With its narrow streets, bazaar like atmosphere and thousands of years of history, the Old City of Jerusalem is one of the world’s foremost tourist attractions. It is also a place of pilgrimage, a focal point for three major world religions. All of which means that it can get very crowded at times. So the Jerusalem Ramparts Walk was an attractive option: a peaceful stroll around the city walls and a different perspective on the old town.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site
The ramparts are a part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site that includes the whole of the Old City of Jerusalem. However they have their own entrances and exits and, compared with the throng inside the walls, there weren’t many tourists here. Many of the people I encountered seemed to be pilgrims in search of a secluded place where they could stop and read their Bibles.
The walls are tall and solid, and as you walk you realise how much protection they would have given to the city (until 1914 the whole population of Jerusalem lived within the walls, and the gates were locked at night). You pass between the enclosed and narrow spaces of the old town on one side, and the hills and open expanses of the new city on the other. You spot things you wouldn’t come across on the well worn tourist routes inside the walls. This is the stuff of everyday life. Not just the rooftop views of water tanks and satellite dishes, competing for attention with domes and church spires. But also private houses, schools and bits of green space.
The Long History of Jerusalem’s City Walls
Surprisingly, the walls that you see today are not all that old. They were built (or, rather, rebuilt) in the 16th century by Suleiman the Magnificent, the ruler of the Ottoman Empire. The new walls included seven gates and several watchtowers (the New Gate was added in 1889 to allow Christians easy access to the monasteries within the city). However, Suleiman put his walls upon the ruins of earlier ramparts that had been destroyed the by Crusaders. Even these were not the original walls; first the Jews and then the Romans had built a series of earlier structures.
The very first fortifications enclosed a smaller area than the current walled city. Some of today’s most visited places would not even have been part of the city in Roman or pre-Roman times. For instance, the site of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, supposedly where Jesus was crucified, would have been outside the walls as executions did not take place within the city.
A very old part of the current wall is the Golden Gate, a significant site for all of Jerusalem’s religions. For Christians it is the place where Jesus entered Jerusalem, and according to Jews it is where the Messiah will one day pass into the city. And Muslims believe that the righteous will pass through the Golden Gate on the Day of Judgement. However, tourists can only see this gate from outside the walls. It has been bricked up and closed since 810 CE (although briefly re-opened by the Crusaders), and there is no access from the walls themselves.
The Jerusalem Ramparts Walk: Some Practicalities
There are a few things that you need to know before you take the Jerusalem Ramparts Walk:
- The walls are in two sections, both starting at the Jaffa Gate. One section goes as far as the Lion Gate, and the other to the Dung Gate. (The section between the Dung Gate and the Lion Gate, passing the Temple Mount and the Golden Gate, is closed.)
- The walls are not accessible to wheelchairs and are unsuitable for anyone with mobility problems. The surface is uneven, some sections are narrow and there are frequent steep steps. The total walk is around 4.5km (2.8 miles).
- There is a small entry charge. You can buy tickets at the Jaffa Gate and they are valid for two days, but note that you can only enter each section of the walls once (so if you leave the wall at one of the intermediate gates you won’t be able to re-enter). Check the Tourist Israel site for opening times.
- On hot days it is advisable to carry water with you.
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