Pilgrims and tourists outside Al-Aqsa Mosque after the second prayer of the day, February 12, 2020. (Shakir Rimzy)

More than Just Al-Aqsa: The Changing Ways Muslims Explore Israel

As the number of Muslim tourists to Israel rises, their interests widen beyond Islamic holy sites to include the sites of other religions as well as places of historic and cultural interest

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.

Bashar Abu Shamsiyeh guides Vakt-i Kıraat group in Jerusalem’s Old City, February 13, 2020. (Photos by Shakir Rimzy)

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.

Vakt-i Kıraat group stops for a photo in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City, February 13, 2020.

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.

Thaer Ghourabi in front of the Dome of the Rock, February 12, 2020.

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.

Robeen Falah Abu Shamsiyeh at the Austrian Hospice, February 13, 2020.

“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.”

Robeen Abu Shamsiyeh, who has two master’s degrees – one in history from Al-Quds University and one in educational administration from Birzeit University – says that the Mamelukes are responsible for the construction of houses, madrassas (religious academies), zawiyas (monasteries for mystics) and ribats (hospices for old soldiers) that comprise 75% of the buildings in the Old City and are the focus of his secular Old City walking tours.

He says these tours have gotten more popular in recent years. Data from the Central Bureau of Statistics show that tourist numbers from the predominantly Muslim countries that his tours cater to, such as Egypt, Indonesia, Jordan, Malaysia, Morocco and Nigeria, rose from 86,400 in 2018 to 96,800 in 2019. Most of these are Muslim tourists, but not all; these countries have sizable Christian populations, as well.

These tourists, according to Abu Shamsiyeh, are expanding the horizons of Islamic tours that traditionally were very narrowly focused. In the past, Islamic trips wouldn’t visit the holy places of other religions, but, says Abu Shamsiyeh, recently “I had a tour group from Indonesia; they wanted to see the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Wailing Wall.”

It’s something he encourages, stating that, “I don’t compare and differentiate between the religions here. I want to show them that Jerusalem is a city of multiple religions, multiple cultures, and that we have to accept it.”

European countries with significant Muslim communities, such as France, Germany and the UK, also saw an increase in tourism, from 848,000 in 2018 to 876,000 in 2019.

The Hamadan family, a Palestinian father and daughter from Leipzig, Germany, was taking selfies at the Dome of the Rock during their one-week visit to Jerusalem. The pair told The Media Line that their trip was mainly to visit family, but they also plan on going sightseeing around the city.

There’s no shortage of nooks and crannies to explore in the Old City. Abdallah Dias is a frequent guest on Abu Shamsiyeh’s walking tours. Even as a lifelong resident of Jerusalem, the 52-year-old still “discovers something new every time.”

“We visited the Jerusalem Citadel, also called the Tower of David. It was my first time inside. I’ve seen it from the outside but never gone in. I was astonished by its rich history,” he told The Media Line.

Another place that stood out to the native Jerusalemite was Al-Khanqah al-Salahiyya Mosque, a place where Islamic hero Salah ad-Din (Saladin) was known to pray.

While Al-Aqsa remains his, and many Muslims’, favorite site in the city due to its spiritual and historic connections, there is no short supply of Islamic history in the city’s walls – something about which father-son duo Robeen and Bashar will continue to educate countless visitors.

A small taste of their tours includes Damascus Gate on the northern end of the Old City and an explanation of the city wall’s destruction and reconstruction by Ottoman Sultan Suleiman. They then stop at one of the 36 mosques in the Old City, dart through the souk and gold, spice and meat markets, and make their way across narrow streets where Muslim Quarter residents are still living today.

Both Bashar and his father Robeen Falah Abu Shamsiyeh have seen positive changes in Muslim representation in the city.

“Twenty years ago, when I was a small tour guide, many people came with a different idea or different information about the Muslim narrative in Jerusalem. Now it’s easy for us as tour guides to talk about the Muslim narrative.”

Vakt-i Kıraat program ends with songs and coffee, February 13, 2020.

Shakir Rimzy is a student in The Media Line’s Press and Policy Student Program.

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