Mamelukes, muftis and Moses: The short Old City lane with a long history
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Mamelukes, muftis and Moses: The short Old City lane with a long history

Flag Street was once home to Jerusalem’s leading Islamic cleric and the starting point for an annual pilgrimage to the Biblical prophet’s supposed resting place

  • Jerusalem's Flag Street originates on Maaleh Midrasha (School Ascent) in the Old City's Muslim Quarter. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    Jerusalem's Flag Street originates on Maaleh Midrasha (School Ascent) in the Old City's Muslim Quarter. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • Mameluke ornamental designs on Maaleh HaMidrasha Street in Jerusalem. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    Mameluke ornamental designs on Maaleh HaMidrasha Street in Jerusalem. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • The Muslim Quarter's Maaleh Hamidrasha was once home to a 14th century orphanage. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    The Muslim Quarter's Maaleh Hamidrasha was once home to a 14th century orphanage. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • A mosque on Jerusalem's Maaleh Hamidrasha with typical Mameluke architecture. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    A mosque on Jerusalem's Maaleh Hamidrasha with typical Mameluke architecture. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • Residents of Flag Street today display banners announcing that they are Muslims who have made the pilgrimage to Mecca. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    Residents of Flag Street today display banners announcing that they are Muslims who have made the pilgrimage to Mecca. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • The Nebi Musa religious site in the West Bank near Jerusalem. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    The Nebi Musa religious site in the West Bank near Jerusalem. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • The Nebi Musa site outside Jerusalem, once the destination of a major Muslim pilgrimage. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    The Nebi Musa site outside Jerusalem, once the destination of a major Muslim pilgrimage. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • Camels at the Nebi Musa religious site in the West Bank. Muslim processions to the site ended in the 1930s and 40s. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    Camels at the Nebi Musa religious site in the West Bank. Muslim processions to the site ended in the 1930s and 40s. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • Maaleh Hamidrashah in Jerusalem's Old City was home to the favorite consort of a Turkish sultan in the 16th century. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    Maaleh Hamidrashah in Jerusalem's Old City was home to the favorite consort of a Turkish sultan in the 16th century. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • The Fifth station of the Via Dolorosa near the entrance to Flag Street. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    The Fifth station of the Via Dolorosa near the entrance to Flag Street. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

There was a time when thousands of Muslims would flock to the Old City of Jerusalem to participate in a very unique procession. It was part of the Nebi Musa Festival that took place around the Easter/Passover holidays and started out from the home of the mufti of Jerusalem — the cleric in charge of the city’s Islamic holy places. His house was on the corner of a tiny lane called Flag Street.

An extremely short byway, Flag Street (the Turkish word for flag, El Bayarik, is written in Latin letters on the top of the sign) is way off the beaten path, but has seen plenty of action over the past couple of centuries. The name comes from the gold-embroidered banner carried by the Jerusalem mufti as the throngs trooped towards Nebi Musa — the Arabic name for the Prophet Moses.

If you live in Jerusalem, have come on your annual Sukkot (Feast of Tabernacles) pilgrimage, or are reading this from your armchair, why not take a stroll (virtual or otherwise) along Flag Street. The lane is just off a picturesque street called Maaleh HaMidrasha (School Ascent) in the Old City’s Muslim Quarter.

The Arabic name on the sign for Maaleh HaMidrasha is Takiya. Since Takiye means “hospice” in Arabic, obviously at some time in the past a righteous person ran a charitable enterprise on the street. One possibility is the Mameluke queen “Lady Tunshuk” who, in 1388, built a stunning palace there with three ornamental doorways. She was definitely righteous: she brought orphaned children to live in her palace.

Jerusalem’s Flag Street in the Old City’s Muslim Quarter. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

But there may be another reason for the name. It seems that a later resident of the palace was a Polish (or Ukrainian)-born former slave turned concubine turned wife. Her name was Roskelana, and she was married to Suleiman the Magnificent, the Turkish sultan who rebuilt the walls around Jerusalem in 1538.

Roskelana was the sultan’s favorite wife, and she wore the title of Haski Sultana — “imperial consort.” A very pious woman, she established a soup kitchen for needy Muslims right there in the palace in the 16th century.

Both the exterior of the palace and Tunshuk’s burial site across the road are remarkable for their ornamental design. Typically Mameluke, they feature marble inlays, ablaq stonework (alternating rows of light and dark stone) and decorative vaulting.

A mosque on Jerusalem’s Maaleh Hamidrasha with typical Mameluke features. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

These days the structure houses a vocational school, yet a sign outside points to the palace and reads “Haski Sultana Hospice.” And, incredibly, once a day, every day, lunches are still free to all comers.

Just off Hamidrasha Street, stairs lead up and onto Flag Street. The corner house on the right belonged to the mufti, while the large edifice on the other side of the road served as a sort of club/meeting area for the extensive, well-known Husseini family. It was from here that the procession proceeded to Nebi Musa. Leading the crowds was the mufti, riding a white horse and holding his banner high.

According to the Bible, before the Children of Israel passed into Canaan, Moses ascended to Mount Nebo (in today’s Jordan). From there he could see the whole of the land of Israel. “And Moses… died there in Moab” and there he was buried.

The Nebi Musa religious site outside Jerusalem. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

No one really knows the exact site, although there are several theories on the location of his final resting place. But for hundreds of years, Muslims visited a specific spot east of Jerusalem and south of Jericho from where they could catch a glimpse of the likeliest site: Mount Nebo.

Sources differ as to who suggested that Moses was actually buried in the spot near Jerusalem from which pilgrims had been gazing at Mount Nebo for centuries. It could have been Saladin, who conquered the land of Israel in the 12th century from the Crusaders and encouraged Muslims to make pilgrimages there. Others believe that it was Mameluke Sultan Baybars who added most of the buildings and turned it into a pilgrimage site.

By the early 19th century the structures had fallen into disrepair. It seems likely that when the Ottoman Turks restored them, probably around 1820, they came up with the idea of a pilgrimage procession beginning in Jerusalem.

The Nebi Musa site outside Jerusalem, once the destination of a major Muslim pilgrimage. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

Further renovations took place quite recently, and today Nebi Musa is a rather awesome place to visit. It boasts thick walled-buildings, arched openings, squat blue domes, stone floors, beautiful palm trees and camels. The processions were halted sometime during the 1930s or 40s.

Past the Husseini villa, a courtyard complex takes up nearly half of the entire lane. It is here that an historic Hebrew printing press operated for over 30 years.

The press, the first of its type in the country, was founded way back in the beginning of the 1830s by Israel Bak, a Ukrainian printer who moved to Safed in 1831. Quite the pioneer, Bak also set up the first Jewish farm in the Land of Israel.

Havatzelet courtyard in Jerusalem’s Old City, home to one of the first two Hebrew language newspapers. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

In 1841 Bak and his press moved to Jerusalem, and banged out more than 100 books in Hebrew. 22 years later, he began publication of a monthly newspaper called Havatzelet (Lily), established as competition for the monthly rag HaLevanon (Lebanon) that had begun production a few months earlier. The two were the first Hebrew-language newspapers ever published! Both were soon closed down by the Turks.

Bak’s son-in-law Dov Frumkin got the historic printing press up and running again in 1870, and moved both editorial staff and machines to the Flag Street complex in 1874. Frumkin, whose son would become the only Jewish judge in the British Supreme Court in Palestine, edited Havatzelet first as a twice-monthly, and then a weekly, newspaper.

A sign announces that the complex is owned by the Waqf, a religious trust that controls Islamic structures on the Temple Mount. The Frumkin family rented the courtyard and lived there together with the press until they moved to Jerusalem-outside-the-walls in 1911.

Residents of Flag Street today display banners announcing that they are Muslims who have made the pilgrimage to Mecca. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

What’s left of Flag Street features doorways and walls decorated with colorful symbols and banners. These announce to all who see them that the owners are Muslims who have made the pilgrimage to Mecca, the holiest city in Islam.

As soon as you reach the end of this quiet street, you run into crowds. That’s because Flag Street connects Maaleh Hamidrasha to the Via Dolorosa (Way of the Sorrows; Way of the Cross), filled at every hour of the day with hundreds of pilgrims following the traditional path taken by Jesus of Nazareth on his way to the crucifixion.

Imagine 10 or 15 times that number and you will be able to picture the thousands filling Flag Street at the start of the procession to Nebi Musa.

Aviva Bar-Am is the author of seven English-language guides to Israel.
Shmuel Bar-Am is a licensed tour guide who provides private, customized tours in Israel for individuals, families and small groups.

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