Jerusalem is often in the news — and not necessarily for the right reasons. The combination of religion and politics might put many off visiting the city. That’s a shame because it’s an incredible place to visit. Not only is it the meeting point of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, it’s also a vibrant, energetic city that’s full of character and mysticism.
Because of the city’s religious significance, I set both Stone of Fire and End of Days in Jerusalem and it continues to inspire my writing.
Many ‘things to see in Jerusalem’ articles will focus on obvious sites to visit such as the Western Wall or the Church of the Holy Sepulchre – and you should make a point of seeing both. But if you want to experience a different side of the city, to see beyond the tourist front, then here are 10 strange, unusual and wonderful things to see in Jerusalem.
1. Razzouk Ink
Head to the Old City to find Razzouk Ink. No ordinary tattoo parlor, this family-run business has tattooed pilgrims for seven centuries. The practice of religious tattoos was common in Egypt where the Razzouk family originates. Tattoos allowed Christians to identify themselves as Copts in the Middle East, so they could access churches.
Pilgrims wanted similar tattoos to mark their devotion. They often had the date added to act as a ‘certificate’ that they’d visited the Holy Land. Tattooists would add extra dates to mark future visits.
Razzouk Ink combines the old stone walls and 16th-century accounts by pilgrims with the sterility of the tattoo parlour. The family own stencil blocks that are 200-300 years old, which act as a guide for common tattoo designs. They still offer tattoos to pilgrims and visitors alike, with a flexible schedule. Find Razzouk Ink near the Jaffa Gate in the Old City.
2. Zedekiah’s Cave
This is no ordinary quarry. Lying beneath the city’s Muslim district, the tunnels boast graffiti in four different languages.
The Western Wall and the Turkish clock tower in the Jaffa Gate have stones from the quarry. The authorities sealed it for a time though Freemasons used it for a Masonic Lodge meeting in 1868.
If that isn’t enough to pique your interest, some suspect the quarry dates to the same era as King Solomon’s Mines. The cave sometimes plays host to musical performances, adding to the atmosphere of the space.
It also provides a respite from the heat though good walking shoes are recommended.
3. The Montefiore Windmill
English philanthropist Moses Montefiore built the windmill to bring industry to the area outside the Old City. Built in 1857, it operated for eighteen years until Montefiore noticed the wind wasn’t consistent enough to move the blades.
It was a nice idea, but windmills just aren’t feasible in this part of the world. Steam power took over in mills in the area and it became an observation tower during the War of Independence. The city restored the windmill in 2012, making it one of the more unusual things to see in Jerusalem.
If you’re feeling adventurous, you can reach the windmill by Segway. Enjoy the view of the Old City when you get there. Pop into the Montefiore Museum if you’d like to learn more about 19th century industry in the area.
4. Hamifletzet, the Monster Playground
Artist Niki de Saint Phalle created this playground sculpture for Rabinovich Park. The commissioners rejected her design, worried children might find it too frightening.
Thankfully, de Saint Phalle persuaded the mayor to reconsider. She argued that some things need to be scary to help children process fear. Installed in 1972, it was a hit with the local children.
It’s now a bright spot of color amid Jerusalem’s architecture.
5. Shrine of the Book
Head to the Israel Museum to see the Shrine of the Book. The 800 Dead Sea Scrolls live in this purpose-built wing, after being discovered between 1947 and 1956.
Built in 1965, the museum rotates the display of scrolls to protect them. Scrolls return to a storeroom after 3-6 months on display. The most intact scroll is the Isaiah scroll.
When you’ve finished viewing the scrolls, see the rest of the Israel Museum. Their rolling program of exhibitions supplements their permanent displays.
Even if you don’t go inside, the modern art exterior of the Shrine is one of the most beautiful things to see in Jerusalem.
6. The Kishle, at the Tower of David Museum
In 1834, Palestine’s governor built a prison alongside the Tower of David. Known as the Kishle, the building also saw use as a military compound and a police station.
The museum intended to use the prison for their Education Department. After finding almost three millennia of history under the floor, they excavated the site and opened it to tourists.
The artifacts found by archaeologists belong to Romans, Ottomans, Arabs, Crusaders, and even the British. They even discovered the ruins of Herod’s palace. Rumors whisper that Pontius Pilate stood on the spot when he passed sentence on Christ.
It’s worth visiting the Tower of David Museum for their light show, too. The show recreates Jerusalem’s history using light projected onto the walls of the museum.
7. The Museum on the Seam
The Museum on the Seam stands on the border of West and East Jerusalem. The building that houses the museum dates to 1932 and was an Israeli military outpost.
Evidence of its military past is clear from the bomb and bullet damage to the external walls. The museum runs exhibitions inside the building, using art to promote themes of unification. The artworks often allow for conversation in a way that doesn’t happen elsewhere. It’s an important space that tries to overcome boundaries and division. I can understand their aim – writing Map of Shadows was my way of understanding artificial borders.
The New York Times called the Museum on the Seam one of 29 leading global art venues. Lonely Planet named it one of the top art venues in Jerusalem.
8. Jerusalem Biblical Zoo
I don’t normally recommend zoos, but this is a zoo with a difference. Begun in 1940 by a professor of zoology, the animals included in the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo are all featured in the Bible. Over 140 different species live at the park.
Their remit evolved over the years, and they now feature two sections; animals from the Bible and endangered species.
A captive breeding program helps repopulate species currently extinct in Israel. With its focus on Biblical studies and conservation, it’s one of the more family-friendly things to see in Jerusalem.
9. Secret Room
I’ve talked about secret rooms before since there’s one in New Orleans. The Jerusalem Secret Room gives options; leading a million-dollar robbery or escaping from a medieval castle.
Players must solve the ‘locked room’ puzzle within an hour to win the game. Follow the clues and unravel the mystery. They’re designed for groups so make sure you take a couple of friends!
If you’re a fan of thrillers, then the Secret Room will be ideal for you.
10. Yad Vashem
Yad Vashem is the World Holocaust Remembrance Center. Not only do they host the Holocaust History Museum, they also handle research projects and provide resources for teachers. The museum handles this darkest of periods of human history with dignity and respect.
Perhaps we need museums honoring the victims of such atrocities now more than ever.
If you visit Jerusalem, and you’re respectful to its citizens, you’ll see its strange and wonderful treasures in all their glory.
While I’ve focused on its unusual side, make sure you also visit the obvious tourist wonders of the Via Dolorosa or the Arab Souk while you’re there.
There are plenty of these hidden or unusual things to see in Jerusalem. Visit with an open mind and who knows where you’ll go?
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