Down the quaint lanes of the Old City, you can’t miss the marvelous old city market, or as it’s called in the Middle East, the Shuk.
As you enter the Old City from Damascus or Jaffa gate, the Shuk will be the first thing you see, welcoming you inside, literally, taking you on a tour through three thousand years old history accompanied by the smells of spices, incense, and local cuisine, beautiful colors, trinkets, works of art and religious memorabilia.
This week, I was in need of acquiring a certain fabric for one of my projects. I decided to venture into the Old City of Jerusalem and visit a unique shop I’ve been planning to visit for quite a long time. One of the most famous textile merchants in Israel and maybe even in the entire world. Keep reading to find out more. ?
Hence I decided, why not share my adventure with you. Accompanied by my trusty partner and photographer, we decided to have a fun couples day and visit the market, getting what we need and having some quality time together, which every parent of three little batlings always needs.
We entered the city from Jaffa gate and headed straight to the Shuk.
Once inside you will arrive at an assortment of various shops, some of my favorite ones are the ceramic shops. I find them so beautiful and unique. It doesn’t matter what you put inside the dish, it will look amazing and super delicious. If there is one thing you can’t miss in the Middle East it’s spices, of all colors and flavors.
If you are planning on visiting other markets in Jerusalem to buy spices, then I would recommend going to the Mahane Yehuda market since they’ll be much cheaper, but if you are only visiting the Old City, be sure to stop at one of the many spices stands the market has to offer. I would definitely suggest getting some Za’atar which goes great with Salads and Humus, Ras El Hanut that you can add to any meat or chicken dish, or Sumac which is one of my favorite spices. Sumac has a zesty taste and you can add it to salads, cooked dishes, or whatever. I personally forage for it in the forest near my home at the end of summer or beginning of the autumn, dry it and use it all year round. When fresh, you can even make a sour, lemonade-like drink with it.
On this day though, I had a goal, to visit a crystal shop and fabric shop and to hopefully leave the place with only a small hole in my pocket. Not quite an easy goal one might say.
If you are planning on visiting the Jerusalems Old City or the City Center, then whatever you do, avoid driving in your private car. The light rail is your best buddy, it’s easy to use and you don’t need to look for hours for parking, ending up paying a fortune for it. Worst case taking a cab might cost you the same as three-hour parking, minus the casual fender bender.
Within the desert a treasure is revealed – The Arches Bedouin Museum Crystal Shop
Proceeding about fifty meters down David street, you’ll discover a beautiful crystal lair to the right of the alley. Here you’ll enter heaven filled with beautiful crystals, beads, and stones from all around the world.
The place is called ” The Arches – Bedouin Museum”, and along with beautiful crystals and beads, he has also a large variety of beautiful Jewelry, such as silver Yemanite necklaces and much more.
If you are looking to get beads and crystals in Israel, the Old City is one of the best places for this, especially in Jerusalem.
From my experience getting beads for various projects is definitely best here, since the quality and variety are amazing and the prices are great, much lower than in regular craft shops.
This is a place you can definitely get lost in, marveling at all the different stones, absorbing all the energy.
I promised myself to get only one thing but ended up getting many beautiful Lapis Lazuli, Garnet beads, and much more. I can’t wait to make some new jewelry designs with them.
If you are a fashion and seam enthusiast make sure to leave some coins in your purse for our next stop, where we will be visiting a textile merchant who travels the Middle East in search of unique fabrics, each telling a story of their own, their beauty befitting princesses and princess of One Thousand and One Nights.
From the Gem shop, we headed down the street toward the Holy Sepulcher and the Muristan, a complex within the Christian quarter containing beautiful alleys, shops, restaurants, and cafes.
Our goal was to find Bilals’ famous textile shop, where you can find the most prestigious fabrics such as Damascus silk.
Where Popes, Mukhtars and Rabbies get their silks – Bilal Abu Khalaf Textiles
“Then I produced the gifts meant for him and his wife: unguents, clothes, and pearls. I presented one gift after another until I had handed over everything. Then, in front of his people, I presented a robe of honor to his wife, who was seated by his side. This is their customary practice. The womenfolk showered dirhams on her after I had presented the robe. Then we left”.
In his historic travel journal, Ahmad Ibn Fadlan tells of his tenth-century C.E. journey to King of the Bulghars on the upper Volga. He was sent as an ambassador by the Abbasid Caliph Al-Muqtadir of Baghdad. In this book, he recounts the luxurious gifts he conveyed to the King and his Queen. Among those were fabrics, clothing, and a robe of honor. To the modern western audience, Ibn Fadlan is probably more familiar as a character played by Antonio Banderas in the movie “The 13th warrior”. But rest assured his adventures are no less exciting than in the movie, though not surprisingly, quite different.
In his journal, in a colorful and storytelling manner, he tells of his harsh and cold journey to the lands north of the Caspian Sea. There he met various Turkish tribes, the Rus and the Khazars whom he described in detail, serving as one of the important historical resources about these folks and the only source on the tattoos of the Vikings.
One of the gifts he presented to the different leaders on his journey was textiles and garbs.
Today, we are used to acquiring fashion at an affordable price, mainly made of synthetic fibers, not even comprehending the hard work entailed in producing natural fiber cloth.
Back in the day, each tunic, dress, or even a shawl starts from a tiny seed, a cocoon, or a farmer shearing his sheep.
In the case of plant-based fabrics, the stalks need to be cleaned, dried, separated into tiny fibers, spun into a thread, and colored using plant-based or other natural colorings, which need to be produced as well. Then the threads needed to be dried and woven into a beautiful and intricate cloth pattern. Only then could the fabric undergo the painstaking process of being designed and sewn into the final product, a beautiful garment fit for a king.
Today there are only a few people that still partake in this meticulous process, among them crazy reenactors.
Those are the people who, to this day, are not willing to give up on this luxurious craft and will spend a fortune on something quite unique.
After wandering the area for a little while, hidden within the Muristan complex with its quaint little alleys we discovered the textile shop of Bilal Abu Khalaf.
Bilal is a traveler himself. While he might not have traveled to the Volga, nor met any Vikings, he has covered some long miles as well.
As a third-generation textile merchant, he travels the world in search of unique fabrics which he brings back to Jerusalem, primarily from Syria, Morroco, and India.
Bilal welcomed us with a cup of Turkish coffee and a detailed tour of his shop, showing us all the unique textiles he has to offer, and sharing with us some interesting tales. His fabrics are made of natural fibers, silks, cotton, wool, and much more. Some are embroidered with 9 karats and even 14 karats of gold.
His shop is a meeting place of the three main religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
The Christian clergy, Imams and Rabbis, and religious followers from all over the country come to his shop to buy his unique textiles for their special religious and ceremonial garbs.
He explained to us how the women and the people of Jerusalem used to dress back in the day and even at the beginning of the century, as well as the meaning behind each fabric design.
Some people decided to keep their old fashion, many of which we can still see today in Jerusalem and around the country. Bilal is one of them, wearing what is called a striped white Kaftan, a fashion statement tailored by none other than Abraham the forefather, or so the legend goes. This style is still popular today among the Samaritans of Nablus and the Mukhtars, the leaders of Arab villages. Similar Kaftans are also worn by several Orthodox Jewish sects in Jerusalem.
For daily wear, matte and simple patterns are used, while for special occasions, textiles woven with gold and shiny threads are popular.
The clergy get textiles for their festive garbs here as well, woven with golden crosses and weaved by artisans in Syria. Among his customers was Pope Benedictus who visited Jerusalem in the year 2000. One of the popes Cardinals, who was a bishop back then, acquired silken cloth for him, woven with 9 karats gold threads creating a beautiful floral pattern with crosses.
But the rarest and most unique pieces are those brought from the city of Palmyra, which was sadly destroyed recently. Here, a tradition existed of special textile art. In order to make 10 meters of this cloth, it required 40 days of work, all crafted by hand. The fabric consists of 9000 threads, some of them 14 karat gold. The various designs contain mosaic patterns, resembling the mosaics of the great mosque of Damascus, and the Dome of the Rock here in Jerusalem, the arabesque pattern, which is my favorite, and the Salah Al-Din pattern depicting him and his warriors. In Syria, they craft pillow covers, shawls, and ties from this fabric. I find this material to be great for the embroidery of historical reenactment events clothing, like Medieval era tunics, dresses, and Kaftans. Now, I just need to make a dress to go with it.
If you are a living history fan and you visit Jerusalem, make sure to put this shop in your itinerary.
But luxurious textiles from around the world are not the only treasures hidden in Bilals’ shop. For the other treasure, you need to turn your gaze down below and marvel at the glass floor.
Eighteen years ago, as he was renovating his shop he literally stumbled upon a treasure, something to be expected when you stick a shovel in a Jerusalem floor. Beneath the surface, an ancient ruin was revealed.
About two thousand years ago “Muristan” was the place of the Roman City forum. Later a church was built here in the Byzantine period and in the ninth century, Charlemagne constructed a pilgrimage center here, consisting of a hospital, a library, and a church.
Then during the Crusaders period, this area was expanded, serving as the residence for the Hospitallers’ knights.
An excavation led by a group of archaeologists revealed what was a part of the crusader-era church.
Bilal told us that during the dig they uncovered several pieces of jewelry and swords, which left me intrigued.
I definitely need to look for further information about this excavation. Let me know if you would like to learn more about this ruin.
While I could definitely spend a whole day in a place like this, listening to all the stories, I still had a mission at hand to find a suitable piece of fabric for my project. After explaining to Bilal what I’m after he offered me this beautiful fabric that fits perfectly for what I needed, stay tuned. 😉 It’s not handmade yet it’s still unique and from Damascus, so mission accomplished.
I also got myself a beautiful black velvet scarf, which I chose from a wide variety of beautiful shawls he has in his shop. Here you can also find pillow covers and beautiful cloth carpets.
We bid Bilal farewell and thanked him for his warm hospitality and headed back home.
Full of inspiration for future fashion projects I can’t wait to get back here and get some of his more unique and luxurious textiles.