Friday in Jerusalem
There were only a dozen people left in the waiting area – either to get a visa or go for the final “special” interview. My husband walked to the other end of the hall near the Interior of Ministry doorway where the tourists had started gathering as the person with the passport comes out from there. It was very late – late enough that we likely won’t make it for Friday prayers. But as long as we got the visa that would be great!
After the stressful luggage screening (multiple queues for one machine) and getting out of the terminal on the other end, the heat suddenly hit us. Yes, it’s just as hot on this side as well. My husband paid for the bus ride while I quickly settled for the front row seat for the ride to Jerusalem. The part of the road is hidden inbetween the hills which makes it seem as though the area around it is barren. There were a few makeshift tents along the way of displaced people living in bare essential conditions. The route did not pass along any cities. Suddenly you see the crowds and buildings- – you’ve reached Jerusalem.
We got off a few yards from Damascus Gate, and dragged our trolley bags to the hotel we were staying within the old city.
There is a longer route if you don’t want to carry your trolley bag down the stairs to Damascus gate. The old city streets are congested, uneven (lots of stairs) and tight. This is probably a good time to secure your valuables just in case.
As we checked in and went to our rooms, we saw black smoke rising behind the Dome of the Rock. The hotel attendant said that it was probably some kids throwing rocks, and it seemed like an occasional thing as he wasn’t too surprised. From later accounts, there was tear gas, soldiers, confrontation, and people locking themselves behind the large Prayer hall doors. An asthmatic tourist’s account (who we met later at the hotel) was that he was unable to breathe due to the tear gas having been thrown under the doors of prayer hall. We missed the Friday Prayers, but I guess everything happens for a reason. There were only a few worshippers in the mosque until the third day. This might be because a lot of identity cards were confiscated on Friday for which people had to go to the police station to get them.
It felt amazing when I finally saw the Mosque.
We prayed at the Al Aqsa mosque almost every time and we had the few experiences with security officials just outside the mosque over the coming days. The first time, my husband was asked to recite “Fatah”. He wasn’t so sure, and thought the police was asking something about the Fatah Palestinian political party until I said he meant “Fatiha”. This checkpoint is manned by people in blue and green (probably Palestinian and Israeli forces). The Israeli could be Muslim (Northern Israel has a large Muslim population that are required to serve in the army just as many other Israelis are).
At another point, I went to the mosque alone and a few meters from the security check to the Mosque, there was a guy sitting at the intersection in plain casual clothes where the other path leads to the Western Wall.
He stopped me to ask if I was a Muslim, and why I wanted to visit the Mosque, whether it was the first time I was visiting since I had come. Surah Fatiha seems to be a standard test of faith it seems. My husband encountered him later on and asked him “So, you’re from security?” He did not answer the question – he might not be allowed to directly reveal who he was, so he said, “We’re also Muslims like you.” Odd, but interesting. It seems that after part of the ancient mosque was destroyed by arson, they make sure to question about religion while entering. And they are strict! They didn’t allow the Christian mother of a Muslim French man we met (out of visiting hours), even though he assured them that she would just see, but not enter any praying space. A security official at the door even said “Maria? So then you’re not Muslim?” when I told him my name upon being questioned.
Sometimes, I saw Jewish men, women, and children praying behind the security checkpoints to the Mosque – including at Fajr time (4:45am). It would be interesting to know what the prayers mean.
There are seven gates that lead to the Mosque area and each gate has a different name and each leads from a different street (Old city has eight gates of access, out of which Golden gate is common). Six gates are still open and the seventh (Golden gate) on the east walls of the old city was sealed off by Salahuddin. You can get an excellent view of the gate from the Mount of Olives.
The atmosphere around the Mosque is just as amazing in the dark as it is during the day.
The entire area included in Al-Aqsa is huge. Me and hubby decided to walk all around near the boundary one evening waiting for the last prayer (Isha) but couldn’t cover it due to the dark starting to spread especially near the trees (the boundary is marked by trees all around). The total area is 144,000 sq meter. One side has the mosque Al-Aqsa and couple of other Mosques hidden like a gem (Al-Burraaq, Al-Marwaan), we only saw these when we did a walking tour. Then there is Dome of the rock; the blue building with golden dome where people also pray.
We saw extra hussle bustle on the weekend, where there were various different study groups of men, women and kids (halaqas) and the atmosphere was even more lively at times other than of prayer.
From the stories I heard, there is a floating rock somewhere in the middle of Dome of the Rock Mosque, but that area was sealed for construction. I asked the tour guide whether it was true and he said they had heard it too whilst growing up but never actually saw it as the area is sealed. Allegedly, this is the stone Prophet Muhammad s.a.w ascended on to the heavens above for the journey of Me’raaj. The architecture of the Dome of the Rock Mosque is spectacular, a must see!
The interior of Masjid Al-Aqsa;
Dome of the rock:
Part of the top view from our hotel:
Eat just outside Damascus Gate as food in the old city is almost 4 times more expensive.
Choose a hotel based on distance and and how hilly the walk is. Some hotels don’t have lifts.
It is essential to carry your passports every time you leave your hotel in Jerusalem, and especially whenever you want to go in to the gates to Al-Aqsa.