With Palestinian refugee settlements, Bedouin shacks and Jewish towns dotting the scree-covered hills, the modern-day is very much in evidence in this ancient land as we approach Jerusalem through the Judaean desert. For the moment, though, our attention is not on the political significance of what we’re seeing. We’re tracing the journey of Jesus, our guide Miri tells us. Over there is where Lazarus came back from the dead, and there, where Moses was buried. Beyond the green oasis of Jericho is the flat-topped hill on which the Devil is supposed to have tempted Jesus with the kingdoms of the Earth. Biblical appeal indeed: or, as the tourist board like to put it, “if you liked the book, you’ll love the country”.

To even begin to get a handle on what makes Jerusalem tick, you’d better be prepared for one hell of a history lesson. Fortunately, the view compensates as we start our day on the Mount of Olives, overlooking a city bathed in soft morning light. At the centre of the scene is Temple Mount or Haram ash-Sharif, where Abraham was called upon to sacrifice his son. For Jews, this is the site of the First Temple of Solomon, built 3000 years ago – the Passover pilgrimage having drawn Jesus to Jerusalem. For Muslims, it is Al Aqsa, ‘the edge of the world’, the place where Mohammed ascended on his night ride to Heaven to receive the Koran. Yet the place that unites the three great monotheistic religions is also what divides them, as continued tensions and sporadic clashes have proved.

Miri draws our eye beyond to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, then left to the Armenian quarter. Every nation had a yearning for Jerusalem, and to make a connection here,” says Miri, pointing to onion domes rising from a Russian compound, spires from an Ethiopian church – built by Italians. It’s enough to make your head spin.

From solidarity missions to personal pilgrimages to curious tourists, the magnetism has not weakened. As we make our way down the ‘Palm Sunday path’, a group of orthodox Jews cross paths with a group of Christian nuns at the gates to the vast Jewish cemetery which Miri wryly refers to as a “kind of revenge”. In Christian and Byzantine times, Jews were not allowed into the city, and some believe that those buried here will be the first to resurrect and enter Jerusalem when the Messiah comes.

You don’t have to be a believer to feel awed at the significance of where you are. Even for an atheist, the place names have a mythical ring to them – whether this is truly where Jesus was betrayed by Judas or not, actually standing in the Garden of Gethsemane feels akin to making your way through the wardrobe to Narnia. After all, The Da Vinci Code may have visitors scrambling to Paris, but in terms of being the backdrop to a publishing phenomenon, the Bible is a pretty tough act to follow.

For the extremely devout, on the other hand, the fabled city can be overwhelming enough to bring on delusions. ‘Jerusalem syndrome’ is a well-documented psychiatric disorder that has turned several ultra-religious visitors into ranting Virgin Marys, Samsons or John the Baptists on arrival in the Holy Land.

“People go crazy and think they’re prophets,” grins 19-year-old Alex Greenberg from north London. “I’ve seen four Jesuses since I’ve been here.”

Greenberg is one of an ever-increasing number of young Jews from western Europe and the US taking time out to live and travel in Israel before heading to university – despite the fact that he’s spent the past eight months studying from 7am until 11pm, he is full of enthusiasm for Jerusalem. “As a Jewish boy with skull cap and tassles, you’re told not to go to the Muslim Quarter. But, really, I feel at home here. No one shouts stuff at me – even in Finchley I get that.”

On the surface, the mix of religious groups certainly makes for never-ending visual interest. In the wide square next to the Western Wall, young Israeli soldiers hang tough, orthodox men in heavy hats and coats hurry from morning prayer and a group of Congolese Jews in bright African dress photograph each other at the endpoint of what must have been a considerable journey. Within a few moments we are in the cool, shadowed alleyways of the Muslim quarter. A few more steps into the Jewish quarter and the ancient bazaar instantly becomes a gleaming 21st century mall. Understanding the complexities of Jerusalem is even more impossible close-up than when viewed from afar.

To illustrate the point, Miri leads us finally to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Built in AD333 on Golgotha – the site of Christ’s crucifixion, burial and resurrection – it’s surprisingly unremarkable. Yet here is a typical example of Jerusalem’s special brand of religion as obstacle. The Church is ‘maintained’ by six different Christian sects, each guarding their own patch so fiercely that territorial disputes have frequently come to blows. From the Catholic-run chamber where Jesus’ clothes were taken to the incense-filled Greek Orthodox section containing the rock of Calvary to the cobweb-filled empty space assigned to the Assyrian Jacobites, it makes for a disjointed experience that echoes the fragmented nature of Jerusalem itself.

Our surreptitious search for the manhole cover that recently sparked a fistfight between two priests meets with disapproving eyes however, and as we emerge into the afternoon – exhilarated and exhausted by this confusing, breathtaking, unique city – Miri voices what we’re all thinking. “If it has taken this long to reach an agreement over one single site, what hope is there for the rest of Jerusalem?””