Before a recent visit to Jerusalem I spent some time looking into its history. I arranged this history by pulling from dozens of articles and weaving them into a consistent and continuous narrative.
To speak about Jerusalem is often like stumbling around in the dark. Visiting Jerusalem might help to push back the darkness, but it is likely to be only like striking a match, it offers some brief light but soon you are again in the dark. Nobody speaks of this place without prejudice and with roots that go back hundreds if not thousands of years.
Why is this place so significant? Many claim it is because God has touched this city so many times and that may be part of it, but much of the truth is found elsewhere. The city sits upon mountainous terrain at the very crossroads of history. Historically it was less a target and more an intersection for armies of conquest going someplace else. It occupies a spot going to or coming from Africa, India and Europe. The Egyptian’s goal wasn’t to conquer the land around Jerusalem, but had their sites set on the Assyrians. The Babylonians, the Egyptians, the Greeks and the Romans as well as the Phoenicians, Assyrians, Turks and a few Europeans passed through bound for somewhere else and often as an afterthought, made some claim to this piece of land.
Archaeological excavations point to the Canaanites having built massive walls on the eastern side of what is today Jerusalem for the protection of their land over three thousand seven hundred years ago. Later historical records indicate that a reunified Egyptian New Kingdom under Pharaohs Ahmose I and Thutmose I considered Jerusalem a protectorate under the authority of Egypt three thousand five hundred years ago. Three hundred years after that, as the Egyptian power in the region waned other histories noted the rise of a number of city states and small kingdoms in the region. According to the Old Testament, Jerusalem at this time was known as Jebus with the Canaanite inhabitants known as Jebusites.
Israelite history claims the right to Jerusalem about three thousand years ago, when King David and his army defeat the Jebusites and sacked the city. They claimed Jerusalem their capital and the surrounding countryside the Kingdom of Israel. The city, which at that point stood upon the Ophel, was, according to the biblical account, expanded to the south, with David, according to the Book of Samuel, constructing an altar at the location of a threshing floor purchased from Araunah. Following King David, King Solomon built a temple at a location which the Book of Chronicles says was the location of David’s altar. This Jerusalem temple site soon became the main place of Israelite worship, replacing other notable sites, such as Shiloh and Bethel.
Records from the Old Testament, along with archaeological discoveries indicate the Kingdom of Israel was politically unstable until 732 BC. During that period in 925 BC, according to Egyptian history, Israel was invaded by Pharaoh Sheshonk I who is also the first Pharaoh mentioned in the Bible for capturing and pillaging Jerusalem. Seventy five years later in 850 BC, Israel’s army was involved in a battle against the Assyrian King Shalmaneser III in the Battle of Qarqar with Jehoshaphat of Judah allied with Ahab of the Northern Kingdom of Israel.
The Bible records that shortly after this battle, Jerusalem was sacked by Philistines, Arabs and Ethiopians, who looted King Jehoram’s house, and carried off all of his family except for his youngest son Jehoahaz. Later, most of Canaan, including Jerusalem was conquered by Hazael of Aram Damascus. The Bible states, Jehoash of Judah gave all of Jerusalem’s treasures as a tribute to Hazael who still killed “all the princes of the people” within the city. Fifty years later, Jerusalem was sacked by Jehoash of Israel, who destroyed the walls and took Amaziah of Judah prisoner.
At the close of the First Temple Period, Jerusalem was the the only religious site in the surrounding kingdom and a place of pilgrimage for all who claimed to be Israelites.
In 597 BC Jerusalem was conquered by the Babylonians, who then took the young King Jehoiachin into Babylonian captivity, together with most of the Israelite aristocracy. Zedekiah who was placed on the throne in Jerusalem by Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar, rebelled, and Nebuchadnezzar, who was the most powerful ruler in the region, recaptured the city. The Babylonians then took Zedekiah into captivity, killed all his descendants along with other major citizens of Judah. The Babylonians then burnt the temple, destroyed the city’s walls, and appointed Gedaliah son of Achikam as governor of Judah. Shortly after, Yishmael, son of Netaniah, a surviving descendant of Zedekiah assassinated Gedaliah. Many of the remaining people of Judah, fearing the wrath of Nebuchadnezzar, fled to Egypt.
According to the Old Testament and the historical narrative of the Hebrew Bible, with corroboration by the Cyrus Cylinder, after thirty to forty years of captivity in Babylon, Cyrus II of Persia allowed the Jews to return to Jerusalem and build the Temple again. The books of Ezra–Nehemiah record that the construction of the Second Temple was finished in the sixth year of Darius the Great in 516 BC, following which Artaxerxes I sent Ezra and then Nehemiah to rebuild the city’s walls and to govern the Yehud province within the Eber-Nari satrapy.
When Alexander the Great conquered the Persian Empire, Jerusalem and Judea came under Greek control and influence. Following Alexander’s death his empire was divided between his generals with Egypt ruled by Ptolemy I and Jerusalem and Judea fell under Ptolemaic control. In 198 BC, after the Battle of Panium, Ptolemy V lost Jerusalem and Judea to the Seleucids under Antiochus the Great. During Seleucid rule Jews continued to Hellenize Jerusalem until 140 BC, when a rebellion led by the High Priest Matityahu ben Yoḥanan and his five sons: Simon, Yochanan, Eleazar, Jonathan and Yehuda ha-Makabi took control of of the city. Known as the Maccabees they created Jerusalem as the capital of the independent Hasmonean Kingdom. Lasting from 140 BC to 37 BC. It was ruled by Simon Maccabaeus, the son of Matityahu and by seven generations of his family. Two Hasmonean ruling brothers Hyrcanus and Aristobulus asked Rome to intervene on their behalf against a fundamentalist revolt, causing Judea to fall under the central rule of Rome as a Roman province. The last Hasmonean king was Aristobulus’ son Antigonus II.
In 37 BC, Herod the Great captured Jerusalem after a short siege, that ended Hasmonean rule. Herod ruled with permission and authority as a regional governor of Rome. Herod was probably born around 73 BC in Idumea, south of Judea. He was the second son of Antipater the Idumaean, a high-ranking official under Hyrcanus II, and Cypros, a Nabatean. Herod’s father was by descent an Edomite, whose ancestor converted to Judaism before his birth. Herod was raised as a religious Jew.
Herod rebuilt the Second Temple, upgraded the surrounding complex, and built himself a palace. At that time Pliny the Elder wrote about Jerusalem as “the most famous by far of the Eastern cities and not just the cities of Judea.” The Roman Tacitus wrote “Jerusalem is the capital of the Jews. In it is a Temple possessing enormous riches.” Herod also built Caesarea Maritima which replaced Jerusalem as the capital of the Roman province. Following Herod’s death in 4 BC, Judea and the city of Jerusalem came under direct Roman rule by Roman prefects, governors, and legates. Nevertheless, Herod’s descendants remained nominal kings of Judaea Province as Agrippa I and Agrippa II from 41 to 94 AD.
In 66 AD, the Jews rose up against the Roman Empire in The Great Revolt. A number of Roman legions under General Titus reconquered and literally destroyed much of Jerusalem in 70 AD. The Second Temple was burned and all that remains of where the Temple stood today is the Western Wall. Titus’ victory is commemorated in Rome by the Arch of Titus which shows the Menorah from the Temple being carried in a victory procession. After the end of the revolt, if Jews wanted to live in Jerusalem they had to pay a Jewish Tax.
In the 1st century AD, Jerusalem became the birthplace of Early Christianity being the location of the crucifixion, resurrection and Ascension of Jesus Christ. It was in Jerusalem that, according to the Acts of the Apostles, the Apostles received the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and began preaching the Gospel and proclaiming their faith.
Today what is known as the “Old City” of Jerusalem was actually laid out by the Roman Emperor Hadrian in the 2nd century AD, when he rebuilt Jerusalem as a Roman city. After Hadrian visited the ruins of Jerusalem he ordered it rebuilt, naming it Aelia Capitolina. Hadrian built a large temple to Jupiter, on a site which later became the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Shortly after the rebuilding there was another revolt led by Simon Bar Kokhba. The Emperor Hadrian responded with several Roman Legions, putting down the rebellion and killing a half million Jews, and resettling the city again as a Roman colony. Jews were forbidden to enter the city except on a single day of the year, Tisha B’Av a day mourning the destruction of both Temples. For over a century the city was an unimportant Roman outpost.
The Emperor Constantine, converted to Christianity, rebuilt Jerusalem as a Christian center of worship and pilgrimage and called a congress of Christian elders in the First Council of Nicaea in 325 AD. Constantine’s mother, Helena, made a pilgrimage to the city and claimed to have identified a number of Christian historical sites and building the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in 335. Jews were banned from the city throughout the remainder of its time as a Roman province but Christian pilgrims began visiting in large numbers till the beginning of the seventh century.
Although the Qur’an does not mention the name “Jerusalem”, the city was one of the Arab Caliphate’s first conquests in 638 AD; according to Arab historians of the time, the Rashidun Caliph Umar ibn al-Khattab personally went to the city to receive its submission, praying at the Temple Mount in the process.
At the time of the Muslim conquest, the Temple Mount was the site of an elaborate Byzantine church with an elaborate mosaic floor. In 682 AD, 50 years after Muhammad’s death, ‘Abd Allah ibn al-Zubayr rebelled against the Caliph of Damascus, conquered Mecca and barred pilgrims from traveling south to the Hajj in Mecca. ‘Abd al-Malik, the Umayyad Caliph, responded by creating a new Muslim holy site. Using sura 17, verse 1, “Glory to Him who caused His servant to travel by night from the Sacred Mosque to the Farthest Mosque, whose precincts We have blessed, in order to show him some of Our Signs, He is indeed the All-Hearing, the All-Seeing.” And declared the Temple Mount in Jerusalem as that “Farthest Mosque” mentioned in the verse.
The Islamization of the Temple Mount by Abd al-Malik was sealed with the construction of the Dome of the Rock around 695 AD. It was built over the flat foundation site of the historic Jewish Temples. Shortly after that the al-Aqsa mosque began construction at the other end of the mount sealing Muslim control over the entire Temple Mount by the end of the 8th-century. Throughout the entire period of Muslim conquest until the Crusader capture of Jerusalem in 1099, various Arab and Muslim structures were built on the mount that included memorial sites and gates. After the Crusader period when the Muslims had regained complete control of the city, building projects in Jerusalem and around the Temple Mount sought to further establish the city as an Islamic center of faith and culture.
From the early seventh century to the early nineteenth century control of Jerusalem and the surrounding territory changed hands dozens of times, driven mostly by claims of the three major religions on the importance of Jerusalem. From 638 AD on, Muslims became a major influence in the region with Christian Crusaders, attempting to regain control in the name of their faith.
Major events in the conflict over Jerusalem in this period included:
638 AD The first Muslim conquest
695 AD Mosque construction on the Temple Mount
1033 AD Egyptian Fatimid Caliph Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah ruler of Jerusalem destroys all Christian churches
1071 AD Jerusalem captured by Turk Atsiz ibn Uvaq, as part of the expansion of the Seljuk Empire
1176 AD Bloody riots between Sunnis and Shiites resulting in a Shiite massacre in Jerulselam
1098 AD The Fatimids take Jerusalem and expel the Sunnis with a majority of them killed.
1099 AD The First Crusade and the first Crusader conquest of Jerusalem
1187 AD Jerusalem is recaptured by the Muslim commander Saladin who allowed entry into the city by all religions
One of the most famous battles of the various Crusades was the Battle of Arsuf in the Third Crusade. In it Richard The Lionheart of England defeated the combined Muslim forces under the great commander Saladin.
Saladin attacked Richard’s army as it was marching from the knight stronghold of Acre to Jaffa. Following a series of harassing attacks by Saladin’s forces, battle was joined on the morning of 7 September 1191. Richard’s army held together most of the day until the Knights Hospitallers broke rank and charged the center of Saladin’s army. Richard then had all his forces join the attack. Richard regrouped his army after that attack and led it to a final victory. The battle resulted in the coastal area of central Palestine, including the port of Jaffa, fully under Christian control. By most estimates Richard commanded 15,000 troops against Saladin’s 25,000 man force of mostly cavalry.
Although the Third Crusade failed to retake Jerusalem, Richard, needing to return to England, negotiated a three-year truce with Saladin. The truce, known as the Treaty of Jaffa, ensured that Christian pilgrims from the west would once again be allowed to visit Jerusalem. Saladin also surrendered control to the Crusaders of the coast south to Jaffa.
1219 AD Jerusalem’s walls are razed by order of al-Mu’azzam, the Ayyubid sultan of Damascus fearing another Crusader takeover
1229 AD A treaty with Egypt’s ruler al-Kamil cedes Jerusalem’s control to Frederick II of Germany calling a ten year truce between Christians and Muslims
1239 AD Frederick II after truce expires begins rebuilding the city walls
1240 AD Jerusalem’s walls again demolished by an-Nasir Da’ud, the emir of Kerak
1243 AD Jerusalem again under Christian control declaring it The Kingdom of Jerusalem
1291 AD The Kingdom of Jerusalem ends with Franciscan monks in control at Acre, Sidon, Antioch, Tripoli, Jaffa, and Jerusalem establishing good political relations between the Christian governments and the Mamluk Sultanate of Egypt
1342 AD Pope Clement VI approved an entity known as the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land
In 1517, Jerusalem came under the authority of the Ottoman Turkish Empire and began a period of peace under Suleiman the Magnificent, including the reconstruction of the walls of what is now the Old City of Jerusalem with only the Wailing Wall being an original structure. Jews returned to the city in large numbers. The Ottoman Empire ruled Jerusalem and much of the Middle East from about 1516 to 1917.The rule of Suleiman and the Turkish Sultans was responsible for an age of “religious peace” where Jew, Christian and Muslim all enjoyed freedom of religion. During that period it was possible to see a synagogue, a church and a mosque in the same neighborhood and the city remained open to all religions.
After World War I in 1917, Great Britain took over Jerusalem, which was designated as part of Palestine at the time. The British controlled the city and surrounding region until Israel became an independent state in 1948.
When British General Allenby took Jerusalem in 1917, the city was a mix of neighborhoods and ethnic communities, each with its own religious character. This continued under British control, as the city prospered and grew outside the old city walls. Sir Ronald Storrs, the first British military governor of the city, issued a town planning order requiring new buildings in the city to be faced with sandstone to preserve some of the overall look of the city as it expanded. During the 1930s, two significant Jewish institutions were added to the city, the Hadassah Medical Center and Hebrew University built on Jerusalem’s Mount Scopus.
British rule marked a period of growing unrest. Arab resentment at British rule and the growing influx of Jewish immigrants (by 1948 one in six Jews in Palestine lived in Jerusalem) boiled over in anti-Jewish riots in Jerusalem in 1920, 1929, and the 1930s that caused significant damage and several deaths. The Jewish community organized self-defense forces in response to the Jerusalem pogrom of April 1920 and some Jewish groups carried out bombings and attacks against the British because of restrictions on Jewish immigration during World War II imposed by the White Paper of 1939. The level of violence continued to escalate throughout the 1930s and 1940s. In July 1946 members of the underground Zionist group Irgun blew up a part of the King David Hotel, where the British forces were temporarily located, an act which led to the death of 91 civilians.
On 29 November 1947, the United Nations General Assembly approved a plan which would partition the British Mandate into two states: one Jewish and one Arab. Each state would be composed of three major sections, linked by extraterritorial crossroads, to include an Arab enclave at Jaffa. An expanded Jerusalem city would fall under international control as a Corpus Separatum. In May 1948 the US Consul, Thomas C. Wasson, was assassinated outside the YMCA building. Four months later the UN mediator, Count Bernadotte, was also shot dead in the Katamon district of Jerusalem by a radical Jewish group.
After the partition, the fight over Jerusalem escalated, with serious casualties among both fighters and civilians on the British, Jewish, and Arab sides. By the end of March 1948, just before the British withdrawal, and with the British increasingly reluctant to intervene, the roads to Jerusalem were cut off by Arab irregulars, placing the Jewish population of the city under siege. The siege was eventually broken after civilian massacres occurred. The British Mandate ended in May 1948 with British withdrawal.
The 1948 Arab–Israeli War followed. Ignoring the UN ruling, Jordon invaded the city of Jerusalem which led to massive displacement of Arab and Jewish populations as Jews in the Old City fled to west Jerusalem as a unit. Fighting escalated as the Arab village of Lifta, within the bounds of Jerusalem, was captured by Israeli troops with its residents loaded on trucks and taken to East Jerusalem. The villages of Deir Yassin, Ein Karem and Malcha, as well as neighborhoods to the west of Jerusalem’s Old City such as Talbiya, Katamon, Baka, Mamilla and Abu Tor, also came under Israeli control, and their residents were relocated. The war resulted in the western half of the New City becoming part of the newly formed state of Israel, while the eastern half, along with the Old City, an occupied zone by Jordan. A shakey cease-fire resulted with both sides making concessions and promises. Jordan breached its commitment to appoint a committee to discuss, among other topics, free access of Jews to the holy sites under its jurisdiction, mainly the Western Wall and the important Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives, as provided in the Article 8.2 of the Cease Fire Agreement between it and Israel dated April 3, 1949. Jordan permitted the paving of new roads in the cemetery, and tombstones were used for paving in Jordanian army camps. The Cave of Shimon the Just became a stable. Jordan is reported to have ransacked 57 ancient synagogues, libraries and centers of religious study in the Old City Of Jerusalem, 12 were totally and deliberately destroyed. Those that remained standing were defaced, used for housing of both people and animals. Appeals were made to the United Nations and in the international community to declare the Old City an ‘open city’ and stop the lawless destruction. The UN never took up the request. On 23 January 1950, the Israel Knesset passed a resolution that named Jerusalem the capital of Israel.
The history of the city of Jerusalem and the area surrounding it literally represents thousands of years of wars, sieges, conquests, destruction, major population displacements, attempts to replace or obliterate religious historical sites and bar ethnic groups and religious pilgrims access to their heritage. For over three thousand years the Jewish people, the Israelites have been an integral part of Palestine with Christians and Muslims also claiming Palestine for playing a significant part in their beliefs and history.
The question isn’t who can claim this piece of real estate as their own land but why should anyone be denied access to this sacred place? The 1947 United Nations General Assembly resolution on Palestine actually demonstrated a reasonable solution that tried to take into account the importance Jerusalem holds for so many people. The real current tragedy is an irrational hatred that drives too many people unwilling to work toward a peaceful compromise and resolution. At the beginning of the twentieth century a movement developed that wanted to return the dispersed worldwide Jewish people to their original homeland. At the time, there was already a significant Jewish population in Palestine with one in six of everyone who called themselves Jewish still living in Jerusalem.
We now speak about Palestinians as if they are an easily identified ethnic people but that is simply not the case. While Palestinians today are mostly Muslim, and are mostly of the Sunni branch, there are a number of Christian and Jewish people who also consider themselves Palestinians. DNA studies broadly find little distinction between these Muslim, Christian and Jewish Palestinians who have lived for generations in Palestine. Worldwide there are somewhere around 10 million people who call themselves Palestinians with the majority still living in Palestine. The real divide is which religion a Palestinian claims and the divide was created by believed cases of aggression and persecution by one group against another with most issues having arisen within the past hundred and fifty years. In that time there have been uprisings, attacks, displacements and wars over Jerusalem. The conflict is now fueled mostly by hate with reason having little chance in the current climate.