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Jerusalem is the most difficult city to decipher on earth. That’s not just us saying it. Try finding it on Google Maps. For security reasons high-resolution satellite pictures are not available, reducing the city to a fuzzy haze. This complexity continues at ground level.
Considering its significant impact on religious and world history, the area within the walls of the Old City is Lilliputian; covering less than a square half mile, it’s smaller than the University of Pennsylvania campus in Philadelphia. Upon entering the Jaffa Gate a visitor is confronted with an Escher-esque maze of narrow passageways, warrens and arches, some of them over two millennia old. Maps are of no use so we wandered along until we found what we were looking for; or got distracted and sought something else.
Cobblestone paths, worn smooth from centuries of foot traffic, lead up, down and around corners, past a wide array of vendors selling the hijab, the head covering worn by Muslim women, alongside stands stacked with colorful yarmulkes. A few yards away Christian prayer shawls are displayed and, somewhat incongruously, a merchant offering Philadelphia Phillies and Dallas Cowboys t-shirts with the team names spelled out in Hebrew.
Spiritually, Jerusalem provides sharp contrasts in worship as it is among the holiest sites for three of the world’s major religions: Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Christian pilgrims clutching rosary beads traverse the Via Dolorosa, the route of Christ to his crucifixion, as it winds its way through the Arab Souk. The Dome of the Rock, where Mohammed ascended into heaven, overlooks the Western Wall, the most sacred site in Judaism where hundreds of Jews offer their own prayers to God.
One evening we left the Western Wall as an energetic group of Orthodox Jewish men were dancing in a circle as they sang out in prayer. We ambled along Habad Street in the Jewish Quarter where our curiosity led us up a set of rickety metal steps attached to the side of a building, considering the setting they appeared to be a stairway to heaven.
After our climb we gingerly walked across the rooftops of adjoining buildings. Looking down into a courtyard we spotted a mosque, its confines protected by concertina barbed wire, while just 50 feet away Jewish children played in a similarly safeguarded schoolyard.
The dulcet tones of the adhan, the Muslim call to prayer, bounced off the limestone walls of the ancient buildings just as it has for generations. As if in response, church bells started clanging their hourly chorus. The echoes of three religions rang in our ears as we made our way to the Muslim Quarter.
In the backs of their stalls, Muslim shopkeepers knelt on prayer rugs pointing to Mecca, suspending all commerce for a few moments of penitence. But nothing stops the constant aromas produced by grilled meats rotating on spits over charcoal flames. The cooked meat blended with amber pyramids of spices to create a heady mix of scents. Stray cats popped up at every corner, no doubt attracted by a whiff of all the cooking.
On the Al-Wad Road (the term “road” is a loose one, it’s a pedestrian strip about 10 feet wide) we mingled with Christian worshippers walking the Via Dolorosa. Part of the route is still covered with paving stones from the Second Temple period, an era from the time of Christ. The narrow street is crowded with shoppers and young men pushing their way through with handtrucks laden down with boxes of fresh mint, dates and clothing.
Adding to the bedlam, toddlers swirled like beeping communications satellites around Orthodox Jewish mothers who tried to keep them in a steady orbit; Times Square on New Year’s Eve is less chaotic. Careful to avoid stepping on the women who set up shop on the sidewalk, laying root vegetables on plastic sheets, we exited the Old City via the Damascus Gate.
Leaving the pandemonium behind, we headed for the relative serenity of the Musrara neighborhood, a former No Man’s Land separating East and West Jerusalem. In a city over 3,000 years old, this 150-year-old area is practically a toddler, but one with a troubled past. It was one of the first neighborhoods built outside the city walls, making it a pioneer suburb. Originally it was a district for wealthy Christians occupying upscale housing.
After 1948, the advent of Israeli statehood turned it into a deadly No Man’s Land, a disputed border between Israel and Jordan. Its position made it vulnerable to Jordanian shelling while the Israelis mined it to prevent intrusion; snipers patrolled on both sides. Despite the dangers, refugees and immigrants moved into the abandoned houses; even as they lacked electricity, water and schools.
Now the neighborhood has been reclaimed by artists who create messages of peace for the present and future. A free tour of the neighborhood is given on Saturdays. Our guide, Matan, is part of an organization called Muslala, the name an alternate spelling for the neighborhood. They believe art is a powerful tool to bring together this once conflicted neighborhood. Through community outreach programs, including this free tour, and multi-cultural art displays they hope to start a dialogue between neighbors of differing backgrounds.
In some places the art forms bizarre juxtapositions. On one wall the word “Love” is painted alongside signs pointing to the local bomb shelter. They each use the same font and colors. According to Matan, the unasked questions are “Which one is more important? Which one leads to safety?” The bomb shelter itself serves a dual purpose as it is now a community arts center.
After walking the streets of Musrara viewing the latest open-air art pieces, we climbed down a set of simple wooden steps known as Chiara’s Staircase. Several years ago, Matan built these steps so his girlfriend Chiara, who lived in the lower Old City, could scale the wall into the elevated neighborhood when they wanted to see each other. That romance has ended, but this tenuous bridge across the former No Man’s Land lives on.
Below the steps we crossed into Arab East Musrara for our final stop on the tour: Ikermawi Restaurant, reputedly the home of the best hummus in Jerusalem. On the crowded sidewalk we sat side-by-side on benches, Muslim, Jew and Christian, literally breaking bread together so we could dip the pita into the shared bowls of creamy hummus. The pita and hummus blend easily.
Oh if Jerusalem were only that simple.
This article originally appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer.