Continued from Part 2
First Sight of Masjid al-Aqṣā
As we were leaving the terminal, a couple of colleagues were requested to open their hand luggage, after which we were soon out of the terminal into the taxi waiting area, at around 9:15pm. We arranged a 12-seater minibus to take us to the Hāshimī Hotel for £90; not bad. The Palestinian driver, an elderly man, drove so fast that within 45 minutes we witnessed the majestic landscape of Al Quds, with the Dome of the Rock outstanding on the horizon; magnificent. We were there, مَا شَآءَ الله.
We were dropped off at the Damascus Gate, one of the 8 gates that lead into the Old City. As Shaikh Rafīq was aware of the routes, we carried our luggage down a flight of steps and walked through Damascus Gate into the alleys of the Old City. The 5 minute walk to our destination was a very tough one, as we had our luggage with us and were very tired.
We finally saw the Hāshimī Hotel sign and arrived at our destination … well, nearly. There were still some 12 steps up to the reception area and first floor; with our luggage this was some task, but we got there. In hindsight, we could have made life easier for us. A phone call to Ṣāliḥ at Hāshimī, and he would have arranged a trolley for luggage pick up, but maybe it might have been difficult due to night time.
Shaikh Rafīq knew the staff, especially the desk manager Ṣāliḥ so, soon we had 3 triple rooms, one on the first floor and two on the second floor. It was 11pm, and everyone felt a bit peckish. Shaikh Rafīq looked around for a place to eat nearby, but everything was closed. Ṣāliḥ ordered us some pizzas & chips, after which we all retired to bed. We had arrived in Al Quds.
I phoned Shaikh Jamīl and arranged to meet up with him at 10am the next morning.
It was Wednesday 2nd May at 4:45am, when we made our first entry into Masjid al-‘Aqṣā. Upon leaving the Hotel, we turned left, left again, then right at the end of the alleyway, then left, and within 7 minutes we entered the courtyard of Masjid al-‘Aqṣā. The feeling was incredible.
Words will do no justice to the emotions felt during those few precious moments; the first sight of the Dome of Rock as we passed it, was majestic, and the entrance into Masjid al-‘Aqṣā was just brilliant. Fajr Azān had taken place and we performed our first Ṣalāh in Masjid al-‘Aqṣā; it was a very moving, emotional experience.
The term Masjid al-‘Aqṣā is used, sometimes incorrectly, for various buildings within the al-‘Aqṣā complex (Bayt ul-Muqaddas, or Bayt ul-Maqdis).
This picture (courtesy of https://www.foa.org.uk) presents an excellent clarification.
The complex is huge, forming around a sixth of the area of the Old City. The Masjid itself is also very big, accommodating around 10,000 people, with magnificent features, chandeliers, and arches enhancing its beauty. Each row holds 150 people and there were nearly 10 rows in Fajr. We met with the Imām after the Ṣalāh and had a small majlis with him for 20 minutes. The remaining time until Ishraq was spent in the Masjid, and at 6:45am we made our way back to the Hotel for breakfast. The view from the hotel restaurant was breathtaking, the whole area of al-‘Aqṣā was there before us from the second floor and it was even more beautiful from the top floor; just magnificent!
Breakfast was nice and simple, after which we had some rest, and met with Shaikh Jamīl, an elderly Palestinian who had spent his whole life in Palestine, at 10am. He was of the view that we should leave immediately and start our Ziyārat, so in agreement, we left our hotel at 11am.
The alleyways were full of life, stalls and shops selling anything and everything. We had chosen the Hāshimī Hotel specifically for its location within the Old City, to try and experience a bit of Palestinians’ daily lives, and feel the atmosphere. We weren’t disappointed; the whole place was buzzing and felt electric; it was unbelievable.
The first stop was a money exchanger, where we got 5.80 shekels (the local currency) to the pound, which was very good. By this time we had put another £100 each into our kitty. We also got some US dollars, because the Hāshimī Hotel agreement was payment in dollars. Thereafter, Shaikh Jamīl led us out of the Old City to a nearby bus station to catch a bus to Bethlehem (Bayt Laḥm in Arabic, which means ‘House of Meat‘). This cost only 7 shekels per person.
Some 45 minutes later, we arrived in Bethlehem into the mayhem of taxi drivers touting for business. Getting a bit fed up, Shaikh Jamīl finally negotiated a deal, and we all got into a 12-seater minibus. Shaikh Jamīl was of the view that it is much cheaper to take a taxi (for the Ziyārat) from Bethlehem instead of Jerusalem.
Continued in Part 4