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Conquering Jerusalem, One Shop at a Time
Jerusalem is one of the oldest, continuously operating cities in the world with records of human settlements dating back to 3500 B.C. That would put it at about 5500 years old! Throughout this long history, Jerusalem has been attacked and destroyed many times over. Yet, it still survives to this day. And the reason for its resiliency and longevity is the indisputable fact that it is vitally significant to three of the world's most popular religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Because of this importance to so much of the planet, it has been hotly contested over the years and has often seen its share of violence. However, incidents have been fewer and farther between in the region lately and with some diligence, wisdom, and good preparation, you will have a thoroughly enjoyable time. However, that doesn't mean you, as an American or someone from a modern, westernized country, like, Canada, Australia, or others won't have their own struggle to deal with. Please, hear me out. Keep reading. This is something that's usually just slightly challenging at first (a few people out there actually enjoy the process). But, with some background knowledge and basic skills, you will probably conquer it rather handily. The challenge I speak of is haggling.
Haggling (the ancient art of negotiating a price) isn't something all that familiar to an American, like myself. The closest anyone here ever comes to haggling is at the occasional garage sale or when buying a used car. In this country we're used to something called a "set price." We go in to a store, see something we want to buy and just pay what's on the price tag (I've never haggled with the Walmart manager over a coffee maker or loaf of bread). That particular way of doing things is familiar to us and we really don't give it a second thought. But, that's exactly the type of thinking that an American has to leave at the city gate when they enter Jerusalem's Old City. The oldest part of the city that's surrounded by the huge wall (accessed by one of seven gates that surround it). Shopping in the Old City was a bit of a relief for me because it's actually one of the only parts of Jerusalem that's mostly flat (aside from some staircases) and it's a nice change from constantly walking uphill and downhill all day. You'll quickly discover that much of Israel is very hilly.
Chances are, you will almost immediately and undoubtedly be approached by a shopkeeper or attendant if you are even within ten yards of a shop Some gates butt right up next to the gates, like, the Damascus Gate (see photo). Especially if you show even the slightest interest in anything they have for sale. You will probably be hounded. It will be glaringly apparent that you're a tourist (no matter how hard you try not to look like one) and, to them, you are money with legs. You will have more attention thrust on you than you ever thought yourself worthy of. Don't worry though. It's usually done with a great level of respect and courtesy. Remember, tourism is their livelihood and it's why almost everyone is there. They need you! Believe me, nobody wants to be the one who gave Jerusalem a black eye and destroyed the tourist trade! I also believe it's why more acts of terrorism aren't committed in Jerusalem. They don't want to do anything that would keep tourist money out of their hands. You'll probably just find the tactics a bit pesky and relentless and it won't be long before you tire of it. However, there are plenty of places to escape the deluge of souvenir hawkers!
In terms of goods, Jerusalem has a great deal to offer! From the cheap (like, little stuffed camels with "Jerusalem" stitched in to them) to the more elaborate and well crafted items (like, Bedouin, camel hair rugs). But, no matter the level of quality, get ready to bargain on just about everything (except, perhaps, for lunch). Believe it or not, I even haggled for a bottle of water!
Here, now, are some things that you can do to mentally prepare yourself for a more pleasant and fruitful shopping experience in the Old City of Jerusalem:
1. Don't be defensive! This is the way they make their living and the way they're used to doing things. Remember, you're a guest in their country and you'll find that it's easier to adapt if you maintain an open mind. You didn't travel all that way just to do things the same way they do at home. Besides, that awesome, olive wood sculpture you just found would be worth the hassle!
2. Don't look too interested. Try to keep your emotions and reactions subtle when shopping in Jerusalem. I've made this mistake many times. If you express overt interest in any particular item, make sure you actually intend to buy it. I don't say this because it's some sort of law that you're obligated to buy it. However, the shopkeeper will work like crazy to make sure you leave with that one souvenir you appear to have "fallen in love" with. They'll act as though it's some sort of moral obligation (even though it's more than likely a sales gimmick). You could be there awhile.
3. Be strong and don't feel guilty! Try politely to move on. If the vendor won't take no for an answer, move on anyway. This is going to happen time and time again, all day long! You are not the only potential customer they will have and it is not your sole responsibility to provide for their family. They will try EVERYTHING to sell it to you. They act desperate, but, they're just playing on your conscience. Hoping your guilt will open your wallet. They'll also try to make you feel special by saying things, like, "For you? twenty dollars!" As though they're making a sacrificial exception in your case and ONLY for you. However, believe me, someone will come along who will buy something from them eventually.
4. Don't ask how much an item costs unless you intend to buy it. Points two and three really make this one a no brainer. Remember, the point is to haggle and by inquiring about the item you've just opened up the bidding. In their minds, you shouldn't have asked if you didn't intend on buying it. Again, you aren't obligated to buy it. I'm just saying that you probably will anyway. Even if just to get away and experience freedom again.
5. Stand your ground and stick it out! If you see something you really want then determine, in your mind, what you would consider to be a fair price, or even slightly lower, and work toward haggling your way down to that price. The vendor will probably, inevitably, start high. Try to be reasonable and flexible. Don't be so stubborn that you refuse to bend. Remember, this is a negotiation. In most cases, I've found that I've been able to get the vendor down to a price that was much lower than their starting price.
A side note about currency: The national currency of Israel is the Israeli Shekel (ILS). However, you'll find that most vendors in the Old City are more than happy to accept your American dollars. As an American, you are highly valued in Israel. Aside from the abundance of attention you receive, this fact becomes clear when you notice that anything that has a price sticker also has a US dollar sign printed next to it (see photo). You'll also notice that almost all of the vendors speak perfect english and most of the tags describing the items (like the spices in the photo below) are also in english. You should have absolutely no problems communicating in Israel. The ability to use American currency may seem like a major convenience, but, based on the current exchange rate when you're there, you may just want to head to the ATM and withdraw some Israeli currency. You may also want to download a currency exchange app on your smartphone for convenience. Otherwise, you could be overpaying. Oh, that brings up another point...
A word about purchasing antiquities: I want to tell you about this before you travel to Jerusalem or any location in the Holy Land because I don't want you to overlook the possibility of coming home with a genuine archaeological artifact! I studied this subject quite a bit before we left. Like many, I was skeptical of buying "antiquities" in that part of the world. I had heard stories of individuals spending lots of money on (what they thought were) ancient objects. Only to find out that they were cleverly crafted fakes. However, the more I researched it, the more confident I was at the prospect of spending some money on something really old. What I discovered was that archaeological artifacts are VERY heavily regulated through the Israeli Antiquities Authority. It's such a big part of life in the Holy Land that an entire government agency has been created and assigned to regulating it. But, still, why would they just sell items to tourists that should be in a museum somewhere? Well, I think that question might have been answered by one archaeologist we spoke with at the Pool of Siloam (a recently excavated sight), just south of the Old City, who told us that there is literally archaeology in every square foot of Jerusalem! That's A LOT of old stuff! More than could probably ever fit in all of the world's museums. Well, that leaves tons of surplus artifacts and they have to do something with them. There are lots of items to choose from as well (pottery of every shape and size, Roman glass and spearheads, coins, etc.). For myself, I purchased several old Roman coins from a shop near the Pool of Siloam (see photos). Of course, what you go home with will depend on your budget and how much room you have in your luggage. However, most reputable antiquities dealers will be able to ship them home for you. Speaking of reputable, it's highly advisable to buy your antiquities from established shops with actual storefronts and NOT from someone on the street with the items laid out on a rug, for example. They're far more likely to be selling forgeries or stolen artifacts. Shops are regularly inspected and their inventory is catalogued by a museum and each piece is given a special catalog number. With your purchase, you should be given a certificate of authenticity with the name and location of the dealer and a signature (see photo). A shop owner who's been in business for years and who has gone to the time and expense of maintaining a store isn't going to risk their livelihood, reputation, or prison time by knowingly selling you a fake or stolen artifact.
And finally, a recommendation: One thing we fell in love with in Israel was pomegranate juice! The growing season for this fruit of royalty is usually August through March so this advice may be contingent on that fact. We were there in March so pomegranates seemed to be in abundance. If you've never had pomegranate juice, you're in for a treat! Juice vendors are everywhere on the streets of Jerusalem and they squeeze it fresh for you while you wait. We couldn't get enough of it! It's delicious, a great way to stay hydrated, and it's extremely healthy besides!
Well, those are just some tips based on our experiences. I hope they're of some benefit to you. If all that haggling wore you out and you're homesick for set, American style price tags, there IS that chic, modern, Mamilla Mall, just outside the Old City, adjacent to the Jaffa gate.