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In his book Jerusalem: The Biography, the British-Jewish historian Simon Sebag Montefiore wrote that in Jewish sacred literature, Jerusalem is described as feminine: ‘Always a sensual, living woman, always a beauty, but sometimes a shameless harlot, sometimes a wounded princess whose lovers have forsaken her.’
Currently a divided Israeli-Palestinian city under Israeli control, Jerusalem is one of the oldest cities in the world. It has been continually inhabited since 2800 BCE. Since then, it has been captured and recaptured a staggering 44 times. Among the rulers were the Canaanites, Jews, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Muslims, Crusaders, Ottomans and Britons.
Especially the Jews, Muslims and Christians left visible marks on the city. Within a ten-minute walk through the Israeli-occupied Old City in East Jerusalem, it is possible to visit one religious highlight after the other. In the heart of area is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where Jesus Christ is said to have been crucified and buried. A little further on, two Islamic shrines tower above the city on Temple Mount: the Dome of the Rock (one of the oldest works of Islamic architecture) and al-Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest site in Islam. The Western Wall of the Temple Mount is where religious Jews have for 2,000 years regretted the loss of their temple that stood where the Dome of the Rock is now located.
This last sentence reflects an essential characteristic of Jerusalem: the city has been destroyed and rebuilt time and again, and every new ruling power modified the city according to their preferences. The first of these was the Canaanites who developed a settlement around the Gihon spring, just south of the present-day Old City. They guarded the spring with a tower and wall. In 1458 BCE, Egypt conquered Palestine. The well-known Biblical history of Jerusalem started around 1000 BCE, when King David made it the capital of the Kingdom of Israel. It was David’s son Solomon who built the First Jewish Temple on the Temple Mount. Later on, the Kingdom of Israel split into two and Jerusalem became the capital of the Kingdom of Judah.
According to the Hebrew Bible, this first temple was destroyed in 587 BCE by Nebuchadnezzar II, King of Babylon. A second temple was built and Jerusalem was consecutively ruled by the Persians, Macedonians, Ptolemaics and Seleucids, before, in 152 BCE, Simon Maccabeus established the Hasmonean Kingdom. Nearly a century later, the city fell to the Romans, who installed Herod as their Jewish client king.
Herod influenced the city enormously. He expanded the Temple Mount and made it into the vast plateau that exists today. Around Herod’s death in 4 BCE, Jesus Christ began preaching. His teachings became a major world religion, but he eventually gave his life for his beliefs; he was crucified at Golgotha.
A couple of decades after Christ’s death, the Romans destroyed the Second Jewish Temple. Nothing of the old Jerusalem was left and the city was rebuilt as Aelia Capitolina. Only a few centuries later, after Emperor Constantine the Great had converted to Christianity, Jerusalem got its name back and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was built on the site of Christ’s crucifixion.
Jerusalem encountered a new shock in 638 CE, when the city was conquered by the Muslim caliph Umar ibn al-Khattab. The Islamic shrines on the Temple Mount were built. Apart from one century in which the city was governed by European Crusaders, around the 12th century, Jerusalem would essentially stay in Muslim hands until 1917.
In 1517, the Ottomans captured the city. Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent built the walls around the Old City, which are still there today. Compared to the ancient City of David, Jerusalem had shifted slightly to the north – Suleiman’s walls also enclosed the relatively new Christian Quarter, which arose around the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The other three quarters are Muslim, Jewish and Armenian.
Under the Ottomans, Jerusalem declined in importance to a prosperous provincial town, with above all religious significance for Muslims, Christians and Jews. The Jews had been scattered around the globe, but a small number always maintained a presence in their holy city. Around 1860, Jerusalem started to expand beyond its original walls. International representatives came to the city and the process of modernization started.
At the end of the 19th century, the early Zionists arrived in the Ottoman province of Palestine. However, these Jews did not particularly love the ancient Zion. The future Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion even played with the idea of locating the capital of his dream state on the coast: Haifa was the main candidate. The Zionists had shaken off the Jewish faith; the daily prayer in which Jerusalem appears as a focal point was reserved for a shrinking group of Orthodox Jews.
The British, who ruled the area from 1917 to 1948, found themselves in the middle of a growing feud between the indigenous Arabs and the Jews, who moved to the area in increasing numbers due to the growing anti-Semitism in Europe. The Jews built their own institutions, and were preparing themselves to shake off British rule and establish their own state. The Arabs were very displeased with these events and started to revolt themselves. In the three decades of British rule, the number of Jerusalemites grew from around 50,000 to more than 160,000, two thirds of which were Jews.
After the Second World War, in which around 6 million Jews perished, the desire for a Jewish state grew. Jews relied on acts of terrorism – for example, Menachem Begin, who would later become Israel’s prime minister, masterminded the bombing of the King David Hotel in 1946, an attack that killed 91 people.
When Israel was founded in 1948, Jerusalem was designated as its capital. In the ensuing battle against a number of Arab armies, Israel only managed to secure the western part of the city. East Jerusalem, containing the Old City and therefore the Western Wall, became part of Jordan. Jews could no longer visit one of their holiest places.
When Israel annexed this part of Jerusalem in 1967, an almost messianic impulse took hold. For the first time in millennia, Jerusalem was part of a sovereign Jewish state. The Mughrabi district, mainly inhabited by Muslims from Morocco, was razed to create a large square in front of the Western Wall.
The Israeli conquest inspired singers, writers and poets to immortalize the ancient city. The average Israeli looked curiously at the Arab markets in the walled city, where no Jews had been allowed to go for 19 years.
At the same time, Israel was undergoing a demographic change that gradually saw religious Jews gain a foothold. A new movement arose that came to dominate Israeli politics: religious Zionism. For the members of this group, the Israeli conquest of the Old City and the rest of the West Bank was no accidental political-strategic victory. What is internationally known as the West Bank, Zionists call Judea and Samaria, or the biblical heartland of the Jews; and what is internationally regarded as ‘occupation’ of Palestinian territory, they call the ‘liberation’ of Jewish territory from the Arabs.
In Zionists’ eyes, these areas – and in particular East Jerusalem – should never be relinquished. In Israeli politics, Jerusalem is commonly referred to as the ‘eternal and indivisible’ capital of Israel. To reinforce these words, Israel has since the 1970s implemented an aggressive settlement policy. Apart from the settlements in the hills of the West Bank, some 200,000 Jews have also settled in East Jerusalem, under the authority of successive Israeli governments. Several hundred Jewish fanatics have even cracked houses in the Muslim and Christian neighbourhoods of the Old City.
These settlements are also referred to as so-called ‘facts on the ground’: the more Jews who settle in East Jerusalem, the more difficult it will be to give this area to the Palestinians. Meanwhile, there is a parliamentary bill in the making that, if passed, will locate Palestinian suburbs of Jerusalem outside the municipal boundaries, in exchange for a number of large Jewish settlements in the area. Palestinians who still live in Jerusalem are under heavy pressure to leave. Those who are absent for too long are expropriated and are prohibited from resettling in the city.
Jerusalem is a Jewish city and will always remain so, is the message of the Israelis. This is exactly what American President Donald Trump endorsed with his decision, in May 2018, to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.