Muslims tourists are not a rare sight in Jerusalem’s Old City, but a group of 30 young people, mainly women, traversing their way through narrow medieval streets and slippery stone staircases is enough to turn heads. Elderly women stick their head through small windows three stories high to glean a hijab-clad swirl being lead through streets that can barely fit a tractor.
Leading them is their dashing 23-year-old guide, Bashar Abu Shamsiyeh. He stops the mass frequently, in cramped alleyways and dark, crumbling pathways, rising onto any platform he can find. He delivers minutes of exposition and explanation of the historic buildings that the group is crammed like sardines up against. Thirty phones come out, recording, tweeting and even livestreaming the young man’s passionate and powerful oration about the city’s ancient and medieval past.
The usual pull for Muslims to Jerusalem is Haram al-Sharif (the Temple Mount) where Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock are situated. But with a recent boom in Islamic tourism, some visitors are expanding itineraries that go beyond the purely spiritual and into exploring the region’s rich Islamic heritage.This group pressed against the stone walks is from the Turkish NGO Vakt-i Kıraat. Their focus is on the spread of Islamic culture and awareness. They spend hours winding through the Old City focusing not just on religious symbolism, faith or prayer, but the houses, shops and schools built by some of the Islamic world’s most famous rulers.A record 4.5 million tourists entered Israel by air and land in 2019, up from 4.1 million in 2018. Surveys conducted by the Tourism Ministry indicate that only 2.4% of tourists to Israel identified as Muslim in that same year.
Olivia Dakkak, the owner of Dakkak Tourist Agency, a family-owned tour company established in 1952, told The Media Line that Muslim tourists “don’t just come for Al-Aqsa; they visit the Church of the Nativity, Hebron and Nabi Musa. The main pull is Al-Aqsa, but while they’re here, they might as well go see all the other sites.”Dakkak says that there are still issues regarding visas and permits for tourists coming from Muslim countries, and she’s had to discourage some travelers from working with her company. She specifically mentions a more stringent process for tourists from Indonesia and Malaysia.“The Islamic ones from the East – we don’t want to work with them. The government demands financial guarantees and the visa requirements are stringent. It makes things difficult to work with,” she said.The process for Muslim tourists, Dakkak says, is different from what is required of Christian visitors.“If they’re Christian, you don’t have to ask them about their grandparents and great-grandparents. It’s easier for Christians; they [Israeli border security] don’t ask as many questions.”Recent data from the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics show that tourist numbers from a number of Muslim countries have increased from 2018 to 2019. Indonesian tourist numbers to Israel have gone up from 35,000 to 39,000 in that time period while Malaysian tourists saw a small gain of around a thousand tourists – from 13,370 to 14,700 – in the same period.
Even though they face more obstacles than many, Dakkak says that Muslim tourists are just like every other faith-based visitor.“They’re just visiting different holy sites, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise, they behave the same as every other faith-based tourist,” she says.Thaer Ghourabi, a 23-year-old from Paris with Tunisian heritage, says he’s in Jerusalem as a precursor to his pilgrimage to Mecca. The Frenchman mentioned to The Media Line that even though his primary reasons for coming were “spiritual” and for “Palestinian solidarity,” his tour company had visited Haifa, Bethlehem, Acre and Ramallah during their one-week tour.Ghourabi traveled with a French-speaking group, comprising mainly people from the Maghreb, which arrived in Jerusalem on a coach bus from Jordan before heading to Saudi Arabia.One man who is trying to change the way tourists see Jerusalem is Abu Shamsiyeh’s father, Robeen Falah Abu Shamsiyeh. Considered to be one of the city’s best tour guides, he’s teaching his son the ins and outs of the industry.For more than 20 years, he’s guided tourists through the maze-like streets of Jerusalem’s Old City. The senior Abu Shamsiyeh’s tours focus on the different layers that the various rulers of the city have left behind.“I can talk about Jerusalem as a cocktail city because you have a combination between many civilizations and many periods within the same building,” he told The Media Line, referring to the countless cycles of construction, reconstruction and refurbishment of the same buildings, hundreds of years apart.“Most of the Old City is dated to Islamic periods,” he says. “We have many structures and buildings from the early Islamic period, the Abbasid, Ayyubid and Fatimid periods, from Crusader times, too.”