The hidden secrets of the Old City of Jerusalem: Exploring the Christian and Muslim Quarters

There is no city quite like Jerusalem, the capital that attracts over 3.5 million tourists each year. I spent roughly three years living in the city and I can tell you that I most enjoyed living in the Old City.

The Old city of Jerusalem is divided into four quarters: the Muslim quarter, the Jewish quarter, the Armenian quarter and the Christian quarter. When I studied Arabic in an old Ottoman classroom in the old city, I started to fall in love with my early morning commutes via the empty Via Dolorosa road. This commute introduced me to a lot of hidden secrets in the Christian and Muslim Quarters: I am very excited to share these secrets with you.

Lady Tunshuq’s Palace

If you ever find yourself in Muristan in the christian quarter, near the tall redeemer church walk towards the bustling Khan al Zeit souq. In doing so you will pass the Alexander Hospice on your left and you will enter one of the busiest roads in the Old City, filled with shops. As you walk along Khan al – Zeit take the third road on your right. You will find yourself on the narrow steps of El Takiya Street. Walk slowly down the street and to your right you will find a small orphanage that is located within the remains of my favourite secret: Lady Tunshuq’s palace.

Lady Tunshuq was the wife of a Kurdish nobleman who arrived in Jerusalem in the late 14th century. Interestingly, she was of Mongolian and Turkish origin and she had this edifice built for her soon after her arrival. The palace is said to have been built in the year of 1388 and I cant help but imagine how the palace would have looked in its former glory.

From the outside the facade itself seems rather eroded, however the uppermost of the three large doorways still has beautiful inlaid marble work – I simply had to take a picture!  The third door down is decorated with a Mamluk trademark: stone ‘stalactites’ known as muqarnas.

Across the way from the palace lies the tomb of Lady Tunshuq.  The tomb itself is a classic example of ‘joggling’: a Mamaluke feature in which colourful panels of marble are shaped and slotted together like a jigsaw.

The Church of Saint John the Baptist 

My next secret is tucked away in the christian quarter, and lies through a tiny doorway just off Christian Quarter road. As you turn onto Christian Quarter Road from David’s street, look out for a small wooden crusader gate on your right hand side. If the gate is open, walk through and you will find yourself inside a beautiful courtyard. Above you, you will see the houses of some local Greek Orthodox families and directly in front of you, you will see the Church of Saint John the Baptist.

The Church of Saint John the Baptist was founded in the fifth century making it one of the oldest churches in Jerusalem. A few years later the church fell into ruin briefly and was rebuilt in the early eleventh century.

During the siege of Jerusalem in 1099, a large number of knights were hospitalised within this church. A lot of the knights were touched by the kindness that they had received whilst sick and wounded. Upon their recovery, some of the knights decided to remain in Jerusalem and chose a life of humility: they believed their call was to serve the sick and protect the pilgrims who chose to venture to the Holy Land.

The Church is now dedicated to remember the beheading of Saint John the Baptist.

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The Austrian Hospice 

This is by far one of my most treasured secret spots in the Old City. Once a resting place for Christian pilgrims, the Austrian Hospice is a fully functioning hotel and hostel for travelers who want to experience life in the center of the Old City.  In the early morning or late evening, the hospice is a beautiful place to reflect. There is also a chapel that holds regular services.

One of the most spectacular views in Jerusalem can be found from the rooftop of the Austrian Hospice, which offers a 360-degree view of the Old City. I remember going to the hostel after finishing work in the evening: I used to sit on the rooftop with a cup of tea and watch the sun set, covering the Old City in a golden glow. Be aware that there is a fee to go up onto the rooftop, I remember paying 5 nis at the time.

I have spent many long hours studying Arabic in the beautiful Gardens of the hospice both during the day and at night. I would also highly reccommend that you try the delicious apple struddel from the restaurant: it is simply mouth watering.

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One of the views from the Austrian Hospice.

The Small Wall 

The small wall otherwise known as the little western wall, is a Jewish religious site located in the Muslim Quarter. The site is located near to the Cotton Merchant’s Market. The wall dates from the Second Temple period, (516 BCE – 70 CE) and it is the continuation of the larger part of the Western wall. The site is said to be one of the nearest remaining location to the site of the holy of holies. For that reason you will often find many jews praying at the site during Shabbat (the Sabbath.)

To find the wall, take a left off Al Wad Street into the Cotton market; you will know if you are on the right street if you can see an enterance to the Temple Mount at the top of the street. Please note that this enterance is only for Muslims.

Take your first left onto a small footpath and continue walking straight, then turn right and continue walking straight. Turn left at the end of the road and through a little archway and you will find the small wall.

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The Pools of Bethesda 

The ruins of the Pools of Bethesda can be found on the grounds of Saint Anne’s Church near Lions’ gate. The Church is was built by the Crusaders in 1140 AD. The church was captured during the Muslim conquest of 1849 and was turned into an Islamic law school by Sultan Saladin. A few centuries later the site was left abandoned.

In 1856 at the end of the Crimean war the Sultan of Istanbul offered the site to the French government as a token of gratitude. France helped to restore the church to its origional basillica and helped with a second restoration after the six day war of 1967.

When I first visited the site I was taken aback by the beautiful Romanesque style exterior of the church. Due to its incredible acoustics, it is not uncommon to find groups of tourists singing together inside the church and the sound of their voices echo in glorious harmony throughout the compound.

The site is believed to be the site of the Pools of Bethesda, in which Jesus Christ was said to have cured a paralysed man in the gospel of John. (John 5:1-15)

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The Rooftops of Jerusalem

Hidden away on the corner of St.Marks Road and Khabad Street an iron staircase stands above a shop which leads to the Old City rooftops of Jerusalem. This is the exact area in which the Christian, Muslim and Jewish quarters collide. Once on the rooftops, you are surrounded by views of some of the key buildings of the Old City. You are also able to walk above the central souq, ventilation grids enable you to watch the shoppers and shop keepers barter till the early hours of the morning.

If you are traveling in a group I recommend walking over the rooftops in the early evening to catch a majestic sunset over the Mount of Olives and the Jerusalem skyline. Take a seat on one of the walls and listen to the chiming of church bells, the melody of the Adhan, the songs of the Yeshiva, the laughter of children and the murmurs from the distant souq below.

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The Ottoman Sebil of Al- Wad Street

As you walk from Damascus street down Al-Wad street for roughly fifteen minutes, to your left you will find a sebil. ‘Sebil’ is the Turkish word for a water fountain and this fountain was built under the order of Sultan Suleman the Magnificent. The lower part of the sebil is apparently a “sarcophagus”, a Roman burial coffin, made of stone.

Overall, six sebils were built in Jerusalem under the orders of Sultan Suleiman in 1537, five of which were built within the old city. The Sultan worked hard to develop Jerusalem by renovating its water supply system and building the sebils for the benefit of the city’s residents.

The inscription on this particular sebil reads: “Instructed us to build here a drinking place, our lord the Sultan, the great King… Sultan Suleiman son of Sultan Selim Khan, Allah will keep his kingdom and government for eternity.”

Hamam Al-Ayn and Al-Quds University

During the Ottoman Era, Hammam al-Ayn functioned as a health center and as public baths until the late twentieth century when in 1998 it was renovated by al-Quds University. This new campus is now famous for its implementation of cultural, artistic and academic programs.

Every day tourists and locals visit the site on Souq al-Qattanin street, to participate in various activities. School students also come to learn about the most important features of religious and historical Jerusalem. You are also able to study Arabic here via Al Quds University.

Visitors are welcomed to the compound to explore the baths and former health center. I enjoyed showing my family around the site when they came to visit me in Jerusalem. The University hopes to make this site fully functioning once again in the future and I trully hope that they succeed!

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Conclusion

Jerusalem is a truly beautiful city filled with history, culture, activity, and colour. These are only a few of the wonderful sites within the Old City. On your travels do not be afraid to stop, rest and admire the magnificence of buildings. Do not be afraid to wait for the Adhan and Church bells to sound throughout the day. There is no need to rush, take your time and enjoy the intensely atmospheric city that some like to call the center of the world.

Have you visited Jerusalem before? If so, what is your favourite secret spot to explore? Are you planning to visit Jerusalem in the near future? If so, where are you most excited to visit? Feel free to write to me by leaving a comment and most of all, enjoy your trip!


Would you like to read about more interesting places in the Middle East? Start Here!

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