Before I went to Jerusalem I had an exact idea of what to write about my stay in the Holy city. I wanted to write a critical article about the ultra-orthodox Jewish community. I pictured neighbourhoods and people who appear to come from a different century, long black coats and big hats; oppressed women in long skirts surrounded by five or more children.

Yes, these communities do exist in Jerusalem but they represent just a small part of what makes Jerusalem a very special place. Still, I found what I was expecting when walking through Mea She’arim, the famous ultra-orthodox neighbourhood that gives you the feeling of travelling a century back in time.

On the streets are only men in long black coats with huge black hats and long curls on each side of the head. Women wear only long skirts, fake or covered hair and children are all over the place. The walls of the rather poor and old neighbourhood are pinned with signs in Hebrew and English demeaning every women to dress appropriately and according to their moral standards –meaning no trousers, jeans or tight fitting clothes. They ask for tourist groups to keep away from the quarter. The narrow dark alleys of the neighbourhood make you quickly forget about the world outside.

There are more than one million ultra-orthodox Jews, called Haredim, in Israel. Orthodox Jews are strictly against modern influences into their societies and live up to a tight corset of rules and a patriarchal society structures. The workforce of ultra-orthodox Jews in Israel is significantly low with almost fifty percent unemployment. Children are going to a special Haredim run school where they receive mainly religious and only basic standard education. Many Haredim live from state welfare, with 60% of them under the poverty level. A Haredim woman gives birth to an average of seven children in her life. The Haredim population is the only one in Israel who doesn’t have to go to the Army. Despite their minority in numbers, they have a major influence in Israeli politics.

The special treatment that they are receiving by the Israeli government causes quite some tensions and aversions within the population, especially in Jerusalem, where the Haredim population is higher than in any other city in Israel.

One city, different worlds

On Shabbat, the Jewish weekend which goes from Friday sundown until Saturday sundown, the Haredim define with their black clothing the colours of the city. However this is only part true. If you walk around the old city walls of Jerusalem, away from the famous Jaffa Gate towards Damascus gate, it feels like you’re entering an entirely different world. A world where hello doesn’t translate to Shalom but Salaam Aleikum, where Mosques and crowded colourful markets fill the streets.

The feeling of wandering through worlds comes the closest to my impression of Jerusalem. It doesn’t end with the noticeable differences between Haredim and “normal” Jews, Muslims and Jews or the many different streams of Christians living in this melting pot of cultures and religions. A friend who lives in Jerusalem once said to me: “The longer you stay in Jerusalem and try to define it, the clearer it becomes that nothing is as clear as it seems in this city.” On various occasions of my stay in the Holy city this statement proved to be more than true.

Religion is a good book but a bad movie

There is another outcome of this journey that I certainly didn’t expect. That the sight of all these holy and very old religious symbols and monuments would shake up my perception of religious identity to the ground. I never perceived myself as a particular religious person, although I was raised in a Christian surrounding and still got influenced by that. When I joined a walking tour around the old town of Jerusalem I started to question my identification with religion at the moment the tour guide pointed at a hill behind the western wall where Jesus Christ apparently ascended to heaven. He turned slightly to the left, pointed at another hill next to it and stated that this is the exact place where Prophet Mohammed met Angel Gabriel.

I looked at the pretty but not very spectacular hills in front of me and noticed that it had never occurred to me that there is an actual physical place that can be visited where apparently the key points of religions history took place. It was like watching bad movie to a really good book that destroyed entirely the fantasy world that one created while reading.

A place to coexist

This feeling was a steady companion during my strolls through Jerusalem’s old town. Luckily this disillusionment was sweetened by a silent fascination for the pilgrims reactions when arriving at the holy sights. I watched Christian pilgrims crying on their knees in front of the hole in the ground where apparently Jesus died on the cross. I saw Jewish pilgrims citing phrases and meditating for hours at the Western wall. I admired with fascination their dedication to religion whilst realizing that I truly don’t believe in it.

Apart from the world of the Haredim Jews and the pilgrim tourism there is another outstanding thing about Jerusalem. The mixture of very different and extremely longevous cultures and believes that coexist together in a very narrow and (more or less) peaceful space in the Holy city. Only the old town of Jerusalem includes the Jewish, Armenian, Muslim and the Christian quarter; even within these quarters there are different minor cultures. For example, in the Christian quarter, people form six different strings of Christianity are present. It is fascinating to see how these very special cultures exist and coexist one next to the other.

Nevertheless Jerusalem’s fascination doesn’t end with religious diversity and extreme dedication. The world of secular Israel is not less fascinating. First of all and especially for Europeans the presence of machine guns in Israeli every day life is something new and quite strange. You find them everywhere, in bars, coffee shops, the girl sitting at the train station next to you with her machine gun stuck between her legs so she can post the latest party photo on Instagram. Even at the Western wall, the holiest place for Jews, machine guns can be seen. In Israel still everyone, women for two years and men for three years, have to go to the Army. The thought of defence, potential threats and protection seems to be present 24/7.

The most important lecture I learned during my stay in Jerusalem is, above all, that nothing is as it seems. Before travelling to Jerusalem I got told and read a number of rules on how to behave and how the city was like. Strict, following religious rules before everything else.

On Shabbat the whole of Jerusalem was supposed to be under lockdown. It was true that no train, bus, elevator or even a dish washer was working. All shops were closed. Still, it was on Shabbat when I went out to enjoy Jerusalem’s secret night live along with many young secular Israelis, in a club that was located underneath Jerusalem’s one and only gay bar.

For me the fascination about Jerusalem resides in that it seems like a simple city with obvious options to categorise, but once you get there nothing is how you expected it to be. Just when you think you finally understood what this place is all about, you see a young Haredim boy walking hand in hand with a drag queen and disappearing into the night. This is what Jerusalem is all about.