The Old City in Jerusalem is a world class sight to behold. Within the city walls lie three of the most important religious sites in the world: The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Western Wall and the Al Aqsa mosque compound (‘Dome of the Rock’).
There are seven gates that lead into the Old City and each one has its own personality that will stamp its first impressions on you. Enter through Damascus Gate and you will be in the Muslim Quarter. Here there is an abundance of fresh fruit, vegetables, herbs, bread and spices. Some are sold from shops, and others from sacks on the streets. Stall holders shout out their prices and even during these corona times there is a sprightly atmosphere of haggling and community.
The best thing about the Old City is that it is a warren of discoveries. There are little alleyways leading off from the main streets, steps going up, tiny doors in bigger doors and you never know what you will find by peeking around a corner.
On a recent visit we entered through Herod’s Gate or ‘Flowers Gate’ as its Arabic name goes. This also takes you into the Muslim Quarter, but the shops quickly fall away here to make way for schools, various religious institutions, and residential streets.
Some immaculately dressed school children ambled along on their way home from school already and giggled as a cat they had frightened bolted across our path. As we paused on the street corner deciding whether to go left or right, a lady shouts out ‘are you looking for the tahini factory?’. Suddenly we were. ‘Oh…yes, is it open?’.
This was a stroke of luck indeed as the small and unassuming corner shop, with no name above it, would not have drawn us in otherwise.
At the back of the shop, in a large separate stone room, the factory is hidden from view. Rows of golden sesame seeds lined the floor like sand tracks as the 200 year-old grinding equipment whirred away in action. As the large wheel spun, millions of seeds were being ground into a smooth and silky tahini paste.
There were several different types of tahini available ranging from a pale looking normal variety, a golden one, a red one which had been extra-roasted in the taboon oven and a slightly scary looking black tahini.
We were offered samples and the taste was creamy and smoky, velvety and with depth. I was instantly converted and will be a tahini snob forever more. Once you have tasted the good stuff there is no going back. The white plastic container we purchased came with no label. It felt like a secret society where if you know: you know!
Leaving tahini heaven, we idled into the Christian Quarter. Usually this is a gauntlet run of trying to dodge past fervent religious tour groups. Often, they would be chanting and sometimes even dancing through the streets with joy. At the very least there would be a gaggle of respectfully clad middle-aged people wearing yellow baseball caps and trying to keep up with their guide whilst also striking a deal over some ceramic bowls.
Not today however and sadly not at all in the last six months since Israel closed its borders to all tourists at the start of March. Most of the shops here remain shuttered, with their brightly coloured doors bolted shut. This is a sad sight and the streets have a slightly eerie feel to them, not to mention the sense of loss for the families’ whose livelihood depends on doing business here.
Our spirits were lifted by the sight of an open door at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This place is a must-see on any tourist itinerary to Jerusalem whether you are religious or not. It is thought to be the site of Jesus’ crucifixion as well as his final resting place. At the moment, without the usual hordes of tourists, we had the great privilege to get what felt like an exclusive private tour.
If you haven’t been, you might be surprised at how modest the exterior of the Church is. It is reminiscent of a time where wisdom advised hiding your treasures rather than making a grand display. As soon as you step over the threshold however, there is a special aura that surrounds the space.
It would seem ludicrous to call it a building. It does not really appear to have walls or edges, there are bits patched on, through centuries of additions and renovations, but despite this it feels harmonious. It is dark but not gloomy. It is ornate but not gawdy. The domed roof over the tomb of Christ seems entirely constructed by light. It is a beautiful and breath-taking space.
Outside we sit on a step to take a moment and watch the world go by. The Old City will never get old for us. This was a mere slice of the action on a quiet Monday morning last week.
What is your favourite Old City treasure? Please let me know. And if you are reading this from abroad, I hope you can visit at some point in the future.