Along the ancient cobbles of Jerusalem’s St George Street, just inside the forbidding bulk of the Jaffa Gate, there is a family business that has been making its mark on visitors for 700 years.
The Razzouk family have been tattooing Christian pilgrims since the year 1300, and, incredibly, they are still going strong. At the oldest tattoo shop in the world.
The shop is now in the hands of Wassim Razzouk, the 27th generation of artists to have made a career using the same tools and techniques his family first brought to Palestine from Egypt all those centuries ago.
Ancient wonder: The skyline of the Old City in Jerusalem
In the Coptic and other Eastern Christian traditions, tattoos were once used as a practical marker of faith.
A small cross placed on the inside of the wrist granted religious pilgrims access to churches and other sacred sites. Young girls were inked with Annunciation designs to increase their chances of bearing children.
And it was said that the act of tattooing brought one closer to God – a shedding of blood that was identified with the sufferings of Christ on the Cross.
These days, to spend a day in Razzouk Tattoo is akin to sitting at the crossroads of the Christian world.
A constant stream of devotees crosses the threshold of the cool, cave-like interior, seeking a permanent reminder of their pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
Within the space of a couple of hours one afternoon in September, I watched as Wassim and his assistant Chris tattooed a group of three fresh-faced US college boys, the wonderful Miryam, a doughty 85-year-old from Iraq – and a Syriac Orthodox priest in full robes and cowl.
Wassim Razzouk outside his shop. The Razzouk family have been tattooing Christian pilgrims since the year 1300
Inking-man’s tattoo parlour: Wassim Razzouk tattoos a Syriac Orthodox priest
A selection of tattoo stencils that Razzouk uses. They are all hundreds of years old
What makes a Razzouk tattoo so truly special, though, are their unique designs. Of course Wassim uses the most modern, scrupulously sterilised equipment. But he keeps alive the ancient family traditions with an incredible collection of stencils.
Hand-carved from olive wood, they glisten darkly in glass display cabinets, for all the world like precious ancient artefacts in a museum. Yet far from being locked away, they are the tools he uses every single day.
They are all hundreds of years old. The oldest is a small Jerusalem cross that is recorded as having been carved 500 years ago. It is still Wassim’s most popular design.
The stencils display Christian imagery ranging from the Crucifixion to the resurrection, through saints of all descriptions and even the severed head of John the Baptist. They are simple but never crude, and need some of the most delicate tattooing to complete.
The pilgrim chooses a stencil, Wassim inks it on a pad and the design is then transferred onto the skin and tattooed. Some of the simpler ones take just a few minutes – for a souvenir that will last a lifetime.
I went for the Jerusalem cross. In heraldic terms it is a cross potent, between four plain crosslets. Carried by the Crusaders, it became the emblem of the Kingdom of Jerusalem from the 1280s. Ten (not too painful) minutes later it became my personal permanent reminder of my visit to this most ancient of businesses in this most ancient of cities. (It appears I am in classy company – when he was Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VII had the same tattoo on a visit to the Holy Land in 1862. As did Prince Albert Victor and Prince George before he became King George V. It’s amazing to think that they may even have been marked using the very same wooden stamp!)
Even without a tattoo, the old city of Jerusalem is simply not a place that you are ever likely to forget.
Destroyed and rebuilt countless times, every inch of it has been fought over for millennia and that palpable sense of history hangs over every single stone.
(I’d recommend Simon Sebag-Montefiori’s magisterial Jerusalem: The Biography as a good place to start your research. 3,000 years, 768 pages, one city.)
The Old City walls contain the holiest sites in Judaism and Christianity and the third most sacred site in the Islamic world, all cheek-by-jowl and hemmed in by a mile-square warren of streets, alleyways and souks.
Thousands upon thousands of tourists throng the Old City every day, and the narrow streets amid the unrelenting, baking heat of the daytime can often seem overwhelming. I found one of the great pleasures was wandering the Old City at night.
The Old City walls contain the holiest sites in Judaism and Christianity and the third most sacred site in the Islamic world
Walk down the busy street market, go through the Damascus Gate, then it’s just you and the locals. Life is lived out in the street. Inky darkness broken by soft pools of light, in which children play, old men smoke cigarettes and families eat. I always carry my camera, but some of the scenes felt almost too personal to photograph – like a glimpse into someone else’s home.
The Western Wall at night is also a sight to behold. It is beautifully illuminated, and the sight and sound of the faithful sending prayers and songs up into the still, black, eternal desert night is simply unforgettable.
Of course there is more to Jerusalem than ancient history and religion. The Old City is merely the heart of a modern, sprawling secular metropolis that is home to a population of 1.2million people. There are shopping malls, a light rail system, restaurants, bars, cafes and boutique hotels that are the equal of anywhere in the world.
We stayed at the beautiful Villa Brown, a super-stylish refurbishment of a 19th Century luxury home on Ha’Neviim Street that has 24 individually designed rooms and suites, a stunning rooftop spa, a tea garden and a very cool cellar bar, all just a few minutes’ walk away from the walls of the Holy City itself. (Even the Villa Brown room keys were chic – a real, heavy brass fob with a tassel rather than a disposable plastic card!).
A perfect place to reflect on the joys of this incredible city, that even if tattoos aren’t for you, is guaranteed to leave an indelible impression.