(Note: Bill and Lynda Boyle recently returned from a trip to the Holy Land. These are a few of their experiences.)
It seemed that the remarkable souks (markets) in the Old City of Jerusalem were more crowded than normal. The sights and sounds and smells of the Old City are always an unforgettable experience. What was different this time were the crowds.
Instead of large groups of tourists scurrying from one holy site to another, these crowds were primarily local residents.
It was the busy few days before one of the most anticipated Muslim holidays of the year, the Feast of the Sacrifice, which commemorates Abraham’s near sacrifice of his son Ishmael (Jews and Christians say it was another son, Isaac, who was nearly sacrificed).
The Feast is a time of gift giving and the Arabs of Jerusalem and the surrounding areas were crowding the city to look for the perfect gift.
What a mix of people. There were shop owners dressed in their work clothes, visitors from surrounding villages spending a day in the city, tourists with cameras and a line of identical yellow hats, teenage boys with carefully spiked hair cuts, beautiful girls with silk scarves framing their faces, village women dressed in black and carrying enormous bundles of vegetables on their heads and the ubiquitous police and soldiers.
The soldier’s weapons are jostled by the crowds and it is not uncommon to be bumped by a machine gun carried by a young soldier.
The road drops about 100 feet in a very short distance when you first enter the Old City of Jerusalem through Damascus Gate.
Only foot traffic is allowed through the enormous gate, which was last rebuilt by Suliman the Magnificent in 1542.
The drop is quite a plunge, funneling you into two narrow streets. The road to the left leads you into the Muslim Quarter and the road to the right goes into the Christian Quarter. We turned right into the largest and most crowded souk in the Old City.
A dizzying array of goods pass through Damascus Gate, much of it piled high on the top of little wooden carts. When fully loaded, the green carts are tremendously heavy.
While I always feel a little sorry for the poor guy pushing a heavy cart on the flat ground, I fear for the life of the poor guy when the cart is going down the steep incline at Damascus Gate.
The only brake on the carts is an old tire, attached to a chain which drags behind the cart. The cart driver puts all of his weight on the tire to slow down the cart as it moves downhill.
When the cart is careening down the street, the drivers hold on for dear life and scream “Hello” to everyone in the path. I was standing at the bottom of the hill when I noticed several men struggling with a large refrigerator above me. I didn’t wait until they yelled “Hello” before I jumped out of the way
In addition to the hundreds of stores, vendors set up booths on every square inch of available space. What an amazing array of products of every shape and size and smell and texture!
The shops are about 15 feet wide and spill out on the narrow street, which is about the same width. As a result, there is little room on the busy streets.
There is no rhyme or reason to the placement of the stores, which creates a bewildering array of shops selling vegetables, gold, leather, candy, falafels, clothing, spices, hot tea, electronics, perfume, bread, and fresh meat. The butcher shops feature a sheep’s head hanging in the window.
The sounds are just as diverse, with a cacophony of noise including friends yelling to one another, vendors shouting out what they are selling, the sounds of business, and a constant background of loud Arabic music. The music is often a mix of traditional Arabic music produced with a techno-pop European beat.
You can only imagine the smells that accompany each of the above-mentioned sights. Throw it all together in a bustling holy city that is thousands of years old and it turns a simple walk through the market into an unforgettable experience.