Worth seeing from the inside
Every visitor to Jerusalem has seen David’s Tower—the picturesque fortifications beside the Old City’s Jaffa Gate, marked by a 17th-century minaret that is, improbably but indelibly, associated with King David.
Based on my unscientific surveys, too few visitors have ventured inside the complex. This is unfortunate: Today, the Turkish-era citadel houses the Tower of David Museum of the History of Jerusalem. In my view, this is the very best place to begin any tour of the city. Whether you are coming for an extended visit or just a few days, consider giving this institution the number-one spot on your Jerusalem itinerary.
In this singular space—which will take 90 minutes of your time at least—visitors experience a multimedia overview of Jerusalem’s history, taking in panoramic views of Jerusalem along the way, all the while walking among (and along) remains from the Hasmonean, Roman, early Islamic, Crusader, and Turkish periods of Jerusalem’s history—2,000 years of fortifications layered one on top of the other.
As you walk through the facility, rooms are devoted to various periods of Jerusalem’s history, from the Canaanite period to the British Mandate. The exhibits themselves are educational—almost no actual artifacts are on display. But don’t let this turn you away, for the displays are unique in their own ways. Here are three highlights, among many: a hologram depicting Solomon’s Temple, an oil painting on multi-layered glass depicting the interior of the Byzantine Nea Church, and a detailed cross-section model of the Dome of the Rock.
Of course, there are plenty of real things to look at, too. The Islamic period room, for instance, is set in a restored Mameluke-era mosque with an exquisite minbar (a stepped sermon-pulpit). Other authentic finds are scattered about as well—Roman ballistae, a fragment from the Second Temple’s Hulda Gate, and a Byzantine mosaic. Less expected—but no less enjoyable—are glass sculptures by modern artist Dale Chihuly: A yellow chandelier hangs near the entry-way, and green-glass plant-like sculptures adorn the courtyard—remnants of an exhibit from 2000.
For many visitors—the young and the young at heart—the highlight may well be climbing onto and into the Turkish ramparts for stunning, unobstructed views of Jerusalem (Old and New, East and West). The first of these towers—sitting atop the remains of King Herod’s Phasael Tower—is part of the standard tour route. But the others are worth climbing as well. The southwestern tower may beckon you, if only for a photo-op, to get as close as possible to the famed minaret. In the northwestern tower, you can walk into the fortifications to imagine what it may have been like to try to pour boiling oil down on pesky invaders.
The Tower of David Museum is not hard to find: Enter Jaffa Gate and walk briskly past the locals waiting for you, hoping you’ll need a tour guide. The fortifications of the citadel will be clearly visible on your right. Walking along with the dry moat on your right, make the first right turn, and then take another immediate right to cross over the first drawbridge you see.
Combined tickets are available for evening lightshows and walking along the Old City Walls, if you have time for either on the same or following day. Audio tours can be arranged as well, but advance planners can download (for free!) the entire audio tour, which you can then listen to (or read) in advance or in real time. On Friday mornings, the museum offers English-language tours of the dry moat and the excavations beneath the nearby Turkish-era prison complex. As for travel services: There are clean bathrooms, cold water fountains, and snacks available inside.
When you leave the museum complex, be sure to make a quick right turn before you cross back over that drawbridge. There is one last thing to see—though it’s not on the audio tour: a restored outdoor mosque with a soothing water fountain and an attractive mihrab (Islamic prayer niche) pointed toward Mecca on the south side of the courtyard. Here’s a quiet place to sit for a moment as you contemplate the next stop of your trip and prepare to encounter the hustle and bustle that awaits you as you approach Jaffa Gate once again.
Jonathan Klawans is Professor of Religion at Boston University. His most recent book is Josephus and the Theologies of Ancient Judaism (Oxford, 2012).
Site-Seeing: “Worth Seeing from the Inside” by Jonathan Klawans was originally published in Biblical Archaeology Review, September/October 2018.
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