Places to visit

Jewish Quarter and The Davidson Archaeological Park, Jerusalem


The Jewish Quarter and The Davidson Archaeological Park in Jerusalem offer a remarkable and profoundly engaging journey into the city's past and vibrant present.

As soon as you enter the Jewish Quarter, located in the southeastern sector of the walled city, you are immediately met with a fusion of ancient history and living culture. The area is teeming with synagogues, schools, and archaeological treasures that attract scholars, tourists, and religious pilgrims worldwide.

The narrow, winding, stone-paved streets are filled with shops selling religious artefacts, artwork, jewellery, and traditional Jewish foods. Historic sites like the Hurva Synagogue, an architectural marvel restored to its former grandeur, and the Four Sephardic Synagogues, each with its unique history and style, are crucial stops.

Just a short walk away, The Davidson Archaeological Park, also known as the Jerusalem Archaeological Park, reveals the city's history layer by layer. Overlooking the Western Wall and the Temple Mount, the park displays remnants from the First and Second Temple periods.

One of the standout features of the park is the Southern Wall excavation site. Here, you can see the steps pilgrims used to climb to reach the Temple Mount and the Hulda Gates, once the main entrance to the Temple compound.

Robinson's Arch, the ruins of an impressive ancient staircase that once led to the Temple Mount, is another must-see in the park. You can also explore the Umayyad palaces, evidence of the rich Islamic history of Jerusalem.

The Davidson Center, located within the park, houses a museum where you can learn more about the Temple Mount's history through interactive exhibits and 3D virtual reconstruction models. A film shown at regular intervals helps visitors understand the significance of the Temple Mount in both Jewish and Muslim traditions.

In addition to its historical and archaeological significance, the park also offers breathtaking views of the Old City and the Mount of Olives, making it a popular spot for contemplation and reflection.

This unique combination of rich history, spiritual significance, and vibrant, ongoing culture makes visiting the Jewish Quarter and The Davidson Archaeological Park a genuinely immersive and unforgettable experience.

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Evgeny Praisman (author)
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We find ourselves in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem, steeped in deep history. In front of us, the Hurva Synagogue stands as a symbol of the quarter's revival after its massive destruction by Jordanian forces during the Six-Day War. The meticulous restoration of Beit El Street and its buildings has breathed new life into them since 1967, carefully preserving and reinstating historical institutions like the Beit El Yeshiva, which have been integral to the Old City for centuries.

The Beit El Synagogue, also known as "Beit El Yeshiva - The Kabbalists' Nest" or "Congregation of the Pious", was established in 1737 in the Old City of Jerusalem by Rabbi Gedaliah Hayon, who immigrated from Turkey. Originally named "Midrash Hasidim", it quickly became a renowned centre for studying Kabbalah. The yeshiva served not only the locals of Jerusalem but also attracted students from Jewish communities worldwide, including Rabbi Abraham Gershon of Kitov, the brother-in-law of the Baal Shem Tov.

After Rabbi Gedaliah Hayon's death, Rabbi Shalom Sharabi, also known as the Rashash, one of the early Yemenite immigrants, took over as the head of the yeshiva. Initially serving as a sexton, his humility masked his profound Torah knowledge until his true scholarly prowess was recognized. Following his tenure, the leadership of the yeshiva was assumed by his student, Rabbi Yom Tov Algazi, and later by two of his sons.

Despite the restrictions on private entities sending emissaries, this institution was granted permission to send its representatives to Jewish communities in the Diaspora. After the War of Independence, the yeshiva was reestablished by Rabbi Ovadia Hadaya in the Yefe Nof neighbourhood of Jerusalem. Following the Six-Day War, Rabbi Meir Yehuda Getz reestablished an independent branch in the Old City. Today, the yeshiva is located on Rashi Street in Jerusalem, continuing its long-standing tradition of deep Kabbalistic study and influence.

The scholar Gershom Scholem wrote in 1941 about Beit El and its prayers: "Beit El... even today, as I write these lines, completely 'modern' people in their thinking can derive inspiration from observing Jewish prayer in its most sublime form."

Also, the writer S.Y. Agnon wrote about the synagogue in his story "Before the Wall": "About one house of prayer, I will set my words and say something. I will not tell great wonders but what I have seen there. Beit El is the name of the synagogue of the Congregation of the Pious, the Concentrated Sect. On the tenth of Av, before noon... I came there for the first time. The house was empty, and household items were covered with sheets, prepared to honour the 'Comforting Sabbath' after the ninth of Av.

One year, on Yom Kippur, I prayed there from evening to evening. I see you, Leah, amazed at that man who came to pray with the saints of the Supreme God. I will tell you, and not hide from you, this wonder was also wondrous above, when they heard the prayer of the last one in Israel amidst the blessing of the righteous and the pious, the Holy Community of Beit El."

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The orange tree growing in the rejuvenated Jewish Quarter of Old Jerusalem is not there without reason. An orange or citrus garden, known in Hebrew as 'Pardes', serves as an acronym for the four rules of studying Tanakh: Pshat, Remez, Drash, and Sod, which are fundamental principles taught in yeshivas.

This tree stands in a small square near the Four Sephardic Synagogues, a complex within the Jewish Quarter of Old Jerusalem. These synagogues, collectively referred to as RIBAZ, after Rabbi Yohanan Ben Zakkai, are among the most intriguing attractions in the area.

For centuries, they served as the religious and social hub of Jerusalem's Sephardic Jewish community. During the War of Independence in 1948, the Old City's Jewish Quarter was devastated, and the synagogues were burnt. It wasn't until after the Six-Day War in 1967 that the Quarter and the temples were rebuilt.

The construction of these synagogues dates back to the Middle Ages. After the expulsion of Jews from Spain and Portugal, the Sephardic Jewish population in Old Jerusalem significantly increased, leading to a demand for new synagogues.

In 1586, the Turkish governor of Jerusalem expropriated the building of the city's main synagogue, which had served as a religious and community centre for Jerusalem's Jews for 300 years. This event led Ashkenazi Jews to build the temple, subsequently known as the Hurva, while the Sephardic Jews built the Rabbi Yohanan Ben Zakkai synagogue complex.

It comprises the Rabbi Yohanan Ben Zakkai Synagogue, the Elijah the Prophet Synagogue, the Istanbul Synagogue, and the Middle Synagogue. A distinctive feature of these synagogues is their striking architecture, appearing modest and small from the outside but spacious and bright within.

This contrast was achieved by constructing the synagogue floor three meters below street level, increasing the height of the interior and creating the illusion of a larger space. Gothic arches and vaulted ceilings combine Moorish-style windows and doorway decorations, creating a unique atmosphere.

It was decided to follow these buildings' original design and spirit during the restoration and reconstruction. Thus, the Torah scrolls, the bimah, and the lamps were imported from Italy, Turkey, and Portugal. The Jerusalem Foundation and the Council of Sephardic Communities supervised the reconstruction, with funding from various foundations and private philanthropists.

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The "Chaiey Olam" Yeshiva was established on July 4th, 1886, in the Old City of Jerusalem by several Hasidic rabbis, Rabbi Yitzhak David Biderman, son of Rabbi Moshe from Leelov, and his nephew, Rabbi David Biderman, the Admor from Leelov, with the support of Rabbi Yehoshua of Kutna and his son-in-law Rabbi Chaim Elazar Wachs. The yeshiva served as the Hasidic counterpart in Jerusalem to the Etz Chaim Yeshiva, founded 45 years earlier by Rabbi Shmuel Salant.

The first head of the yeshiva was Rabbi Binyamin Yehuda Leib Bernshtein, son-in-law of Rabbi Yitzhak David Biderman. The yeshiva was initially founded in the Old City and moved from building to building before purchasing a building on Ma'aleh Chaladya Street in the Muslim Quarter, opposite the Cotton Market.

After a series of events, including the 1927 earthquake that severely damaged the building, and the 1929 riots, a new location was purchased on the outskirts of the Ahava neighbourhood ("today's Shabbat Square") in 1933. Over time, the yeshiva closed, leaving only a kollel and a Talmud Torah, which mainly served the old Jewish community connected to the Haredi community. The yeshiva building now houses the synagogues of Radzin and Eshel Hasidim, the Minzberg and Lamberger families, and a banquet hall.

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Descending from Mount Zion towards the Western Wall, we find ourselves in what was once the Tyropoeon Valley, a significant geographical feature that separated Mount Zion from Mount Moriah. From here, the view of Mount Moriah, encircled by supporting walls, is stunning. These walls were constructed under the orders of King Herod the Great, a testament to his architectural ambition and commitment to monumentalizing Jerusalem. Some of these walls now form the Western Wall, a site of profound religious significance. A concentration of structures can be seen atop these walls on the Temple Mount, an area steeped in history and cultural importance.

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The Davidson Archaeological Park, located in Jerusalem, is a fascinating open-air site that houses a collection of archaeological treasures, including the remnants of an ancient street from the Second Temple period. The park's operating hours typically are from 8:00 AM to 5:00 PM during the winter and from 8:00 AM to 7:00 PM in the summer. As for the entrance fee, the prices might vary, but as of my last update in May 2023, a standard adult ticket was about 30 ILS. However, I recommend checking the latest pricing details on their official website or directly contacting the park.

Once upon a time, this location was home to Lower Cardo, the city's central street during the late Roman and Byzantine periods. Part of the pavement of this street can still be seen today. The Southern Gates was once located here and can be seen in the distance, while new gates were constructed slightly to the east within the fortress wall.

The Lower Cardo with a view to the north. The ancient street ends at an unexcavated section, illustrating how the road might have looked. It ascended towards the city's northern gates, referred to at different times as the Shechem or Damascus gates.

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Right at the Davidson Archaeological Park entrance, a model of Jerusalem is located. From here, one can see the dominating Temple Mount complex with the current mosque with a golden dome at the centre. Underneath the golden dome lies the stone known as 'The Foundation Stone' (אבן השתייה), considered to be the centre of the universe. It's important to understand that the excavations in the archaeological park allow a glimpse into the historical past of the Temple Mount and the entire complex of the Second Jerusalem Temple.

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Various archaeological artefacts have been discovered during the excavations, dating back to different periods. For instance, a column mentioning the tenth Roman legion that destroyed the temple was found. We can also see rich ornamental decoration fragments from an archway corresponding to an earlier Arab dynasty. Here, south of the Temple Mount, palaces of the Arab rulers of Jerusalem were built, and many architectural elements represent a secondary use of stones that made up the monumental buildings during the time of King Herod the Great.

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Davidson Archaeological Park in Jerusalem spans the former palaces of an early Arab dynasty, built near the southern ruins of the Temple Mount. On the supporting wall of the Temple Mount, you can see a carved channel, an aqueduct that supplied water to the palaces. The street we are on runs alongside the western wall of the palace complex, mirroring the direction of an ancient road from the time of the Second Temple, ascending towards the Temple Mount from the City of David. This old street, dating back to the First Temple and the times of King David and Solomon, was built over the city's main drainage channel, which is remarkably well-preserved and can still be seen today. Moreover, a passage runs alongside it and beneath us, where people walk; you will soon see them ascending the stairs through a turnstile as if rising from two-thousand-year-old times.

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Breathtaking artefacts have been discovered in this part of the archaeological park. Archaeologists dug down the Second Temple period street level and found massive stone debris. They were formed by destroying the upper part of the wall, specifically the corner part of the supporting walls. Among the fallen stones were parts of the wall and a stone corner parapet with a unique niche for a trumpeter. Atop the walls, trumpeters announced the beginning of the month, the start of holidays, and other significant city events. But the researchers' joy was immense when, near this stone with the niche for the herald, they found an inscription carved in Hebrew: "Lebeit aTkiya Leavdil Bein Kodesh leHol." This translates to "Blow the shofar to distinguish between the holy or festive days and the ordinary days."

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Robinson's Arch is a historic site along the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem. Named after the American biblical scholar Edward Robinson who discovered it in 1838, the Arch is part of a more extensive bridge system believed to have once stood along the Western Wall, serving as a primary entrance to the Temple Mount.

We can see stones projecting above the channel carved into the wall. These supported a massive arch of a staircase portal that led up to the Temple Mount. This was an entrance for believers into this part of the Temple Mount, where Jews and Gentiles - Greeks, Romans, and all visitors to Jerusalem - could ascend to the large marketplace. Near the wall beneath the now-nonexistent Arch, you can see the small walls of shops and stalls and a wide pavement paved with large stones in front of them. It's easy to see how the falling Arch damaged the rocks of the pavement, and you can also notice that the pavement didn't come up tightly against the supporting wall of the Temple Mount but was separated by a parapet, behind which were the shops. Interestingly, the Western Wall, also known as the Wailing Wall, the contemporary name for this location, is nothing more than a continuation of this enormous, massive supporting wall of the Temple Mount.

The Arch itself, a masterpiece of Roman architecture, is thought to have been one of several that supported a staircase ascending from the street below to the entrances of the Temple Mount. The Arch collapsed during the Roman destruction of the Second Temple in 70 AD, leaving only its western abutment visible.

After its initial discovery, detailed excavations began in the late 1960s under the direction of archaeologist Benjamin Mazar, revealing different elements of this impressive structure. The excavations unveiled Arch's large size and complex design, suggesting its vital role during the Second Temple period.

Subsequent studies of the area around Robinson's Arch have shed light on various periods of Jerusalem's history and confirmed the Arch's importance in the city's architectural layout during the Second Temple era. The site continues to interest archaeologists and historians today, offering invaluable insight into the rich history of Jerusalem.

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Robinson's Arch is not only a testament to the grandeur of the Second Temple era architecture but also a window into the everyday life of the period. Directly opposite the supporting wall of the Temple Mount, the Arch's supporting system was also based on monumental supports. These supports contained shops and small auxiliary staircases, creating a vibrant marketplace directly under the archway, integrating commerce and worship in the same space.

Adding to this complex infrastructure, archaeologists discovered a series of mikvehs or ritual baths near the Arch. Pilgrims used these pools for ritual purification before ascending to the Temple Mount, adhering to the requirement of maintaining ritual purity. These mikvehs provide fascinating insights into this period's religious customs and practices.

The Arch, the marketplaces, the staircases, and the mikvehs together depict a bustling area full of religious, social, and commercial activity and contribute to our understanding of Jerusalem's multifaceted historical and cultural landscape.

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The capture and destruction of Jerusalem occurred in 70 AD, during the summer months, marking the culmination of the First Jewish-Roman War. The Roman legions were led by the future Emperor Titus, son of the then Emperor Vespasian. The defenders of Jerusalem were a mixture of Jewish rebel factions that had managed to hold the city since a widespread rebellion against Roman rule began in 66 AD.

The Roman legions first captured the "Upper City," also known as Zion, home to Jerusalem's aristocrats, wealthier citizens, and high priestly families. It was a beautiful area with ornate, high-quality architecture and broad, well-built streets.

After a brutal siege, the Romans finally breached the walls of the Holy City and moved on to assault the Temple Mount, the sacred heart of Jerusalem. It was here that the Second Temple, the centre of Jewish worship, was located.

Titus had initially hoped to preserve the Temple, but amidst the chaotic fighting, the Temple was set ablaze and destroyed, signalling a catastrophic loss for the Jewish people. Although the specific individual who started the fire remains unknown, the act marked a turning point in Jewish-Roman relations.

Intriguingly, Titus had a romantic relationship with Berenice, a Jewish princess of the Herodian dynasty. She was in Jerusalem during the early stages of the war but left before the siege. Later, she joined Titus in Rome, where their relationship continued.

Today, you can see the stones that once formed the upper part of the Western Wall, lying where they fell nearly two millennia ago during the Roman destruction of Jerusalem. These fallen stones are a stark and tangible reminder of the city's tumultuous past.

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Robinson's Arch holds numerous fascinating elements, including these steps that appear to be part of a staircase portal ascending to the Arch and bridge within the overall complex. The deliberate separation within the staircase may suggest a traffic flow design for the ascending and descending visitors. It could also have separated those who had completed the ritual purification process and ascended from those who had not. These are just a few possibilities, and while the exact purpose of this design remains speculative, it's clear that the division was purposefully built for some form of regulation or distinction among the users of this pathway.

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Indeed, in addition to Robinson's Arch, Southern Street led to the famed Huldah Gates, the key entry points to the Temple Mount from the south. This street was a central thoroughfare in ancient Jerusalem, lined with shops and public spaces. The Huldah Gates, named after the prophetess Huldah, consisted of double and triple gates leading directly onto the Temple Mount. They served as the primary access to the sacred site for many worshippers, creating a vibrant and bustling environment around the southern entrance to the Temple Mount.

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Today, the Huldah Gates are located outside the fortification walls of Jerusalem. The current borders were built during the reign of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, and the southern fortification wall of the city begins at the south of the supporting wall of the Temple Mount, leaving the Huldah Gate system beyond the boundaries of the modern Old City. From here, one can see the grey dome of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, which became the principal mosque of the early Arab dynasty. A particular passage connected the mosque with the palaces, emphasizing this area's meaningful religious and political connections in ancient Jerusalem.

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The Davidson Archaeological Park museum complex houses numerous artefacts and provides a detailed account of the history and significance of the Temple Mount in Jewish history and human civilization as a whole. Here, one can see parts of an ancient wall with remnants of plasterwork featuring a painted menorah, likely a schematic representation but a significant symbol for Jews worldwide as a reminder of the destroyed Temple. Jewish tradition meticulously maintains the memory of the destroyed Temple. For example, during a wedding ceremony, Jerusalem is mentioned, and a glass is broken as a symbol of remembrance of the ruined Temple. Similarly, every Jewish home should have a part of the wall unpainted or unfinished as a reminder of the destroyed Temple. The museum also houses a stone depiction that symbolically represents the Ark of the Covenant, which was forever lost following Jerusalem's destruction.

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The Dome of the Rock, a significant and recognizable octagonal Muslim structure perched atop the Temple Mount platform, profoundly symbolizes Jerusalem's rich religious history. The golden dome shelters an influential rock that has sparked fascination and reverence across different faiths for centuries.

In Jewish tradition, this rock is known as the "Foundation Stone" - believed to be the starting point of creation, the axis mundi or the world's navel. The rock carries significant religious implications as it's considered to mark the exact location of the Holy of Holies within Solomon's Temple and, subsequently, the Second Temple. Despite the destruction of the Temple, the memory of this sacred stone endured, and a wealth of traditions grew from it, cementing its place in Jewish cultural and religious memory.

After capturing Jerusalem and restoring the ruined Temple Mount, Muslims constructed an octagonal, grand stone edifice over the Foundation Stone. The design and details of this structure, which came to be known as the Dome of the Rock, commemorate the sanctity of the rock. According to Islamic belief, the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven from this spot, adding another layer to its spiritual significance.

The Crusaders, who saw the rock as sacred, constructed an altar atop it embellished with a pair of candelabras. Today, although the actual Foundation Stone cannot be viewed, visitors to the archaeological park can appreciate representations and echoes of its history and significance.

The Foundation Stone, echoing back to the days of Genesis, symbolizes the intersection between heaven and earth, and the connection between humankind and their God, from the perspective of believers. This compelling history and holy confluence make the Foundation Stone and its symbol, the Dome of the Rock, a captivating part of Jerusalem's archaeological and spiritual landscape.

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The museum in the archaeological park vividly recounts various architectural fragments and their proposed placement in the reconstructions of the temple buildings and the complex on the Temple Mount. These architectural remains, including carved stones, pillars, and capitals, offer invaluable insights into the design, construction techniques, and aesthetics of the ancient structures that once stood on the sacred mount.

Through comprehensive diagrams, models, and interactive displays, visitors can visualize how these pieces fit into the grand scheme of the Temple Mount. The museum also provides a context that helps understand these structures' historical and religious significance, offering a glimpse into the spiritual and daily life of the people who worshipped, conducted rituals, and traded in this holy complex.

With a focus on interpretive display and education, the museum bridges the gap between past and present, allowing us to appreciate the architectural marvels of the Second Temple period and understand the profound impact they had on the people of that time, as well as their enduring influence on the city of Jerusalem.

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Every fifteen minutes, a film is screened in the museum's theatre that artistically allows viewers to trace and understand the Temple Mount's sanctity in Jewish and Muslim traditions. The cinematic presentation is an immersive journey through time, showcasing the Temple Mount's historical, spiritual, and cultural importance.

The film helps elucidate why this site has been a focal point of faith and conflict for millennia, allowing viewers to gain insights into the religious narratives and practices associated with this sacred hill. It depicts the construction and destruction of the Jewish temples, the subsequent Muslim conquest and the construction of the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque, and the continued veneration of the site in both religions.

This multimedia experience provides a unique perspective on the Temple Mount, making this extraordinary place's complex history and deep-rooted spirituality accessible and engaging for all audiences.

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