In the shops of Jerusalem, empty seats and anguished hearts are all that's left The Old City of Jerusalem is thousands of years old. People from all over the world travel here to see the expansive history and the foundation of religions and empires — until now.

In the shops of Jerusalem, empty seats and anguished hearts are all that's left

In the shops of Jerusalem, empty seats and anguished hearts are all that's left

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/1211769259/1211810411" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">

Once-bustling streets are now almost empty in the Old City of Jerusalem on Nov. 8. Ayman Oghanna for NPR hide caption

toggle caption
Ayman Oghanna for NPR

Once-bustling streets are now almost empty in the Old City of Jerusalem on Nov. 8.

Ayman Oghanna for NPR

JERUSALEM — The Old City of Jerusalem is thousands of years old. People from all over the world travel here to see the expansive history and the foundation of religions and empires — until now.

Today, walking around the Old City feels like a ghost town. In the Jewish Quarter, your voice echoes off the stone-covered paths and shut businesses. And it's having a very real impact. According to Israel's tourism minister, before the war began between Israel and Hamas, about 15,000 tourists a day entered Israel. On Oct. 30, there were just 26 tourists for the entire country.

Many restaurants and shops depend on the constant stream of tourists for their livelihood – and the war has hit Jerusalem's economy hard. Walking around the Old City and speaking to shopkeepers provides an insight into how it's affecting the locals.

Taboon & Wine by Rewined

Mihran Krikorian unlocks his small, stylish wine bar to reveal more than a dozen tables and chairs stacked up against the walls. He has permits to have 16 tables outside and four inside, but he hasn't bothered to put out more than a few lately. Krikorian's restaurant is on what is normally a bustling street in the Armenian Quarter of the Old City.

Mihran Krikorian is the owner of an Armenian bistro and wine bar. Ayman Oghanna for NPR hide caption

toggle caption
Ayman Oghanna for NPR

Mihran Krikorian is the owner of an Armenian bistro and wine bar.

Ayman Oghanna for NPR

"It's a lot of money to run the place. And if this is the situation [and] it's going to stay, then we will start losing a lot monthly," he says. "So that is why we're rethinking, we're trying to talk with the owner of the [space] so that maybe we can come to an agreement about the rent and everything, you know, until things get back on our feet. He's a good guy."

Krikorian is a third-generation Armenian living in Jerusalem. His grandparents fled here during the massacre of Armenians during the 1910s. He says his restaurant is loved for its Armenian food. He wants it to be known as the go-to spot for Armenian wine as well – and he had just begun to import it as the war began, but stopped because he couldn't afford it.

Krikorian says the financial struggles are widespread, and that many of his friends are out of jobs right now. But the emotional weight of the conflict is a separate burden to bear. His wife is Palestinian and has family in Gaza.

"So everyone is kind of uneasy and depressed," he says. "At least we still have a home to go to. You know, it's very hard."

Café Bajjali & Ko

Café Bajjali & Ko is a Palestinian-Korean fusion restaurant in the Christian Quarter of the Old City. Natalie Bajjali named the restaurant after her father and mother's surnames. As a Palestinian-Korean woman, she wanted to share the food she grew up enjoying. And for the three months she's been open – she did. But Bajjali shut her doors after the Hamas attacks on Oct. 7 over safety concerns and hasn't reopened since.

Natalie Bajjali owns a Palestinian-Korean fusion cafe in the Old City. Ayman Oghanna for NPR hide caption

toggle caption
Ayman Oghanna for NPR

Natalie Bajjali owns a Palestinian-Korean fusion cafe in the Old City.

Ayman Oghanna for NPR

"In the past, if any situation does happen in Jerusalem or in the country, the first place to strike is probably the Old City," she says. "As you see walking through the city, there's not many people, there's not much traffic, people are scared to come down."

Her restaurant is close to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which is typically a popular pilgrimage site for Christians. Earlier this week, there were only a few people walking around inside the basilica, and the surrounding area was mostly empty.

This restaurant space has been in Bajjali's family since the 1920s, but she is not sure when – or if – she'll reopen.

"I'm just thankful for being safe being here," she says. "Priorities have changed – my priorities are not my business anymore, in a sense. My mind is elsewhere."

Empty streets in The Old City of Jerusalem. Ayman Oghanna for NPR hide caption

toggle caption
Ayman Oghanna for NPR

Empty streets in The Old City of Jerusalem.

Ayman Oghanna for NPR

The Work of Peace

Itay Levy's shop is one of the only businesses open on Jewish Quarter Street. His windows are lined with small wooden harps that he handcrafts out of cypress wood.

"This is called Kinnor. It is a Jewish instrument that King David played," Levy says, holding the instrument. "It's like a little harp – eight-string harp."

Itay Levy makes music and Kinnors — intricately-carved wooden harps. Ayman Oghanna for NPR hide caption

toggle caption
Ayman Oghanna for NPR

Itay Levy makes music and Kinnors — intricately-carved wooden harps.

Ayman Oghanna for NPR

He has also only been open for three months. Since the war, he says business has nearly come to a standstill. The sign for the name of his store is in Hebrew, and when asked what it means, he translates: "The Work of Peace."

"We are in a war," he says. Levy is Jewish, and says he didn't have words to describe the emotional toll the Oct. 7 attacks have had on him. "Each day, I deal with it ... every day is like a new adventure."

Hummus Lina

According to Jerusalem locals, Hummus Lina is the best hummus spot in the city. It's a hole-in-the-wall kind of eatery, typically mobbed by all types of people this time of day. It's owned by Ghaleb Abdulfatah Zahdy, who is standing behind a small counter smashing a fresh batch of chickpeas in a big bowl.

Ghaleb Abdulfatah Zahdy makes hummus. Ayman Oghanna for NPR hide caption

toggle caption
Ayman Oghanna for NPR

Ghaleb Abdulfatah Zahdy makes hummus.

Ayman Oghanna for NPR

"The recipe I have is the one I learned from my father," Zahdy tells us in Arabic. This used to be his father's shop before he took over. It's been open for 35 years.

He says he identifies first as Muslim, then as Arab, then as Palestinian. "All types of people are welcome here," he says, before adding that there has been almost no business in the last month. Today, there is just one customer sitting in the shop, who Zahdy says knew his father too.

Even though no one is stopping by, he says he stays open to get out of the house and pass the time. He says it's costing him money just to run the water and electricity.

"In the past four weeks, I've had very few customers ... very few Jewish customers. People are just afraid," he says. "Thank the lord I'm doing fine, but all of this that's going on around me is very disturbing. It hurts to see that happen, but I'm alright."

The ramifications of the war can be seen in the streets of Jerusalem's Old City. Ayman Oghanna for NPR hide caption

toggle caption
Ayman Oghanna for NPR

The ramifications of the war can be seen in the streets of Jerusalem's Old City.

Ayman Oghanna for NPR

Local producer Sawsan Khalife contributed to this report.