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  • Debra Palmen

Old Jerusalem is a Jewel

Updated: Aug 26, 2022

I’m back home in Australia now. Events during the last week of our trip well and truly overtook my ability to write about them, so I’m doing that now. Just close your eyes, and pretend I’m still in the Holy Land.

Picture me sitting in a tiny hole-in-the-wall café deep inside one of Jerusalem’s ancient souks. It has a vaulted stone ceiling and old, cracked wall tiles in blue and white and green glitter in the semi-darkness behind me. A pair of tiny kittens are wrestling on my bag at my feet, totally distracting me. A hot, sweet mint tea is at hand, and I’m being tempted by delicious plates of hummus and babaganoush with freshly baked flat bread, but no, I’m resisting them until I’ve written this Newsletter to you. Well, maybe I’m writing this Newsletter to you with hummus-encrusted fingers.

Got the picture? So let’s commence ….

Although it was totally worth it, receiving a Pythonesque lesson in haggling in Jaffa caused us to miss the mid-morning train to Jerusalem. And that meant stooging about Tel Aviv station for a few hours.

We watched the passing parade, and a good deal of that included many soldiers with big black guns. Ultra-high levels of security are a fact of life in this part of the world, but it made us appreciate the things you don’t have to routinely see in Australia.

Something wonderful was a grand piano situated so passers-by could play a tune as the whim took them. I noticed it after a succession of Coldplay songs that I hadn’t heard performed by solo piano before. There was a businessman in his suit, briefcase at his feet, punching out a few numbers. He was very good. Then he left, and a little while later a lady took his place and gave us a few classical pieces before picking up her shopping and moving on. Lovely and very entertaining.

The ticket inspectors on the train were entirely under-whelmed with their jobs. They strolled passed and glanced at you – did you look like the sort of person who would buy a ticket? That was good enough for them.

As we headed for Bet Shemesh, a small village at the foot of the Judean hills, the dry plains surrounding Tel Aviv gradually gave way to bigger and bigger plantations of olive groves and citrus trees, pomegranates and date palms. And lots of bee hives.

The train stopped for an hour at Bet Shemesh and Doug decided to get off to find a rest room. I immediately had visions of the train leaving without him and us having to meet up later in Jerusalem. He would jauntily stroll in, whistling a cheery tune, while I would have struggled there with all the luggage. The extremely heavy luggage. I told Doug if he got off the train and it left without him he’d better learn how to whistle out of a feeding tube. But he can pee quickly, so he was ensconced back on the train before it left.

The landscape changes entirely as soon as you leave Bet Shemesh, and this part of the journey is the reason you take the train rather than the much faster bus. You leave the vast orchards behind and enter deep limestone valleys, with the train following the path of wild, tumbling streams that are crossed by the occasional Roman stone bridge. As you chug by you glimpse caves high on the limestone cliffs, just begging to be explored. It was in a limestone cave just like these that the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered not so far away, so you never know what you’d find. Besides lots of bird and bat guano.

I was surprised at how hilly Jerusalem is. At home I live in the mountain stronghold so I understand the attraction of building on a hill, but constructing an entire city across many steep hills means lots stairs. Lots and lots (and LOTS) of stairs. How I hate stairs. In the Old City all the roads are lined with cobblestones, including enormous ones from the Roman period, so it’s not a great place for people with mobility issues.

The newer parts of Jerusalem are very green, with large parks and other public spaces, and much of the architecture gives a strong nod to its ancient history. Most buildings are either constructed from limestone or at least faced in limestone blocks, and the overall effect is dramatic and beautiful.

Old Jerusalem can’t be accused of being particularly green - other than on the Temple Mount we didn't see too many trees within the Old City's walls. But it is one giant labyrinth of fabulousness. Some cobblestoned streets are so narrow they wouldn’t fit three people side-by-side, and you could wander endlessly through the colourful, bustling souks and barely see the light of day.

It was disappointing to see the amount of rubbish left lying in the streets for extended periods. The logistics behind the city’s rubbish removal clearly need a rethink. This city is a jewel and should be treated that way. But a nice thing was meeting a number of the city’s resident pussycats. I like to get a moggie-fix in whatever city we’re visiting, and in Jerusalem there are dozens of half-wild cats, some too skittish to make friends, others head-buttingly purry and friendly. Most seem well enough cared for, with milk and food left out for them, although my heart broke for one skinny little sick kitten, who I could do nothing for.

Our hostel was very basic but situated literally inside one of the super-thick walls of Temple Mount, directly at Chain Gate. Only Muslims can use Chain Gate, which is deep in the Muslim Quarter of the city. Apparently our hostel room was once, long ago, a Roman guard room that supervised the gate. How good is that? It was pretty noisy and the beds were far from the best we’ve experienced, but it was worth it to be in such a terrific location.

The Via Dolorosa was a two minute walk away so we strolled the entire length, browsing in antiquities shops along the way. This street is said to be the route where Christ carried his cross on his way to the Rock of Golgotha, where he was crucified. The 14 Stations of the Cross are marked along the route, and many groups of pilgrims stop at each one to sing Latin hymns in soft, high, fluting voices.

The Via Dolorosa is home to some of the few antiquities shops in Jerusalem that can provide a museum export permit for your purchases. No permit and you’re going to have your treasures confiscated during one of your many, many luggage checks before you leave Israel.

There’s some Phoenician glass available, but overwhelmingly the full-on antiques shops in Jerusalem offer Roman coins, pottery and glass. The prices for coins like a small Widow’s Mitre (which is a really tiny circle of metal) with low levels of wear range from $US70 - $US150. That’s not a terrific bargain, but for a collector the quality of these coins may be good enough to warrant the expenditure.

The choice of Roman pottery is extensive, ranging from small oil lamps through to substantial pots used for olive oil or grain storage. But the prices for these pieces make normal people suck their teeth. $US1,000 will secure you a smallish pot with remnants of painted decoration, and prices rise rapidly from there. Few pots retain a great deal of their original decoration, so mostly you’re considering pieces that look a little plain. That’s great if you know what you’re looking at but can seem drab and unimpressive if you’re not an archaeology enthusiast.

The occasional body part from an old marble or terracotta statue is available if you have the funds, but prices start at around $US5,000 and go up very quickly from there.

But Roman glass is mostly what you’ll see. It’s beautiful and there’s plenty of it. Most readily available, and the cheapest, are Roman tear vials. They have long necks, almost triangular bases, and a shallow rim around the edge. They have a touching history; when you died, your grieving loved-ones would collect their tears into these vials, and then place them in the grave with you. That’s why so many are available – lots of people died, and they had multiple tear vials in their graves.

Roman glass is very fine, often found in beautiful colours, and the best bits have a layer of shimmery iridescence that can’t be faked because it only comes after extended periods of exposure. After my hysterical lesson in Middle-Eastern haggling in Jaffa I tried and tried to get a good price for a few tear vials, but the best I could secure was $US180. Each. That’s not bad because good antiquities have gone up sharply in price over the years, but really no better than what you’d be offered from reliable dealers in the UK.

But you might have your heart is set on a fabulous souvenir from Jerusalem, buying your Roman glass directly from the excavation source. And why not? If you’re drawn by the lure of antiquities that’s a romantic idea. But if you’d prefer to go without the extended grilling by suspicious and stony-faced Israeli border guards that’s thrown in for free with every purchase, it’s easier to buy these pieces in the UK. You won’t necessarily discover such a good selection, but you’ll still find plenty.

If you know what you’re looking for you can find antiques (not antiquities) in a variety of small metalware shops dotted about Jerusalem. Mostly these shops are full of battered old metal trays, grubby old brikas for making Turkish coffee, and other metal detris. But there are gems to be found. We had already snapped up a 150 year old Islamic pestle and mortar in Jaffa but found something very similar, for a similar price, in an old metal junk shop in Jerusalem. The shop owner knew exactly what he had, and that it was more valuable than anything else in the shop, hence the price. But the point is that there are good things to be found even in the junk shops, if you hunt enough.

Other so-called antiques shops offer attractive tiles and old jars with lovely patterns and glazes, but it’s very much Buyer Beware. None can provide you with a museum export permit, but that might be because these pieces aren't antiquities and so don’t require a permit.

But are they even antique? Just because something has a good smearing of crud doesn’t make it old – it makes it dirty. But prices are all high because This is old, very old, madam. Just how old, exactly? You’re generally not going to get a clear answer on that. So unless you know your thing when it comes to Middle Eastern ceramics, you can take a punt on something and hopefully walk away with a genuine antique, or you might think that a beautiful and unusual souvenir from Jerusalem is still worth paying for, whatever its age.

But that’s the antiques shopping – the business part of the trip. There are plenty of other things to see and do in Jerusalem, and that’s coming up in the next Newsletter.

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