The Temple Mount

Ages 6 & up
Destination: Jerusalem, Israel

For centuries, Jerusalem has been tugged to and fro. King Solomon erected the first great Jewish temple here in 957 B.C.; Nebuchadnezzar destroyed it 4 centuries later.

In 34 B.C., King Herod built the greatest religious complex in the eastern Roman Empire -- which the Romans leveled in A.D. 70. (At Temple Mount's foot, a surviving fragment of Herod's wall is known as the Wailing Wall because, for centuries, Jews have crowded here to mourn the loss of their temple.) The prayer section of the Western Wall is an unforgettable sight, the unmortared cracks of its chalky yellow white stone stuffed with prayers scrawled on bits of paper; Orthodox Jews stand alongside, chanting and swaying. After the Muslim conquest of A.D. 638, Temple Mount was rebuilt with Islamic holy places.

El Aksa Mosque here is the third holiest Muslim place of prayer after Mecca and Medina, and the Dome of the Rock protects a rock revered by Muslims as the spot where Prophet Muhammad viewed paradise. To Jews, however, it's the rock where Abraham proved his faith by nearly sacrificing his son Isaac.

As a political compromise, the walled Old City was divided into five sections: Temple Mount, the Muslim Quarter, the Jewish Quarter, the Christian Quarter, and the Armenian Quarter. But even there, factions compete: The dour sandstone Church of the Holy Sepulcher in the Christian quarter is a site so holy that Roman Catholics, Armenian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, Egyptian Coptics, Ethiopians, and Syrian Orthodox all claim it.

Founded by Constantine, the first Christian emperor of Rome, it enshrines what tradition claims is the tomb of Jesus Christ (it once also held the cross that Jesus was crucified on, but the Persians stole that centuries ago). Three incredibly holy relics are encompassed in this one cluttered church: the rocky outcropping of Mount Calvary, traditionally the site where Jesus was crucified (the huge crucifix in this chapel is particularly gruesome); the Stone of Unction, believed to be the same marble slab where Christ's broken corpse was prepared for burial; and, underground, a primitive stone cave traditionally accepted as the tomb where Jesus was buried for 3 days, before miraculously rising from the dead. After years of fire, earthquakes, and ransacking, the church was more or less razed, although its holy shrines were saved. The facade you see today dates from the 12th century, when the Crusaders had conquered Jerusalem and reclaimed its churches.

Outside of the Old City, the Mount of Olives contains one of the oldest, perhaps the holiest, Jewish cemeteries in the world, as well as the spot where Jesus is believed to have ascended to heaven. With a legacy this rich, no wonder everybody's fighting over Jerusalem.

Nearest Airport: Jerusalem.

Accommodations: Jerusalem Sheraton Plaza, 47 King George St. (tel. 800/325-3535 or 972/2/629-8666; King Solomon Hotel, 32 King David St. (tel. 972/2/569-5555).