Sacred Geography

by Community Writers

From the top of the Phasael Tower at the Tower of David, one is surrounded by a 360 degree view of Jerusalem, and can see the city in all directions. Of course, in Jerusalem, when you talk about directions, you aren’t just talking geography. Directions are also the directions that humanity took here – the steps that lead from the past to the future.

תצפית למזרח ולמערב

We first look to the East to get our orientation. In fact, the word orient literally means “east” just as when you begin to orient yourself  –  to take your bearings – and set out to understand something, you figuratively face east. Looking East here, you get an orientation of the formative stories that made Jerusalem what it is – the Holy City of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. And when you look to the west, you see the growth of modern Jerusalem, towards development, growth and progress.

Let’s start at the beginning. Looking east from the Phasael Tower we look into the past. Throughout history, Jerusalem has evolved along a holy geography. According to the traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, Abraham, the father of all three religions,  King David, Jesus and Muhammad, who came to Jerusalem and had formative moments in the city. Traditions were established and holiness was conferred on the sites connected to these biblical figures. To this day, different buildings, quarters and communities in the city tell the stories and traditions that underpin the sanctity of Jerusalem for followers of three faiths.

The area of the entire Old City  is only one square mile that is filled with countless traditions from Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Sometimes these traditions align but, often, they differ resulting in one site harboring three distinct traditions.

Which holy sites can be seen from Phasael Tower?

The most prominent symbol on the skyline is the Dome of the Rock. At its foot, you can see the dense composition of the Muslim Quarter, where more than 30,000 people live. It is the largest and most populated of the Old City districts. Just north of the Muslim Quarter are the two great domes of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the center of the Christian Quarter where about 5,000 people live.

הרובע הנוצריThe Christian Quarter

From the Phasael Tower one cannot see the Western Wall which lies at the foot of the Dome of the Rock and lies just below the Jewish quarter.  However you can  see the white dome of the prominent Hurva synagogue in the center of the Jewish quarter. The smallest and the oldest of all four quarters is the Armenian which is surrounded by its own walls within the walls of the Old City.

Sacred Geography became actual geography and for many years Jerusalem remained a very small city, one square kilometer where the holy sites of Judaism, Christianity and Islam are concentrated. As opposed to the historical Eastern side of the city, a look westward allows the viewer to understand the story of how Jerusalem developed and changed. How, after almost 3000 years the city dared to leave the city walls and leap over the Valley of Gehenna to grow and change.

In the 19th century, Sir Moshe Montefiore came to Jerusalem and built the first neighborhood outside the Old City walls, called Mishkenot Sha’ananim. But why did the residents of Jerusalem refuse to leave the Old City walls for the new neighborhood? The valley located at the foot of the Tower of David, is traditionally associated with the Biblical abode of the damned in the afterlife.  It is believed that children were once sacrificed in the valley in worship of the Ammonite god, Moloch and that during the First Temple Period, some Israelites also carried out this practice by sacrificing children there instead of cattle.   Another Christian tradition, tells of Judas, who betrayed Jesus and, filled with regret at his actions, killed himself in this very valley.  Throughout history, the Gehenna Valley had an evil reputation and therefore it took almost 6 years of persuasion before the Jews agreed to take that fateful step and cross Gehenna into the new neighborhood of Mishkenot Sha’ananim.


טחנת הקמח במשכנות שאננים
Mishkenot Shaananim

Jerusalem grew during the Ottoman period and dozens of other neighborhoods were built. In 1917, the British conquered the city. During the British Mandatory era,  a number of beautiful buildings were built in the city that can still be seen. One of them is the magnificent King David Hotel which was built in the 1930s. Presidents, Prime Ministers and world leaders who come to Jerusalem stay here. Beyond the King David Hotel is the dome of the YMCA building, built in the same years. Jerusalem grew and developed under British rule until 1948 and the outbreak of the War of Independence. At the end of the War of Independence, Jerusalem was divided into two – the eastern side of the city, including the citadel were ceded to Jordan. The Jordanian Legion commanded the citadel and the top of the observation tower overlooked the no-man’s land between the Old City and the New City – the Valley of Gehenna complex, the Mamila neighborhood and more.

The 1967 Six Day War created a territorial continuum in Jerusalem.  East met West, the city tripled in size and became the largest city in Israel. New neighborhoods were built in all directions, including French Hill, Gilo, Ammunition Hill and more.

3000 years and a few steps away from the eastern side of the Phasael Tower lies the  western side of Jerusalem and the transformation from an ancient city, holding the roots of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, to a large and developed city, the largest city in Israel.