Mariam Abu Nijmeh, the lady of Al-Aqsa:

‘You can smell time in the stones’

To live within the Al-Aqsa compound. A dream for many Muslims, the reality for Mariam Abu Nijmeh. She takes us along within her favorite, sacred part of Palestine.
PHOTOGRAPHY: Afif Amireh

Intro

It’s almost 4:00 am. Mariam awakens to the steady sound of the ithan (call to prayer), slowly engulfing the night’s silence. She makes her way through the darkness of her home, a dash of light peering through the window of her living room. The air is warm, the moon bright, the sky pitch black, and the sound of the ithan rhythmic. Out in the distance, only a few meters away, is a golden glow radiating from one of the most iconic landmarks in the world, the Dome of the Rock. 

‘This is what I do every morning. I wake up, go to my window, then I go to the mosque to pray’, she says with a smile while stirring a pot of Arabic coffee over the blue fire of the stove in her kitchen. ‘It is the best part of my day.’

About the author

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The Noble Sanctuary

Mariam lives within the sacred enclave of Al-Aqsa (Al-Haram Al-Sharif) or the Noble Sanctuary. A place that is not only her home but also her world: the place she most treasures. ‘I feel that I am the luckiest person on earth, that God has chosen me to live here’, she says endearingly, her eyes twinkling with joy.

The enclave of Al-Aqsa sits at the highest point within the Old City of Jerusalem and is known as the third holiest site in Islam. It is a fortified sanctuary accessible from all sides by stairs, gates, and underground corridors.

Mariam’s home is warm and beautifully decorated with family pictures, handmade embroidery, decorative vases, and flowers. It is a Mamluk-era residential complex, a historic building with stone walls, iron-grilled windows, and vaulted ceilings. It is built over the shops of the ancient souq (market) of Al-Qattanin (souk of the Cotton Merchants).

“Mariam is one of several families that live within the enclave of Al-Aqsa”
Since 1968

From one side, it oversees the covered market, a long corridor filled with colorful shops that lead into the rest of the Old City market, and the other side peers right into the courtyard of the Al-Aqsa compound. Mariam is one of several families that live within the enclave of Al-Aqsa. ‘I have lived here since 1968’, she says as voices echo and buzz from the crowds below. It is the home she grew up in and where she raised all seven of her children.

She comes over with a silver tray and serves the coffee in beautiful porcelain cups with gold rims. She is welcoming and kind, offering us sweets, chocolates, and heart-shaped pieces of fresh Ka’ak Al Quds (Jerusalem bread). ‘This is Ruaa, my granddaughter’, Miriam tells me as Ruaa, a girl of about eight years old, comes to help her grandmother serve. ‘She speaks four languages.’

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Fajr time

Mariam often hosts people at her home, especially tour groups visiting from all over the world. She is well known for her tours within the Al-Aqsa compound and the Old City. She also has a reputation for preparing delicious home-cooked Palestinian dishes for picnics with her groups within the sanctuary. We finish our coffee, and Mariam happily invites us to accompany her to one of her favorite places within the compound during fajr time, the time of prayer before sunrise.

The next day, at around 5:00 in the early morning, we meet her in the quiet and empty courtyard outside in front of Al-Qattanin gate. This is one of the several fortified gateways that lead into the Al-Aqsa enclave. It is one of the most beautiful gates that leads into the compound, an ornate piece of Mamluk architecture with a semi-domed top and black, red, and cream stones.

“The Al-Aqsa compound is a place of kings, caliphs, sultans, and scholars”
Ancient limestone

Following Mariam, we walk through the summer night, ancient limestone beneath our feet. There is something ethereal about the atmosphere, a feeling of beautiful serenity.

Over the centuries, many empires have left their mark on this holy place. This resulted in a unique and diverse mix of architecture, archeology, history, and design. The Al-Aqsa compound is a place of kings, caliphs, sultans, and scholars.

We come across the dark, silver-domed congregational Al-Aqsa Mosque (Al-Qibla Mosque), located on the south side of the compound. A rectangular structure originally built in the seventh century commemorates the first direction of prayer in Islam. Then we make our way towards a grand stairway that we ascend. At the top, we walk through the arched gates to reach a central platform. At its center, dazzling in the night is the golden-domed sanctuary known as Qubbet al-Sakhrah (Dome of the Rock), commemorating the Prophet Mohammad’s Night Journey (Israʾ and Miʿraj).

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Copper doors

Mariam reaches the entrance of great copper doors, takes off her shoes, and heads inside onto white marble floors. She places her shoes on designated wooden shelves. Enshrined at the center of the structure is the sacred Rock of Ascension. An entrance leads to a cave chamber within the foundation stone itself. ‘This place is so special. I feel it makes me close to God’, Mariam whispers as we go down the carpeted staircase. This cave is known as the Well of Souls. It is one of her favorite places within the compound. ‘You can smell time in the stones. The odor takes you back to the time of the prophets’, she says, speaking quietly.

As sunrise approaches, we leave and follow Mariam back outside through her daily morning stroll around the sanctuary. We come across surprisingly many people. Almost everyone knows Mariam and greets her warmly.

Hot mint tea

‘I grew up with the stones of Al-Aqsa. I can’t believe these are the same stones I walked on as a child’, she reminisces fondly as the sky pales and the birds begin to sing.

Mariam’s neighbors offer us sweets and hot mint tea as we sit at the steps of one of the monuments near the Dome of the Rock. ‘After my walk, I greet my neighbors, then sit to drink my tea and enjoy watching the birds’, Mariam says. Birds begin to flock together as the early morning twilight brightens. It is her time of quiet reflection and gratitude.

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