By Barbara A. Noe
On a recent trip to Jerusalem, when I learn I can climb onto the high stone ramparts surrounding the Old City and spy into the different neighborhoods from above, I head straight to the entrance at Jaffa Gate.
These ancient stone ramparts showcase a microcosm of conflicted religious life in the heart of the Holy Land. Jewish, Muslim, and Christian shops, homes, schools, and places of worship don’t mix together. Instead, each group tightly clings to its own crisply designated, tightly packed quarter. I can observe this patchwork city from above.
These walls—2.8 miles around, 16 to 49 feet high, and 10 feet thick—are hundreds of years old, and there’s something surreal about stepping on their smooth, timeworn stone, dating from 1538 and Ottoman ruler Suleiman the Magnificent’s reign. Then again, Suleiman constructed his walls upon the ruins of walls dating back to Roman times.
From above, peering through loopholes meant for Crusades-era archers to aim their arrows, I take in the small, quiet Armenian Christian Quarter, which runs itself as a city within a city, shutting all gates at night. Wandering above a shop-lined street in the Jewish Quarter, I see masses of men, women, and children strolling below me in a wave of dark suits and hats, laughing, talking as they make their way through the night. They’re Hassidic Jews, enjoying one of the year’s holiest holidays—the Feast of the Tabernacles.
I pass by stained-glass windows, grapes growing over an arbor, and well-fed cats roaming the alleys of the Christian Quarter. In the Muslim Quarter I pass by postage-stamp-size courtyards, a woman hanging laundry on her back porch, and kids racing each other on scooters. Minarets and mosques poke above the skyline.
At last, I descend the ramparts at Lion’s Gate, which heralds the start of the Via Dolorosa, the crooked network of shop-edged lanes that Jesus Christ walked en route to his crucifixion at Calvary. I’m a little turned around and head up an alley.
“No, no, you can’t go there!” a young Israeli guard tells me pleasantly, though I’m startled.
“Where’s there?” I ask hesitantly.
“Temple Mount,” he says. The Muslim sacred space.
Far be it for me to get tangled up in any terrestrial discord! I climb back up on the ramparts, to my above-it-all perch.
Walking the Ramparts: You can’t circumnavigate the entire city on the ramparts, because David Street at Jaffa Gate, as well as Temple Mount, break them up. As such, the ramparts walk is broken into two parts, both of which can be accessed at Jaffa Gate (the entrance to the southern section is outside the gate, to the right, at the exit of the Tower of David Museum; and the entrance to the northern section is inside the gate, to the left and up the stairs). The cost is NIS 16 (about $5). Tel: 02/625-4403.
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Barbara A. Noe is a senior editor for National Geographic Books. Her last post for Intelligent Travel was “Snorkeling for Roman Ruins.”
Photo: Ekaterina Negoda/My Shot