The Old City of Jerusalem feels like such a secret city, an ancient labyrinth of twisting alleyways and vaulted stairways, convents, mosques, soaring limestone walls including of course the largest of them all, the Western Wall. Then, emerging from a deserted, silent passage, you suddenly find yourself pushing through a crowded souq overflowing with rugs, jewellery, trinkets – mini Aladdins’ Caves of anything and everything to do with the world’s three monotheisms: Christianity, Judaism and Islam.
This cutural heartland is where these religions have intermingled and clashed for centuries – as described in an earlier post I wrote here Their so-called ‘co-habitation’ creaks on, though for how much longer?
Throughout the 20th century the city’s political identity was decidedly rocky. Exactly 50 years ago, in 1967, Israel’s victory in the Six Day War led it to incorporate East Jerusalem into its territory, so defying the 1947 UN partition plan which gave Jerusalem shared international status between Israel and Palestine.
Nearly 20 years earlier, Jordan had taken over control of the eastern half of the city in the 1948 conflict that brought the demise of Palestine. A tale of territorial and cultural ping pong.
Today, despite the evocative colours and aromas of the East, the haunting muezzin and the ringing of church bells, you know you are in an occupied city. Israeli soldiers and police rule the roost, patrolling or standing guard at every corner, their AK47s prominent – even while they are plied with cakes baked by adoring young Israeli girls as above in the Muslim Quarter.
Provocation is a regular occurrence and two years ago brought a string of knife attacks – dubbed the ‘third intifada’. On my latest visit in 2017, arriving late in the evening in the heart of the Old City, I came across soldiers encircling (protecting) a large group of Israeli revellers.
It was the last night of Sukkot, a major Jewish festival. Dozens of young and old, men and women, had chosen to sing, dance and play music at a crossroads bang in the middle of the Muslim Quarter.
Beside them, a popular old Palestinian restaurant and café, Basti, was deserted as nobody could get past the crowd. It was hard to justify Israelis chossing to celebrate at this crossroads of the via Dolorosa, a highly significant street for Christians, as if they didn’t have all of West Jerusalem. Provocation is the word.
It was yet another sign of how, slowly slowly, the Palestinians (the majority Muslim, though there are also Christians) are losing their grip on East Jerusalem; even within the beautiful old limestone walls of the Old City the Israeli flag flutters over more and more occupied buildings.
So, as the number of Palestinian homes shrinks while their families still multiply, their living space is squeezed. The result? a padlocked wardrobe in a vaulted street (below), sign of a household that no longer has enough space for its possessions.
But life goes on and people still love their traditional food. Above all they eat bread – or rather ka’ak Al-Quds (Jerusalem bread) as it’s called. On an early morning stroll I passed this bakery (below) where two men worked relentlessly baking hundreds of loaves to be sold at street-stalls.
These crusty bread rings coated in sesame seeds are made using fermented chickpea instead of yeast, totally different from the more widespread flatbreads.
Food feasts your eyes and aromas your nose on the main street leading up to Damascus Gate. This is where traditionally clad Palestinian women squat beside bags and boxes of vegetable, fruit and herbal produce, while the fragrance of freshly roasted coffee and cardamom drifts across from a tiny shop in the roofed souq. It’s a bountiful tableau.
An old man mends clothes in a boxlike workshop, another sells lurid-coloured pickles and spices, another shisha pipes. It all seems timeless, an engaging picture of old Palestine – until you look closely at the vegetable and fruit boxes and spot the Hebrew labelling. Perhaps it’s not so timeless after all.