Over half the world’s population can claim a religious link to an area walked through in either direction within 20 minutes.
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However rushing through it would be a mistake as there is so much to experience in the alley ways of the Old City of Jerusalem.
Full disclosure I am no religious scholar and never studied the Torah, the Bible or the Quran. Instead open source and eyes lead me through the city I first visited almost a generation ago. It was time to reacquaint this time during Holy week. Again I opted to lodge in the Arab East Jerusalem where my hotel budget would last longer and keep me closer to the gates of the Old city. Back in 1988 I recall teargas in the air and shuttered shops during the beginning of the first Intifada. Now the shop windows were filled with fashion and AFC (Arab Fried Chicken) fast food shops nearby Salah e-Din Street.
Passing through the grand gate Muslims call Damascus and Jews Nablus the bustling Arab vegetable market was in full swing. One shout louder than the other calling on shoppers with wares at competitive prices very likely the same way it was done centuries ago. At the bottom of the slope stood cart after cart filled with a fuzzy green fruit not recognizable to me. Almonds I was told which I had never seen in fresh state but just the pits out of a bag in dried or roasted form.
At Via Dolorosa a group of assault-rifle-at-the-ready IDF/Israeli police chatted whilst keeping an eye on the street and passersby. A few floors above a machine gun nest. The gate to the Armenian Church of St. Mary of agony stood open to worshipers. Outside a row of T-shirt shops an Arab shop keeper on a stool with a newspaper and by his side an Israeli soldier with an AK, a paradox.
The street swirled on under apartment overpasses and by shops with incense. A group of Jewish mothers and kids on their way to shul escorted by four guys packing 9 mm side arms. Kindergarten cops. A Palestinian teahouse/café advertising coffee better than Starbucks, this is obviously the tourist route. I bend my head and climb down the stairs into a cave like room. I am not there for the coffee but a Sahlab, a glass of steaming hot milk flavored by an orchid, a delicious Lebanese import for the winter which for me feels more like late spring. I ask Samih who just served me how life is. It is tough he acknowledges but what can you do? He continues to say that just a few weeks ago a Palestinian grandmother in her mid-fifties was shot dead nearby by Israeli security. It is there all the time just under the surface, the tension is palpable, and sometimes boil over resulting in death. I down the last drops of Saleh and thank him. Walking out I thought wow what a reality check but can’t get my head around how it have gotten this way and that the peace puzzle of the Middle East have no solution yet.
At the end of the road a dark tunnel, a scanner and a metal detector. Polite security asks for everything on a tray. My workhorse always catches attention. “Nice camera” I hear and agree before getting my belt back on ready to continue towards the light at the end of the tunnel. So under an overcast sky I am s there at the plaza by the holiest site in Judaism, the Western wall. Ignoramuses like I have called it the Wailing Wall but not so if you are Jewish. This is a fascinating place the grand plaza and a slew of black coat clad men with wide brimmed hats make their way towards the tall big-block retaining wall to the second temple dating from the 2nd Century. Above it in the distance the Golden Dome of the Rock.
I’ll take in the scene for a while before following on down the slope and grab a loan kippah on the way. I’ll keep my distance from the worshippers out of respect but as there is some space walk up towards the wall to see the thousands of prayer notes stuck between the stones. A young man lifts a heavy silver clad Torah roll out of a wooden cabinet along the wall. He struggles and gets help by the adult men following him. They are not speaking Hebrew, but Spanish and it is the young man’s Bar-Mitzvah. I decide to “crush the party” and look on as the young man place the Torah on a table and unfold it to read a few verses whilst his Rabbi looks on and help out as needed with the pronunciation. Suddenly candy flies through the air and a dance around the table ensue. I don’t understand the ritual but enjoy the show. His mother shouts out from the other side of the fence and gives him a big hug and kiss from the women’s side of the separated wall. More readings and more candy before the Torah is rolled up and the boy goes with the Rabbi to the wall for prayer. I’ll leave them to it but feel culturally enriched as I walk around to see more.
For lunch I stop by Abu Shukri for a hummus, a falafel and some pickled veggies. With a belly full it is uphill through the touristy part of the Shuk (Suq) where I get more buying suggestions than I need. At the end of David Street the Tower of David fortress looms large before I head out the Jaffa Gate. It feels like I have arrived in a different country and in some ways I have, this is West Jerusalem the Jewish side of town. A pedestrian mall with wide walkways, western shops, filled restaurants and cafes, it is very different. At the e end an orthodox Jew dressed in hat and coat strums a guitar singing Bob Dylan tunes and even Pink Floyds “Another brick in the wall”.
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