I was lucky enough to spend the autumn of 2016 in Jerusalem on a National Endowment for the Humanities fellowship, which given the policies of the current US administration may soon be a thing of the past. The fellowship had to do with my job as classics professor at the University of Washington and my work on Ancient Greek magic, specifically deciphering and translating a group of curses from Caesarea that were written in Ancient Greek on lead tablets in the 5th c. CE and deposited in a well there. I was based at an American funded and run institution called the W.F. Albright Institute for Archaeological Research, housed in East Jerusalem in a beautiful building from the early 1920s.
|Mamluk-style striped masonry 42 al-Takiyah St.|
Just about every day, before or after working on my archaeological project, I would take my drawing portfolio, slide in a few sheets of paper (about 12 by 20 inches), a foam-core drawing board with bankers clips, a small sketchbook, and two fountain pens, and slip out of the gate onto Salah-ed-Din Street. If I turned to the left, I would be carried by the crowd to the Flower Gate (Bab Al-Zahra) and would enter the Old City that way. Going straight would either lead me over the "seam" from Arab East Jerusalem and into Israeli West Jerusalem, or with a turn to the left down Nablus Road, to the Damascus Gate, another point of entry into the Old City. I generally let my feet and chance decide which direction I would go in.
|Damascus Gate from the inside|
|From the Dominus Flevit church on the Mount of Olives|
An example of this is the Romanian orthodox priest in my picture below of the interior of the Tomb of the Virgin, one of the most atmospheric (in Jerusalem one would say "holy") places I visited in the Old City.
|Assicurazioni Generali on Jaffa Road|
If I saw an interesting figure moving through my frame, I would observe him or her for a few seconds and then draw the person from memory as best I could, preserving distinctive posture and features. Over time the sketch would become populated with these figures, as when a photographer keeps the shutter open for a long exposure and objects move across the frame, leaving traces and patterns. You can see this in my picture of Jaffa Road in West Jerusalem, a road that leads to the Old City and sees a lot of foot traffic as people go back and forth to the Wall to pray.
|Western Wall. Friday morning prayers|
At left, I sketched a cold December twilight over Muslim graves and the Golden Gate to the Old City. The Gate's double entrance has been walled up for centuries. In Jewish tradition this is where the Messiah will enter Jerusalem. Many Christians believe this is where Jesus entered the city on Palm Sunday.
I soon discovered that life in Jerusalem is particularly intense. Every stone is important to someone, every square centimeter has been contested and claimed by some group. Whoever currently controls those stones, controls access to them and behavior around them, and feelings can run high.
Most of the time this was not an obstacle to drawing—in fact I often received encouragement and praise for stopping and taking the time to record what I saw. A teacher quietly came up and left coffee and pastry for me when he saw me drawing the beautiful 12th century CE Mamluk-period details of the Araghonia Madrasa.
|Bab el-Hadid ("Iron gate") on left. Araghonia Madrasa on right, with Mamluk architecture|
Ten minutes later the Israeli guard at the nearby gate to the Haram-as-Sharif stopped by to chat. Only once was I prevented from drawing, at the Western Wall on Shabbat. I had thought that the prohibition on photography during the Sabbath would not extend to drawing but I was wrong: drawing is an act of creation. I felt I couldn't draw at all in the ultra-orthodox neighborhood of Mea Shearim and I had to be very careful drawing the Haredim, ultra-orthodox Jews whose clothing and hats I was instantly attracted to.
|Haredim (ultra-Orthodox Jews) in their Sabbath clothes|
|Maharil Diskin Courtyard, near the Damascus Gate|
One day, on my way to draw a street and courtyard in the Old City, I passed through the Damascus Gate and noticed a female Israeli guard with exceptionally long and beautiful hair (living in East Jerusalem I seldom saw such hair displayed openly). When I left some hours later, I heard that there had been a knife attack on the guards there, and that a female guard had been injured. It was a shock to realize that it must have been the woman whose hair I had admired earlier, that the stones I walked over then now were stained with blood. I was similarly shocked again to hear of attacks at the Flower Gate and on El Wad Street in the Old City, places on my daily walks. And it was impossible not to think daily of the tensions and hardships of life for Israelis and Palestinians. I think only in Jerusalem might one see a scene like the one I drew one day near the New Gate. I was admiring the glossy horses of Israeli mounted police and starting to draw them, when suddenly one of the policemen jumped down from his horse and pulled over a Palestinian youth, spread him against the wall, and frisked him. While this happened a Franciscan monk and an Ethiopian Coptic priest wandered into the picture, followed by an American Orthodox Jew, who said, "Now that's something I never seen before."
|Mount of Olives Silwan Wall|
Alex Hollmann is a classics professor at the University of Washington in Seattle, Washington. See more of his work: www.flickr.com/photos/alexhollmann