I was pretty sure I would be overwhelmed by the Old City of Jerusalem. I didn’t know in what way, though; would I be annoyed by the tourists and the souvenir peddlers or would my senses just be overloaded by the history and architecture of the place? Maybe I’d have a full-blown epiphany! No, I wasn’t seriously considering that, actually. I’m not a religious person, yet felt like I needed to visit the Old City of Jerusalem at least once.
I was really enthusiastic about finally visiting the Old City of Jerusalem that morning. I had slept terribly because, as it turns out, Israelis don’t believe in central heating and Jerusalem gets very cold at night in winter, but my enthusiasm woke me up like ten cups of coffee. The sun was shining and I had absolutely nothing to do other than explore an epic place.
I walked to the Old City from my rental apartment in the neighborhood of Rehavia. My stroll took me past modern hotels, a mall and the new U.S. embassy, I grabbed a coffee at a Russian café, and overall just got the same vibe I’ve gotten from other modern cities. And then I stood in front of it. The rampart of the Old City was enough to transport me to a different time—granted I wouldn’t have wanted to be there when those walls were erected, as those were times of plagues, massacres and wars in the name of religion.
The Old City of Jerusalem is a world of its own—a city within a city. Outside its walls, modern, secular life goes on, but within its walls religion is the center of the world. The Old City of Jerusalem is not big; in fact, its area is less than one square kilometer. However, you could write volumes about each individual quarter of the Old City. Despite its size, it is densely populated: approximately 40,000 people call the Old City of Jerusalem home!
Jerusalem has been built, conquered, destroyed, rebuilt, invaded and reconquered on countless occasions, and has been ruled by everyone from the Romans to the British. The Old City of Jerusalem has been fought over for centuries, as within its walls you have the holiest sites in Judaism (the Temple Mount) and Christianity (the Church of the Holy Sepulchre) and the third-holiest site in Islam (the Al-Aqsa Mosque). For centuries, lots of different civilizations and religions left their imprint in the city.
Israel only conquered the western part of Jerusalem following the Arab-Israeli War in 1948, but the Old City of Jerusalem, the object of Jewish longing for centuries, has only been part of the modern State of Israel since 1967, when it was conquered after the Six-Day War. Seen against the city’s timeline, that isn’t a long time. That same year, Israel annexed East Jerusalem and declared a united and indivisible Jerusalem as its capital (a move not recognized by the international community). Even though politics are secondary to religion in the Old City of Jerusalem, you still can’t escape that aspect when walking those narrow streets.
As I approached the imposing city walls and the Jaffa Gate I couldn’t help but to imagine the hordes of soldiers carrying diverse banners storming the city back in the time when Muslim and Christian armies fought to conquer it. Instead of Crusaders or Saladin’s army, I found tourists, as Christmas was a few days away.
The Old City of Jerusalem is divided into four quarters: the Christian, the Armenian, the Jewish and the Muslim quarters. Armenians are also Christian but have their own quarter, and their presence there goes back to the fourth century. Every quarter has its distinct character, and even though each nominally belongs to a different religion, they are still fairly mixed.
The Jaffa Gate is the entrance to the Christian Quarter. To the right is the Armenian Quarter, and to the left the Christian quarter—though they both insist that the two quarters should be seen as one larger, unified Christian quarter.
The Christian quarter of Jerusalem was the most interesting one to me because it is so fragmented. There are so many different currents of Christianity trying to establish their presence in the quarter that absurd situations are just unavoidable. I’m talking not only about Catholics and Protestants but Orthodox too—obviously not only the Russian Orthodox but also the Greek Patriarchate of Constantinople. The Armenians are one of the most influential congregations there. There are also many Eastern Christian churches there, such as the Syriac. Oh, and don’t let me forget the Coptic Christians either, or the Ethiopian monks who are basically squatting the roof of the Coptic Patriarchate because they can’t pay rent and are in danger of being evicted.
And then there’s the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built on the site where Jesus is said to have been crucified at the end of the Via Dolorosa. The Church is divided mainly between the Catholics, the Greek Orthodox, the Armenians, and even though there is an agreement between them to share the site known as the status quo, fist fights between monks are not uncommon (which is kind of funny).
I started my wandering of the Old City of Jerusalem early in the morning to avoid the crowds. As I am not religious, I just wanted to tour the city and see what caught my eye. One of the first buildings to do so was a house bearing the Cross of St. John, meaning it belonged to the Johanniter. The Johanniter were established as a branch of the Knights Hospitaller, who used to be a bad ass (yet fanatical) crusader order (and now basically just do charity work at train stations in Germany). But the house looked awesome so I walked up to see if I could get in. Just as I was standing in front of the building, a young guy carrying grocery bags approached and opened the door. I asked him what that place was and he kindly invited me to go inside.
My new friend’s name was Oli, and after exchanging a few words in English I realized he was German so we switched to German. The house had a pretty awesome rooftop, and as we were on our way to it, an older woman (whose name I’ve unfortunately forgotten) came out of a little room to talk to us for a few minutes. After she left, Oli told me that she was a Palestinian refugee from 1948 and had lived in that house ever since losing her family and being evicted from her village after the war. That short exchange was one of the heaviest moments of the entire trip.
On my way out of the Christian Quarter I stopped to take a quick look at the Mosque of Omar. There, an older man was showing two Muslim tourists from South Africa around and asked me if I was Muslim. I told him I am not religious but try to be the best human I can and that’s good enough for me. For him it wasn’t enough though, and he tried to get me to convert to Islam on the spot by reciting the shahada; I declined but he insisted—much to my annoyance and the amusement of the South African guy, who ended up getting the guy off my back.
The Muslim Quarter was a bit odd as it felt like a giant market and most of the main sites were either Jewish or Christian. At the same time, it was one of the most hectic areas of the city as almost half of the Old City’s ca. 40,000 inhabitants live there. The crowd was mixed: women in niqabs, Hasidic Jews, tourists and more police than I saw in the whole city. Israeli police is semi-militarized by the way, and all carried assault weapons. Funnily enough, most were young, and for some reason I recall seeing a disproportionate number of Ethiopian Jews (later I found out that they actually are over-represented in the police and the army).
The main highlight of the Muslim Quarter for me was the Austrian Hospice, truly an oddity in that part of the city (and of the world, really). The Austrian Hospice is a lavish guesthouse built in the 19th century by the Austro-Hungarian Emperor for Catholic pilgrims. The building is right on the Via Dolorosa and in front of a mosque, but going in feels like being back in Central Europe. I marveled at its interior and its exquisitely kitschy coffee house—complete with a giant portrait of Kaiser Franz Josef.
I ordered a cappuccino and a piece of Apfelstrudel (from the Austrian staff) and sat on the terrace. Sitting next to me was a group of American tourists with their local guide. All of a sudden, the mosque across the street started playing a song; it wasn’t the muezzin (and Muslims are very adamant about it not being a song but a call) but an actual song, in Hebrew, about God’s love. I didn’t understand the text but overheard the Jewish tour guide tell his group what was going on: Apparently the staff at the mosque got the wrong frequency (or whatever) and played a snippet of an Israeli song by accident.
I left the Austrian Hospice after sunset to walk the streets again in the blue hour and take some pictures. Just down the street I came across a group of observant Jews singing songs outside a Yeshiva to celebrate Hanukkah. Let me rewind real quick. I had just left a Catholic guesthouse (built by an empire that doesn’t exist anymore) in the Muslim quarter of the Old City and the first thing I saw was a public Hanukkah celebration right by the Via Dolorosa. It was a bit of a “what the fuck” moment for me, as I had never been in such a place.
The following day I went back to the Austrian Hospice for some more delicious but relatively expensive Apfelstrudel and to catch the sunset from the rooftop. Seeing the sky fade from blue to hues of pink followed by the sound of the muezzin was another one of those moments where I felt entirely content, present and thankful for the privilege of traveling.
The Jewish Quarter also has its quirks. Much of it was destroyed by Arab troops in 1948 but has been painstakingly restored. The streets were packed with Israeli soldiers on educational tours or on leave (all still carrying their automatic assault rifles), American Jews who walked around like the owned the place, and an assortment of Mizrahim (Eastern), Ashkenazim (European) and Sephardim (Iberian) Jews. I saw a lot of Orthodox Jews who walked around mumbling to themselves with their eyes lost in thought and/or prayer, as if unaware of everything else that was going on around them. I walked around the labyrinthine streets looking for the four Sephardic synagogues, as I had contacted a member on Couchsurfing and we had arranged to meet for coffee.
When I arrived, my Couchsurfing contact, Shimon, was finishing his daily prayers. He was clad in a prayer shawl and wearing a tefillin, a leather strap attached to a box containing a piece of the scripture that religious Jews put on their forehead and wrap along their arm. Shimon kindly asked me to wait ten minutes, handed me a kippah and invited me to walk around the synagogue and yeshiva. I walked inside the yeshiva and saw students reciting the Torah as in a trance, while others had passionate discussions.
Afterward, I went with Shimon to a house belonging to the Sephardic synagogue with an amazing view of the Western Wall—behind which lies the holiest site in Judaism, known as the Holy of Holies, in the Temple Mount. I didn’t go down to the Western Wall but did find the Little Western Wall in the Muslim Quarter, a smaller section of the same wall tucked away behind houses and only accessible through a very narrow alleyway, where a lone Hasidic Jew prayed.
The Old City of Jerusalem is holy to the three major Abrahamic religions. Of the three, Judaism is the oldest, predating Christianity by several centuries. Islam is the most recent, having been established over six centuries after Christianity. Having common roots, a lot of the sites are holy to all three religions. The city’s religious importance still seems to transcend modern politics. Though there might certainly be a degree of enmity between Israelis and Palestinians, Jews and Muslims seem to be able to at least let each other go about their business in the Old City. Funnily enough, for centuries Muslims and Jews lived together in the Old City of Jerusalem in harmony. Jewish life even flourished under Muslim rule. Luckily, all three religions seem to be able to coexist there.
I feel fortunate that I don’t have to get involved in the controversies surrounding Jerusalem, and as I am not religious I don’t have any strong preferences/attachments and was able to see the city from a neutral point of view. The Old City of Jerusalem is hectic, but it is somehow comforting to know that everybody there lives in their own movie and you, as a visitor, will never be a part of their world. That puts you in a very good position to observe life there.
It was interesting to see people attach such a divine value to buildings and objects. Maybe I can’t relate because I’m not religious. At any rate, I didn’t see God anywhere in Jerusalem. Luckily though, I also didn’t see hatred or strife. I saw business; there were even crowns of thorns for sale! It was cool to see people sharing that space in relative harmony—or at least to see people minding their own business as they’ve done for centuries.
The Old City of Jerusalem was a bit of a vortex into another world. After leaving the city and walking through the modern streets of Jerusalem back to my rental apartment I realized that Jerusalem is also just a modern capital city, and that secular Israelis don’t care about what’s going on in the Old City, not even in the Jewish Quarter (and avoid going unless it’s absolutely necessary).
On my last day in Jerusalem I walked down to the Old City again, had a coffee, and made my way to the Damascus Gate in the Muslim Quarter. After walking out of the Old City into East Jerusalem, I headed across the street to the Palestinian bus station and boarded a bus to Bethlehem.
In the end, yes, I was overwhelmed by everything.
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