Our tour guide met us at the entrance of the Jaffa Gate, “good afternoon my friends, my name is Amit and I will be your tour guide today…” it was a free guided tour of the city, and it made more sense to have people show me broadly around the old city of Jerusalem before making a more in depth exploration on my own on another day.
This is the reason that most people travel to Jerusalem, to be pilgrims in this Old City. I was in Jerusalem for work and couldn’t pass up the opportunity to see these world famous sites, not when I had a weekend free.
It was 2pm when the tour started, and the tourist buses and tour groups were all around the old city, “do stay close to me my friends, it will be very easy to get lost around this old town. Yallah, let us go to the quietest part of town first he said…”
We turned past the Tower of David (which was named not by King David and apparently has absolutely no connection to David, it was a tower that looked like what the Bible said and the Crusaders called it thus when they entered the city) and continued walking.
Our guide brought us through small alleyways, empty of tourist passed only by the occasional mother with a pram, “this is the Armenian Quarter… strange no? The other three more well known quarters are named after religions but this is named after a nation…. why and do they have a right to be in the Old City?”
Armenians have been in Jerusalem since the 4th century. The small nation, surrounded by pagan Rome was the first to adopt Christianity (then outlawed in Rome) as the state religion and Armenian monks had made their way to Jerusalem from the 300s, setting up the St James Monastry in the Armenian Quarters. Residents soon arrived and formed a small district around the monastery, making it the oldest Armenian diaspora outside of Armenia. While Christians too, the Armenians differ from the majority of residents in the Christian Quarter because they are neither Arab nor Palestian.
The Armenian Quarters is the smallest in the old town, occupying only 14% of the space and containign less than 10% of the Old City’s population (about 2000). One of the most improtant streets running through this quarter is Ararat Street, which is home to the Monastery of St Mark, thought to be the home of writer of the Gospel of Mark.
The street is named after Mount Ararat, traditionally thought to be the resting place of Noah’s Ark, one of the links which the Armenians draw on about their connection to the Christian faith.
Mount Ararat, seen from Yerevan, Armenia (Source)
“How do you know if someone here is Armenian. Let me teach you there important alphabets -i.a.n. Almost all Armenians have names ending with -ian, including Kim kardash-ian…although she doesn’t want to be one it seems, no, but that’s another story.”
“Yallah my friends, we’ve got alot more to cover. I’m going to take you to the Jewish Quarter now.”
We continued our walk through the narrow alleyways. And emerged into an archaeological dig of the first Jewish temple.
The skies began to drizzle and our guide rushed us to our next sheltered stop. Hidden underneath a row of buildings was a old Roman road. “Roman architeture was amazing, this road was carved by them as one of the main alleyways and has continued to be used even till this day. The main alleys haven’t changed regardless of who rules this place.”
A few steps away was the central square in the Jewish Quarter. The site was rare, it was large by the standards of the old town, spacious by the claustrophobic standards in the ancient city and it looked very European.
“Tourist always ask why the Jewish quarters are cleaner,” the guide explained unprompted, “is the Israeli government giving more to the Jews? Actually no, all four quarters are getting equal amount of help but the Jewish Quarter is the newest, because it got destroyed and rebuilt most recently so everything looks the most modern.”
“Yallah, yallah” we can’t go to the sites themselves, we dont have time on this tour but I’ll show you the next best place to get an unobstructed view of the Western wall, Dome of Rock and the Al-Haram-Al Sharif Mosque”. We climbed up to a small walkway Misgav Ladach Street and were greeted by a grand view of the famous tourist sites. We were separated from these sites only by the air and grill.
“We don’t have time on this tour to take a look, but I will strongly recommend that you spend some time just experiencing these sites. A trick, come in before the tour buses come in early in the morning, that’s the best way to feel the place.”
“Yallah, let’s go now to the Muslim Quarter…”
A short boundary separated the Jewish from the Muslim Quarter. “This is the largest part of the Old City,and houses the majority of the people in the Old City… yes the old city is majority muslim…” The Muslim Quarters is popular with muslim pilgrims, however the largest bunch of tourist are christians and as since most of the holy sites do not cross all of the Muslim Quarters, there was a stronger sense of authenticity to the place.
“Now, I don’t want you to think that the Muslim Quarter is all markets. It’s one of the oldest quarters and because of that it is more dirty than the rest. It also has its alleyways and I’m going to bring you through the alleyways onto our next site, the Christian Quart. Yallah.”
“Be warned my friends, this will be the most busy area. Simply because the most pilgrims and tourist are Christians and want to spend time in the Christian Quarters, so be on the look out for me, or it will be easy to get lost.”
We walked across another street and emerged from the Muslim Quarter into the Christian Quarter.
Calls sounded out to our sides, “my friend, my friend do you want to buy anything? Cross, Cruxific, St Benedict’s Cross, Jerusalem Cross, Coptic, St Anthony’s… what do you want?”
Holy articles (crosses) were laid out on the floor in plastic baskets waiting for tourist to buy them.
I felt sick in my stomach… knowing that these crosses items were probably mostly imported from outside, treated as common goods and then passed of as Holy Articles from the Holy Land to honest pilgrims who have just been awed by the sheer power of the religious sites – making real their religious faiths.
But the tour did not dwell, and the churning in my stomach continued as we walked.
We came to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and a wave of humanity swarmed around us.
Large groups were entering and leaving the church. “This place was the site of perhaps the most problems for Christians for a long time, because there are many different denominations of Christianity and they all claimed a part of the church. In fact if you youtube videos about fights in the Church, you find videos of priests fighting with each other… harrowing, I speak from experience.”
“Eventually it was decided to keep the place safe by clearly separating each denominations sites and giving the keys and door opening rights to the church to two muslim families. And since then, the place has been a lot more safe.”
Our guide brought us to a quiet corner near the starting gate.
“This is the end of our tour, thank you for joining me and I hope you enjoyed it… We’ve just spent 2 hours in the old city on a Friday and you have all emerged safe. This is the Jerusalem that I grew up knowing. What I wish and what many of us wish is that you experience Jerusalem as it is and go back and tell your friends about your personal experience. Good or Bad it doesn’t matter but the real experience of your voice more than the vision on television… I wish you a very pleasant stay for the rest of your time in Israel.”
ON THE MAP