Jerusalem - Markets and Craftsmen in the Old City

Out of the way – Jerusalem, Israel

Let me come clean from the start, this was not my first trip to the city, nor was it my second or third but perhaps….

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However this time the purpose was more than a revisit. It was to meet peers and soak up from those with more experience in the realm of travel blogging and see what the capital of three world religions has to offer.

Choices, choices
I am not a fan of following a colourful flag, fiddling with a headset, waiting for everyone else to get out of the way to get a snapshot or getting on and off a bus. However this was different, not only would I get a chance to hang out with peers, bloggers like me who were here to learn and network, there were no buses involved. After skimming through the plethora of options on offer I reluctantly accepted that I could only be in one place at one time, so time to choose.

First one out was a walk called “Markets and Craftsmen in the Old City” meeting up at the Jaffa Gate. There a cheery blonde caught our attention when she spoke up. Dorit Gravier founder of Yerushalmit was the one to take us around and behind the scenes. As a guide for fifteen years and a mother of four, she certainly had the experience to deal with tour groups behaving badly. After a short Round-Robin of intros we set off and went straight to the top. Looking down from the Tower of David gave us some perspective on the city below. From then on it was downhill past the souvenir hawkers offering spices, menorahs, scarfs, photographs, trinkets, rocks of incense, wooden crosses, all seeing eyes, well you get the picture.

A sharp right off David Street into the calmer quarters where the Blue and White Star of David flags confirmed that we were in the Jewish quarters. Different souvenirs, more artwork, jewelry and obviously Judaica . Soon we stood in a semicircle around Yosef (Gagso) of Weaving Creation who shared his spiritual journey and how he with his wife’s support moved from the North to set up shop in Jerusalem. Between sentences he effortlessly threw yarn between the warp and slammed the cotton threads tightly together as he spoke about the Jewish tallit tradition and the colours used by different denominations. Behind him a shelf full of yarmulkes in varied styles which he demonstrated without spiel. Leaving the looms behind we climbed below today’s street level for a peek at the pillar lined Cardo, one of the two main artery roads built by the Romans. Remarkably it was not excavated until after it fell under Israeli control in 1967 and is now visible to the world.

Cotton to clay
From the Romans the road brought us to Muristan which’s origins lay in the Crusader period when a pilgrim hospice stood here. As my eyes swept around Barakat Antiqueties the feeling of being a bull in a China shop crept up on me. Clay pottery, urns and amphoras some dating back to an age before anyone bothered keeping track of time filled display case after display case along the walls and across the floor. Transparency could be had in Byzantine glass or bling-bling in replicas of old jewellery. Clearly a take home of the Old City from this licensed dealer.

Swept away
A dash later we wondered through a vaulted store and into an open courtyard a typical feature of the city most tourists never see. It was more to it though in the calm away from the street’s hustle and bustle. Inside a dark room worked a group of men who had no use for lights. Instead the workers of the Arab Blind Organisation used the tactility of trained hands to produce an array of brooms and brushes by hand. Their skills to without a sense that most of us take for granted produce a quality product was impressive and run like a well-oiled machine. The well-stocked store we walked back through was testament to their dedication.

Dressed for success
Back at Muristan Bilal Abu Khalaf dressed in kaftan and fez welcomed. His shop sits on the bedrock of Jerusalem visible through a glass floor. Abu Khalaf is literally a man of the cloth a “Dealer All Kinds of Oriental Fabrics”, but he is more than, he is also a performer using his long counter as stage. As he rolled out a striped black and white silk fabric favoured by many Orthodox Jews at Shabbat he explained that it actually has Muslim roots. Bale after bale of exquisite fabrics from Morocco, Egypt and believe it or not Syria comes off the shelves and spill over the counter. Not shy or necessarily modest he proclaims that he has dressed popes, patriarchs, appeared in multiple magazine articles and on TV. As we continued to admire the fabrics he runs upstairs to get the stuff he can’t keep in the store. First off embroidery with 14 karat gold thread, followed by 18 k and the grand finale a 21 karat gold threaded precious stone studded decorative piece with the a price tag of a family car.

Ground to a ….
After feasting our eyes it was time to put our taste buds to a test. Dorit walked off the main street near the Damascus Gate to stop at a narrow door of what looked like a small food shop. Through the door, in behind the counter to a cavernous room, the heart of the operation. Along one wall a stone oven, two large stainless steel vats and one slowly turning grind stone which by must be squeezed by. On the floor bags of Sesame seed, the best come from Tunisia Ishak the owner explains. They just don’t make it this way anymore he continues and refers to the large industrial scale producers of Tahini. This factory has been in operation for over two centuries and my family has been in it for three generations. Before the basalt grind stone stood in the centre of the room and was driven by donkeys, horses or mules, well anything that could drag it around he laughs and point out the holes in the stones side. Before the seeds get stoned shells are peeled off aided by a saltwater bath and roasted in the open oven. The longer the time in the oven the darker and smokier the flavour becomes. As the mill stone turns we dip into the samplers. Indeed the red Tahini which is roasted longer than the white is much smokier with a taste of peanut butter. Ishak tells the story of how his father was put to work at the age of eight and retired from the family business a century later to pass away at hundred-and-twenty years of age. The implication, eat Tahini and live long might have contributed to the sales he makes as we leave him.

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