August in Israel is one of the lazier months during the calendar year. Mostly, you will find people sprawled across the beaches of Tel Aviv baking in the heavy humidity of the country’s coastal plain. This relative quiet in tourism across the country is a great opportunity to take advantage by exploring a number of unique sites across Jerusalem, especially within the area of East Jerusalem. For someone who wants to get away from the tourist crowds in Jerusalem, the eastern side of the city is definitely the place to hang out. We’re talking about a chunk of what used to be part of Jordan’s Hashemite Kingdom until it was captured by Israel in June 1967 during the Six Day War. This part of Jerusalem also happens to have some of the finer culinary treats when it comes to local flavors and typical, regionally-influenced ‘market food’ – or as we call it here, ‘shuk/souq food’.
The eastern part of Jerusalem, particularly in the areas around the Old City, has maintained a timeless feeling of Middle Eastern authenticity mixed with pockets of stately, British undertones and uniquely Levantine, Ottoman influenced cultural and architectural relics. East Jerusalem is definitely the best way to enjoy the path less frequented in Jerusalem and to feel like you’ve stepped back into a world of the oft-enchanting, romanticized view of the Middle East.
This is what you should do:
Start your morning by entering Jerusalem’s Old City through the Damascus Gate, the main thoroughfare leading into to the Old City (the majority of what we know as the ‘historical basin’ of Jerusalem) in what was previously Jordanian controlled territory. Once you are through the gate continue down just to the right and sit down at Cafe Rimon. No day in Jerusalem (or any day for that matter) can get properly started without a bit of people watching and a cup of coffee, tea, fresh mango juice or even some Arak from a distillery in Ramallah.
Get your caffeine, juice or alcohol fix before heading over to the Austrian Hospice for a beautiful view over the city. The hospice was built during the 1850s at a time when the European powers started to once again become a player in the holy land, after roughly 600 years of being ostracized and castigated from the region. The Crimean War brought about new allegiances between the Ottoman Empire and the European rulers and to show its appreciation in the fight against the Russian Empire, the Ottomans rewarded the European powers with a number of firmans and plots of land within Jerusalem and around Ottoman Palestine. Most of the development was used to promote Christian, faith-based tourism and to accommodate the waves of pilgrims coming from Europe. The Austrians built a beautiful hospice which today still offers lodging services as well as one of the best rooftops from which to view the entire Old City. Its 5.00 NIS entrance to the roof, which is a shame since up until a year ago, it used to be free; however, it is still worth the small fee. Mark Twain even stayed here during his ventures across the Middle East. Maybe it was from this point that he looked down upon Jerusalem and described the city as the “knobbiest town in the world save for Constantinople“.
Now its time to step into a frame that could be from an Indiana Jones movie or a chapter from a novel dealing with the search for ancient antiquities and the dark world surrounding these dealings. Head up the middle part of the Via Dolorosa and pop into the officially licensed shops of the Israel Antiquities Authority to see decades of antiquities purchases made by East Jerusalem dealers. You’ll find everything from pagan, Canaanite prayer items and Israelite daggers to beautifully crafted Roman-era jewelry and Crusader crosses that were found on door posts across the holy land. You know you are in a quality place when the vendors don’t try and sell you what they are offering. Make sure not to miss the coins dating to the final days of Jewish control over Jerusalem during the days prior to the destruction of the Second Temple. If you are an antiquities buff, make sure you have plenty of cash to spare.
Once you head up from the Via Dolorosa, head left down Khan a-Zeit St. in the direction of the Christian Quarter. Get lost in the Christian Quarter and pop into the different kiosks that pock the streets of the Latin and Greek Patriarchs. The shelves are full of interesting alcoholic beverages that are hard to come by, specifically unique Arak options from the Palestinian areas of Beit Jala and Ramallah as well as some fine flavors of Ouzo from Greece. You’ll also find some unique Palestinian wines and other products produced in the West Bank and abroad.
Now that you’ve walked a bit, its time for some hummus at Arafat. If you ask for hummus Arafat, you may not have any luck finding it since that is not the name. In fact, the place doesn’t have a name and the name Arafat is simply the name of its owner. So you won’t see a sign marking your destination. The best way to get there is just to head to the main shuk that runs in from Jaffa Gate – David Street/Sholshelet St. (the Street of the Chain) and starting walking as far down as you can go. Once you hit the dead end, head to the left moving back to the Muslim Quarter and you’ll come across a hole in the wall. Up until a year ago, it literally was just a hole in the wall with a guy serving the best hummus in the country, but they’ve recently added a few tables. In the good ol’ days, you’d just grab some hummus and pita to go for 7.00 NIS together and perch yourself on a rooftop. Now you can sit! Arafat’s hummus is the best in Jerusalem. Hummus varies depending which region of the country you are in, and for many, the Jerusalem style hummus with its lemony and sour tints are their favorite kind.
After hummus, its time to get on the move again. Continue heading back to the Muslim Quarter and when you get to Khan a-Zeit St., continue heading back in the direction of Damascus Gate. Make a right on to A-Takiyya St. and prepare to be amazed at the classic Mamluke style architecture. Most of the architecture on the Temple Mount and the Muslim Quarter is remnant from the Mamluke period in Israel when Central Asian, Muslim converts pushed out of Egypt and ran through the Middle East – rape, pillage and plunder. They left their architectural styles across Jerusalem and were responsible for creating the outline for what is today’s Muslim Quarter, laying the current foundations which support the current streets. You’ll notice colorful stone blocks with half domes at the apex. Here you will see stalagmite structures coming down from the half domes – what we call mukharnas. The story of the Mamlukes is one of the most fascinating in the history of the holy land, but the period is often overlooked when studying the history of the land.
Now it is time to head back out of Damascus Gate for Afternoon, High Tea at the American Colony Hotel. On your way out, stop at Nabil’s Bakery on the main drag just after the Austrian Hospice in the direction of the gate for some great pita to take with you for the evening and then make sure to head up Shaikh Raihan St. to a 300 year old Tehina Factory located in the back of a market with a brown door (sorry for the poor description – just ask people for the Tehina guy).
Located in the heart of contemporary East Jerusalem, the American Colony offers visitors the most impressive combination of British Mandate-period architecture with Ottoman styles. Its the perfect mixture of European and Ottoman influence. Sitting in the American Colony brings back memories of days-gone-by when spooks and international people of mystery would sit at the swanky hotels of the 1920s plotting the next course of world history. The American Colony still has that same aura and the afternoon tea offers some of the best scones in the country. The gardens are beautiful and its a great way to break away from the congestion of the Old City. The hotel offers a great wine cellar and an afternoon bar that opens up at 17:00.
After you’ve relaxed over some tea and a drink, the best thing you can do is to stroll through the neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah. Sheikh Jarrah was one of the neighborhoods and capitals of Arab intellectualism prior to the 1948 Israeli-Arab war. Today the area is primarily Arab with a small Jewish community. This has caused tensions as Israel continues to authorize new buildings for Jewish residents in the area. This would presumably become prime real estate in a future Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital. Walking through the neighborhood is a good way to see the complexity and sacrifices both Israelis and Palestinians will have to embark upon during a final status agreement. Weekly non-violent protests are common in the area as a means to confront Israel’s continued construction in the area (just stating the facts – speak to me for the full political discussion!)
This is just the tip of the iceberg about what to do in and around East Jerusalem and only a small sample of the wonderful culinary options. Stay tuned for part two…