A mystical Ramadan journey to Jerusalem
Jerusalem - The highlight of Ramadan is my annual visit to Jerusalem, to al-Haram al- Sharif — the Noble Sanctuary — which houses al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock. Every holy month, visitors from near and far make the journey to the sacred destination.
The first sight of the Dome of the Rock, its golden cupola shining as sunset nears, creates a sense of urgency, compelling onlookers to get as close to it as quickly as possible. After leaving the bus stop, visitors pass through Bab al-Amud, also known as the Damascus Gate. Completed in 1542 by Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, it is the arched entrance through which visitors enter the Muslim quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City.
Upon entering the Old City, one is automatically transported to a magical place. Steeped in the charm of history and tradition, the quarter’s cobblestoned pathways lead to al-Haram al-Sharif and the holy sites within.
It is from this site that the Prophet Mohammad is said to have taken his Night Journey known as Isra and Mi’raj, when he travelled on the steed Buraq to the farthest mosque (al-Aqsa). There, legend has it, he led other prophets in prayer and ascended to the heavens where he spoke to God. It is Islam’s third most important shrine, following Mecca and Medina.
Under the ancient arches are dark alleys that lead to other parts of the Old City. Faint light streams through them, creating shadows on the paths. Coloured lights, decorations for Ramadan, stretch high over the cobblestone walkways.
It is the people, however, who are the life and soul of the Old City. The streets are lively as visitors and locals walk through the market. The shops, which line each side of the pathway, are bustling. Shop owners try to lure those hurriedly passing by into their shops, which boast items ranging from clothing, including colourful head scarves and prayer clothing, to household items, toys, souvenirs and spices. Between the shops, the scent of delicious Palestinian food from restaurants and stalls fills the air.
As adhan — the sunset call to prayer — approaches and the hours of the day-long fast turn to minutes, the tension becomes tangible and hungry shoppers rush to make last-minute purchases of falafel, freshly squeezed juices and sweets covered in syrup, such as kanafeh or katayif.
Suddenly the busy marketplace is deserted. Upon reaching the end of the pathway, the market ends and the spiritual journey for Muslims begins.
When one enters al-Haram al- Sharif compound, one finds oneself facing the Dome of the Rock. Situated on a raised platform, the shrine was built by the Umayyad Caliph Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan in the late seventh century. With its gold dome, blue tiles, arches and verses from the Quran written in Arabic calligraphy, it is breathtakingly beautiful. Its beauty continues inside with more Quranic verses written in calligraphy, marble pillars and more intricate Islamic designs.
Al-Aqsa mosque is in the southern part of the sanctuary, separated by a series of arches and stairs. When the time arrived for adhan, worshippers took their seats on the cold, hard floor of al-Haram al-Sharif. Preceded by the loud bang of a cannon, the call to prayer rang out.
As I sat to take my first bite, the oneness of the thousands of people gathered there for the same purpose — to pray — struck me. How humbled I felt to be part of this. How humbled I felt to be in this place where the Prophet Mohammad had once stood, a place where one can only feel awe.
The heat of the day was replaced by a cool breeze. Women remained at the Dome of the Rock to pray the taraweeh, a prayer reserved for Ramadan, and the men gathered a few feet away at al-Aqsa. During the nightly taraweeh, the Quran is read in its entirety over the course of the month. Standing shoulder to shoulder, women repeated the same prayers.
The prayers finish late in the night. As worshippers file out of al-Haram al-Sharif, they re-enter the market of the Old City. Stalls of sweets, toys, juices, corn on the cob and Palestinian souvenirs are abundant. The smell of the nargila (water pipe) fills the air.
Some stay within the walls to enjoy the rest of the evening and others sit on the stairs outside the walls of the ancient Old City.
A sense of contentment, power and love filled me as I left the holy site that brings so many together as one. Until next year. I will be back!