I first visited Jerusalem in 1961, when I was 11 years old. Back then it was a mere shadow of what it has become — a half-city reached through a cul-de-sac of Israel surrounded by "enemy" territory. Little more than 50 yards from our room at the King David Hotel, barbed wire and tank traps separated us from the crenellated walls of the Old City.
Now, 33 years later — and 27 years after Jerusalem was physically united — the barbed wire is submerged beneath gracious parks, and dramatic new neighborhoods have been grafted onto hilltops. Over the years I've returned so many times I've lost count. But whenever I visit Jerusalem I discover something new: a building, a cranny, a vista, a mood. It is a city where nothing, absolutely nothing, is ordinary. Here are my choices for experiences that no first-time visitor should miss.
MOUNT OF OLIVES
Nothing feels quite as sacred as a walk down the Mount of Olives just after sunrise. To the left of the deserted lane taken by Jesus on the first Palm Sunday lie the terraced graves of Judaism's most hallowed cemetery. Ahead, Islam's gilded Dome of the Rock flashes in the sunlight, and the Old City's Golden Gate, bricked up since the 13th century, waits patiently to be opened by the Messiah. Cocks crow as you pass the onion-domed Russian Orthodox Church of St. Mary Magdalene. Then comes the Church of Dominus Flevit, whose teardrop-shaped roof evokes Jesus's weeping over Jerusalem's impending destruction. Finally, at the foot of the mountain, you encounter the tranquil Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus was arrested. Its gnarled olive trees have lived as long as 1,000 years.
ECCE HOMO CONVENT
The Sisters of Zion guide visitors through this convent with such passion you'll feel as if each had personally witnessed the first Easter. Many believe that it was on the flagstones of the Lithistratos, the original courtyard of Pontius Pilate's Antonia Fortress (now in the convent's basement), that the centurions taunted Jesus and crowned him with thorns.
THE WESTERN WALL
After the Romans sacked and burned Jerusalem 1,924 years ago, all that remained of Herod's Temple was its western retaining wall. Over the centuries the cries of anguished Jewish pilgrims inspired observers to dub it the Wailing Wall. Restored to Jewish sovereignty 1,897 years later, it is now known merely as the Western Wall, a tangible symbol for Jews worldwide of their post-Holocaust renaissance.
GARDEN OF THE ANNA TICHO HOUSE
The lawns, bougainvillea, and old pine trees surrounding the graceful house where artist Anna Ticho lived from 1894 to 1980 — now a museum and restaurant — create an oasis of serenity in downtown Jerusalem.
MAHANE YEHUDA MARKET
At noon every Friday the alleys and stalls of the spotless Mahane Yehuda Market evoke bedlam as Jerusalemites race to finish their last-minute shopping in preparation for the Sabbath, commencing at sundown.
SHIPUDEI HAGEFEN RESTAURANT
The quintessential lunch at the Annavim brothers' eating place near Mahane Yehuda Market is a skewer of exquisite Israeli foie gras barbecued rare and served with a side of french fries. Shipudei Hagefen, 74 Agrippus St. (near Mahane Yehuda open market); 011 972-2/624-4888 fax 011 972-2/624-3030.
THE ISRAEL MUSEUM
Israel's antiquity, sophistication, and artistic richness come together here. In an hour you can view the Dead Sea Scrolls, Roman glass platters, Byzantine mosaics, Persian tiled prayer nooks, a Baroque synagogue from Italy's Veneto, paintings by Rembrandt, Renoir, and Kandinsky, the Louis XV salon of the Paris Rothschilds, Robert Indiana's giant Love sculpture spelled out in Hebrew, canvases by Postmodern Israeli artists, and Spiderman poised to leap from the walls of the children's wing.
This tiny village in the Judean Hills, birthplace of John the Baptist, actually lies within Jerusalem's city limits, just 15 minutes from the heart of town. Its fig trees, galleries, gardens, bistros, churches, artisans' workshops, and masses of morning glories will remind you of Provence.
CHURCH OF THE HOLY SEPULCHRE
The original church was built in A.D. 324 over the site of Golgotha, as identified by Queen Helena, mother of the Roman emperor Constantine, who had adopted the Christian religion 12 years earlier. Today's structure, which dates from the Crusader period, is shared by the Orthodox, Catholic, Armenian, Coptic, and Ethiopian churches — each jealously guarding its own turf, entrusting the keys to the adjacent Mosque of Omar to prevent one sect from locking out another. Since the 1880s many Protestants have believed the location erroneous, considering the true site to be the more bucolic Garden Tomb, a half mile to the north. Nonetheless, the faces of the pious as they emerge from the sepulchre's inner sanctum affirm the church's significance.
In 1967, Theo and Miriam Siebenberg began constructing their dream house on a site in the Old City's restored Jewish Quarter. Excavation uncovered the remains of a building from the Second Temple period (circa 30 B.C.-A.D. 70). Its mosaics and decorative glass indicated that it had been a wealthy Jewish family's house burned during the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. The excavated rooms and their contents are exhibited today in a cavernous museum beneath the Siebenberg residence.
DOME OF THE ROCK
This exquisitely tiled and gilded mosque, built in 691, validates Jerusalem as Islam's third-holiest city. The bare rock it enshrines is central to all three monotheistic faiths: it is not only the site where Abraham prepared to sacrifice Isaac and where the Ark of the Covenant was housed in the Holy of Holies of Solomon's and Herod's temples but also the spot from which Mohammed ascended to heaven.
The houses, alleys, marketplaces, inhabitants, and mindset of this ultra-Orthodox neighborhood are hauntingly evocative of the central European shtetls (Jewish hamlets) that were obliterated by the Nazis.
SATURDAY NIGHT STREET LIFE
Thousands of young people throng the cafes, pubs, and crafts markets of pedestrianized central Jerusalem on Rivlin, Shlomzion Hamalka, and Ben Yehuda streets, applauding sidewalk entertainers, munching on pizza, falafel, or burger and browsing, carousing, and promenading.
On a serene Judean hilltop, Israel's Holocaust memorial and museum graphically recalls the horrors which, a mere half century ago, befell the descendants of Jews dispersed from here 2,000 years earlier. Even though Zionism — the movement to restore the Jewish homeland — was already a political movement 50 years before World War II, the Holocaust has inevitably emerged as Israel's unifying leitmotif; it is fundamental to any comprehension of the Israeli psyche.