There is something magical about the Old City of Jerusalem in twilight—the sun slowly slipping lower in the sky, men smoking in the doorways of their shops, women in colorful headscarves walking home, the smell of spices in the air, the glistening of the cobblestones in dimming light. At that moment it is easy to imagine the Old City during ancient times, ruled over by King David, by the Ottoman Empire, and by the others who controlled Jerusalem over the past millennia. You can almost feel the history of the place humming in the air; it’s practically palpable in the streets and in the hills.
A few nights ago, full of falafel and hummus, a friend and I decided to explore the Old City. From the outside, it is imposing. Its walls are daunting and its story is even more impressive as a place of significance for Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Wandering in through Jaffa Gate, on the western side of the city, we found ourselves winding through narrow streets with absolutely no idea where we were. Passing small groups of tourists, Orthodox Jewish men, and a skipping child or two, we found ourselves at the entrance to the Arab market.
It was cheap. It was chaotic. It was packed with potential buyers trying to haggle the price down on a silk scarf or some leather sandals. It was full of vendors harassing women walking by. The colors were overwhelming—the blues and greens of a few skirts, the shimmering pink of a scarf, the deep browns of leather bags and leather sandals. Pieces of garbage occasionally rolled by our feet. It smelled like sweat and smoke.
“20 shekels if you want it!”
“You see this bag? Handcrafted!”
“I’ll make a deal for you!”
The market was like a maze—turn the corner and there was another row of shops to peer into, make a few turns and you were right back where you started. The men running each tiny shop ranged in age from somewhere around sixty or seventy, right down to perhaps fifteen years old. The art of reeling in customers was a practice passed down father to son, a practice likely almost as old as the Old City itself. The difference between the strangely quiet streets my friend and I had just come from and the contained chaos and noise of the market was almost startling. It was as if two different worlds existed just a few steps from each other.
The sky turned a deep blue, my friend and I left the market and made our way again along the winding streets of the Old City. We sat for a while in a square that had a plethora of cafes and restaurants in every corner, a juxtaposition of the modern and the old in one of the most ancient areas of Jerusalem. Hebrew floated in the air around us: a father scolding his son, two women telling each other a joke, children making a bet. Although my friend and I would have been content to sit in the square and listen to conversations that we didn’t understand, we drifted on to see the Western Wall.
There were hundreds of men and women at the Western Wall. Bits of prayer were barely audible in the wind as it drifted back towards us. There were people sitting down and praying, waiting to touch the wall, or heads and palms against the wall in a position of peace and reverence. The Western Wall made me feel miniscule. Physically, yes, it is enormous, but even more importantly it is emotionally and spiritually of huge significance to all the people waiting before it, and beyond as well. It was a reminder of something beyond ourselves — not necessarily a religious belief, but a belief in the good of others or our impact on each other, for instance. It was a reminder of the easily forgotten fact that our day-to-day lives are not the center of the world, but just a part of it.
Jerelyn Luther ’16 is blogging this summer from Jerusalem, Israel.