Little Western Wall is even holier than the bigger Wall as it is closer to where the Holy of Holies was situated.
Another similarity to the bigger Wall is that here too worshipers can leave notes with prayers in between the stones. But unique to the Little Wall, there is no separation between men and women, and it is much less crowded due to the fact its existence is almost unknown to the public.
Church of St. John the Baptist
The Greek Orthodox Church of St. John the Baptist was originally founded in the 5th century, making it the oldest church in Jerusalem. It was dedicated to John the Baptist, and some of his relics are presented at the church. It was destroyed during the Arab conquest in the 7th century but was later reconstructed. Although relatively small, this church is one of the most spectacular and colorful ones in the city.
The church is located on Christian Quarter Road in the heart of the Old City market, but the entrance is almost hidden from sight among the market’s merchandise. A wooden door with a stone sign written in Greek above it signals the turn you need to make in order to get in. You then pass through a lovely courtyard to find the entrance to the church. Inside is a feast to the eye with an ornate interior dominated by a large golden iconostasis, with a rich variety of colorful artwork everywhere you look.
The church is not regularly open to visitors, but it is worth paying a visit for the chance its doors may be open.
Mamluk Halls inside the Western Wall Tunnels
Most of you are probably familiar with the Western Wall (Kotel) Tunnels, the fascinating complex of underground tunnels underneath the Western Wall.
The tunnels were discovered in the 19th century, but it was only in recent years that archaeologists uncovered and preserved several magnificent structures that are directly connected to the tunnels and are believed to be dated to the Mamluk Era. These structures include the “Mamluk Khan,” a grand and impressive space that used to be an ancient hotel, and a large arched hall, which opened in 2016 and houses a new attraction called “The Journey to Jerusalem,” offering visitors a chance to experience the journey of the Jewish people from the Diaspora to Jerusalem.
While the grand bathhouse is still not opened to the public, touring the site housing the “Journey to Jerusalem” is possible when accompanied by a certified tour guide.
These are just a few of the least-known places in Jerusalem, a city that is one of the most famous on earth. This glimpse into the hidden world of Jerusalem only makes you wonder what else is out there to discover. And indeed, new discoveries are constantly being made and new findings continue to be unearthed in this ancient city — a city where history comes alive every day, and still has so much more to tell us.