Jerusalem is a living breathing museum of the Jewish people’s story. Here are the 6 best Jewish Sites in Jerusalem that help to explain their remarkable journey through olden times.
Jerusalem has forever been the heart and soul of the Jewish people. It is a living breathing museum of Jewish history. We spent 4 days exploring the streets of this ancient city and learning about its unique story. A story found in the dead sea scrolls, in the walls and fortresses, and in the tombs of kings and prophets. But our exploration of the Jewish sites in Jerusalem was more than just an investigation of the empires who built it. It was a glimpse into the eternal. For the Jews, this is where divinity and earth meet.
According to the Hebrew Bible, God commanded Abraham to offer his son Isaac as a sacrifice on “the mount of the Lord” in “the land of Moriah.” This mount of the Lord is believed to be the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. King David brought the Jewish people here, and it is here that David’s son Solomon built the first temple to house the Ark of the Covenant. Since then, Jerusalem has witnessed the clash of empires and religions, as Jews have fought to preserve their holy sites. Even for non-believers, Jerusalem somehow leaves an indelible mark.
With so much to tell, we’ve selected the 6 best Jewish sites in Jerusalem to uncover ancient Jewish history. Places where you can unravel the backstory of the Jewish people before the Christians and Muslims arrived to make everything that little bit trickier.
While the first sight, the Israel Museum, is a few miles out of town, the remaining Jewish sites in Jerusalem can be easily accessed on foot in one day by using day 1 of our 7-day Israel Itinerary. Be aware many sites are closed or have restricted hours on Friday, Saturday and Sundays so we have included opening times below.
Booking your trip via the links on this page (or on our book page) will earn us a small commission, at no extra cost to you. Thanks for your support – Paul & Mark.
1 – ISRAEL MUSEUM
12th Century BCE – 1st Century CE
The Hebrew Bible has been at the core of the Jewish history and religion for millennia. These writings were originally recorded between 1200 BCE and about 200 BCE. In 1947, Bedouin shepherds discovered ancient Jewish manuscripts in the Qumram caves, just west of the Dead Sea.
These scrolls, remarkably well-preserved in old jars, came to be known as the Dead Sea Scrolls. They are now housed in the Israel Museum in the Shrine of the Book, a purpose-built white domed building. They are the second oldest manuscripts included in the Hebrew Bible.
The highlight is the almost unblemished Isaiah Scroll, containing the entire Book of Isaiah.
The Israel Museum is a great place to start your exploration of ancient Jewish History. We highly recommend joining the English-speaking tour at 3 pm, for a fascinating and informative delve into the past. In addition to looking through the remarkable Shrine of the Book, the tour also provides an excellent history lesson of ancient Jerusalem using a large-scale model of the city as it was in King Herod’s time.
The guide takes you through the archaeological discoveries they continue to make to this day. It provides a comprehensive background to the other ancient Jewish sites in Jerusalem.
2 – TOMB OF KING DAVID
1st Century BCE
“Saul has slain his thousands, and David his tens of thousands.” 1 Samuel 29:5.
It is this King David who brought his people – and the Ark of the Covenant – to the sacred site of the “mount of the Lord.” In around 1,000 BCE, he captured the heavily fortified walled city of Jerusalem from the Jebusites and renamed it the City of David.
This City became the capital of the Kingdom of Israel and the home of Jewish people for most of the next millennia.
King David’s tomb is located on Mount Zion, to the south-west of the current old city. There is a lot of doubt about whether or not this is the correct resting place of David. But, in 1948, the Ministry of Religious affairs, deemed it one of the holiest Jewish sites in Jerusalem.
So, putting historical accuracy to the side, the Tomb of King David is a fascinating place to explore the next phase of Jewish history. The loud and boisterous praying – by segregated men and woman – adds to the mystical atmosphere of this place.
As with many Jewish sites in Jerusalem there has been a historical tussle over the complex. The holy mosque Nebi Daoud Cenaculum was once on this site before it was converted to a synagogue after the establishment of the State of Israel. It’s now adorned with obvious Jewish symbols.
There are, however, hints to its Islamic past, such as the beautifully ornate tiles – sadly damaged in 2012 – and the striking minaret. Remarkably the site of the Last Supper – the Cenacle – is also in this building, just one floor up. Read more about the fascinating Christian sites in Jerusalem.
After visiting the Israel Museum, the Tomb of David is an excellent place to begin your Jerusalem walking tour of ancient Jewish history. You can find details and logistics on visiting this and the sites listed below on day 1 of our 7-day Israel Itinerary.
3 – CITY OF DAVID
8th Century BCE
East of the Tomb of David lays the City of David, the original walled Jebusite city that David conquered, and next on our tour of Jewish sites in Jerusalem.
This was the tight urban core of ancient Jerusalem, but unfortunately, it now sits outside the current city walls. This is thanks to an error made by the two Mamluk architects when rebuilding the walls under the orders of Suleiman the Magnificent. The error which cost them their lives.
Over the next couple hundred years Jerusalem slowly grew. But around 710 BCE the powerful Assyrian empire invaded the Kingdom of Israel. Refugees from the surrounding land were forced into the city, quadrupling its size. In order for the Jews to survive, King Hezekiah had to secure food and water for the besieged city.
There is not a lot left to see in the City of David, except for the Tunnel of Hezekiah (or the Siloam Tunnel), a fascinating feat of engineering, built around 700 BCE. The tunnel channelled water from natural Gihon spring to the Pool of Siloam.
This helped secure the water supply from the Assyrian invaders. You can wade through the tunnel or walk through a dry tunnel just next door to explore the area.
Thanks to King Hezekiah, the Assyrians never captured Jerusalem and the capital of the Kingdom of Israel stood for another 100 years.
4 – TEMPLE MOUNT
10th Century BCE – 1st Century BCE
The Temple Mount is the sacred site of the foundation stone of the earth. According to Jewish lore, the foundation stone is where God asked Abraham to kill his son Isaac, and where God made Adam. Just to name two of the noteworthy events that are said to have occurred on this one rock.
David’s son Solomon extended the city walls to include the Temple Mount and built the first temple on this sacred earth. The purpose was to house The Ark of the Covenant – said to contain the 10 commandments. The Arc was placed in the inner sanctum of the temple which became known as the Holy of Holies. For Jews, this is where divinity and earth meet. It is the most important sacred Jewish site in Jerusalem.
The first temple survived the onslaught by the Assyrians but was destroyed by King Nebuchadnezzar when the Babylonians sacked the city in 587 BCE. Nebuchadnezzar exiled the Jews to Babylon and lay waste to the temple and walls. Fifty years later the exile ended and the Jews slowly returned home. A much smaller Jewish population built the second temple on the Temple Mount and reconstructed the city walls.
But construction really took off when King Herod dramatically expanded the Temple Mount platform about 2,000 years ago. Enormous retaining walls were built to completely surround the hill of the Temple Mount. A grand staircase was constructed so that the faithful could gain access to the temple via the Southern Wall from the City of David.
The second temple and much of the Herodian walls were by destroyed by Titus and the Romans in 70 CE after the Jews of Judea rebelled against their Roman masters. Therefore, there is very little Jewish history left to see on top of the Temple Mount.
The foundation stone is now covered by the Dome of the Rock, as it is also sacred to Islam, and non-Muslims cannot enter. But no Jerusalem walking tour of ancient Jewish history would be complete without walking around this relaxing hilltop and getting a little closer to the divine.
5 – WESTERN WALL
During the destruction of the second temple and city walls by the Romans, the precise location of the Holy of Holies was lost. Since only the high priest was allowed access it, Jews now pray at the Western Wall rather than risk stepping onto the unknown location of the inner sanctum. As a result, the Western Wall has become 2nd most sacred Jewish shrine in the world.
It’s fascinating to watch the rituals taking place at the Wall. Men and woman are separated for prayers and both must dress conservatively with their heads covered. It’s customary to walk away from the wall backwards. Ultra-orthodox Jews have long opposed women praying at the wall, holding the view that prayer services can only be conducted by men.
In 2016, the Israeli government declared a mixed non-orthodox male and women section, however it reneged on this in 2017. You can watch the action from the Western Wall Plaza, the 770-year-old Moroccan neighbourhood that was bulldozed by Israeli authorities after the Six-Day War.
More of Herod’s expansion of the Temple Mount complex can be seen by exploring the Southern Wall. Continue you exploration of Jewish sites in Jerusalem by heading south from the Western Wall plaza and entering the Jerusalem Archaeological Park.
In the park, you can stroll up the original steps to the Hudda Gate and walk down a Herodian street. Inspect the remnants of Robinson’s Arch – used to support a monumental staircase providing access to the temple.
6 – TOWER OF DAVID AND CITY WALLS
15th Century BCE
Most of the Walls you see today were built by the Mamluks under the orders of the Ottoman, Suleiman the Magnificent, around 1540 CE. But if you dig a little deeper you can discover an older ancient Jewish history lurking beneath.
After the city was largely destroyed by the Babylonians the walls were slowly rebuilt. Expansion of the city walls northwards and westwards continued under the Hasmonean Kings in the 2nd and 1st century BCE, and then on an even grander scale by King Herod in the 1st century CE.
The Tower of David or Citadel that stands today was predominantly built in the Ottoman and Mamluk period. However, it was constructed on the earlier fortifications of Hasmonean and Herodian times. Inside the citadel, there are remnants of these times as well as a quarry dating to the First Temple period.
Best of all it contains a museum detailing the history of ancient Jerusalem – an excellent way to check that you have remembered everything you have learnt so far about Jewish history.
Finally, to finish your tour of ancient Jewish sites in Jerusalem, exit the Jaffa Gate. Heading south you can spot some Hasmonean and Herodian wall remnants. A few meters west of the existing wall you can see the foundations of Herod’s original city gate.
There are helpful signposts showing which bits of rock are which. If you now head back into the Jewish Quarter through the Zion Gate you can visit an even older section. The “Broad Wall” is a remnant of the walls from the First Temple era, probably around 700 BCE.
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