I was expecting a gate.
Not a garden gate, you understand, but a large imposing entrance to the walled city of Jerusalem.
The Damascus Gate is undoubtedly large and impressive, from the outside, but inside it seems to merge into a rabbit warren of alleys, lined with merchants selling everything from fresh fruit and meats to clothing, dry goods and even children’s toys.
We meander along these cobbled laneways, taking in the sights and abundant smells of the seemingly endless array of things to be bought. But perhaps the most assaulted sense is that of hearing.
Hawkers trying to attract our attention in loud Arabic, Hebrew and English, others arguing with customers over prices, passersby talking to one another or into the ubiquitous mobile phones, all these are conducted fortissimo. Ed looks at one pair talking simultaneously at one another and says his now favourite phrase, “Everyone’s talking, nobody’s listening!”
Suddenly, into the midst of this din comes the loud voice of the muezzin, calling the faithful to prayer. This has a beautiful, melodic flow, and I look around to see if anyone has unrolled a prayer mat to respond. Some are hurriedly closing their stalls. Are they rushing to one of the mosques? Or is this call a reminder of closing time and the telly awaiting at home with the next installment of X-Factor?
My favourite stalls sell sweets – so many different ones! And then there are the wonderful oddments, things you might find in a specialty store at home, but here, they’re everywhere.
Modern merchandise aside, it’s easy to imagine this suq or market in biblical times would have been little different. Even the clothing of many of those we pass probably hasn’t changed much over the centuries. After all, these loose robes and sandals are the most practical garb in a climate that can reach 40C. Indeed, one hawker approaches Ed with a keffiyah, the traditional Arab headgear, “Here,” he says, “cheap air conditioning!”
I quickly learn that stopping to finger a piece of pretty turquoise studded jewelry brings an immediate sales pitch in four languages. Most assume I am American and promptly translate the price into US dollars with the added word, “Cheap!” When I try to leave, the vendor will inevitably ask, “How much you want to pay, tell me!”
But I have been warned. Pulling me into negotiation is the key to a sale and most of us easily get wrapped up in the process. One Arab friend told me solemnly, “But if you wish to buy anything, you must bargain. If you don’t, the vendor feels the sale has been unsatisfactory, and you have been a fool.” Pressure!
Finding our way around this maze is daunting. The saving grace for us are occasional signs pointing us toward known spots – the Western Wall, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Dome of the Rock. Nonetheless, after what feels like hours walking through this maze of alleys, I’m beginning to wonder if I will ever emerge into fresh air ever again. Am I doomed, like the minotaur, to wander this labyrinth?
We do, of course, eventually emerge into the open air to find that the sun has set and the air is cool. The produce hawker’s cries are even more urgent – they want to sell the last of their fruits; prices are loudly reduced.
Over the next three days, Jerusalem and its people continually amaze me. The city is a remarkable contrast of modern and ancient with sleek electric light rail running alongside ancient walls.
Actually most of it isn’t as ancient as I had thought and actually dates from the time of the Crusaders and Saladin. The Western Wall, or Wailing Wall, part of the last Jewish temple (about 19 BCE) is one of the oldest structures here.
The problem is that the three great faiths that hold this city holy, have continually attacked and destroyed one another’s buildings over the centuries. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre (marking the crucifixion and tomb of Jesus) has been rebuilt at least three times.
Even the name, Jerusalem which means City of Peace, is slightly ironic, says Ryan, our guide, “This city has been conquered 33 times! No other city on earth has seen so much violence and destruction!”
Nonetheless, the people are unfailingly friendly and helpful. Produce a map or look puzzled and someone will immediately offer assistance. When I locked us out of our little rental apartment, at least 10 different passersby stopped to help. And when they find we are Canadian, everyone has a friend, third cousin or brother in Toronto or Vancouver, or even, in one case, Winnipeg! (Imagine the shock Manitoba’s winter must have been!)
I have been hugged and kissed by new friends and jovial citizens with whom we chatted. My most memorable kisses came from a lovely, elderly Arab man leading a donkey AND the donkey, both of whom charmingly bussed my hand. His picture is at the top of the story.
There are museums, galleries, and so much more to see in this city. But for us, breathing in the atmosphere, the extraordinary energy, the spirit of Jerusalem made our stay very special. And how can you beat a kiss from a chivalrous donkey?
*FYI: We took a free walking tour with Sandeman’s. There is a tip request but our American guide, Ryan, was so knowledgeable and interesting we happily parted with 50 sheqels apiece for the 2.5 hour tour.