What a city! Once we enter the old walled city we KNOW we are in Jerusalem.
and this is our hotel.
The Old City is everything we ever imagined Jerusalem would be. It transports us to another age. The City overwhelms the senses. Visually it is stunning, filling our eyes with extraordinary sights. Our noses are assaulted by an aromatic array of smells, some delightfully reminding us of the rich spices and teas that are on sale,
others not so delightfully reminding us that this is an ancient city where not everything works as well as we may like. Our ears are filled with a cacophony of sounds: Church bells ringing, people wailing out their religious prayers, vendors trying to catch our attention, tour guides calling out their stories, and everywhere the sounds of excited conversations carried out in a myriad of incomprehensible tongues.
The walls of the City enclose tiny narrow streets and passageways all paved with stone,worn down over the centuries to a slick, polished finish. The only way through the town is to walk, but it must be done with care. The City is on top of a hill so few of the passageways are level and most seem to have steps every few yards. Many are covered and those that aren’t are so narrow that you can not see any landmarks, so we rarely know exactly where we are. But that is part of the charm of the City. We walk for hours exploring these streets. The narrow passageways are lined with stores of all description. The entire walled City seems to be one huge Bazaar.
There are hundreds, if not thousands of shops all seemingly selling the same array of merchandise, spilling out into the passageways. The owner can usually be found sitting in a cheap plastic chair just outside the shop, trying to persuade customers to enter his store rather than the many others surrounding him or, if not succeeding at this endeavour, playing games on his mobile phone. There is everything a tourist could possible wish for and a lot more that he would never wish for. There are cafes, bars and restaurants all selling uninspiring food at awe inspiring prices. And there are rather seedy looking Hookah establishments, where rather seedy looking customers sit in seedy looking chairs, sucking on seedy looking pipes that have already been sucked on by countless other seedy looking customers. None of which deters the habitues from spending more time there than they are aware .
And in between all these establishments, there are tiny nondescript doors that open on to tiny steep grimy unlit stairs taking you up to small courtyards with more tiny doors leading to the homes above the stores. Many are very poor and in an alarming state of disrepair. They are drab and colourless with no plants or greenery to cheer them up. Washing hangs from every available wall. The homes are sad and depressing, in stark contrast to the lovely churches, nunneries and other theological buildings that can be found on the wider streets.
Periodically theses streets and passageways converge onto a small square, sometimes with a church, sometimes facing the city wall, to give you an idea of where you are, but always lined with cafes and more shops, and always full of tourists.
This is an ancient City trying to exist in a modern world. It survives on tourism, but doesn’t thrive. Everywhere there are signs of the struggle to keep up. There are power cables of all sorts being looped across the streets, from house to house, with no effort to conceal them. The fabric awnings erected decades ago to protect from the sun, now hang in tatters. The metal awnings survive, but are rusty, and often have trash thrown on top of them. There are children and stray cats everywhere. The stray cats are looking for food and avoid eye contact. The children desperately seek eye contact wanting to show you the way through the maze of passageways in return for a few sheckels. At first it seems charming, until they become quite abusive when the few sheckels you offer are fewer than the amount they have in mind.
But somehow through all this the city charms and delights
The one thing that is really missing is a warm reception.. This is the first place we have been to where the people are not friendly. They often make us feel unwelcome, as if we were imposing on them and their special place. Store keepers and cafe owners are not friendly, which seems so strange for a city living off tourism. And everywhere there is a feeling of tension and on occasions outright hostility, that is at odds with a city that is a spiritual mecca for so many people.
It is also our first encounter with a strictly observed Sabbath. There are places we cannot go, stores that are closed (though the overwhelming number of Old City Arab owned shops are open and doing a thriving trade) and indeed entire streets that are closed. We knew we would be unable to return our rental car this day but we can’t even buy tickets to walk the City Walls, or to anything else. And we are made to feel uncomfortable for not knowing. Today gentiles are not allowed to touch the Western (Wailing)Wall so we stand back and watch a huge endless stream of men crowd up to it.
But hostility takes on an entirely new meaning when we try to view the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque. There our way is barred by armed guards. We had already been warned that we would not be allowed inside the Mosque, but these guards won’t even let us look at it through the gates of its large courtyard. They wave their guns in our faces and send us scurrying back up the passageway.
The different religions that share this wonderful historic City create the hostility. Is this really what our Gods had in mind?
There is a welcome and inspiring exception to this. For people from a Christian society, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is breathtaking and many people both outside in the square and inside the Church are glowing. We all stand and stare in awe. This is the site where many Christians believe Christ was crucified, buried and rose from the dead.
Many sects have a specific area inside which is carefully guarded. I am not religious but the sense of place and history is inspiring. Those that are religious are easily identified by the blissful look on their faces and beatific smiles. It moves some to tears and others to a spiritual state of wonderment. Women in particular seem to find it especially spiritual and we see several instances of women just standing hugging each other sharing their enrichment. It is hard to imagine anyone being unmoved in this special place.
And, whatever the drawbacks of the City, it inspires similar feelings. It draws you in, envelopes you in its history, paints the pictures of times gone by, never lets you forget its incredible place in the world, and allows and encourages you to immerse yourself in all of this, something that until now you have only been able to imagine.
If you haven’t been there, you should go.