‘Do you like Salman Khan or Shahrukh Khan’? I respond sheepishly – ‘Salman’. Bollywood’s extended sphere of influence has ceased to surprise me even as I’m posed this trick question by a zealous shopkeeper in the Muslim quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City.
The real surprise was the sheer diversity within the walls of arguably the world’s holiest city that is sacred ground for Muslims, Christians and Jews alike. The symbols and signages change almost each time I swerve from one narrow alley to the other, all in a space of just 0.9 sq. kms that is divided into four distinct and uneven quarters.
I’d recommend approaching Jerusalem the same way you’d zero in on a subject in a photograph. I formed my first impressions of the walled city from the rooftop of the Mamilla Hotel.
It wasn’t just the views that blew me away, I also discovered the fascinating world of Israeli wines through a flight of wines that covered the country’s four wine regions. The Israelis clearly know how to keep secrets – many wine aficionados haven’t discovered the country’s top class wines yet.
Flashbacks From History
Views are a given in and around the Old City, my favourite view point is the terrace of the Austrian Hospice with a ringside view of Jerusalem and all its emblematic domes and spires.
It’s impossible to take a step anywhere within the walls of the Old City without a flashback from history. Jerusalem was the epicentre of the Crusades that saw European powers clash swords with mighty Eastern kingdoms for control of the Holy Land. It’s easy to be transported to the 12th century as you walk through a painstakingly restored market in the Jewish quarter.
Some of the wares might have changed and selfies didn’t slow down the crowds back then. There are numerous spots that date back to the Crusades like David’s Citadel that has morphed into the Tower of David Museum that recounts the city’s 4000-year history.
Jerusalem, Goosebumps and Bollywood
Christian pilgrims come from around the world and walk the Via Dolorosa or the Way of Suffering. This is the path that Jesus of Nazareth is believed to have walked on the way to his crucifixion.
The current route was established in the 18th century with 14 Stations of the Cross, including five inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The strong emotions that run high among devout Christian pilgrims rub off on all visitors to this magical Church complex that is shared by different Christian denominations.
The spot where the crucifixion is believed to have taken place is now Calvary or Golgotha, a hallowed site for Christians – and there’s also Aedicula, a 19th century shrine that encloses Jesus’ empty tomb where he is said to have been buried and resurrected.
Locals will tell you that goose bumps are not unusual as you walk past Golgotha.
Jerusalem holds a special place for Jews around the world. I got another Bollywood alert – this time a blast from the past, as I chatted with a silver-haired Russian Jew who mentioned Raj Kapoor the instant I mentioned India.
We met as we placed prayer notes in the Western Wall, the last remnant of Jerusalem’s Second Temple that was destroyed by the Romans more than two millennia ago. The wall has assumed the same significance as the once glorious temple and has been a spot where Jews have congregated in happy and sorrowful times even as the custom of placing a prayer note in the wall developed.
Try and make time for a tour that takes you beneath the Old City in the wall’s tunnel that runs for more than 500 metres; another spot where goose bumps are a distinct possibility.
The constant criss-crossing between the sections took me into the city’s Armenian quarter where establishments like Vic’s Art Studio keep the traditions of hand-painted porcelain art alive.
And then, there was a delicious detour that ended with the best meal of my entire stay in Israel. Nazmi Arafat doesn’t have too many tables and hasn’t bothered with a signage but almost anyone in the Muslim quarter can direct you to this tiny eatery that dishes out the best hummus I’ve eaten anywhere in the world. This version combines whole chickpeas with the soft paste and is drizzled with generous quantities of aromatic olive oil.
The food discoveries continued even as I moved from the Old City to the Mahane Yehuda market in one of Jerusalem’s 20th century neighbourhoods, a magnet for hipsters and gourmands alike.
I tried a bouerka, a flaky phyllo dough pastry that Turkish immigrants brought to Israel; scrumptious. The market is a microcosm of Jerusalem, a city where different religions co-exist despite differences.
That’s something I ought to relate to, even in the India of 2019 where some of us have conveniently forgotten the old adage of strength through diversity.
Stay: The design-driven Mamilla Hotel has hosted numerous heads of state and offers sweeping views from its rooftop restaurant.
Plan your visit: Jerusalem is a great city to visit around the year, avoid festival days when the city can get crowded. You don’t really need a guide to explore the Old City by foot, but do read up on the city before you arrive.
Getting there and around: Air India and El Al operate direct flights from Delhi and Mumbai to Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport. A high-speed train brings you to Jerusalem in about 75 minutes from the airport. Taxis are expensive in Jerusalem and there’s no Uber.
(The original article is published on The Quint written by Ashwin Rajagopalan who enjoys communicating across boundaries in his three distinct roles as a widely published lifestyle writer, a Consultant and one of India’s only cross cultural trainers. Ashwin writes extensively on travel, food, technology and trends.)