Enter the Walled City from the Jaffa Gate and you find the Armenian Quarter on your right hand and the Christian Quarter on your left — the four quarters being the Armenian, Christian, Jewish, and Muslim quarters.
On reaching the Muslim Quarter, we passed through narrow sloped alleys with shops on both sides. It was the sort of bazaar you would find in other historical cities, in Souq Al-Hamidiyya, Damascus or Chandni Chowk, Delhi or Mochi Darwaza, Lahore where shoppers stroll feeling the fabrics hung outside the shops, showing passing interest in knickknacks filling the open shelves, where smell coming from a shop selling plastic products would fade into the aromas of confectionary being sold down the alley.
In short, a place that ruthlessly assaults your senses.
In the Muslim Quarter all decent places to stay were already full. We kept walking until we reached the Damascus Gate.
It is important to understand how small settlements grow into towns and cities, and what gains them importance. Historically speaking, people have always settled near fresh water sources and places they can grow or get food from. Once the population starts growing, other factors like defence of the community, commerce and religion, etc. determine the destiny of the village.
Jerusalem originally started as a small settlement near an intermittent spring. It became important when trade grew and the city found itself to be at the intersection of multiple trade routes.
And then something else happened: religion got associated with the town and big temples enhanced the status of the city. Prophets that came later kept using the same temples as places of worship.
It was an age of prophets. Prophets were springing up left and right. Prophethood ran in families — a family occupation, for the non-believers. And then there were fights between the true and false prophets, over public recognition and general support. The distinction between the two was easy: the true prophet always won. It can be postulated the other way: whoever won was the true prophet.
We were walking in the same alleys these history-changing figures had walked in.
Go out of the Damascus Gate and you enter East Jerusalem, the Muslim majority area. East Jerusalem was bustling with life, and had a low-level chaos. We had ice cream at a busy place. Although quite big, East Jerusalem did not have too many hotels. We decided to head back to Jaffa Gate and go in the other direction, deeper in the Armenian Quarter.
We had better luck going that way. Jaffa Gate Hostel, right at the Jaffa Gate, had a vacancy. Their ground floor had a typical hostel arrangement with toilets away from the rooms. We negotiated with the young proprietor and took the room that was at the end of a corridor. The Jaffa Gate hostel shared an alley with several private residences.
Jerusalem has tremendous energy; the energy gets into you and forces you to spend most of your time outdoors. We put the luggage in the room and went out. As we walked towards the heart of the Jewish Quarter we saw many people walking in a certain direction. We started following them. Pretty soon we ended up at the Western Wall (Kotel, for the Jews). It was absolutely magical to reach there.
Right in front of our eyes was the geography that defines the fight over Jerusalem.
Imagine yourself to be on a hilltop, you see a very large square down below on the other side of the valley at the same height you are at, you see the courtyard of Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock (Temple Mount for the Jews; most sacred place of Judaism), the wall of Al-Aqsa Mosque courtyard facing you, goes down all the way to the floor of the valley — that wall is what is called the Western Wall or the Wailing Wall; you see the faithful standing there solemnly, praying facing the Temple Mount.
We went down and passed through a scanner to reach the square.
Now we were in the thick of the Jewish scene. I borrowed a kippah from the community bin and went all the way to the Wall; there were separate sections for men and women (closer to the Temple Mount for men, farther away section of the wall for women).
In ancient times only high priests went inside the Temple Mount courtyard, common Jews prayed from outside. For Muslims, the same place that is called the Temple Mount by Jews is the Dome of the Rock (Haram-Al-Sharif), considered holy because of Prophet Mohammad’s flight to heaven from that rock. The same rock used to be Muslims’ first Qibla; they used to pray facing the ‘rock’ before the Qibla got changed to the present-day Kaa’ba.
The Al-Aqsa mosque, several hundred feet from the Dome of the Rock was built much later. Haram-al-Sharif has a golden dome whereas the dome of the Al-Aqsa mosque appears silver.
Today the Al-Aqsa courtyard, housing both the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa mosque, is controlled by the Muslim — the Jews only go inside on certain days.
Next day, by the time we came out of the hostel, the morning was almost gone. The previous night, one kid had lost a shoe at the Kotel. We checked out a few shoe shops on our way to the Damascus Gate and found the prices to be quite high—we thought we might get a better deal in East Jerusalem. Just before the Damascus Gate we found an eatery that appeared popular among the local — the aroma of roasted lamb shavings sizzling on the receptacle under the vertical spit was irresistible. We ate there and then resumed our search for the shoes.
After spending some time in East Jerusalem, we entered the Old City through the Herod’s Gate. Soon we found signs pointing to ‘Al-Aqsa.’ The Al-Aqsa signs got a little confusing when we came closer to the mosque, and we ended up at a big cemetery. Outside the cemetery, the Israeli police were busy getting barricades out of a truck. They were preparing for the next day’s Friday prayers.
In the evening we went back to Al-Aqsa. The Al-Aqsa courtyard had a number of gates, most of which were closed. The ones that were open for public had the Israeli police outside them. Tourists are normally not allowed inside the Al-Aqsa square. It had grown dark by the time we reached Al-Aqsa. We were stopped by the Israeli police and were asked to prove we were indeed Muslims — “Recite ‘Surah Fatiha’,” we were told.
Israeli police deputed at the Al-Aqsa were not only bilingual they had a basic knowledge of Islam too. On passing the test we were allowed in.
A Muslim Waqf (board) controls the Al-Aqsa square. The Waqf members were at each door, providing a second layer of security. We stayed in the courtyard till the end of Isha.
Fighting the urge to not look like a tourist I took a lot of pictures and made some video too.
Al-Aqsa makes the centre of cultural activity of Muslims living in the Walled City. We went to Aqsa several times, often in the evening and always found families hanging out in the square. Away from the narrow alleys and the crowded markets of the Old City, the huge Al-Aqsa courtyard must be a welcome escape to open air atmosphere.
Jaffa Gate Hostel was primarily occupied by older folks. There were two men from England — both had completely opposite personalities. The one who was slight and always wore a kippah was very friendly and eager to start a conversation. The taller one was very serious and was often seen stoically watching TV in the lounge at the entrance of the hostel. The sombre English man made the point of having every visitor to the hostel completely close the door behind them.
One morning we found the lean English man in the lounge. He wanted to show us how we could take the tour of the West Wall tunnel—a tunnel ostensibly dug by the Israelis to carry out archaeological research, but seen with suspicion by the Muslims. The tunnel runs under the Muslim quarter and is believed by many to have structurally destabilised the area.
We went to Kotel with him.
At the security entrance to the Kotel we ran into another resident of our hostel. This woman was Afro-American and appeared to be in her early thirties. She always had a golden robe on. We exchanged smiles and pleasantries. A lot of people greeted our English friend. I asked him what made him so popular. He said it was because he often sang and prayed very loud. He told us about a Jew from Bombay who was staying in the same hostel we were staying in. I had seen a desi man in the hostel, but had not had a chance to talk to him. There was also something else that skinny man confided in me. He told me he did not like the Christians because they go around trying to convert everybody to Christianity and that it was nothing like the Jews (people of his religious affiliation) or Muslims (my group) who keep their faith to themselves and let people come to them of their own accord. Ignoring the desire to please him I told him about the missionary zeal of the Muslims. He appeared genuinely surprised to learn that.
West Wall Tunnel tours were arranged at an office that shared the building mainly occupied by the police. The person at the counter told me I needed to call them and have my name put on a waiting list because the tours took a limited number of people. It was getting around Zuhar time; I wanted to say Juma prayer at Al-Aqsa, so calling the tour to have the name put on a waiting list was put off for some other time.
By that time many shops had already closed in preparation for the Juma. I went to one of the gates of the Al-Aqsa courtyard and shot some film. There was heavy security at the gate. Several surveillance cameras pointed towards the entrance. I wanted to go in, but was stopped. It took the police a while to understand that I was a genuine Muslim who wanted to pray Juma in Al-Aqsa— apparently my video camera made me look like a tourist interested in filming the Juma scene. Even after being convinced on the religion aspect, they refused to let me take the camera inside. There was a small store that many Israeli soldiers were buying things from, I was told, I could leave the camera there. I gave the suggestion some thought and then decided it was too big a risk to take with that camera. I ran back to the hostel, dropped the camera in the room and then ran back to Aqsa.
At the Al-Aqsa, it was an amazing show of strength. There were people pouring in from all directions. The Al-Aqsa courtyard is huge, but Juma prayer had filled it up pretty tight. In fact, I could only make it slightly inside the gate, finding a place on the dirt.
There was a message to be seen in that congregation: demographics matter.
After the namaz, I came out and stood by the gate. It was fun to watch all those people come out of the mosque. Walking back to their homes and businesses, they walked abreast, not leaving any space for anyone coming from the opposite way.
When the flow of people dwindled, I decided to go back. Collective prayers always have a commercial aspect to them. There were food vendors outside the gate; the namazis stopped at these carts and bought savoury snacks. I too did my lunch shopping there: flat bread pasties and bread with egg and ate them voraciously on reaching back to the room.