Exploring the Old City of Jerusalem means going back through time. Not just back but down through the layers of time. A city conquered, crushed, rebuilt, conquered and crushed, then rebuilt again and again and again, visitors to Jerusalem relive the adventure by touring the many layers of history which remain.
Many recent archeological discoveries come from the unfortunate exposure of many of the oldest layers caused by the Arab destruction of the ancient Jewish Quarter during the wars. When Israel won Jerusalem in 1967, archeologists were among the first to move into the destroyed areas, revealing incredible historical finds as they probed the layers. Imagine the process of debating and deciding when to stop at a particular layer in time and when to dig deeper, destroying what lay above, but potentially uncovering even older remains below. Some of their oldest finds date back to the First Temple period (950 BCE) and are preserved in the Museum of the First Temple Period.
Keep your equipment light and as portable as possible in a comfortable carrying bag. We recommend using a backpack or fanny pack while working in the Old City as the streets are narrow and you will pass through crowded market areas as you make your way around the walled city. Keep your pack, bag, or camera equipment with you at all times. You may be asked invited to have a local take your picture with your camera. Usually you can trust them, but it is up to you.
In addition to your camera equipment, carry water with you at all times. Dehydration is a constant threat, even in winter, so drink lots of water as you explore the city. Buy all film and photo accessories before coming to Israel. These items can be hard to find and very expensive. Print film is easily available as is most camera batteries, but expensive.
How you choose to explore Jerusalem is based upon your specific needs, be it religious, historical, and archeological. For our report, we will focus on the key highlights of the Old City of Jerusalem from a photographic perspective, helping you capture the magic of Jerusalem through your camera.
Exploration of the Old City of Jerusalem is on foot. There is no transportation allowed inside the walls without security clearance and permission by the government and city. Most of the old city is not designed for vehicles, though "mini-trucks" and some small utility and resident vehicles do pass through the narrow passages. Much of the old city features buildings built upon buildings, so the walls along the streets and corridors are high, casting cool shadows upon those below.
As the city is built upon hills, many of the streets feature stairs, usually with a small ramp in the center of the street for the passage of wagons and carts to deliver goods. These ramps allow narrow wheelchairs, though not all of the areas are accessible. In the crowded market areas it is easy to get lost, especially when merchants often carelessly cover street signs with merchandise hanging from the walls and ceilings, so bring a detailed map of the old city area (available throughout Israel and found in most tourist guide books).
Via Dolorosa – Way of Sorrow
The Via Dolorosa is one of the main attractions for Christian tourists. This is the alleged path Jesus Christ took on his way to the crucifixion. Beginning at Lion’s Gate (also known as St. Stephan’s Gate) on the east side of the old city, it passes along some interesting photographic opportunities, as well as chances to explore some of the ancient and new aspects of Jerusalem. Proclaimed by Emperor Constantin’s mother, Queen Helena, as the "true" locations where specific events described in the New Testament occurred, Via Dolorosa is considered part of the path of the final events in the life of Jesus. Each pivotal moment is highlighted by a designated "station" number. Some stations are highlighted as churches, chapels, sculptures on the wall, or just a simple number in Roman numerals.
Highlights of the Via Dolorosa include:
- Baths of Bethesda and Church of St. Anne
- Via Dolorosa begins at the Lion’s Gate on the far east east side of the Old City. Just inside the gate, only a few steps from the Birthplace of Mary is a small gated door with a humble sign that reads “Church of Saint Anne”. Its hours are limited with a break for lunch, but make a point of visiting this rare treasure. Through the door, you enter a calm and peaceful courtyard. Purchase your entry ticket in the windows on the left for a few shekels and then continue forward into the garden courtyard. You can’t help but be moved by the silence after the noise and mayhem of the Old City. If the season is right, the flowers in the courtyard will be in glorious bloom. Past them, is the Church of Saint Anne, the mother of Mary, who is said to be buried in the crypt below the church, open to visitors. The church itself is very simple, standing on the place that some say was once the home of Mary’s parents. It was built in the first half of the twelfth century, blending together traditional Romanesque and Crusade architectural features. Moving beyond the church is the ruins of the Baths of Bethedsa, considered one of the holiest, but not as frequently visited, sites in Israel. This is supposedly the site of a healing of a cripple by Jesus. The ruins are amazing, taking you deep down through time, giving you a chance to see the layers upon layers of the real Jerusalem. Not to be cynical, but if you want to really walk in the footsteps of Jesus travel down into the ruins and you’ll be closer than you are on the street level of current Jerusalem.
Photographing the ruins is a challenge. An overall area shot from the first overlook doesn’t seem to capture the depth and magic of the place. Photographed in the middle of the day makes it worse, so aim for morning, just before they close in the afternoon, or pray for clouds, as the high contrast shadows and glare from the stone walls makes this very challenging. After you get an overall shot of the area, go inside and think of the patterns, the different layers of stone, some original, some restored, showing the quality of construction and age. Aim through windows and doorways to frame other subjects. Photograph the different relics and archeological remains from different angles instead of just standing right over them, framing them against the ruins. If you are looking for contrast between the old and the new, look up to the west and north and you will see private homes hovering over the walls, almost spilling over into the ruins, with TV antennas, laundry, and sundry elements of life in the Middle East.
- Dolorosa Start – Lion’s Gate
- The Arab/Muslim Cemetery just outside of Lion’s Gate offers a wonderful view and perspective of the gold onion bulbed towers of the Russian Orthodox Church below in the valley, as well as other sites of interest including the Mount of Olives and other sites across the valley into East Jerusalem. The cemetery itself is interesting, though be aware some Arabs don’t appreciate tourists in the cemetery. The view of the Kidron Valley and/or the Garden of Gethsemane is wonderful from a high point in the cemetery at sunset.
- Home of Mother Mary
- The ancient home and burial chambers of Mary, mother of Jesus, is found not far along the Via Dolorosa from Lion’s Gate. On the north side of the narrow street, the sign on the building reads: Mary’s House. If the door is closed, knock. Someone is usually available to escort you down the stairs to the entry way of the small chamber carved into stone, part of the home of Mary’s family and the spot where she was born. You will be invited to make a small contribution and to light a candle. Continue down the stairs to the burial chamber of her parents. While photographically challenging, these burial and "living" chambers are very representative of the way of life Jesus knew. Creative photographic effects may include working with a tripod and the available light from the candles, or creative use of a diffused and filtered filter used on low power to add gentle warm light. The burial "caves" represent the method traditionally used at that time, giving you a rare insight into exactly how Jesus was probably buried, rather than the ornate or more modern assumed methods seen in other parts of Jerusalem.
- Monastery of the Flagellation
- The Monastery of the Flagellation is Station 2 and features a peaceful courtyard with two small chapels across from each other. The newer one to the right of the entrance features a simple chapel with a dramatic dome ceiling above the altar surrounded by the carved detail of the crown of thorns. Consider using a wide angle lens and tripod to capture the interesting crown of thorns dome roof, adding a touch of fill-flash, possibly using a diffused and/or warming filter on the flash. A wide angle lens will help to encompass the altar and ceiling, as well as the interesting modern stain glass windows. Outside the other chapel across the courtyard is a replica of Jerusalem at the time of Christ, giving the viewer an aerial view and better perspective of how the city was then. Next to the replica on the wall by the entrance to the chapel are mosaics and relics from that time period on display. These offer opportunities for closeup photography of these unusual items representative of the Greek and Roman occupation.
- Station Three – Christ Falls
- Around the southern corner of the intersection of Via Dolorosa and El Wad is Station 3, featuring an interesting sculpture of Christ falling under the weight of the cross carved into the high wall. Few of the Stations of the Cross are so dramatically highlighted, with many of them featuring only a number over a small doorway to draw your attention. Located in an unusually open corridor of the Old City, this is best photographed when in the shade, early in the morning, late in the afternoon, or on a cloudy day, as the sunlight usually casts deep shadows on this deep relief sculpture. Use of a fill-flash should help overcome some of the harsher shadows. A warming filter will add some warmth to the reflective stone.
- Roman and Crusader Remains
- Crusader remains are found near the Church of the Redeemer at the triangle where Muristan and St. Helena streets come together near the southern entrance to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Another open area, the bright midday sun casts dark shadows. Fill flash will help capture the interesting detail of these remains of an ancient gate or building. It is from this triangular square people landmark before moving towards the Holy Sepulcher.
- Church of the Holy Sepulchre
- The Church of the Holy Sepulcher is the last stop on the Via Dolorosa. The most important church in Christianity reveals much of the unique style that makes Jerusalem so special. Finding the church in the twists and turns of the Old City can be a challenge. There are many ways to reach the church, but the easiest path is taken by turning east from the Christian Quarter Street onto St. Helena, where St. Helena and Copts streets meet just offset from each other. From the south, turn west from Muristan Square by the Church of the Redeemer along St. Helena through a small opening among Christian oriented gift shops into the small square before the church. A flash is required in this dark church, unless you arrive during the slow times and use a tripod to capture the few areas lit by light coming in from the windows. For dramatic images (with flash) of the various religions doing their processional through the church, arrive about 3:30 PM as they begin about 4:00 PM. To work the church away from the throngs of tourists, try early morning or late evening in the middle of the week. The church is the busiest mid morning and mid afternoon, especially Friday through Sunday. We discuss more about photographing within the Holy Sepulchre in a separate article.