Oh the Damascus Gate
Our welcome to Jerusalem was through the Damascus Gate. It is perhaps the most impressive of the seven gates into the old city of Jerusalem. It is reasonable to imagine that in past times you would walk straight through the gate, but nowadays you must descend a few flights of stairs to get to the old street level. At that level the gate is imposing indeed. The high walls are crowned defensive embattlements. You must cross a bridge over a dry moat. Passing through the gate is not a straight affair. Once through the main door you must jog left, continue, and then turn to your right to exit.
On the other side of the gate you had officially entered the Jerusalem's Muslim quarter. Your introduction to the quarter was a wide descending, stone paved pedestrian street, with stairs every few metres and flanked by small market shops, most of them selling vegetables or clothing or electronics, but nothing really touristy. The street was set up for the local people to shop. It was busy and alive. There were people engaged in bartering as hand carts containing still more produce and stacked boxes squeezed by. The area's colours, noise and smells were an assault on all of your senses. Passing through the Damascus Gate was almost like passing back in time.
At the bottom of the stairway the road forked into two busy, partially and fully covered roadways. Again, each or the two new roadways were lined on both sides with continuous rows of shops. Most of the shop's wares spilled into the street leaving a path little more than perhaps three metres wide to walk. As you continued to walk down the street, it was easy to convince yourself that you had, indeed, travelled back in time, aside from some of the modern items being sold of course.
About 200 meters from the Damascus Gate we found our hotel. It was a beautiful place of Muslim architecture and run by a Muslim family. After settling into our room we grabbed some of the complimentary sage tea and headed for the roof terrace. We emerged from the elevator to see the golden Dome of the Rock larger than life, just over there! Out came the camera. We were enthralled. We had arrived, and then it got even better. It started slowly. First the speakers on one minaret, then another and another until we were surrounded by the Islam Call to Prayer. The sound was almost haunting as the hair on the back of your neck stood up and you got goose bumps on your arms. The setting, the view, the call to prayer, it was all too much for not even being in the city for an hour.
Our schedule was to be in Jerusalem for five days, travel onward to Jordan for two weeks and then return to Jerusalem for another two nights before renting a car to travel the rest of Israel. We passed through the Damascus Gate many times during our first sojourn and it never failed to take us back in time.
As planned, we departed for after five days for Jordan. When we returned to Jerusalem two weeks later we choose to stay outside of the old city walls, in a different Muslim area, but still only 200 metres from the Damascus Gate.
Our return venture into the old city through the Damascus Gate was completely different than our first. This time there were Israeli police and military present with barricades at the top or the stairway to restrict access. The police were present before, but they were more in the background. This time they were definitely in the foreground complete with automatic weapons and body armour. There were also news trucks and cameras.
Through the gate, the streets were quiet, the shops were closed and there was almost nobody about. This persisted all the way down the street that had been so alive just two weeks earlier.
After a bit we found ourselves in the Jewish quarter as that section of town was much livelier. Sitting on a bench to rest our legs, we heard pop-pop-pop-pop-pop, pop-pop, pop-pop-pop of what sounded like fireworks, perhaps a wedding celebration. It captured the attention of a child in front of us. She looked to her mother for an answer. An older man nearby looked at his shoes and shook his head. We looked at each other and didn’t know what to think.
After supper we returned to our hotel via the Damascus Gate. All seemed much as it was earlier in the day except that the only people present at the gate, aside from the police and soldiers and news cameras, were several Israeli teenagers sitting just outside of the gate. We thought it was odd as we had not observed any Jewish civilians near the gate before.
Back in our hotel, we turned on the TV news to learn that the 'pops' we heard were the gunshots that had killed a young Palestinian man right at the Damascus Gate earlier that day and that he was the second shot dead there in the past week. We even found a video of him being killed. He was dressed in a t-shirt and was brandishing a knife while running down the stairs when he was shot. He was the only person within view on the camera. By my count, there were at least 15 soldiers and police with body armour and automatic weapons around the gate at that time at any given time. He was carrying a knife. Really?
It was simply unfathomable how quickly the scene of a killing could be cleaned-up? Does life mean so little there? It did, however, explain the contrasting experience from two weeks prior.
Oh the Damascus Gate, such an awesome and sad and perplexing place.