Cityfront: A fast of thousands

An insider's take on Ramadan, as Muslims throng to the Aksa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock.

ramadan 248.88 (photo credit: Noreen Sadik)
ramadan 248.88
(photo credit: Noreen Sadik)
My story begins outside the wall of the Muslim Quarter. The street bustles with energy as people look for coveted parking places. Tourist buses empty as eager visitors file out. In this world of mystical medieval charm, flights of large, semi-circular stairs are crowded with vendors selling everything from shoes and vegetables to clothing and bread. At the bottom of the stairs, one navigates through the plaza filled with a maze of goods, carts and throngs of people. And it is here that one passes under the arched gate and enters the Muslim Quarter. Bab al-Amoud (the Gate of the Column), also known as Damascus Gate, built circa 1542 by Ottoman ruler Suleiman the Magnificent, is on the northern side of the wall surrounding the Old City. Beyond the gate, one is steeped in history, culture and tradition. The ancient cobblestone streets veer off into alleys, leading to the hidden wonders of the Old City. Blue, red and yellow lights are strung across the open marketplace, and Ramadan lanterns shine on the streets below. Shops line both sides of the streets, and shopkeepers summon shoppers to enter. Souvenirs, toys, clothing, spices, household items, food, head scarves and prayer clothing for religious Muslim women abound. Tucked between the shops are small restaurants and bakeries serving tantalizing traditional Arabic food and sweets. As the day wears on and the hours before sunset turn to minutes, the tension in the market becomes palpable as shoppers make their last purchases before making their way home to break their fast. The smell of felafel, a must during Ramadan, fills the air. Containers filled with a variety of pickles and olives begin to empty as shoppers make their purchases. And the strong aroma of Arabic coffee entices coffee lovers. People gather around sweet shops to buy collage, kanafah, katayif or some other syrup-soaked treat, for no Ramadan meal is complete unless it is followed by sweets. Moments before sunset, the market becomes eerily quiet as shopkeepers turn off or dim their lights and sit in their stores to break their fasts with their families. The bustling alleys become deserted and unfriendly. However, where the market ends, the spiritual journey for Islamists begins. Beyond the arch at the end of the market road is the Temple Mount. On this piece of land sit the Dome of the Rock and the Aksa Mosque, Islam's third holiest site (after the sacred sites in Mecca and Medina). Enclosed within the Temple Mount are gardens, fountains and numerous domes. Al-Aksa Mosque is in the southern part of the sanctuary, while the Dome of the Rock sits on a raised platform in the center. A shrine rather than a mosque, the Dome of the Rock was built by the ninth Caliph Abd al-Malik between 685 and 691. With its large golden dome, blue tiles, arches and verses from the Koran written in Arabic calligraphy, it is an exceptional example of Islamic architecture. Octagonal in shape, each side has a door through which worshipers can enter. The interior is just as beautiful as the exterior as sunlight casts a glow on the intricately designed arches, marble pillars, colorful tiles and Koranic calligraphy. The faithful go year-round to the Temple Mount to pray, contemplate or just take a break. The Dome of the Rock and al-Aksa Mosque fill during the prayers, which are five times a day. During Ramadan, female worshipers fill the Dome of the Rock, while males pray in al-Aksa. Every Friday, Islam's holy day, the sanctuary is crowded with some 150,000 worshipers. As the light of the sun fades, a cool breeze picks up. Restless children run around. Women's long dresses wave in the breeze as they unpack the food they brought for their families to break their fasts. One woman makes the hour drive to Jerusalem twice a week during Ramadan. During Ramadan, "people feel closer to God, become closer to each other and show each other more love as they clean their hearts of any bad feelings," she says, The Old City, especially the Temple Mount, holds a special place in her heart. "I feel I can rest there," she explains. "This is where the Prophet Muhammad led the prophets in prayer, making us all one people." For the past six years, she has been involved with a group who distribute food to needy families in her city. During the year, the list of families numbers 180; however, during Ramadan, it rises to 240 . This, to her, is the true meaning of Ramadan - sharing and taking care of your fellow man. Since Ramadan is a time for empathizing with the needy and a time of generosity, some organizations arrange free meals for anyone who is at the Temple Mount. Al-Aksa Association for the Protection and Maintenance of Islamic Wakf is one such organization. For the past seven years, every day during the month of Ramadan between the Dome of the Rock and al-Aksa Mosque, they serve hot meals to thousands of fasters. According to manager Farid Haj Yahya, the project, which is sponsored by the United Arab Emirates, provides meals to 3,000 people every day, numbering approximately 100,000 people during Ramadan. The total amount consumed is 36 tons of meat, in addition to rice, vegetables, yogurt, juice, bottled water - and, to emulate the prophet's example, dates. Fasters gather around, eager to take their first bite. However, as the sound of the adthan fills the compound, they still have to wait a few more minutes until a short prayer is finished. Then with a loud cheer, they rush to grab a spot and break their fast beginning with dates, just as Muhammad used to do. In the Dome of the Rock and the mosque, a sense of community exists between strangers as they offer each other dates, water or anything else they have on hand. After breaking the fast, the faithful attend the Taraweeh, a Ramadan prayer. During this prayer, the entire Koran is read over the course of the month. Thousands of Muslims attend, reciting the words in unison in the hopes that God will hear their prayers and forgive their sins. Late that night, the worshipers leave for home. On the other side of the wall, the market returns to life. Residents of the Old City offer those passing homemade coffee, chocolates and sweets. Smoke wafts from barbecue grills and huge pots steam with corn on the cob,. while fresh pomegranate juice, sweets, coffee and nargillas flow in abundance. The market stays open until the wee hours. The plaza at Bab al-Amoud and the exotic market behind its thick wall continue to be the busy, boisterous places they have been for centuries.