Freshly squeezed pomegranate juice is abundant here, its sour-sweet drops spilling from the stalls onto the sandy streets. The cellar cool of the damp stone from which the walls of the old town were built offers respite from the heat of the day. Blends of myrrh and oriental frankincense scent the air – aromas that can only be found in the Holy City. Deep-fried falafel and halva made with freshly ground sesame seeds tempt the palate. All kosher, of course. And in the air, the tang of salt from the nearby Dead Sea hoversThis is what Jerusalem tastes and smells like.
Travel guides call Tel Aviv the White City. But those who arrive in Jerusalem by car can see bright buildings emerging from behind the hills as they travel the next few kilometres of winding concrete road. Jerusalem does not have the feel of a big city. Instead, it has a mystery, a riddle, an aura of untold stories that hide behind the gates of the white sandstone Old City and the narrow streets of the increasingly Orthodox neighbourhoods.
The more you get to know it, the more you can feel its mystical, palpable atmosphere at your fingertips. An atmosphere that doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world. Those who have been to Jerusalem will forever remember the reverberating undercurrent of worship of the world’s three great religions that accompanies them as they cross the legendary walls of the City of David. It is here that the Bible, the Qur’an and the Torah meet, and it is from here that they set out on their journey, carrying the message of all the prophets who preached the Word of God.
A house divided by a wall
Locals pass it every day on their way to work, school or prayer and it has become an inseparable part of the infrastructure of Israel and Palestine. Eight metres high and made of concrete blocks. The wall. For tourists, it is a symbol of the conflict between Israel and Palestine. For locals who have friends, family or love on the other side, a painful history. And while politics plays a key role in this area, and the conflict continues to escalate, people are not important to everyone.
In one of Jerusalem’s street bars, I hear a story about how the wall has not destroyed human relationships. It is a symbol, a barrier, a division, but you can live across divisions. It’s hard to understand, especially for visitors who get goosebumps at the sight of the 790-kilometre-long wall topped with barbed wire.
Orthodox Jewish culture
There are nearly one million Haredim, or ultra-orthodox Jews in Israel alone. About 270,000 Jews live in Jerusalem, most of them in Mea Shearim, one of the most orthodox neighbourhoods in the city, if not the country. It used to be separated from the rest of Jerusalem by walls and exactly 100 gates. Today, the invisible border is marked by posters asking tourists to dress modestly, to refrain from taking photographs and to respect tradition.
Mea Shearim is mainly inhabited by Hasidim, a sub-group of the Haredim. Although it is hard for some Europeans to imagine, Hasidim subordinate their lives while waiting for the return of the Messiah, to whom they pray three times a day. They have also consciously renounced technological innovation. Even mobile phones are kosher here, meaning that users can only access censored content.
It is impossible not to notice the Haredim. Their traditional costumes take you back in time. The men wear black knee-length trousers and long black coats with fringed belts, white knee socks, black dress shoes and distinctive hats. They also wear sideburns, as the Torah commands.
Attention is also paid to women, who are typically extremely subordinate to men in this branch of Judaism. Married women shave their heads and wear wigs because of a religious law that forbids praying in front of women whose hair is uncovered. Initially, headscarves were sufficient, but the tradition has evolved. Even on hot days, Jewish women wear tights to avoid exposing their skin to strangers. Their clothing must be modest and subdued, and their wigs must be no longer than shoulder length.
Don’t ask if it’s worth it. Go, see for yourself, but respect what you find. And be prepared for anything. Children’s stares, finger-pointing for a “different” outfit, dozens of wigs for sale on the street and, in rare cases, stone throwing at the sight of a camera or phone aimed at Hasidim. Expect a world where time has almost stood still. And although Orthodox Jews live in this place and consider it their home, many of them still do not recognise the State of Israel. This is arguably the greatest paradox of all.
The sun always comes out after the rain
One hour and forty-two minutes. That’s how long it took me to reach the top of the Mount of Olives, from where you’ll gain a spectacular view of the Old City. Bathed in the setting sun, the sand walls look like something from a postcard. The Wailing Wall, the place where the body of Jesus Christ was laid, the Stations of the Cross and the Islamic Dome of the Rock, adorned in royal shades of gold. Is this what paradise looks like?
I wish I could stop time right now. Just for a moment. At my feet, however, there is a place that allows me to do so. It is here, in the most expensive cemetery in the world, overlooking the entire city of Jerusalem, that the end of the world and the Last Judgement will take place. Many Jews and Muslims fervently believe this and for the faithful, burial here is the most sincere dream.
Everyone wants to be the first to be saved. How much would you be willing to pay for that priority? Is there a price to pay for waiting at the pearly gates? In this case, the amounts reach several million dollars, which, to many, can seem both absurd and fascinating.
As the saying goes, keep the Sabbath holy. In Israel the Sabbath runs from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday. Believe it or not, you are expected to do nothing at all on the Sabbath. It is a kind of non-commercial Similar to a Sunday in Europe, the Sabbath here has stricter rules which restrict not only the operation of shops but also all public transport, state institutions and, for Orthodox Jews, ATMs and even lifts.
You get the impression that you are entering a completely different level of participation in Jewish life. However, while Shabbat has very restrictive rules that the residents respect, many will choose to break them. After all, this is a Jewish tradition, so it is not followed by Muslims, who in Jerusalem are happy to offer rides, shopping or other attractions. This is how you live in the city of three faiths. If some rules do not suit you, there are always others.
Some compare Jerusalem to Bangkok, others say that you either love it or hate it. For some it is commercial, for others it is mystical and full of unique monuments and holy sites. For me, it is endless, with its own character, full of contrasts to fall in love with, inspiring, allowing you to experience what often seems unattainable to us. Magic. This is what Jerusalem feels like when you open all your senses to it.