George (not his real name) lives between two narrow lanes in the Christian Quarter of Jerusalem. For the past 20 years he has been confined to a wheelchair – and the furthest from his home that he was able to wander was a little paved yard outside his door. He used to sit there, day after day, on an old couch that someone moved for him outdoors.
And it wasn’t just in the Christian Quarter that streets and alleyways were impassable to his wheelchair. It was almost everywhere in the Old City, except the Jewish Quarter.
Fortunately, in 2010 someone at the Jerusalem Development Authority decided that the situation was intolerable. Twenty million shekels ($5.7 million) and nine years later, 60 percent of the byways in the Old City’s Christian, Muslim and Armenian Quarters are wheelchair accessible. And these are 90% of the area where accessibility is possible. Work continues on the additional 10%.
Sites holy to the three major religions in Jerusalem are at least partly accessible these days. And George can hang out in any quarter of the Old City that he feels like visiting.
This doesn’t mean of course, that everything is perfect. Riding in a wheelchair can be quite bumpy and requires padding and a companion to help in some challenging ascents and descents. But it has changed life in the Old City for the people who live there — and for the tourists that throng its many sites.
Together with our friend Dina, we tried things out for ourselves. We picked a Sunday morning, before the crowds took over the markets, holy sites, and lanes. And what we learned from riding in a wheelchair around the Old City was this: Sometimes you have to make a loop around the regular byways in order to get where you want to go. But when you do, you generally end up in in places and seeing sights that you would otherwise miss.
We began our day at Zion Gate, and made our way down the sidewalk to the Temple Mount. Here we were quickly helped through the entrance and onto the ramp that leads to the top.
Mount Moriah, or the Temple Mount, is the traditional site at which Abraham was commanded to sacrifice his son. Centuries later, when King David decided to build a temple to the Lord, he acquired the heights of Mount Moriah from Jebusite farmer Araunah. But it was to be David’s son Solomon who was allocated the task on that very spot.
One after the other over the next millennia, the First Temple, and the Second Temple built later on, were destroyed. Mount Moriah became a refuse-covered garbage dump, and remained so until Muslim Arabs conquered Jerusalem in 638.
At the time of the city’s fall, the Caliph Omar ruled the Muslim world. Like other members of his faith, Omar revered many of the Old Testament’s most significant personalities. He also honored the holy sites — including the peak on which Solomon had erected his magnificent Temple. Upon ascending to Mount Moriah, Omar was enraged to find the esplanade overflowing with trash. He ordered the rubbish removed (some sources say he cleared it with his own hands), and erected a simple wooden mosque on the southern edge of the Temple Mount plaza.
Muslims venerate the Temple Mount, which they call Haram al-Sharif (Sacred Compound), as the third holiest Muslim site after Mecca and Medina. It holds both the al-Aqsa Mosque, built in 710, and the golden-topped octagonal-shaped Dome of the Rock that dates back to 691.
Our wheelchair took a long loop around the entire Temple Mount, which brought us to sights that we would have missed if we had exited by any of the non-accessible gates. This way, we got a look at the back of the blocked Golden Gate, which recently opened on this side for Muslim prayers. And before riding up the ramp to the Dome of the Rock, we were rewarded with a view of that stunning structure that few ever see.
Later, we easily wheeled to the the Western Wall, where Jews can be found worshipping 24 hours a day. Although this is only a small section of the retaining wall that surrounded the Second Temple, its proximity to the Sanctuary has bestowed upon it a hallowed status. Over the centuries, when they had access to the Holy City, Jews would stand in front of this sole remnant of the Temple and mourn its loss.
During the 16th century, Turkish Ottoman ruler Suleiman the Magnificent set aside a tiny portion of the Western Wall for Jewish worship. During the Ottoman era, the Western Wall served as the focus of Jewish hope, longing and fervent prayer.
With the division of Jerusalem in 1948, Jordan took over the Old City and even the minuscule area allotted to them by the Turks was denied to the Jews. But on June 7th, 1967, East and West Jerusalem were reunited. When the Israeli flag was proudly raised above the Western Wall, some of the battle-weary paratroopers who had fought to regain the Old City from Jordanian control were overcome with emotion and burst into tears.
Jews and non-Jews alike often leave requests stuffed into cracks between the stones. Even in a wheelchair we were able to get close enough to the Wall to press our own note into a tiny crevice.
From the wall we moved easily through Al Wad (Haguy) Street into the Muslim Quarter. Here we got a good look at one of the most interesting projects in the Old City: metal coverings disguising ugly pipes and wires that once harmed the city’s look. We also discovered golf carts and delivery cycles easily traversing the lanes, carrying tourists and merchandise into every corner.
On Haguy street, we passed the third, fourth and fifth stations of the Via Dolorosa. Variously called the Way of the Cross, or the Way of Sorrows, it represents the route that Jesus of Nazareth followed from condemnation to crucifixion. Later, we were able to view the seventh station as well.
By circling onto Beit Habad street in the Christian Quarter, we made it to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built by the Crusaders over Byzantine ruins. Here we had one of the biggest surprises on our little wheelchair journey. For although a ramp took us down the stairs near the entrance, we were stumped when we reached the large step that was the threshold. That’s when our guide, Gura Berger from the East Jerusalem Development Company, reached behind one of the massive doors to produce a metal ramp, and we entered with no trouble at all.
Afterwards we headed for the Muristan, whose prominence dates back to the Crusader era. During the 12th and 13th centuries the Muristan served as headquarters for the Knights Hospitallers, an unusual Catholic Order of fighting monks.
From here we traveled through Old City markets to the Cardo, a boulevard common to many Roman cities in the early centuries CE. Jerusalem’s Cardo was 22 meters (72 feet) wide with columns on both sides.
On the wall is a copy of a detailed mosaic map of Jerusalem as it looked in the Byzantine era. Discovered in 1884, the original decorated the floor of a church in the Jordanian city of Madeba and for this reason is universally known as the Madeba Map.
Recent additions to the Cardo walls include mosaic pictures. They vividly show visitors the items that would have been on sale in this bustling street.
There is no wheelchair accessible exit, so unless you can climb stairs, visitors must turn around, and retrace their tracks. Then they can leave the Old City through the Jewish Quarter or go back out through Zion Gate, Jaffa Gate or Damascus Gate.
Accessibility Information: it is possible to rent a golf cart that starts out at Jaffa Gate. It goes everywhere that a wheelchair can and costs NIS 350 an hour. For information call 972 54 953-6331, or in Israel: 054 953-6331.
Maps of accessible routes are available for free at the official tourist information center at Jaffa Gate. For traveling on your own, you can also use a new app called Accessible JLM (in 9 languages), and/or take a guided tour of accessible sites called Vocal Tours in Jerusalem. Both are free and available on play stores and app stores.
Important note: The Jerusalem Old City accessibility project was initiated by the Jerusalem Development Authority and funded by the Jerusalem and Heritage Ministry together with the Ministry of Tourism, the Accessibility Department of the Jerusalem Municipality, the Israel National Insurance Agency, and the Israel Antiquities Authority. The project was carried out by East Jerusalem Development Company and accompanied by accessibility consultants according to local topographical restriction.
Portions of this article appear in Aviva Bar-Am’s book Jerusalem EasyWalks
Shmuel Bar-Am is a licensed tour guide who provides private, customized tours in Israel for individuals, families and small groups. All rights reserved.