The Old City
The Old City is easily defined: It is the area still enclosed within the grand walls built by the Ottoman Turkish Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent in 1538. The Old City is divided into four quarters: the Muslim Quarter, the Christian Quarter, the Armenian Quarter, and the Jewish Quarter. Seven gates provide access through the massive walls; two of these are important for visitors. The Jaffa Gate (Sha’ar Yafo in Hebrew, Bab el-Khalil in Arabic), at the end of Jaffa Road (Derech Yafo), offers the main access to the Old City from West Jerusalem. Damascus Gate (Sha’ar Shechem in Hebrew, Bab el-Amud in Arabic) offers the main access from East Jerusalem (if you get lost in the Old City’s labyrinthine alleys, just ask for either gate).
The great Jewish, Christian, and Muslim holy sites are mostly found in the Old City. Except in the Jewish Quarter, the dominating motif here is Arab: The food is Arabic, the language is Arabic, and customs are Eastern.
Extending far to the south and west, and encroaching on the east, of the Old City, this modern Israeli city is a huge area of residential, commercial, and industrial development punctuated by high-rise hotels and office blocks. The “New City” (as it’s sometimes called) includes the Knesset and the government precinct on the western edge of town; Ramat Gan, one of Hebrew University’s two large campuses; the Israel Museum; and, in a distant western area beyond the neighborhood called Ein Karem, the Hadassah Medical Center. Broad avenues twist and turn along the tops of the Judean Hills to connect West Jerusalem’s outlying quarters with the century-old downtown area.
Downtown West Jerusalem is centered on Zion Square (Kikar Ziyon), where Jaffa Road intersects with Ben-Yehuda Street. A few short blocks west of Zion Square is King George V Avenue (known as King George St., or Rehov Ha-Melech George), which joins Ben-Yehuda Street and Jaffa Road to form a Downtown Triangle. Many of the hotels, restaurants, and businesses of interest are in or near this triangle. Ben-Yehuda Street is now a bustling pedestrian mall filled with souvenir, jewelry, and Judaica shops; cafes; and places to grab a quick snack. Evenings, especially in good weather, Ben-Yehuda becomes a mecca for younger travelers and young Israelis. A more quaint pedestrian mall network, centering on Yoel Salomon Street, runs off Zion Square at the foot of Ben-Yehuda Street. This area is known as Nahalat Shiva. Its renovation has transformed Jerusalem’s evening ambience from that of a quiet mountain town to a lively, Mediterranean-style city where people like to stroll and rendezvous in cafes. This small enclave of old West Jerusalem is being preserved, but other 19th-century neighborhoods in West Jerusalem are slated for demolition and will be replaced by large office blocks. Many of Nahlat Shiva’s most charming cafes and eateries have moved to the new, multistory Mamilla Shoping Mall that leads up to the Jaffa Gate. In South Jerusalem, the areas around the Cinematheque and the renovated Ottoman-era First Train Station in Abu Tor as well as the gentrified German Colony neighborhood are also filled with cafes and dining spots, some of which are open during Shabbat.
Not as modern and sprawling as its western counterpart, downtown East Jerusalem is nevertheless a bustling modern cityscape lying north of the Old City. Its compact business, commercial, and hotel district starts right along the Old City’s north wall on Sultan Suleiman Street, which runs from Damascus Gate to Herod’s Gate and then downhill to the Rockefeller Museum. Nablus Road (Derech Shechem in Hebrew) runs northeast from Damascus Gate to the American Colony Hotel; Saladin Street (Sallah ad-Din in Arabic), the area’s chief shopping thoroughfare, starts at Herod’s Gate and meets Nablus Road near the American Colony Hotel. The triangle formed by these streets encloses the heart of downtown East Jerusalem. This area is quiet at night and is only beginning to recover economically from the years of the Intifada.
To get around Jerusalem easily, it helps to understand how the city has grown. In the mid-1800s, Jerusalem was still a walled medieval city—a tortuous maze of semi-ruins with sewage running down the streets. After the mid–19th century, Christian pilgrims and Zionist settlers began to create neighborhoods outside the city walls. From 1948 to 1967, Jerusalem was further divided when modern West Jerusalem remained under Israeli jurisdiction while the Old City and downtown East Jerusalem became part of the Kingdom of Jordan. Although the city has been united under Israeli control since 1967, Jerusalem is still three different cities in one: the Old City, the newer Israeli city of West Jerusalem, and the newer Arab city of East Jerusalem.
Due east of the Old City, the Kidron Valley lies between ancient Jerusalem and the long ridge known as the Mount of Olives (Et-Tur in Arabic). On the slopes of the mount is the Garden of Gethsemane. Farther down the valley, south of the Old City walls, is the Arabic town of Silwan, where the earliest settlement of Jerusalem developed more than 5,000 years ago. This is where the Jerusalem of King David was located in ancient times; today, it is a densely inhabited East Jerusalem neighborhood.
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