“And did those feet in Ancient times
Walk upon England’s mountains green?
And was the holy lamb of God
On England’s pleasant pastures seen?”
This hymn in it’s song form sprang from my lips as we alighted the bus opposite the Damascus Gate which was built in its current form in the early to mid 1500’s. The atmosphere here immediately felt freer. It was obviously more cosmopolitan and it seemed as if Jew and Arab mixed. (or at least rubbed shoulders in the street)
Through the narrow gateway we entered a souk in the Muslim quarter. It being Friday afternoon it was extremely busy. There were hoards of Jews racing towards the Western or Wailing Wall and Muslims heading for Al Aqsa or other mosques for prayers.
What really surprised me was the different types/sects of Jews that there were. Some had really large furry hats on and long shiny coats. There were the ones with the hats and ringlets as in the photo above and then there were little groups who all ran through the market with their arms straight by their sides as they couldn’t waste time anywhere. After the past couple of days of Palestinian and Israelis being separate this was a refreshing change.
We were heading firstly to Al Aqsa mosque, which I have written about previously. Many people think that Al Aqsa is the same as the Dome on the Rock, but it is a separate place within the same area. We walked through a deserted market area to a gate which was manned by Israeli soldiers to be told we could go no further. As it was a Friday we, as tourists, were not allowed into this sacred space. Now this could be true as it was nearing prayer time, but we felt it was more to do with the fact that we went to enter the way the Palestinians would, rather than through the tourist route. We did try and pursuade him, even just to allow us to get a good photograph of the Dome of the Rock, but he was having none of it. So we stood on the very top step to try and get as many good photographs as we could of the iconic building(and glad of having a zoom on the camera)
All we could do was marvel at the magnificence of the architecture and the calligraphy from this distance. I had promised to send healing thoughts to a friend from Al Aqsa, but unfortunately it wasn’t to be. I vowed to myself to return when I could and see the third most holy site for a Muslim with my own eyes. However, at this point I didn’t realize that it wasn’t to be on this trip.
We continued through the souk, following the Jews who were heading towards their Holy of Holy’s , the Western Wall. We entered into an area full of scanners and x-ray machines. Bags were checked, we were scanned and then allowed through to walk through the tunnel leading to the Wailing Wall.
At the end of the tunnel we walked out into dusk and looked down upon the are of the Western Wall. Taking photo’s was a no-no as it was Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest, where certain activities aren’t allowed until after sundown the following day. However, I wanted to try and capture the moment. Unfortunately, as I tried to take a discrete picture, it isn’t the best, but it does highlight the numbers of people there.
The area is segregated into a men and a women’s side with a screen separating the two sexes. The men’s side was really noisy, it had a real party atmosphere. All you could see was the top of their hats bobbing up and down as they danced and sang on the other side of the partition. The women’s side was a lot calmer with pockets of groups singing different hymns. As we walked through one group I thought to myself “I recognise that tune.” It was Hallelujah, a tune made popular by some X-Factor winner, but was originally by Leonard Cohen.
The nearer we got to the wall the more ‘trance-like’ the women and girls became. Some were rocking back and forth in prayer as you see the men do, some had the Torah covering their faces, some were sobbing uncontrollably. I wanted to touch the wall but didn’t know if I would manage to, it was all a bit of a squash and a squeeze to get near the front, but eventually I managed to stretch my arm above someone’s head and touch the sacred wall albeit briefly.
The next challenge was to walk away from it, without showing it our backs. Easier said than done when there are nigh on a thousand people all standing, sitting, dancing, and praying in the vicinity. So out of respect we all sort of side stepped our way back out through the crowds until we felt we had backed out enough for it to no longer be disrespectful to show the wall our backs.
Nearer the back, it seemed more of a social occasion. Many women were extremely smartly dressed and air kissed as the met up. Groups stood in circles and joined hands, then began singing. Then a group of Army soldiers in uniform, but without their weapons began singing in a circle , then a dance. Manal infiltrated their circle and joined in the dance with them, arms around each other’s shoulders. I wondered what would happen if she told them she was Palestinian? Would they still see her as another human being who respected their religious monument and culture, or as a second class citizen and a terrorist who had only gone there to cause harm. We didn’t wait to find out and pulled Manal out of the circle before she told them where she was from. We needed to try and find the rest of our group, the boys who had had to be on the other side of the partition, and those who chose not to go down to the wall. By now it was dark, but the celebrating didn’t seem to be abating. Many were mingling out the back, looking down upon the Holy Wall. It was funny, it was the only time this trip I really felt like an outsider and we weren’t really welcome. Although many in the crowds were European, no-one smiled at us, greeted us, or drew us into their fold…it was as if they instinctively knew that we weren’t Jewish.
We left and retraced our footsteps back through the souk until we reached the Via Delarosa, at the 5th station of the cross.
This photo had been taken as we walked past in the daylight, by now it was dark, so it was difficult spotting the stations along the wall. This narrow street is reputed to be the route Jesus took whilst carrying the cross on the way to be crucified. We walked it from 5-8, before we changed direction due to Archie (aged 9) who was bored doing Jesus things, and who also questioned how baby Jesus carried a cross anyway!!
We made our way out of the Jaffa Gate
We had such a short time in this magnificent city that I hoped to go back and see more. I wanted to leave a piece of Egyptian pottery on Flinders Petrie’s grave, to climb the mount of Olives, to see the Garden of Gethsemane, go to the church of the Holy Sepulchre, and visit Al Aqsa and the Dome of the Rock. Unfortunately we never had time to return to Jerusalem this visit. However, I am pleased to say I managed to go and see the Wailing wall, and experience enhanced by being there for Friday evening and the start of Shabbat at sundown. An experience I will never forget.
And Jerusalem, I WILL be back!