You can learn much about a city by exploring its open air market and listening to its stories. By the end of the 19th [secular] century Jerusalem was growing, with Jews returning to their homeland. In addition, immigrants from numerous nationalities and religions from Europe, Ethiopia, Turkey, and Russia were also contributing to the urban fabric of the city. New neighborhoods were built outside the walls to alleviate the overcrowding in the Old City.
The Jerusalem neighborhood of Mahane Yehuda was established in 1887 with 162 houses, founded by three business partners: Johannes Frutiger, Joseph Navon, and Shalom Konstrum, and named after Navon’s brother Yehudah. Frutiger was a German Protestant who owned the largest private bank in Palestine; it was he who acquired the license for the Jaffa-Jerusalem Railway with Navon from the Ottoman government.
With new neighborhoods outside the walls of the Old City, Arab merchants began selling goods to save the residents the long walk to the Old City food markets. A market called Beit Yaakov was established on an empty lot owned by the Sephardic Valero family, one of the most influential families and largest landowners in Jerusalem during Ottoman and British rule (1800-1948). Jewish merchants opened stalls there as well. The name of the neighborhood eventually became the name of the market.
During the Ottoman period, the marketplace expanded with no order or plan. By the late 1920s, sanitary conditions had deteriorated so badly that the British ordered the merchants to vacate the area. During the next ten years, the market was transformed into a permanent facility by the British Mandatory Government.
Over the years the market has changed, like the city. New stalls and food stands opened during the 1940s -- but recently, the market again underwent renovations, including a roof over the open areas. It has become gentrified and now there are restaurant-cafes, designer clothes shops, health food stores, artisan bakeries, shops that sell cheeses from all over the world and fine Israeli wines.
The Mahane Yehuda shuk (Hebrew for market) today is an outdoor, covered market (so you can visit even on a rainy day) that sells the traditional fruits and vegetables, grains, beans and spices, fish and meat -- but also halvah, baklava, bread, pastries, chocolate, cheese, salads, olives, house wares, clothes, shoes, flowers, Judaica -- almost anything you could want.
When you walk around Mahane Yehuda you stimulate all your senses.
Check out the arrangements and colors of the fresh fruit and vegetables; listen to the vendors hawking their wares, Middle Eastern music on CDs, prayers that emanate from the shop turned synagogue on HaEgoz Street; breathe in the fragrance of fresh breads, spices, roasted sunflower seeds; indulge in the free tastes of halvah, new fruit in season, chocolate, cheese, wine. Interact with the vendors, learn their stories!
The market is busiest on Thursday afternoons and Fridays, when many people are buying for the Sabbath -- but if you don’t mind the bustle you’ll revel in the experience of meeting all kinds of different people.
Mahane Yehuda is bounded by Jaffa Road and Agrippas Street. The two main streets of the shuk itself, Mahane Yehuda Street and Eitz Chayim Street run east to west, with the smaller cross streets bearing the names of fruit: Tapuach (Apple), Afarsek (Peach), Agas (Pear), Shezif (Plum), Shaked (Almond), and Tut (Berry) streets. You can find a map of Mahane Yehuda to help you navigate at http://israeltours.wordpress.com/2008/05/31/map-mahane-yehuda-market/
Use it to explore the Iraqi shuk and the alleyways between the two main streets.
Don’t miss the fruit elixirs for what ails you and Yemenite hot sauce (called s’chug), the falafel wrapped in a large pita bread called eish tanur (to see how it’s made visit the HaOfeh bakery on Agrippas Street), the kosher cheeses from around the world and Israel as well as artisan breads, fine wines, imported cider and chocolates. Watch out, because it's easy to spend more than you budgeted. Buy a bottle of Israeli wine (there are more than 200 wineries) from one of the wine shops. The prices are a fraction of what you would pay back home.
Israel news photo: Shmuel Browns
All this walking and exploring can be tiring, so take a break. Buy freshly-baked bread to go with a selection of Mediterranean salads for a picnic in Gan Sacher. There are a lot of restaurants and cafes where you can sit down, enjoy a meal from traditional Middle Eastern fare like hummus, felafel and shwarma to a full, multi-course meal. Try one of the upscale cafes. Did you know that you can have a Camembert and mushroom sandwich with an endive salad with mint and cider vinaigrette?
Shmuel Browns is a licensed tour guide and creates individual Israeli travel itineraries matched to anyone's interests, time and budget. For more information, click here!