I know it might sound strange, at first, to describe Jerusalem’s Old City as peaceful. We’re used to hearing it described as a religious battleground, which it also is. But the fact that Jews, Christians, and Muslims, united or divided into clashing factions of their own, continue to fight over it and over what belongs to whom – the Dome of the Rock, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre – does not make this a violent place, only a place dogged by violence. To the contrary, the neighborhood has an aura of warmth, of hope. Isn’t hope a synonym for faith, after all? And this was the birthplace of all three of those iconic Western faiths, and large parts of it feel as if they’ve barely changed for the thousands of years since then. The soaring architecture inspires awe and reverence, but feels, with its cobblestone construction, completely quaint and down-to-Earth.
The official boundaries to the Old City are, naturally, such walls and gates, which separate the more modern buildings and businesses from the ancient landmarks. Some of their tenants trade in tourist tchotchkes, but many keep it simpler. They might sell leather goods; carry trays of ka’ak, or bread rings, above their heads; whip out hummus lunches; squeeze fresh oranges or pomegranates into juice. As in Tel Aviv’s neighborhoods, cats are everywhere, as well; unlike in Tel Aviv, so are religious buildings, whether synagogues, mosques, or churches, depending on which quarter you’re in (Christian, Jewish, Muslim, or Armenian). Things feel very much as they might have felt in a simpler time, down to the warm sun that shines down from a cloudless sky in summer.
The labyrinthine alleys of the Cardo shuk (not to be confused with Mahane Yehuda, outside of the Old City and known as just “the Shuk”) feed off Armenian Patriarchate Street. Their booths belong to sellers of olive oil, fruit, incense, frankincense (among many spices), or they proffer treats like candy or freshly baked rugelach. Much of the merchandise, though, is religious, although its nature varies depending on which Quarter’s section of it you explore. Wooden camels are also common, with woven saddles over their humps. The destination as a whole has a more thoughtful, spiritual atmosphere than you’d expect from a normal market (Israeli or otherwise) – it’s not like Tel Aviv’s HaCarmel Market or, for that matter, Mahane Yehuda. It’s quieter here, a little emptier. Sometimes enough so that you can even see that warm sunshine streaming through the rooftops and illuminating entire passageways.
Speaking of rooftops, these, too, are open to the public, if you know which winding stairways to climb. And these, too, are quiet and empty, perhaps because not many others know of them or choose to climb them, perhaps because there are so many to choose from – hundreds of which you can see from any given vantage point. Of the people who do come up here, some build their homes in the stone houses. They hang colored clothespins over the line and paint their wooden doors lavender or robins’-egg blue. And the rest of the city appears calmer from above, minus the scattering of TV satellites. Not just all the other roofs, but the trees, the minarets, the golden dome of the Dome of the Rock, are all lit up in that warm sunshine.
There’s a similar sense of solitude directly below the Old City, at the Western Wall tunnels. These passages run beneath the bridges to and borders of the Temple Mount, the holy hillside that was originally known as Mount Zion and that now houses the Dome of the Rock. The sheer scale of the stone retaining walls, and how little they have sunk or changed at all over two millennia, is a marvel; it took years for historians to determine how the Herodian construction workers managed to pull this off, including transporting a still-record-breaking 570-ton stone. But again, there’s something friendly and familiar here, among these historic feats of engineering: a still, murky pool where drinking water was collected, which now reflects yet more stray beams of light.
One of the more somber sites is the walkway that leads through the Stations of the Cross, where Jesus stopped before his crucifixion. Among these is the Via Dolorosa, or Street of Sadness, which leads to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. As mentioned, this landmark is one of those that is hotly contested – in this case by various Christian denominations – but you wouldn’t know if nobody told you. It’s a solemn place for quiet contemplation, one where everything echoes, one where devotees line up patiently to enter the believed Calvary. There are an airy entry hall; several chapels, one with glimmering Byzantine mosaics; and a glass window that houses a stone whose red stains are believed to be the blood that Jesus spilled.
Over pathways and a hall of art galleries, and down a very deep stairway, framed by a pomegranate tree and a golden menorah, is the heart of the Jewish Quarter. Much of the buildings were rebuilt after the destruction that occurred in the mid-20th century, and the menorah was cast according to practices precisely specified in the Bible. What remains almost exactly as it was since the destruction in the Second Temple Period is the Western Wall, the only remaining edge of the Temple Mount. This is to the Jews akin to what the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is to the Christians – the holiest place there is, the ultimate symbol of peace. Prayers are said and, between the bricks of Jerusalem stone, left on slips of paper. It’s these same gaps between stones where, high above, local doves have built their nests.
Jerusalem’s Old City is known for miracles that happened thousands of years ago, but a different, more modern type of magic also settles over this neighborhood each year. Not to be confused with Hanukkah, called the Festival of Lights, the nocturnal Festival of Light is an enchanting event that makes you feel like a wonderstruck child again, because it makes the world feel new and surprising and alive again. Madcap musicians dressed like a glow-in-the-dark Tweedlee and Tweedledum play trumpet and snare drum, mesmerizing viewers; lights shoot over pathways, shimmer on the city walls, turn from cyan to violet to carnelian in hanging lanterns and dancing fountains. There are movies in this sound-and-color show, too, short films projected on the stone façades, perhaps telling the story of a computer-animated Adam and Eve or a little boy who meets the Little Prince (and cries whoaaaa upon discovering magic powers of his own). After wandering among the installations, my mom and I stopped at the original Café Hillel for mint tea and sabich, but still there was a sense that something extraordinary was going on, that in this birthplace of all Western religious lore, we had stumbled into a folk tale or fairytale.