Welcome to ToI’s Hidden Gems of Israel – a TRUE insider’s travel guide, exclusive to the Times of Israel Community, recommended by ToI staff who know and love this country and have embraced the road less traveled to discover Israel’s best spots.
Our first stop: The Old City of Jerusalem – the hottest piece of spiritual real estate in the world for Muslims, Christians and Jews. We know many of you have spent time here, and maybe you’ve seen the major holy sites, and walked many of the roads along with millions of other tourists and locals — but we want to take you off the usual path – away from the crowds and behind the cool blue doors, into the secret gardens and hidden alleys of the Old City’s various communities.
When I think about hidden gems, the first place that comes to mind is Rami Nabolse’s shop in the Muslim Quarter.
Rami’s shop is on As-Saraya street — a quiet area just across from the Islamic orphanage in what was once the Palace of the Lady Tunshuq. It’s not far from the Kotel. Unlike other souvenir and antique shops, Rami’s shop is so completely off the beaten path that you have to know it exists in order to find it… or, better yet, you have to get a little lost one afternoon, and stumble upon it by surprise.
The outside of the shop is festooned with colorful paintings of Jerusalem, beads, large metal brass plates, and wicker bowls. The door is a cheerful blue – the same deep sea blue that Arabs and Jews in the Middle East and North Africa use to ward off the Evil Eye.
But walk inside, and it’s like you’re deep in the belly of a pirate ship.
Like any decent pirate ship, this one is full of silver and gold, old maps from far flung places and far off times. He also has other treasures: charms with Roman glass and moonstone, old newspapers in dozens of languages from the first half of the twentieth century , magazines from Iran and Afghanistan from the 1960s with women in bikinis and miniskirts on every page, old stamps – some rare, piles of old photos – including one special photo taken at the opening of Hebrew University where you can see Albert Einstein’s left ear, and a postcard sent to Zichron Yacov from Dallas Texas postmarked just hours before President Kennedy was shot.
If Rami’s shop is a pirate ship, I suppose that makes him a pirate. He doesn’t wear an eyepatch. Instead, he wears a jaunty beret, and a cigarette behind his ear. He collects coins — thousands of them from all over world, from across the centuries. He won’t sell them to you — but he will trade them for other coins as any good coin collecting pirate does.
Rami also loves the written word — not just the old newspapers and magazines that he lovingly reads. But old phone books, too. Guidebooks from the turn of the 20th century. Poetry journals written by Sufi sheikhs. And especially old letters. The letters that are lost and blown away – that have suffered mercilessly at the hands of the Israeli postal system. He’s got them all — some of the greatest love stories only half written, sometimes decades old – but available for reading. Rami is loathe to part from them although if he senses you’re a romantic at heart, he might let you have one of the letters if you agree to track down the addressee or his or her descendant.
Rami also sells antique baubles and bangles — intricate leavings from the Ottoman Empire, pink plastic beads your sister wore in the eighties, old silver bracelets engraved in Arabic and Hebrew. Syrian headbands, Lebanese earrings which he swears Fairouz herself wore. A silver medallion from an Irgun fighter felled by the British.
Rami doesn’t just trade in found objects. He also makes his own jewelry in the store – exquisite rings and necklaces and bracelets and head pieces. Some of his designs are surreal – wires and gems and beads and pieces of scrap metal melded together into a necklace. Others are classically simple. And he’s even fashioned rings to look like the Jerusalem skyline.
And a visit with Rami isn’t complete until he brews Arabic coffee fragrant with cardamom over his welders torch, sparks flying, his safety goggles perched precariously a little too low to do much good, and while he welds and the coffee steeps and Fairouz plays on his phonograph, he will tell you all about the history of an old cigarette box from the 1920s, or a Syrian bowl with rings and bells inscribed with prayers meant to protect sleeping children from nightmares.
But best of all is that through the treasures Rami has collected over the years and through his stories, you can experience a glimpse into the rich mosaic of history and life in Jerusalem and the Middle East from inside a pirate ship in an ocean of stone.
Why you can trust me: I’ve lived in Israel for more than 13 years. I used to live in the Old City – I spent an entire year living in each of the four quarters – Muslim, Christian, Armenian and Jewish – and even wrote a book about the special people I met and the surprising places I found that captured my imagination. So, I basically live and breathe hidden gems.