Jerusalem has been a holy city for 3,000 years, far eclipsing the length of time that any other place has carried such a title. It is also a holy city for all three major religions of the Western world: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. In the past 150 years, Jerusalem has slowly expanded from a mysterious, charismatic walled city in the Judean mountains to a modern metropolis spread across the surrounding hills. It’s a complicated Chinese box of exotic communities, ancient traditions, and rivalries, plus the highest hopes and aspirations of humanity. There is no place on earth like it.
The city invites exploration. Jerusalem’s sacred sites and dramatic vistas are filled with exoticism and meaning. In 1 day, you may find yourself wandering the Old City’s bazaars; awestruck by the golden, shimmering Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount; overwhelmed by the site of the Crucifixion; or by Yad VaShem, the memorial and museum dedicated to the six million Jews who fell victim to the Nazis. Later you’ll stop in your tracks, mesmerized by the evening calls to prayer echoing through the streets of the Old City.
Although the ancient grandeur of Jerusalem long ago vanished in the ravages of warfare and time, the city’s mystique has expanded far beyond anything that could have been dreamed of in ancient times. The most awesome holy places of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have come to dot the Old City and its nearby hills. During the centuries of the Crusades, Jerusalem was the shimmering vision that moved the armies of Europe and Islam. But for almost 700 years after the Crusades ended, the actual city of Jerusalem existed mostly as a shadowy, forgotten backwater, slowly falling into ruin and decay. Not until the 19th century did the city again begin to come alive and reemerge from behind its walls to spread across the surrounding hills.
During the years of the British Mandate (1918–48), the modern incarnation of Jerusalem developed as a religious center, tourist attraction, and university town in a remarkably beautiful mountain setting. Nineteen years of division by war, barbed wire, and minefields (1948–67) brought Jerusalem’s gentle renaissance to a temporary halt. However, with the city’s reunification in 1967, Teddy Kollek, the city’s world-renowned former mayor, began a modern, ongoing crusade to make sure that Jerusalem would not merely exist or even thrive but would absolutely shine.
Jerusalem today is a busy place where the old and new mix and clash. A state-of-the-art light-rail tram, opened in 2012, glides from points all over the biblical Judean Hills and continues along the Old City walls and the middle of downtown West Jerusalem’s main thoroughfare, Jaffa Road. New high-rise construction is going on everywhere.
The city is at a crossroads politically and socially as well as physically. Will it someday be a shared capital for Palestinians and Israelis? Will the religious Jewish community become the demographic and ruling majority in West Jerusalem, and, if so, what will happen to the museums, parks, entertainment, and cultural institutions created by the city’s secular community over the past 50 years? Should developers be allowed a free hand to Manhattanize Jerusalem, or should limits be placed on the future growth of the city? Optimists believe that city planners and real-estate developers will find a way to turn a mysterious walled holy city into a fast-paced holy megalopolis. For now, in many ways, the city walks a tightrope between its legend and the rapidly encroaching world of the 21st century.
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