Walk through the Damascus Gate of the Old City and you enter a different world. Strolling along the cobblestone streets feels as if you are traveling through history and the Old City comes to life around you.
Fridays are a busy day in Jerusalem as Jews prepare for Shabbat, the holy day of the week, and crowds of Muslims come streaming through the Muslim quarter as they make their way toward the Dome of the Rock for Friday prayers.
Wandering amongst this stream of people in the Old City of Jerusalem you see faces of many different regions throughout the word. The path is narrow and tight as hundreds of people make their way through the street, and ahead it opens up into a square where three roads meet in front of the The Austrian Hospice of the Holy Family, a guest house that this year celebrates its 150th anniversary.
The flow of footsteps continues, but I decide to sit at the café that overlooks the square. The owner comes over immediately and offers me lemonade with mint to quench the unrelenting thirst caused by a hot Middle Eastern day. Standing next to me are four stationed IDF soldiers casually chatting away, rifles strung across their backs.
Sitting here for some time you see the flow of Muslim men and women continue toward the mosque. Meanwhile, Orthodox Jewish men make their way to the Western Wall before Sabbath begins. Wait here longer and you will see a procession of Christians along the Via Dolorosa, a path believed to mark the walk Jesus made through the city streets on his way to crucifixion.
It is here it dawned on me that Jerusalem is a place that truly has no equal in world. It is a mixture and melding of different people, religions, and cultures. It often gets a bad reputation as a dangerous place, but here you see a calm and tranquility among the citizens.
People are often quick to point out the differences between the people in this land, but the more time you spend here the more you realize there are more similarities than differences. Talking to different merchants throughout the city you see they all want to support their families. They want to make sure their loved ones are safe at the end of the day. They all have dreams of traveling and seeing the world.
You come to realize this place is more complex than it’s presented to the world at large. Many people live here their whole lives; others are drawn to the city for various reasons. There are deeply religious Jerusalemites as well as secular. To say there is just Palestine and Israel is an oversimplification of this place.
The true beauty of Jerusalem lies in the people within its walls and the communities they build with one another. This sense of connection they share is what makes this place stand out the most. It is common to walk down the street and have a stranger say “Shalom” or “Asa Lama Lakum” (“Peace be unto you”), a stark contrast from the United States where people mostly do not talk to strangers.
During Shabbat all electronics are turned off. You can sit and have a conversation with the people around you and not have to worry about a cell phone interrupting you. After talking to someone in the city for a couple minutes they may invite you back to their home for coffee.
When I told people I was coming to Jerusalem all I heard was “Be careful,” or “Why would you want to risk your life?” The more time I spend here the more I wonder if the people of Jerusalem actually have life figured out better than most. They cherish the people around them. They savor the moments when family and friends can get together at the dinner table.
Is this place perfect? By no means, but it does have its own knowledge to share with the world.