JERUSALEM — With under 30 minutes until sundown, Anas Shalodi hurried through the Old City’s covered souk carrying a large pot, hot off the stove and wrapped in a green prayer rug, zipping past others making their way to the mosque to break their daily Ramadan fast.
In this bustling market in the heart of Jerusalem, where the smell of food and incense mingled, he passed shops and stalls selling falafel, hummus and sweet Ramadan juices. Folding chairs, blankets, prayer shawls and prayer beads were also on offer — everything needed for iftar, the evening meal that breaks the fast, at Al Aqsa Mosque.
Mr. Shalodi, 22, was toting the month of Ramadan’s most coveted meal for Palestinians: maqluba. The Middle Eastern rice dish, which translates as “upside down,” plays a starring role in the Instagram and TikTok feeds of Palestinians capturing iftar.
The pot is ceremonially flipped onto a serving tray and lifted with flair to reveal the maqluba against the backdrop of the blue and gold Dome of the Rock.
The Shalodi family, residents of the Old City, had to walk mere minutes to get to the mosque, but thousands of other Palestinian Muslims come from across Jerusalem, the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Israel to break their fast picnic-style in the 35-acre Aqsa compound.
Some bring pots of steaming food, others pick up an iftar meal as they make their way through the Old City’s souks and others eat from the thousands of boxed meals distributed by charities throughout the compound.
“It’s a gathering place,” Mr. Shalodi’s mother, Seham Ghait, 53, said earlier in the day, as she fried cauliflower and potatoes for the maqluba. “I feel at peace there.”
But with the Muslim holy month of Ramadan overlapping this year with the Jewish holiday of Passover, there had been widespread fears that tensions over the contested site could disrupt that peace.
On Wednesday, Israeli police raided the compound, arresting hundreds of Palestinian worshipers who had barricaded themselves inside the Qibli Mosque, one of two main prayer halls in the compound, in an effort to stay there overnight.
A New Surge of Israeli-Palestinian Violence
- Rockets From Lebanon: A rocket barrage from Lebanon that hit Israel on April 6 was seen as a sign of a growing partnership between Hezbollah, the dominant Lebanese militia, and Hamas, the hard-line Palestinian militia that the Israeli military accused of orchestrating the strikes.
- Lethal Raids: An Israeli Army raid in the West Bank on Feb. 22 was the second in less than a month to end in the deaths of at least 10 Palestinians. Our analysis of videos shows how the raid rippled into one of the most violent encounters in the area in decades.
- New Armed Groups Emerge: In the West Bank, the small but influential Lions’ Den network has attracted young Palestinians disappointed by their leaders and angry at Israeli violence. Veteran fighters are also restless.
The raid outraged Palestinians and Muslims across the Middle East and prompted armed groups in the Gaza Strip and Lebanon to fire rockets at Israel. Israel launched airstrikes it said targeted the armed groups in southern Lebanon as well as at Hamas military sites in Gaza.
Jews revere the compound as the Temple Mount, the location of two ancient temples, considering it the holiest site in Judaism. Israeli police have increasingly allowed them to pray during visits to the compound, violating a longstanding agreement.
But when the compound is not a flashpoint in the broader Palestinian-Israeli conflict, it is a place of spirituality and community, one of the few public spaces Palestinians say they have to gather.
Mosques have long been places not only of worship but also assembly. That is especially true of Al Aqsa after Israel occupied and annexed East Jerusalem, including the Old City, a move not recognized by much of the world.
“It’s the only place for the elderly and young children and everyone to gather,” said Bassam Abu Lebda, who heads the office of Sheikh Azzam al-Khatib, the deputy chairman of the Islamic council that administers the mosque compound. “It is a playground and an outlet and a spiritual place to connect with God.”
Samira Magadleh, 59, grew up visiting Al Aqsa with her father. This Ramadan she joined friends and relatives on a bus from their town, Baqa al Gharbiyye, bringing the faithful to the mosque.
As a Palestinian citizen of Israel who can travel easily to Jerusalem, she feels a sense of responsibility to visit regularly, especially when she meets Palestinians coming from the occupied West Bank who must cross Israeli checkpoints to get here and risk being denied entry.
“For us it is easier, no checkpoints or anything,” she said as the bus drove down a highway alongside Israel’s separation barrier. “I feel guilty if I don’t go there and pray.”
When she comes for iftar she eschews any elaborate meal. On this day she brought leftover kebabs, a carafe of Turkish coffee and a prayer rug. Breaking her fast in Al Aqsa is not about eating, she said, but just being there.
For Muslims, Al Aqsa is the third holiest site in Islam. And for Palestinians, it is a potent symbol for the broader Palestinian cause, embraced by Palestinian Muslims and Christians alike.
When her three children were young, Ms. Ghait used to bring them to the Dome of the Rock to do homework and teach them the Quran. Now she comes every morning by herself to read it.
As sundown neared, she and her children debated where to sit in the courtyard — and where and when to do the dramatic reveal of the maqluba.
As the moment approached, Mr. Shalodi, quickly flicking his wrists, flipped the pot onto the metal tray.
“Are you going to lift it,” a man came by, asking eagerly, his phone extended ready to record.
A woman approached, livestreaming.
“Not yet, with the adhan,” Ms. Ghait said, referring to the call to prayer that marked the end of the day’s fast.
Such scenes, shared widely on social media, inspired the Abu Hussein family to bring their own pot of maqluba to Al Aqsa.
“Mama, did you make it look nice for the picture?” Tala Abu Hussein, 17, asked her mother, referring to the chicken and vegetables that adorn the top of the maqluba and is part of the reveal once the pot is lifted. She added, “We were encouraged by other people’s videos.”
Despite having fasted for 14 hours, Tala was more excited about the reveal than eating. Not so her younger sister.
“Oh God, I’m so hungry,” said Galia Abu Hussein, 12, lifting the lid slightly to peek inside.
The family had driven down from Baqa al Gharbiyye, 60 miles north of Jerusalem. They had left the house at 4 p.m., wrapping the maqluba pot tightly in a thick blanket. Three hours later, it was still warm.
Around them people distributed dates, bottles of water and bread.
As the call to prayer began, followed a second later by a cannon firing signaling the fast’s end, Mr. Shalodi prepared to finally lift the pot.
“Lift it toward you,” his mother instructed, “slowly, slowly.”
“I know, Mama,” he said as he knelt down, white prayer beads hung around his neck. “It’s not like this is the first time I lift the maqluba pot.”
Around them people began savoring their first sip of water, bite of a sweet date or drag on a cigarette. By the time the evening prayer began, less than 10 minutes later, others had nearly finished their meals.
Rows of women prayed alongside rows of men — as everyone mostly prayed wherever they were already siting to eat — unlike the customary gender segregation for Muslim prayer.
As the sun set, the lights in the mosque turned on, lighting the Dome of the Rock.
In less than 30 minutes, the Shalodi family was done with dinner — speed eating being a common practice in Ramadan.
“I wish I had a hookah,” Ms. Ghait joked. But that had to wait.
As the family walked from the compound and back through the souk, they passed more than a dozen men engulfed in plumes of hookah smoke.
On warm nights, Ms. Ghait takes her own hookah pipe up to the roof of their home, where she has a clear view of the illuminated golden dome.