“The hummus will set you free!”

This was yelled at me by a very aggressive hummus vendor who then flashed a wide grin and pointed at several pots of hummus (pronounced hoo-mus) set on a counter in front of him.


Mahane Yehuda Market spices

Her and I were deep within the Mahane Yehuda Market. We had already purchased some halva (a sweetened sesame dessert) and about two pounds of the largest dried dates we had ever seen. The dates, which would have cost at least $5 at a store in the states cost us just 5 Israeli shekels (about $1.50) and were so good I had to sit down after tasting them. The vendor’s hummus, though I’m sure delicious, was just one of hundreds of fascinating food items for sale in the noisy and crowded market.

And we were on a mission: We were searching for the delightful vegetarian dish that has filled the bellies of poor travelers for decades (probably centuries). We were on the hunt for falafel.

Knowing only the terrifying news reports of rockets, mortars and suicide bombers from news reports back home, I half-expected Jerusalem to resemble a war zone complete with burning barricades and canisters of tear gas spewing noxious fumes. What I found, however, was quite the opposite. Jerusalem is an extremely cosmopolitan city with three major religions — Judaism, Islam, and Christianity — all managing to (mostly) get along by leaving each other alone.

Though we spotted countless M16-wielding youths on the streets (the stock of one young woman’s rifle repeatedly poked me in the ribs during a public bus ride), no one demonstrated the slightest hostility toward us. We never heard bombing or gunfire or anything to suggest the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was underway.

Western Wall

Women pray at the Western Wall

Curious about the situation, we queried Jerry, an expat American who offers tip-based tours of the four quarters (Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Armenian) of the Old City through Sandeman’s free Jerusalem Tours. He told our group he met his wife in Jerusalem and then chose to raise his family there.

His office bookshelf may contain miniature gas masks, but he’s never had to slip them over his children’s faces, he said.

After Jerry’s excellent 2-hour walking tour through 4,000 years of Jerusalem history, we entered the Tower of David Museum (36 shekels) near the Jaffa Gate. According to the museum exhibits, it was King David (born circa 1035 B.C.) who transformed Israel from a small kingdom into an empire. He conquered Jerusalem and then established the city as the political center of Israel. With the death of David’s son, Solomon, a civil war erupted and Jerusalem resumed its eternal ping-ponging between powers, from the Syrians to the Persians to Alexander the Great to the Ptolemies of Egypt to the Greeks to the Maccabees to the Romans to when Jesus Christ made his pilgrimage there. His “Path of Sorrows” ended at the site of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where he was nailed to a cross and then entombed. A cracked funerary slab, the Stone of Anointing, still rests in the church entranceway beneath an elaborate Greek mosaic depicting the removal of Christ from the Cross and his preparation for burial.

From the museum, we set off on our own, the circuitous alleys of the Old City unfolding with religious landmarks holy to Christians, Jews and Muslims. We explored the city with the wonder of children who had grown up learning about biblical sites but always imagined them as something mysterious and far away. In addition to the Stations of the Cross and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, we stopped at the Western (Wailing) Wall, where Her stood on a chair to insert a prayer into the stone cracks. The Wall, the last remnant of Herod The Great’s Temple of Jerusalem, is considered the most significant site in the world for the Jewish people. According to tradition, the Temple Mount, Mount Moriah, is where Abraham nearly sacrificed his son, Isaac, to prove his faith.

But The Temple Mount holds powerful religious significance for the Muslim people as well. To Muslims, it is known as Haram al-Sharif (the Noble Sanctuary), site of a sacred rock from which the Prophet Muhammad is said to have ascended into heaven, the “Divine Presence,” on a winged horse. They commemorated the “Miraculous Night Journey” by constructing the Dome of The Rock between 688 and 691 AD. Entrance to the golden-topped shrine is restricted to Muslims.

Outside the Old City, we walked up the Mount of Olives to the Church of the Assumption and into the dark and cavernous Tomb of the Virgin Mary. By comparison, the nearby Church of All Nations (or the Basilica of the Agony), constructed in 1924, is bright and airy. The gold and blue paint of the vaulted ceiling resembles a celestial sky.  Outside, in the Garden of Gethsemane, Christ is said to have spent the night before his arrest praying amongst the ancient olive trees.

From the panoramic Mount of Olives Lookout, we photographed the sprawling Jewish cemeteries and the sun streaming down on the Old City. This spectacular view makes the long, steep hike up the Mount of Olives well worth the effort (or taxi ride for the lazier traveler).


The ultimate wrap

Our delightfully quaint hostel, Kaplan Hotel (about 300 shekels a night), was located northwest of the Old City within convenient walking distance of the city gates. There, along Jaffa Street, the architecture is strikingly modern with wide avenues and a light rail connecting the bustling metropolis to the ancient city. It was here that we finally discovered the ultimate falafel sandwich.

Served in pita bread or laffa, pita’s big brother, the wrap began with hummus topped with falafel, shaved chicken or shawarma. Then we chose from dozens of delicious salads. From pickled cabbage to beets to garnishes I couldn’t decipher, I asked the falafel maker to stuff as much into my warp as he believed he could fit. Taking it as a challenge, he deftly rolled this concoction it into a neat package I could eat while walking. The wrap cost just 15 shekels, excellent value for a hungry traveler on a tight budget.

I’m still not convinced of hummus’ liberating properties, but I can vouch that tucked within an authentic Jerusalem falafel or wrap, it’s pretty darn delicious.