A Glimpse into Ramadan in Jerusalem

I love the personality of the Old City so much that I always stay in this historic area when I travel to Jerusalem. Its pull is powerful, as inside its ancient walls stand three sites of extreme importance to the three major Western religions: the Church of the Holy Sepulchre for Christians, the Western Wall for Jews and the Temple Mount for Muslims. The Old City is also part of East Jerusalem and populated primarily by Palestinian Arabs, giving it a completely different atmosphere than what lies outside its gates in the Jewish-populated West Jerusalem.

It is within the Old City that I write this, on the last day of Ramadan, the month-long period during which Muslims across the world fast during daylight hours, eating only when darkness falls, to cleanse their bodies and souls. I didn’t travel to Jerusalem to experience Ramadan, but when you’re in the Old City there is no avoiding it.

The Old City is normally crowded with its local population and tourists, but I have never seen its streets clogged like I have on Ramadan. I managed to arrive on Friday afternoon just as thousands and thousands of Muslims were making their way to the Temple Mount for prayer, lengthening the walk from Damascus Gate to my guesthouse from 10 to approximately 45 minutes.

Crowds inside Damascus Gate, Jerusalem

Inside Damascus Gate on Ramadan

The reason for the throng of thousands is the Al Aqsa Mosque, which Muslims consider to be the third most important holy sight in the world. This mosque stands on top of the Temple Mount, a huge complex 35 acres in size and covering one-sixth of the Old City. Also on the Mount stands the Dome of the Rock, its famous gold dome one of the signature sights of Jerusalem. Muslims typically worship not inside here, as many people think, but inside the plain exterior of the mosque. During Ramadan, though, so many people come to worship that I think they must be spilling out of the mosque and onto the remainder of the Temple Mount.

Exterior of Al Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, Israel

Al Aqsa Mosque

Except for a few hours a day, non-Muslims are not allowed on the Temple Mount. On Ramadan, I’ve discovered, non-Muslims are not even allowed on the streets leading to the Temple Mount. These streets are unmarked, and I have on many occasions in the past couple of days unwittingly started down several of them, only to be very politely turned back by Muslims, Israeli soldiers or Israeli police. Not only these streets but others in the Old City are decorated for Ramadan with colorful lights strung overhead.

Colorful lights strung above an Old City, Jerusalem street

Ramadan decorations

I’ve spent weeks of my life inside the Old City previously, with the neverending calls of its shopkeepers ringing through the crowded streets, Madam, come into my shop? Perhaps because these shopkeepers are fasting during the day now, though, I find them unusually quiet – in fact, nearly silent – as tourists flow past them. Their chorus of voices is such a mainstay of Old City life that their absence is quite disconcerting.

The souk in the Muslim quarter of Jerusalem's Old City

The Old City souq

Muslims break their fast each day at dusk, and in Jerusalem beginning an hour or so beforehand people begin preparing food on the streets of the Old City for fasting people who can now eat and for anyone else who happens by.

Group of guys cook food to break the fast in Jerusalem

Breaking the Fast

Also seen on the streets of the Old City after darkness falls during Ramadan are piles of sweets to help celebrate the now festive air.

Guys carrying wooden pallet full of candy on Ramadan in Jerusalem

Ramadan sweets

Daytime and nighttime differ greatly in Jerusalem’s Old City during Ramadan, as the atmosphere moves gracefully from unusually quiet to bold and festive. If ever you want to experience Ramadan in the Middle East, Jerusalem’s Old City will give you a taste unlike any other.

Damascus Gate in Jerusalem, Israel on Ramadan

Breaking the fast outside the Old City's Damascus Gate

10 Comments Post a Comment
  1. Andrea says:

    I really enjoyed reading this and learning more about Ramadan – great photos!

  2. Sabina says:

    Thank you, Andrea. I enjoyed learning more about Ramadan too.

  3. Steve says:

    Great photos. I really get a feel for what it’s like there during Ramadan. Experiencing Jerusalem during Ramadan would be an interesting experience. I hope you got to try out some of those sweets.

  4. Sabina says:

    Thanks, Steve. I didn’t try those sweets, but I did have plenty of others :)

  5. Candice says:

    I am such a freaking dummy. I’ve been seeing your top few posts on your homepage thinking, “Gee, she hasn’t updated in ages!” Not realizing your new posts were underneath. Dammit! This post is great!

  6. Sabina says:

    Candice, you’re no dummy. I think that might be the case with other people too, particularly if the site loads slowly. I’m glad you liked this post!

  7. RyukyuMike says:

    Especially like the way you captured the smoke in Breaking ths Fast !

  8. Sabina says:

    Thank, Mike. I didn’t even try.

  9. What about food in hotels during Ramadan? I have heard that in UAE they dont serve food in hotels. Is it the same way here as well.

  10. Gearoid says:

    Thank you for your article which captures the moment perfectly. I found myself in Jerusalem, staying on Via Dolorosa, three years ago at the end of Ramadan and my abiding memory is of those who walked the streets before dawn beating drums to wake the local Muslims and remind them that this was their last chance to eat or drink before the first call to prayer. Of couse it disturbed my sleep but nevertheless it was both magical and primal in its sheer energy!

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