Jerusalem looks simple from atop the Mount of Olives. At the back of the panorama jostle cranes and office blocks. In the mid-ground I picked out steeples and arched windows. At the front your eyes glue themselves to the Dome of the Rock, glittering gold above the Old City’s battlements.
“Do you read the Bible?”
In amongst the tour groups oohing and aahing at the view, a local guide introduced himself as Bassam.
“If you read the Bible,” he went on, “you’ll know Jerusalem is in heaven. This one” – he gestured – “is the Jerusalem in hell.”
Bassam and I traced the invisible line – fixed in international law, disputed by Israel – which slices left to right across the view, demarcating Israeli West Jerusalem behind from occupied East Jerusalem in front. We walked down the hill into the Old City together, passing the gnarled olive trees of Gethsemane. At the Church of the Holy Sepulchre voices rose where Jesus died. By the Western Wall lips murmured under knotted brows.
All the key religious sites are in the Old City, which is part of East Jerusalem, an area annexed by Israel after the Six-Day War. Most tourists, though, stay elsewhere: of the city’s 9,335 hotel rooms, almost 8,000 are in West Jerusalem. Stay in the east, and you find another city, Arabic in language and Palestinian in culture.
Yet even at the Zion Gate on Jerusalem’s invisible border line, its Ottoman stonework punctured with bullet holes, Bassam didn’t mention “East” or “West”. You rarely hear locals make the distinction. Many Palestinians feel the whole city is under occupation. To most Israelis the whole city has been liberated. Neither linguistically acknowledges the other.
Sultan Suleiman Street is East Jerusalem’s anchor, its minibuses and fruit barrows laid against the Old City walls as keepsakes on a forgotten shelf. To one side the elegant curve of Salah Ed-Din now holds mostly ladies’ fashions and pizza parlours, between decaying 19th-century mansions of golden Jerusalem stone.
Round the corner on Nablus Road I filled a morning at the serene Garden Tomb, an alternative site for the Crucifixion, before hooking up with an old friend. Bald, round and twinkling, Khalil has Jerusalem roots going back centuries. When I asked for culinary advice he was unequivocal.
“You should go for a Zalatimo. Come on, I’ll take you.”
Sunbeams in flagstoned lanes split and reformed as Khalil gave me the backstory. In 1860 Jerusalem merchant Mohammed Zalatimo opened a shop selling mutabbaq, a sweet pastry. It became so famous that, like Mr Hoover and Mr Biro, man and product merged.
In the crowded, fragrant souks, beside a stall blaring Arabic pop, we halted in front of an unmarked, aluminium-framed glass door. Zalatimo’s dim, tiled interior, wedged under the walls of the Holy Sepulchre, held four small tables beneath stone cross-vaults.
A family group was just leaving, their silk scarves and jewellery incongruous under the dangling light-bulbs. They were going back to Jordan, they said. When they’d arrived they’d come straight to have a Zalatimo. They’d returned for another before departing. It was the taste of Jerusalem.
With 150 years of knowledge in his fingers, preparation took Hani Zalatimo, great-great-grandson of Mohammed, seconds. Dough thrown by hand ended up so thin you could see the speckled counter-top beneath. A crumble of sheep’s cheese preluded four folds. After a few minutes in the oven each crispy bite was both sweet and savoury, the melted cheese and sugar-dusted pastry combining masterfully.
It energised Khalil. He whisked me through the Old City alleys, calling out greetings every few metres. I remember an unsigned Armenian bakery, where a customer told us he’d travelled three hours to buy sfiha, an open-faced meat pasty. At the 19th-century Izhiman coffee shop Khalil joked about old Mr Izhiman, who in the 1920s used to drive between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, selling coffee out of his car window. In the Butchers’ Souk we dodged the severed heads and buckets of offal to dine on intensely flavourful, almost winey kofte at Abu Shaheen’s legendary kebab restaurant, the lamb chopped by hand with a secret family spice mixture.
While we ate, Khalil gestured.
“You see? The Holy Sepulchre, the mosque, the Western Wall – it’s all just decoration for the real Jerusalem,” he said. “Some people want this city as a museum. But we are alive!”
In the afternoons, when the Old City tour groups began streaming back to the buzz of West Jerusalem, I’d pass sage-sellers and money-changers into gentler East Jerusalem. Salah Ed-Din felt like a provincial high street. I’d browse with a frothy coffee at bookshops and galleries, and eat zingily over-lemoned Lebanese mezze among quiet diners.
Off Salah Ed-Din stands the St George hotel, opened first in 1965, when East Jerusalem was Jordanian. Photos show King Hussein striding through the lobby, only 29 years old, his smile as tight as his buttoned suit.
The hotel survived a generation. Last month, after top-to-toe renovation by a consortium of Palestinian investors, it opened again – without royalty this time. It’s a snazzy refit, featuring acres of rosy wood panelling, chunky designer furniture, fabrics in chocolate and burgundy and a rooftop pool offering a sensational domes-and-steeples panorama.
Manager Tareq Al Naser is proud as Punch. “This is the first new luxury hotel in East Jerusalem since – well – since the last time it was,” he grinned, showing me an old olive tree around which the ground-floor courtyard has been rebuilt. “And it’s the only one that is Palestinian owned and operated.”
Another original feature is the marble flooring, swirling pinkish stone quarried at nearby Beit Fajjar. As Tareq guides me under the lobby lights for a better view, I realise I’m striding where Hussein strode, 47 years ago.
Back then Arab Jerusalem was, literally, another country. It still feels like it today.