When Mahmoud Muna, from the Educational Bookshop in Salahuddin Street in East Jerusalem, informed me about an innovative idea for a group tour of the old city after midnight, I immediately opted to join-in – anticipating an exploratory journey deep into the heart of the historical, religious and spiritual city and to uncover what lies beneath human activity devoid in the dead of night.
The group of about 30, mostly internationals, assembled inside Jaffa Gate awaiting Muna and his two guides, to lead the way and explain the significance of stones and archways exposed in all their glory.
The coolness of the night as it enveloped the old city, enhanced by a breeze, was not only a welcome relief from the heat of the fading summer season but the quietness of the cobblestone alleyways also required a sensory adjustment.
After sipping hot Arabic coffee, the group was led outside Jaffa Gate, whereupon Dawood who holds a master’s degree in Jerusalem studies, explained the significance of the tour beginning from there. It was where a breach was made in the wall in 1898 when German Emperor Wilhelm II insisted on entering the city mounted on his white horse. Local legend said that Jerusalem would be ruled by a king who entered the city’s gates on a white horse, so to satisfy the emperor’s vanity and avoid the fate foretold by legend, a breach was made in the wall rather than allow him to ride through a gate. In 1917, British general Edmund Allenby entered the Old City on foot through the Jaffa Gate, instead of a horse or vehicles to show respect for the holy city.
Once Dawood made his point regarding narratives build on religion, legends and histories that have woven into the tapestry which makes the old city of Jerusalem a mosaic of contesting beliefs we walked back and though Jaffa Gate, learning that it was inaugurated in 1538 as part of the rebuilding of the Old City walls by Suleiman the Magnificent. Escaping one’s notice during the day is a plague that acknowledges the monetary contribution of South African Jewry to the renovation of Jaffa Gate in 1969.
As we walk right towards the Armenian Quarter, we visibly experience the beautiful architecture of the Old City which comes alive in the dead of night, enhanced by the lack of people who seemingly pollute the stones and obscure the walls from one’s sight in the hustle and bustle during the heat of the day.
In the heart of the Armenian Quarter, Yazid, the second guide, takes over from Dawood whose focus is archeological, and Yazid points out religious contexts, in front of the disputed property belonging to the Dajani family – Christians claim it is the site of the last supper, Muslims built a mosque there and now the Israelis have converted it into a Synagogue.
Yazid then points out – there is a mosque in the Armenian Quarter and most of the churches are in the Muslim quarter. It was the British who created the ‘divide-and-rule’ paradigm according to religions but the question that begs itself, why divide the Christian and Armenian Quarters, when Armenians are Christians too?
As we depart the Armenian Quarter and head to the Jewish Quarter, we see the bullet holes on the walls on and around the gate, which during the day with people, tourists and commercial activity is somehow concealed from one’s sight.
Arriving into the Jewish Quarter, we are shown where the Omani Mosque stands, also hidden from view in the hustle and bustle during the day. It is closed for prayer but it remains under the jurisdiction of the Islamic Waqf who administer it. A huge synagogue has been build next to it attempting to cover its existence.
We then head upstairs to the roof which covers much of the market area of the old city. Here we rise above and absorb the outdoor sights, enjoying a bird’s eye view of the Dome of the Rock, the steeples of the churches and the surrounding vistas, indeed a sensory feast, enhanced by the quietness of the night.
Dawood then engages in an explanation of the archeology of the old city, in the context of the Mameluke, Byzantine and Roman eras and he points out that if Jewish archeologists find anything from the Roman era they immediately term it as being from the Second Temple period, when there is no evidence of the temple whatsoever and that their narrative is premised on this logical jump.
We then continued walking in the Muslim and Christian quarters, passing homes whose structures had been damaged by Israeli tunnel digging, not encountering any people whatsoever, the entire experience began to assume a surreal complexion.
By this time, hunger pangs had set in and timeously we were informed that Emad, who owns an eatery near Chain Gate, had opened up his place to feed us. There we rested awhile and feasted on Palestinian pastries, washed down with either water, hot tea or coffee.
Continuing the night journey, we passed by the last remaining hand-operated Tahini mill in the region, but before that we purchased hot, steaming ‘kaek’, a Palestinian bread, which was being rolled out for the morning market.
Finally our journey ended outside the walls of the old city.
We then sat on the steps leading to Damascus Gate to view the moon making way for the rising sun and the advent of another day in the holy city of Jerusalem, which shall soon be teaming with throngs of people covering the magnificence we had enjoyably viewed before.
Rafique Gangat is a communications and media consultant who lives in Jerusalem