Jerusalem Festival Of Lights 2011: Contested Old City Becomes Stunning Art Display (PHOTOS)

JERUSALEM (AP) — When night falls on the Old City of Jerusalem this week, the walled enclave sheds its role as one of the world's most contested pieces of real estate to become a luminous carnival of art installations and performances. (Scroll down for photos) Jerusalem's Festival of Lights, now in its third year, illuminates an area known more for religious friction and clashing political claims than for art or nightlife. Most nights, the Old City's stone alleyways are dimly lit, peopled mainly by small numbers of tourists, Palestinian merchants and children, and ultra-Orthodox Jews headed to or from religious studies or prayers.

But for seven nights, until June 22, a shining 10-foot-tall (3-meter-tall) puppet named Meir — Hebrew for "the illuminator" — entertains visitors with antics like trying to scale the wall of the moat at the Tower of David, used by conquerors across the millennia as a fortress, barracks and gun emplacement.

Jerusalem Festival of Lights 2011

Dozens of neon bars hanging from a 36-foot-high (11-meter-high) willow tree made of wire, and great dandelions of wire and light, light up the walls at Jaffa Gate, the portal of sand-colored hewn stone blocks that is one of the eight gates in the Old City walls. Magical creatures are projected on to the newly renovated facade of another entrance, Damascus Gate.

Alice Honig, 25, from Ontario, Canada, said the lights of the festival have allowed her to see things that ordinarily would have escaped her notice.

"During the day it's so hot and noisy you miss small things, because you wouldn't stop and look," she said. "It opens people's eyes to things that you would walk by otherwise."

In what some might interpret as a commentary on Jerusalem, one performance has acrobats suspended on the Old City walls enacting a war between two ancient civilizations to control light.

It's not clear who represents light and who represents darkness: That's left for the viewer to decide.

The festival is an outgrowth of Mayor Nir Barkat's aim to turn the city into a world-class tourist destination, while portraying Jerusalem — holy to three religions and fiercely contested by Palestinians and Israelis — as an ordinary municipality with garbage strikes, movie theaters, zoning issues and street festivals.

But the Old City resists that mundane vision. Distrust, violence and conflicting claims of sovereignty over the eastern sector of Jerusalem, where the walled city lies, make it one of the hotspots of the Mideast conflict. The Old City is home to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, one of the holiest sites in Christianity, as well as to the sensitive compound known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary.

The festival's artistic director and founder, Eduardo Hubscher, an Argentine-born Israeli, says the festival tries to steer clear of political messages. He calls it a collaborative effort by Christians, Jews and Muslims, mounted in parts of the Old City revered by all three religions.

The festival's overarching aim is to bring people to old Jerusalem after hours, and to create a new venue for tourism, Hubscher said.

"It's safe at night and it's a different place — there is a romantic part here," he said.

Allan Gale, 59, a visitor from Detroit, agreed.

"This is a great idea because it brings people to the Old City at night. Instead of avoiding it because of fear, you are attracted to it to enjoy the art," he said.