For thousands of years Jerusalem’s Old City has been one of the most visited religious, cultural and historical centres in the world. Until today Palestinians uphold the Old City as the cultural and religious heart of their nation. This heightened significance has meant it has been a focus for Zionist and colonial activity, significantly altering the landscape and manipulating or erasing cultural and historical realities to suit the colonial perspective. The residents of the Old City are a living testament to the perseverance and resoluteness of the Palestinian population in Jerusalem in the face of the ethnic and cultural cleansing of Jerusalem perpetrated by the state of Israel.
From the four corners of the globe armies triumphed and retreated, merchants set their price and kept their piece, migrants and pilgrims prostrated and settled. The city is a repository of the thoughts, tongues, texts, deaths and lives of the humanity that has touched upon its hills, and this cultural accretion is unending. Contrary to Zionist mythology which imposes a singular narrative here, the city has always been and continues to be a site of diverse cultural exchange.
Today tour guides, books and information depict a city divided into four: The Muslim, Christian, Armenian and Jewish quarters. In fact, the quarters were first imagined by the British during the mandate period, from 1922-1948. Until then there had been no borders - imagined nor physical - in the Old City.3 The various places of worship that bespeckle the Old City are evidence of the fluidity and diversity that once characterized it. The proof? In the ‘Muslim Quarter’ there are 11 churches, and in the ‘Christian Quarter’ there are six mosques.
In an effort to Zionise the Old City, and Jerusalem in general, the Israeli occupation forces continue to expropriate Palestinian lands and displace its inhabitants. Between 1967 and 1969, most of the ‘Jewish Quarter’ was constructed on the razed neighbourhoods of a-Sharaf and Harat al-Magharibah, forcing out the residents and enlarging the Jewish neighbourhood sixfold, from 20 to 120 dunums.4
The Armenian neighbourhood
The smallest in area and population, the Armenian neighbourhood dates back to the 4th century during which time Armenian pilgrims began arriving in droves in Jerusalem after theirs became the first nation to adopt Christianity. It is in many ways a city within a city (within a city) and the most defined of the neighbourhoods. It is home to the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem who maintains partial control over many of the Christian holy sites in the region.
Saint James Cathedral in the Armenian Quarter is an ornately decorated church, parts of which date back to 420 C.E. It is dedicated to two martyrs – James the Great, an early apostle of Jesus, and James the Lesser, brother of Jesus, who is said to have been killed on the site of the cathedral.
Armenians opened the first printing press in Jerusalem in 1833 and started the first commercial photography workshop in Jerusalem in 1855. Perhaps the most significant contribution to culture in Jerusalem was Armenian ceramics that were introduced to Palestine in 1919.
Harat al-Magharbeh/a-Sharaf (the Moroccan Neighbourhood) was built during the Ayubid and Mamluk periods, over 700 years ago. It is located in the southeast section of the Old City. The area was home to immigrants from Morocco and other North Africans for centuries. Before the 1967 War, approximately 650 people comprising 100 families lived in the Moroccan Quarter.
On June 11, 1967, the first day of military occupation in the West Bank, Israeli occupation forces entered the Moroccan neighbourhood, evacuated its residents and proceeded to raze the entire neighbourhood to the ground. The quarter was effaced from Jerusalem’s landscape. Today the elegant facade of the Western Wall Plaza, one of the largest open spaces in the Old City, conceals the violence while rewriting the history.5
The “Jewish Quarter”
Today’s Jewish ‘quarter’ was built on the razed lands and dispossessed buildings of the Moroccan neighbourhood after 1967. It is the most recent addition to the Old City. The Jewish quarter was initially located near the Gate of the Moors and Chain Gate, in the south-western part of Al Aqsa mosque.6 Like all of Jerusalem, the population of the quarter was not homogeneous - indeed, this was neither desirable for the Jewish inhabitants nor enforced by the Ottoman rulers.7 Many Jews relocated to other areas of the Old City toward the end of the century due to extreme overcrowding.8 In 1969, the Jewish Quarter Development Company was established under the auspices of the occupation’s Construction and Housing Ministry to expand and build the Quarter on the site of the Moroccan neighbourhood.9 Nearly 6,000 Palestinians were evicted from the area and the state instituted new restrictions for the neighbourhood, barring non-Jews from buying or owning land there.10 Today the Jewish Quarter is the most affluent and well-serviced area in the Old City.
The Christian Neighbourhood
Located in the northwest of the Old City, the Christian quarter is home to approximately 40 Christian holy sites, including the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where Jesus is said to have been crucified. The neighbourhood also contains the historic Muristan souq, a complex of markets and streets south of the Holy Sepulchre. About 5,419 citizens live in the neighbourhood.11
The narrow Bab al-Majlis Street will take you to the Haram a-Sharif and finally to the Bab al-Majlis gate. It was built during the Mamluk period, 1260 C.E., and is today home to the African Palestinian community. The street is the site of the infamous Habs el-Abeed, the Prison of Slaves, which held dissidents and rebels during the Ottoman period.
The Old City has always been the vital beating heart of Jerusalem and a religious center for Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. Its vibrance is also due to the thriving and diverse markets within it. The markets of the Old City combine old with new, the voices of the merchants and the aromatic smells with the holy places that remind us of the history and the civilisations of the past that left unique marks on this charming city.
Despite the Israeli occupation and its violations, these markets are still strong through the combination of ancient and modern and the resilience of Jerusalemites. GJ has highlighted the most important markets in the old city below.
1. Bab Khan a-Zeit
Bab Khan a-Zeit is located at the main entrance to the Old City markets. This market extends from the first steps of Damascus Gate to the end of Church of the Resurrection road. There you will find shops that sell clothes and shoes as well as different kinds of spices and pickles.
Like the other markets in the Old City, Bab Khan a-Zeit is in danger of collapse due to the excavation the Occupation Municipality is doing under the Old City which could lead to a collapse near the entrance of the market. The occupation municipality also is removing many ancient stones of the Old City markets and replacing them with new ones. This process is part of an extensive plan that the occupation municipality is implementing to loot ancient sites and artifacts within Palestinian areas and make them less attractive to tourists.
Once you enter al-Atarin, you’ll breathe in an aroma that will take you to heaven for a little while as this market is known for selling all different kinds of spices and herbs.
al-Atarin is the only market in the Old City whose shops the IOF have been unable to sieze despite all the financial inducements the merchants face by Israelis. Currently the merchants at this market are facing a new occupation plan which is a tourism route aiming to build parks, bars, and restaurants in al-Atarin and other markets. This plan could cause the seizure of more than 77 shops. Moreover, the merchants in al-Attarin face repeated tax raids by the occupation municipality.
al-Lahamin received this name from the large number of shops that sell fresh meat and fish; it lies parallel to al-Atarin market. Al-Lahamin is enduring a genreal economic deterioration which has caused the closure of more than half of its shops due to the establishment of the Annexation Wall, the accumulation of general taxes including the housing tax, “Arnona,” on the merchants, the consistent threat of cut off electricity, and much more.
a-Dabaghah was known for having many craftsmen working in the fields of painting and leather industry, but today it is known for selling traditional goods and handicrafts, especially for tourists.
al-Husor, located in front of al-Bazar Market, gained its name from its uniqueness in selling mats and carpets.
al-Bazar was a market for selling vegetables by the villagers who came from the neighbourhoods around Jerusalem. Today, it specializes in selling tourism goods.
al-Bashura refers to the Roman era. Excavations revealed an ancient Roman market which is an extension of al-Bashura market. The market is decorated with beautiful marble pillars. Today, Israel has Zionized the market and calls it “Kardu Market”.
8. Bab al-Silsileh
Bab al-Silsileh was named after one of the gates of al-Aqsa Mosque. This market holds ancient Islamic monuments such as al-Khalidiyah Library, Sabil Bab al-Silsileh, and graves of highly revered Muslims (al-Salihin). It specializes in selling traditional antiques.
9. Suwaiqet Allon
Suwaiqet Allon is located inside the Christian Quarter near Jaffa gate on the road that leads to the Church of the Resurrection, al-Aqsa Mosque, and the Western Wall. This market is known for selling traditional Arab goods and antiques of Jerusalem.
10. Haret al-Wad
Haret al-Wad is the main road to al-Aqsa Mosque. It begins at the Damascus Gate and ends at the Western Wall. It has many important Christian monuments such as the Via Dolorosa.
11. The Christian Quarter
The Christian Quarter Market is located at the heart of the Christian Quarter in the Old City. It has many Monasteries and Churches. It’s also known for selling incense, holy candles, and many other tourism antiques and goods.
Built during the Mamluk period, this architectural masterpiece is situated in the western section of al-Haram a-Sharif. Once the site of hammams (Turkish baths), today they are only tourist attractions.
The Old City is at the core of Israel's colonial project and since its occupation there have been severe restrictions on urban growth and development, land confiscations, denial of basic services and infrastructure and frequent collective punishments. Since 1967 settler organisations have been active in growing Jewish presence in the Old City, lately in what are today’s exclusively Palestinian neighbourhoods. The organisation Ateret Cohenim owns 20 buildings housing some 300 Jewish colonists all along al-Wad Street.
Other major acquisitions by Ateret Cohanim include the Petra and Imperial hotels, St. John's hostel, and a large building next to the Church of Holy Sepulchre. A colonial complex is also planned by Herod's Gate, at Burj al-Laqlaq, renamed Ma'aleh Ha'Hasidot, in collaboration with the Israeli government. Additionally, there are eight Jewish seminaries in today’s Muslim neighbourhood. In May 2009, Ir Amim, a human-rights organisation working in Jerusalem, uncovered a secret plan put forth by the ‘Jerusalem Development Authority’, and in conjunction with settler organisations, to surround the Old City with nine parks, tourist sites, and pathways in a bid to consolidate its grip on the area.12
Between 1967 and 2006, the Palestinian population of the Old City grew by 65%.13 The population density rose accordingly to 81.40 persons per dunum in the Muslim neighbourhood which resulted in a need for additional housing. However, due to the systematic denial of building permits for Palestinian Jerusalemites, ‘illegal’ construction of courtyards and temporary structures have led to the confiscation of Palestinian homes in the Muslim and Christian Quarters by the state, who often hand over deeds to Jewish settler organisations.
1 33,000 Palestinians and 4,000 settlers, al-Jazeera (Arabic) The Old City of Jerusalem.
7 Alexander Scholch, "Jerusalem in 19th Century (1831 - 1917 AD)" in "Jerusalem in History", Edited by K.J. Asali. 1989. ISBN 0-905906-70-5. Page 234. Quoting Muhammad Adib al-Amiri, "Al Quds al-'Arabiyya", Amman, 1971, page 12 (85% of Jewish Quarter was waqf owned), and 'Arif al-'Arif, "Al-Nakba", vol 2, Sidon and Beirut, page 490 (90%).