I wandered down the suddenly deserted market street, suddenly conscious of several pairs of eyes watching me as I walked, camera bouncing incongruously against my suit jacket.
The T Shirts, which 2 minutes before, had boldly asserted allegiance to Macabi Haifa or the IDF were changed; Barcelona appeared to be the team of choice.
And the written language had switched just as abruptly. Where was Hebrew was now proudly Arabic.
My first time in the contested city of Jerusalem was destined to be a brief one. My meetings had finished 1 day early, but with security to get through at Ben Gurion Airport, it seemed sensible to restrict the trip to a brief hour or so.
I had really wanted to see this small patch of earth – or at least some of it for all my life. Such a dry place, but one at the centre of so much conflict and death, as well as veneration and history.
And so on this Thursday past, I found myself peeling my back off the seat of a dilapidated Mercedes, and walking uncertainly up the rampway to the Jaffa Gate of the Old City.
Jerusalem’s walled city is punctuated by gates redolent of history and the past. “Damascus”, “Herod”, “Lions” and “Zion” all have their own gates, along with more prosaic siblings “Dung” and “New”!
It slides down the side of one hill among many in this sacred and ancient place, battlements proud and flags flying as if the Crusaders’ brief rule was still in place.
Jaffa Gate has had a chequered history. Blocked up when the Old City was part of Jordan, it’s been reopened by the Israelis – and festooned with lots of Star of David flags into the bargain.
It was the entry point for General Allenby when he commenced Britain’s brief, and somewhat erratic rule in the Holy Land – apparently he dismounted his horse to walk through the gate on foot. There followed one of my country’s most unlikely colonial roles; guardian of the Holy Places. Fortunately (after making a mess) we’re out of that one now and most people have forgotten. I hope.
Lacking a guidebook, I decided on a simple strategy – wander the darkened maze of the market for a short while, then try and catch sight of the Temple Mount.
Plunging straight ahead and down the hill, I walked down the car-less and narrow street, shopkeepers on both sides pushing their wares; sometimes forcefully, sometimes in a more desultory fashion.
Knots of foreign tourists blocked the way as I sneaked the odd snap with my camera while smells caught the nose, often in intense and unexpected ways. Coriander, Jasmine, Antiseptic and Rosewater; and darker scents – hinting of the drains.
Jerusalem’s Old Streets lack the intensity of some of the other grand markets of the world; Marrakech or the Grand Bazaar of Istanbul. Perhaps there’s too much hysteria elsewhere in this city.
But my liberal senses were still assailed by some of the messages on display; clearly some people are not ready for talking! A sample T-Shirt I saw showed an F-16 with the tag line, “Don’t Worry America, Israel is With You!”
Unlike some of those other markets though, there was a genuine sense that this place didn’t just serve the foreign hordes; locals bought their bread, falalfel and meat here too.
So alongside the silver candelabras, tacky/tasteless T-Shirts*, and Koranic verse pottery, were “proper” household goods & chattels – strangely comforting that so old a place still has a practical purpose.
(*A T-Shirt with a Hassidic Hat propped above a giant red S with the inscription “Super Jew” was about the strength of it).
And as I mention at the start of this piece, suddenly the atmosphere changed and I was recognisably in Muslim Jerusalem, with sights and sounds I recognised from trips to Morocco and Dubai. How strange that one can wander across this disputed land as an innocent; how fortunate for me.
I took a parallel path back toward the Jaffa gate, past what even I must admit was an elegant if incongruous Lutheran church, and some more venerated ancient Christian sites before emerging, sweaty in a light & cool arcade, but yards from my start point.
Suddenly hungry, I seized on a strange oval baguette strewn with crunchy sesame seeds. The vendor insisted on selling me some cricket- ball sized greasy Falafel balls instead, which I couldn’t really digest; one or two bites and I was sated. But the bread was divine.
Realising my time in this city was running out, I decided to buy a ticket to walk the battlements. 16 Shekels later, I was picking my way over the slippery limestone rocks, gazing down on the passageways and white rock buildings crammed behind the walls.
At one point the Papal flag flew, somewhat brazenly I felt, over the Latin Patriarch’s vast palace. At another a small family mosque with an exquisitely white-tiled roof snuggled into a convenient corner.
Working my way around the North side, I passed the Christian and then the Muslim quarter, and at one breathtaking moment around about the Damascus Gate, I caught sight of the glinting Dome of the Rock, plonked atop of the Temple Mount.
Sadly I could not approach to see it or the Western Wall any detail as it was time to go – so reluctantly I slithered my way back up the uneven battlements to the Jaffa Gate entrance – and another battered Mercedes chugged me back to Tel Aviv.
Jerusalem is a concept, an ideal and a place. For me, as a confirmed atheist, it’s alien and yet from my upbringing (and the nightly BBC TV reports) it’s strangely familiar – names like Golgotha and al-Aqsa leap out at you unbidden.
It doesn’t look like Israel has any intentions of leaving, mind – and I’m sure the Palestinians feel the same way – so unless someone has a leap of imagination I guess the turmoil will continue.
And did it touch my heathen soul? It’s a spiritual place and for an historian, wonderful to visit even at a rush. But the certainty each sect has is terrifying. And I want no part of that.