Jerusalem of Memory

The Old City of Jerusalem offers unique, exciting and enticing historical and religious sites to Israelis and visitors alike. The Western Wall, the most ancient, is the remaining retaining wall of the Temple Mount where the first and second Temples stood before their destruction by Roman conquerors in 70 CE. The nearby Church of the Holy Sepulcher, built in the 4th century, commemorates the site where Christians believe that Jesus was crucified. The Moslem Dome of the Rock, built at the end of the 7th century CE on the site of the Temples, affirms the Muslim conquest. Their enduring sanctity is amply revealed by the throngs of people who come to visit, and pray, at these holy sites.

For those who want to delve deeper (literally) into history there are opportunities to traverse the excavated tunnel that runs alongside the Western Wall between the Jewish and Christian Quarters, ending at the Via Dolorosa. A newer tour exposes ritual baths from the Second Temple era, the ancient bridge between the upper city and the Temple Mount and the Hasmonean hall where members of the Sanhedrin are believed to have gathered.

Decades ago Mahmoud, a Moslem antiquities dealer whose store was inside Lion’s Gate on the Via Dolorosa, taught me about ancient coins and pottery. One afternoon, when business was slow, he took me to the vast empty space beneath the Mount. There wasn’t much to see; lots of small stones and some tall pillars in a massive,  apparently empty, cavern. For the Moslem Waqf, however, its emptiness loomed as a threatening invitation to Jews to return to their ancient holy site.

To prevent that, 9,000 tons of dirt were dug, removed and piled outside the Old City walls. Then an underground mosque was built to reinforce Moslem possession of the ancient Jewish holy site. An archeological dig known as the Temple Mount Sifting Project has since discovered in the discarded heaps of dirt pottery fragments from as far back as the Stone and Bronze ages, a rare seal from the Iron Age and assorted coins, weights and weapons of Jewish historical importance.

Over time, during frequent visits to Jerusalem and two years when I lived there with my family, I expanded my own collection of antiquities: Canaanite fertility figures; ancient pottery;  stone birds and cats; Jewish coins and juglets. They remain tangible reminders of visits and pleasures deeply embedded in my memory.

By now, however, as I recently discovered, the number of Old City antiquities dealers has been reduced to less than a handful. Mahmoud relocated to Europe and his successor has filled the store with a standard array of souvenirs. Mahmoud’s nearby neighbor, Ibrahim Kara’in, always invited me inside to browse through his collection while he played chess with a friend. When business was slow he took me to Hebron and Nablus (biblical Shechem). Since his death a decade ago his shop has been closed.

The only remaining antiquities store, near the bend in the Via Dolorosa that leads to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, is the Hamedian Gallery. As I recently rediscovered, it more than compensates for the loss of its bygone companions. Divided between Jewish and Christian artifacts, its elaborately decorated display cases filled with ancient jewelry and pottery, illuminated by beautiful stained glass lamps, transform it into a veritable museum of antiquity. After Mr. Hamedian and I exchanged greetings my son and I were treated to cold drinks on an extremely hot day before we began to explore the treasures.

My primary quest was for a particular Bar Kochba coin that I had seen on-line by an American dealer at astronomical cost. Mr. Hamedian offered just the one I wanted at an affordable price.  Meanwhile my son, knowing of my boyhood fondness for turtles, had discovered a stone Hellenistic oil lamp, in the shape of a turtle, from 330 BCE. I was delighted to add it to my collection.

While we were looking at other gems , Mr. Hamedian saw me eying a partially rolled Persian carpet. He spread it for me in all its beauty. Intricately threaded, its centerpiece comprised colorful octagons  of diminishing sizes inside each other. I instantly knew that it would be a perfect addition to my study at home, already brimming with Jewish antiquities and 19th century lithographs of Jerusalem and Hebron by British artist David Roberts and other romantic visitors to the Holy Land.

So we began to discuss the price. It was considerably more than I cared to pay so we bargained, which I knew from past experiences in the Old City was an essential part of the purchase ritual. When we reached a standoff, my son whispered that we should prepare to leave. As we did, Mr. Hamedian lowered the price once more – this time to an affordable cost. It now looks every bit as beautiful in my study as I had imagined. As I write, my Persian cat Pasha is happily curled up and sleeping on it.

Jerusalem, to be sure, is far more than Jewish antiquities and Persian carpets. It has long been, for me, the embedded source of Jewish history and memory. The many and varied antiquities that I have purchased during nearly fifty years of Old City visits are reminders of the deep, unique and enduring joys and memories that are the gift that this holiest of cities has provided in abundance. If I forget thee, O Jerusalem . . .

About the Author
Jerold S. Auerbach is author of Hebron Jews: Memory and Conflict in the Land of Israel (2009). His new book, Print to Fit: The New York Times, Zionism and Israel 1896-2016, will be published in February by Academic Studies Press.
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