In America, we are accustomed to buying most (if not all) of our food and consumer goods at large-scale chain stores. Need some produce? Go to Safeway, Whole Foods, etc. Need a power adaptor or a new kettle? Try Lowe’s, Sears, or Ace. We never meet the owners of such establishments; they are faceless corporations driven by the market alone.
Much of the rest of the world does not operate this way, however. In many countries, individuals run stalls at large community shopping areas. The Middle East boasts various souqs (pronounced “shukes”), all with a wide variety of goods for sale. In Jerusalem, you can buy anything from a yard of fabric to a stereo system (and just about everything in between) without ever setting foot in a chain store. There are chain supermarkets in the New City should you be so inclined to visit one, but the Old City souqs have much more charm and a livelier atmosphere.
A typical souq scene in Jerusalem:
An Arab woman sits on the ground with blankets spread in front of her. Radishes, carrots, and zucchini are neatly stacked on the blankets. Beside her, a man shouts in Hebrew to bring customers to his sweet stand, marked by a mountain of “honey balls” and a tidy array of baklava. Next to that is a juice cart, where a man squeezes fresh pomegranates and oranges (delicious, by the way). Next to that, a butcher shop with whole skinned goats hanging in the window by their back legs. In one direction are 50 other food and produce stalls, and in the other direction the goods transition to scarves, souvenirs, and home decor. The spice markets can be found interspersed amongst the other shops, with bins of aromatic powders tended by shopkeepers who shovel the spices into plastic bags for you.
During the busy times, these souqs are a throbbing mass of shoppers. You can hear haggling as you pass by each shop. “Ten shekels.” “No, no way. Five.” “Seven! My final offer.” The crowds are as diverse as the city itself; Ghanaians shop side-by-side with Canadians, and locals shop in the same stalls pilgrims and tourists.
The souqs are vibrant, bustling places that address the five senses. You can imagine that 2,000 years ago, these markets looked and felt much the same, sans plastic bags and electronics stores. I am not much of a shopper, but I love the atmosphere of the souqs.
And, of course, every trip abroad comes with a certain amount of shopping. So, our second day in Jerusalem was spent haggling in the souqs, wandering somewhat aimlessly around the Old City. And, I am happy to report, we did not allow ourselves to be fleeced too badly. That is the biggest drawback to the souq: although everything you might want is sold in the market streets, as a tourist you usually have to work hard to get the price you want.
Oftentimes souq vendors will attempt to charge two, three, even four times as much as is reasonably appropriate. They will use all sorts of tactics to get you into their shops. “Excuse me madame, I need some help with writing in English.” Uh-huh. Next thing you know, the shopkeeper is trying to charge you a hundred bucks for a ten-dollar necklace he nonchalantly fastened around your neck. When you protest, he will use every argument known to man to support his ridiculous asking price. “Look at the quality. This is glass and real silver, not cheap plastic like made in China” or “You will be helping Palestinians, my friend. We are poor people, have trouble working in Jerusalem.” Sigh. You must be patient and strong-willed to avoid getting hustled this way. And before you even start haggling for a price on something you actually want, you have shop around to see what other vendors are asking for similar items. Then take half or two thirds off the average asking price, and you have your fair price point. Seriously. It’s a lot of work. But it’s also an experience.
The third day, Sunday, was another day for sightseeing. We started early to beat the crowds. Although tourism is slow all over the region due to the recent (and in some places, ongoing) political and military conflicts, we wanted to make sure we had plenty of time for our day’s itinerary, and hopefully ensure a little solitude on the Temple Mount.
Sure enough, when we got to the entrance to Temple Mount (non-Muslims can only enter through the Western Wall plaza), there were no lines. There was, however, a conspicuous sign next to the x-ray machine with a message from Israel’s head rabbi forbidding observant Jewish Israelis from entering the site at all. Fortunately, Ben is far from observant.
We later asked our tunnel guide (that story below) why observant Jews were forbidden to enter the Temple Mount. He explained that since the Second Temple was buried and built over with the Dome of the Rock, anywhere in the vicinity could be the site of the “Holy of Holies” — a room which only the highest religious leader could enter. Therefore, observant Jews should not enter the Temple Mount for the risk of treading on this most sacred space.
Inside the plaza walls, there were no crowds of tourists. Small groups of Muslims, segregated by gender, sat in chairs around the plaza, praying with Quran in hand. Non-Muslims are not allowed to pray or sing inside the plaza. Fortunately again, we were not tempted to do so.
A large mosque sits to the right as you enter from the Western Wall. The doors are closed and you cannot see inside. To the left, the plaza stretches toward a communal washing fountain (it is customary to wash before entering mosques or other Muslim holy sites), and beyond to a staircase. At the top of the stairs are some columned arches, and behind those rises the golden-topped Dome of the Rock, the gleaming jewel of Temple Mount.
The Dome of the Rock is a octagonal structure topped with a huge golden dome. It was built in 691 CE by the Islamic rulers of Jerusalem at the time. But like most of Jerusalem, the Temple Mount and Dome of the Rock have passed through many hands. During the Crusades, the site was given to the Augustinians, who turned the Dome of the Rock into a church and the neighboring Al-Aqsa Mosque into a royal palace and stables. The dome was originally lead-covered, and the present-day gold adornment was a gift from King Hussein of Jordan in 1993. Its sides are tiled and painted with geometric patterns and verses from the Quran in ornate Arabic calligraphy. There are no images of people or animals, as figurative art is forbidden in Muslim architectural decor. The inside is lavishly decorated, but the doors were closed and as previously mentioned, entry is barred for all non-Muslims, so we had to enjoy the view from the exterior.
The Dome is a shrine to the place (a physical stone which constitutes the “peak” of the Temple Mount) where Muslims believe Mohammed ascended to heaven. The rock is also referred to as the “Foundation Stone”, and is a site sacred to Jews and Christians as well. The stone housed in the shrine is believed to be the place where both Abraham was tested to sacrifice his son Isaac, and where the Jewish Second Temple’s holiest room stood.
We took our time circumventing the plaza. We listened to a couple tour guides as they explained details to groups of tourists. We exited the way we had entered, back to the Western Wall plaza to book tickets for an underground tour of the ancient Wall.
The Wailing Wall where people pray en masse is only a small portion of the entire Western Wall. Indeed, the stones which have witnessed so many prayers are not even from the Second Temple era, as the Mount was rebuilt several times after multiple destructions. The Old City itself has also been rebuilt and covered over many times during the last 2,000 years. The current ground level at the Western Wall plaza is about halfway up the original wall. You can, however, take a tour of the tunnels that have been excavated along the wall’s northern length, touch the multi-ton stones which lay the foundation for the original Mount, and walk upon old roads which date back to Herod the Great.
After a very insightful 75-minute tour, complete with moving scale model of the Old City’s evolution over the centuries, we were glad to have a more complete historical understanding of the sites we had been visiting.
We decided we had not had enough tunnels, so we went to the neighboring City of David outside Zion gate. There we traversed the length of the tunnel which was carved out of the bedrock to provide the city with fresh water even when under siege. Hezekiah’s tunnel was completed in the 8th century BCE, and continued to be a vital source of water for the city for many centuries to come. The tunnel is pitch black and only a couple feet wide; with a headlamp, you wade through flowing spring water for 1,750 feet of winding passageway until you reach the remains of an ancient bath.
Tired from a long day of looking at old shit, we walked back to the hostel as the dusk call to prayer rang out from the minarets around Old Jerusalem. The complex human history of this city (and the region) is simply mind-blowing. We have nothing in the States that can compare to the ruins — and the still beating heart — of the Middle East. Such a treat.
We bought some fresh pita along the way back, with which we would polish off half a kilo of hummos at the hostel as we prepared for the next day’s journey. Away from the Old City and its competing yet coexisting religious treasures, we were bound on Monday for the Dead Sea and Tel Aviv. So as the sun went down on the last day of Hanukkah, so our time in Jerusalem drew also to a close.