The feast of Palm Sunday, the day on which tradition says that Jesus rode a donkey over the Mount of Olives and into Jerusalem, has been an important Jerusalem feast at least since late antiquity. The 4th century pilgrim of Egeria, in her famous pilgrimage diary, writes of seeing “all the children in the neighborhood, even those who are too young to walk, … carried by their parents on their shoulders, all of them bearing branches, some of palms and some of olives.” Today the annual Palm Sunday walk over the Mount of Olives still attracts thousands of Christians from Jerusalem, Israel and the West Bank, Egypt, and the rest of the world.
But as today local Christians only account for 2% of Jerusalem’s population, they have precious few artisans left to keep alive age old Palm Sunday traditions. This year, as the Orthodox and Catholic Feasts coincide on the same calendar day, I visit the Christian Quarter of Jerusalem, just around the Holy Sepulchre, to speak to those local artisans who weave and decorate palm branches for the feast.
While carrying palms on Palm Sunday is a tradition carried out all over the world, local Christians in Jerusalem and the West Bank often buy intricately woven palm branches for Palm Sunday that are crafted by local artisans. The woven palms contain special pockets meant for flowers: families will often spend some 50 shekels—almost fifteen dollars—for palms and flowers for each child. The palms are blessed during the Palm Sunday mass, and traditionally photos of the children are taken after the mass and kept as memories for a lifetime.
Tawfiq Samara is busily working with a cigarette balanced in his mouth in a small alley on the corner of Christian Quarter Road. He quickly and effortlessly braids soft yellow palm fronds into something akin to a tall basket, with the branches coming out like rays of light. Though locals keep approaching him and asking him to make more, at 72 years old he’s exhausted and insists that this is his last one. With the Orthodox and Catholic feasts coinciding this year, and only a few artisans in the Old City knowing how to weave palms, he can’t keep up with all of the requests. “I learned when I was small from the older members of my family,” he says. “Some people do this for the money. I do it for the children, to make them happy, not for the adults. Later they’ll go to the church and place flowers inside.”
Up the street, Samir Quttaneh is selling the candles he crafts by hand, surrounded by flowers and pastel colored Easter eggs. While in the past children only carried palm fronds on Palm Sunday, recently they’ve taken to carrying decorated candles in the church as well. He’s lived in the Christian Quarter his entire life, and grew up with Palm Sunday traditions. He says that no one taught him how to make these candles. “It’s just practice, nothing more,” he insists. “Every year I come here, I think, I work, I make art. Beautiful things come naturally from within someone.”
At the corner of Christian Quarter Road, Henry Wahab, known by locals as Abu Khamis, has been weaving palm branches for as long as anyone can remember. The shopkeepers claim that his family has been doing it for at least sixty years—he claims even longer. He sits on a stool in front of the souvenir shop of Elias Sabah Zaowi, who says: “Every year he comes and makes them. His father came before him, and was here for decades. His father was sitting at the very same place.”
Wahab lives in the Quarter, and the corner where he works—just before the stairs that descend to the Holy Sepulchre, considered by many to be the holiest site in the Christian world–, is a prime location to be weaving palm leaves. This year he is so overwhelmed by demand that he has to run off and fetch more palm branches. The only ones he can find are dark green, thick and therefore much difficult to weave than the tender branches. He doesn’t seem to mind, and he weaves them effortlessly, taking care to leave open pockets inside for flowers to be tucked on Palm Sunday morning. He is proud to be part of a tradition of working with palm trees in Jerusalem, and has a picture of himself at seven years old, posing with his own palm branches. “Jesus, two thousand years ago he was here,” he says. “There are millions of kinds of trees—millions! But he preferred to carry this kind of tree.”