Jerusalem is a dirty town which all Semitic religions have made holy… In it the united forces of the past are so strong that the city fails to have a present; its people with the rarest exceptions, are characterless as hotel servants, living on the crowd of visitors passing through.
– T.E. Lawrence quoted in Scott Anderson’s Lawrence in Arabia
His words, though very undiplomatic, are just as befitting for 2014 as they were back in 1915 when Lawrence wrote them in a WW1 report to the British War Ministry on the situation in the Middle East.
The old city, which lies within Suleiman’s 500 year old walls, is a city which in many ways lives in the past rather than looking towards the future. Over-cramped with souvenir shops selling Chinese produced religious symbols catering to Christians, Jews and Muslims alike. Cheap plastic icons, small breakable menorahs and scarves en masse.
At the same time there is no restaurant within the old city serving anything but falafel, shawarma or hummus. No experimenting cuisine, no modern art, no rethinking the old city.
In 2014 as much as in 1915, Jerusalem is a city of the past, only the indoor plumbing has been upgraded. Or that at least is the impression of a tourist.
The character of a shopkeeper
The shopkeepers are characterless men trying to gather attention to their wide variety of Chinese souvenirs. They ask: where are you from? You answer, and then they go on to say: You are welcome! – sounding as if you had thanked them for something. They might ask what you like, what you are looking for and you answer: I am just looking. Then they go on to telling you that it costs nothing to look, and ask you to see whatever they think you are looking at in other colours inside.
The thing is, not one word differs from shopkeeper to shopkeeper as if they are robots or have all taken the same business course in English. My boyfriend compared them to characters in a computer game.
They seem characterless and are extremely annoying. However, as Lawrence also notes, there are the odd occasions when you experience a shopkeeper who has character, such as the young man whose family owns a ceramics factory in Hebron and who did very poorly in school and really hopes to design patterns for ceramics. Who shows you his designs, which he has hidden away in a drawer, while working in the shop in Via Dolorosa.
Or the old man in front of a shop unlike no other, where huge piles of dusty old pots and pans make a chaotic display, and who sells you a small wooden box that has never been to China.
I am sure that when the shopkeepers go home they are not characterless, but in their job which they do every day all day long catering to rowdy and often impolite customers, they no longer show their character.
That is, unless you are lucky to catch them at that small moment in time when they are tired of saying the same thing over and over again.
Being the holy city of three monotheistic religions makes the city a confusing melting pot between rude Russian groups of over religious women, American Jews who are returning to the land of their forefathers, Orthodox Jews who try to navigate in between all the not so orthodox tourists, backpackers who come for a day of rushing through the major sites and well us, the not so religious tourists, who visit because it is exactly that – a melting pot.
It is also a city which is clearly divided into four very different quarters; the Christian, the Jewish, the Muslim and the Armenian – each of them very distinct because of the people living there.
The Armenian which is pretty much the odd boy in class as it is also Christian but still not a part of the Christian quarter, is very quiet but otherwise looks very much how I imagine the Christian would look without the many souvenir shops and tourist groups.
The Muslim quarter is alive with locals shopping and going to Al-Aqsa. It is a lively quarter that only the rare tourist groups venture into.
The Jewish is much newer than the rest as the old quarter was completely destroyed during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War and was rebuild in the 1970’s. This also allowed for large archaeological excavations in the Jewish quarter and it looks very much as a mix of old ruins and modern yet moderately fitting houses. The area is quiet, except for the random tourist group heading towards the Western Wall.
I liked both the Armenian and the Jewish quarters, but preferred the Muslim because it seemed much more vibrant and as the only place where people lived in the present.
The Christian quarter was horrendous in the amounts of souvenir shops, tourists and the attitude of all sorts of religious people and groups moving forward, ploughing everything down in their way to the next stop of their pilgrimage, not stopping to simply enjoy the life of present-day Jerusalem.
In large groups they enter through Jaffa Gate and walk down David St., turning at the souq and moving towards the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where they mill around their chosen chapel and push their way towards the tomb which is claimed to house the bones of Jesus.
They often have a priest with them and I met quite a few of these priests who seemed to look down on me and wanting me to move down the line because I was not a part of his pilgrimage tour.
We decided during our tour of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre that we wanted to go all in and also see the tomb or sepulchre. Thus, we got in line and were immediately pushed back by several big Russian women who found it their right to butt in in front of everyone else to get up to their group.
I had sudden flashbacks to my meeting with Russian queue culture from Saint Petersburg train station and was really scared of the aggressiveness of these women.
Fortunately my boyfriend was able to somewhat protect me from them, while another Russian group finally stopped their advance, starting a Russian discussion about whether or not to be allowed to move up the line because you were late for your group – or at least that is how it sounded.
Now fortunately I can look back and laugh at the ridiculous situation and how all these babushkas wanted to get into a tiny room with a stone coffin for 20 seconds, kissing it and praying before being pushed out by a priest.
Despite my feelings about the Old City and particularly the Christian quarter being over-cramped with items and souvenirs catering to the tourist and without space for the local life, it was still a fascinating meeting with Jerusalem.
As my boyfriend reminded me, this is what Jerusalem is and always has been. As the holy city and a major spot for pilgrimage as well as the destination of e.g. the European crusaders, Jerusalem has always been a place full of visitors and tourists, a place which catered to the foreign.
Thus, while I dislike that in 2014 the souvenirs are from China and India, I will have to admit that despite my normal apprehension of overly touristy places, in Jerusalem it is also part of the unique position the city holds as a destination and holy place.
And while I personally prefer cities which are living in the present, I still consider it an amazing experience to visit Jerusalem – this city of the past.
While I have spent this blog mainly complaining about how Jerusalem anno 2014 is overcrowded with tourists, I promise to be a little more diplomatic next time and write about our own visit to the city and its history.
Until next time,