New York Times article on US Embassy move from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem cites Mick Dumper.  Find out more.


Jerusalem is one of the most ancient and famous cities in the world with a unique and unusual set of circumstances that led to its growth and development. Located in the central highlands of former Palestine, the city is not itself on the ancient major trade routes that ran along the coastal plain.  And despite being situated in a strategic land corridor where the continents of Europe, Africa and Asia meet, and thus the focus of much military activity, the city was seen of little strategic military value. To understand its significance in world history and contemporary politics one has to recognised that it is derived from essential character as holy city to the three major monotheist religions of the Middle East: Judaism, Christianity and Islam.  It is the site of the earliest Israelite temple, the site where Jesus of Nazareth was crucified and buried and the site to which the Prophet Muhammed first turned in prayer when he launched his new faith.  The history and politics of Jerusalem is intrinsically tied to its central role in the ritual and practice of these religions.  The result has been the evolution of walled Old City with some outstanding monuments of great architectural value built upon layer after layer of important archaeological remains.  Now a modern city claimed by two national groups, Palestinian and Israelis, the city continues to expand but suffers from ideologically led construction and planning priorities.

Jerusalem lies over 400 metres at the conjunction of two steep-side valleys some 30 kilometers from the coast and the port of Jaffa..  It has a poor agricultural hinterland and few natural resources.  Water supplies are limited and its growth has depended upon the expansion of supplies being supplied from elsewhere.  Its economy has largely been based upon the its holy sites, providing for clergy and servicing the large pilgrimages of all three faiths that occur throughout the year.  The construction of hostels, schools and in the 20th Century of hotels, seminaries and colleges has been a major economic activity.  Like other holy cities in the region, the city attracts large donations and the creation of foundations and endowments to support both religious sites, their staff and welfare provision activities.  As a key administrative, cultural and intellectual centre, Jerusalem has also developed as a centre for professional services and attracted some light industry and high-technology investment. Its population has risen from 164,000 in 1946 to 266,300 in 1967, to over 600,000 in the 1990s, roughly two-thirds of whom are Israeli Jews and the rest Palestinian Arabs.

The earliest archaeological evidence for human settlement on the site that became Jerusalem, was during the Jebusite period around 1800 BCE.  These include a walled settlement, foundations of houses, water-supply installations and some tombs and caves. Following the conquest of Jerusalem by Israelite tribes under King David, Jerusalem acquired strategic value as being midway between the two tribal areas of Judah and Benjamin. It acted as the capital of a united Israelite kingdom. Under his successor, Solomon, there was greater construction and expansion. The Jewish Temple was built on a grand scale on a specially engineered plateau above the traditional site of the city.  The fortifications were enlarged and Jerusalem became also a commercial centre with major trading routes of that time passing through its walls. The Babylonian invasion of Jerusalem in 587 BC saw the deportation of the Israelite elite to Babylon. They were, in turn, succeeded by the Persians in 539 BC who allowed the exiles to return and rebuild the Temple but not to regain independent political control over the city.  During the Hellenic period there was a succession of revolts by Jews against the Seleucid Greeks, one of which led to the brief re-establishment of Jewish control over the city under the Maccabeans in 141 BCE. 

The Roman period following lasted some 700 years, from 63 BC until the Muslim invasion in AD 638 and can be divided into two parts. The first period of Roman rule saw an initial regime of religious autonomy for the Jews in Jerusalem.  Attempts, however, at political independence from Rome were severely crushed, culminating in the destruction once again of the Temple in 69-70 CE. Finally, impatient with the constant dissension by the Jewish population, Emperor Hadrian exiled two-thirds of the city's population and made it a Roman colony, Aeolia Capitolina. It was also during this early part of the Roman period that the first Christian community was established following the execution of the Christian leader, Jesus of Nazareth. The second half of the Roman period, from the beginning of its control by Byzantium to the Muslim invasion, was of great importance for Jerusalem.  The most significant event was the conversion of Emperor Constantine to Christianity.  This resulted in the transformation of Jerusalem from a Roman city with very little interest to the rest of the Empire into a city of great importance.

While Jews were only allowed an annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem, Christian churches, infirmaries, hospices and hostels were built on an extensive scale. A further boost to the Christian presence was given by the visit of Emperor Constantine's mother, Queen Helena, in AD 336. She claimed to have found the "True Cross" and encouraged the construction of the Holy Sepulchre on the supposed site of Jesus' crucifixion.  For the next three hundred years the role of Christian pilgrimage to the city became central to the economic and cultural life of the city.

The conquest of Jerusalem by 'Umar ibn Khattab,  the successor to the Prophet Muhammed and the First Caliph in Islam, in 638 CE opened a new era of Muslim rule in the city which, save for the interruption of the Crusades, was to last until 1967.  Jerusalem was of little military and strategic significance at that time and its conquest was mainly for religious purposes. Jerusalem had been the first qibla, or direction of prayer, which Muslims were obliged to carry out five times a day. It was also the destination of Muhammed's "night journey" and the site where it is believed he ascended briefly to heaven, both events being recorded in the Muslim holy book, the Qur'an. The Caliph 'Umar came to an agreement with the city's existing Christian population that in exchange for the payment of a poll tax their property, churches and personal safety would be assured. Jews were allowed to return for pilgrimage purposes only but over time more and more began to settle in the city. 

Under the ‘Umayyad dynasty, between 685 and 709 the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa mosque were built in an enclosure which became known as the Haram ash-Sharif,or the Noble Sanctuary.  It became the third holiest site in Islam after Mecca and Medina. One effect of these actions was to draw pilgrims away from Mecca where the political rivals to the ‘Umayyads held sway. The flowering of a corpus of literature known as the fada'il al-quds, or the "merits of Jerusalem", was part of this sanctification and prestige-enhancing process.  Right up to the 11th Century the praises of Jerusalem were sung and it became known as the bayt al-maqdis, the house of Holiness, from which the Arabic name for the city, "Al-Quds", is derived.

The rise of the Abassid dynasty in 750 and the transfer of the seat of the Caliphate from Damascus to Baghdad led to a relative decline in the fortunes of Jerusalem.  Nevertheless Caliphal visits took place and repairs on the Holy Places were carried out.  There is evidence that the Christian presence continued to thrive. Diplomatic relations with the Emperor Charlemagne the Caliph Haroun al-Rashid led to the construction of many new buildings to cater for Christian pilgrims.  During the Fatimid dynasty's rule over Jerusalem, Cairo became more important to Islam and the number of Muslim pilgrims to Jerusalem declined. The Christian and Jewish role in the city increased as more became involved in the government and administration of the city. Christian pilgrimage continued to increase having a considerable impact upon the city and causing disaffection amongst the Muslims.  In 1065 CE, nearly 12,000 pilgrims arrived in the city on a mass pilgrimage which in those days  was akin to an invasion.  Thus by the late tenth century and throughout the eleventh century, the Muslim domination of Jerusalem weakened.  In 1099 CE Crusader armies had laid seige to its gates and entered the city.

The mass slaughter and expulsion of its existing inhabitants inaugurated the Crusader period in Jerusalem. This was followed by a massive programme of church building.  The remains of some 61 churches have been found dating from this period.  However, no significant damage or changes were made to the Dome of the Rock, although in 1142 CE it was consecrated as a Christian church. Despite becoming the capital of the Crusader Kingdom and an important centre for Christian pilgrimage, the Frankish forces did not stay and populate the city.  Instead Christian minority groups from Syria, Lebanon and throughout the Middle East settled establishing the heterodox nature of the Christian community in Jerusalem that survives until today.

The Ayyubid period following Salah ed-Din's capture of Jerusalem in 1187 CE was marked by a huge investment in the construction of houses, markets, public baths and pilgrim hostels.  Large waqfs, or Muslim religious endowments, were set up bringing income into the city and providing funds for the refurbishment of the Haram ash-Sharif. However, for the greater part of the 13th Century, Jerusalem’s lack any strategic or military value for the Ayyubid leaders beset by their internecine struggles.  It declined to virtually the status of a village, coming to life only for the visiting pilgrimage group or passing caravan.

Soon after the establishment of Mamluk rule, Jerusalem witnessed a flowering of Islamic culture in the city.  While it remained unimportant administratively, politically and militarily, its importance as a Muslim sacred place returned.  As a home for exiled and retired Mamluk princes and dignitaries, and as a recipient of funds from large and wealthy endowments its building work attained a level of rare architectural magnificence. Muslim pilgrimages to Jerusalem increased and became an important feature in its economy. Silk, cotton and soap were the other main items of trade or industry in the city. The sanctity of Jerusalem to Islam was also reinforced during this period through writings of poets and religious scholars.  At least thirty fada'il can be traced back to this period. It should also be noted that the small Jewish community in the city attained what was known as dhimmi status under the Mamluks, meaning they were a recognised and protected religious minority.

A period of decline, during which Bedouins in the hinterland hampered access to the city, heralded the twilight of the Mamluk era and the dawn of the Ottoman which lasted until the 20th Century.  Originally Turks from Central Asia, the Ottomans occupied Jerusalem in 1517 CE with Sultan Selim receiving the keys of the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa mosque.  While not building on such a grand scale or over such an extended period as the Mamluks, the Ottomans were, nevertheless, responsible for the construction of the city walls standing today.  Waqfs continued to flourish and in 1551, the Khasski Sultan Waqf, the largest waqf in Palestine, was set up.  Indeed, much of Ottoman economic life of Jerusalem centred on the role of religion in the city. Revenue from the pilgrim industry, endowments and bequests to the Christian and Jewish communities sustained a city which was some distance from ports and the trade routes of the coastal plain and lacking in natural resources or a manufacturing base.

The Ottoman period also saw the gradual emergence of European influence in the city. From the signing of the first "capitulation" treaty in 1535 between the Ottomans and the French onwards, European interference advanced with growing momentum. The successive capitulation treaties gave different European countries various powers over the administration of the Christian Holy Places which they exercised either through the churches under their tutelage or through their consuls. By the late nineteenth Century, the French and British consuls had considerable influence over political developments in Jerusalem.

European interference often focussed on the privileges held by the different denominations. Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Armenian Orthodox, Russian Orthodox and latterly Protestant hierarchies struggled for control over the various Christian Holy Places and for the prestige such control would render their interpretation of the faith and their European backers.  Violence and bloody clashes periodically erupted to the extent that at different points during the Ottoman era which were finally codified into an edict issued by Sultan ‘Uthman III in 1757 that became known as the "Status Quo”. The Status Quo established a crude "pecking order" which, since it reflected the balance of European and Ottoman power of the day, was a cause of much friction and dispute when that balance of power subsequently altered.

The 19th Century saw the twin developments of Jerusalem as a major administrative centre in the region and growing European involvement. The Ottomans made Jerusalem the administrative capital of new province of Jerusalem. At the same time the growing weakness of the central state allowed European influence in the city to increase dramatically, both in terms of the powers of the consuls and demographically as a European-style "New City" began to appear outside the city walls to the East. From 1839 the British took the Jews under their wing, and a small Protestant community was created by way of conversion. The waxing power of the British Empire meant that increased Jewish immigration to Jerusalem received British protection. By the seventies Jewish building societies had established and the Mea She'arim quarter built to the north west of the walls. By the nineties, these developments had proceeded to such an extent that leading Jerusalem Muslim families were protesting against Jewish immigration and land acquisition.

By the beginning of the 1914-1918 War, Jerusalem had become the biggest city in Palestine. The arrival of General Allenby in 1917 and the British take-over of the city marked by the establishment of the British Mandate hastened transformation of Jeruslem into a more European city both in terms of physical appearance but also in demographic composition and culture.  The foundations upon which the modern city of Jerusalem was built can be traced back to the British Mandate administration of the city. Not since the Crusader period, 900 years previously, had Jerusalem been the administrative and political capital of such a large and coherent area.  The location of government offices, legal and religious courts and organisational headquarters in the city led to dramatic improvements in its economy, its access and its amenities and services.

In addition this period saw the growth in the Christian institutional presence and the exponential growth in the Jewish population by the end of the Mandate. The boom in the construction of churches, Christian hospitals, Christian schools, Christian guest houses for pilgrims, the employment of Palestinian Christians from the Bethlehem and Ramallah areas led to the construction of Christian quarters outside the walls.  The influx of wealth and people these developments entailed, all combined to overshadow the Muslim community's attempts to not only represent the Palestinians in their dispute with Britain and the Zionist Jewish immigrants but also to build up their own communal infrastructure.  Certainly with reference to the early part of the Mandate period one can say that not since the Crusader period had the Christian influence in Jerusalem been so extensive. Similarly, the trebling of the Jewish population between 1922 and 1946 to slightly less than half the total population of Jerusalem was a direct consequence of British support of Zionism and the establishment of the Jewish "homeland". Disputes of access to Holy Places and the balance of political representation in the Municipal Council became the main flashpoints in the relations between Jews and Palestinian Muslims and also Palestinian Christians whose influence over the British administration was gradually being eclipsed by Jewish demographic preponderance.

The partition of Jerusalem during the fighting that followed the withdrawal of British forces in 1948 into Jordanian-held and Israeli-held territories was a tragedy for the city.  While it reflected the increasing polarisation between the two communities which had developed during the latter stages of the Mandate, it also did nothing but entrench the divide separating them.

Over the nineteen years of the partition period, East Jerusalem remained static in population numbers. Having absorbed thousands of refugees from the western part of the city any further addition through natural growth was lost by emigration as the Palestinian sought work and security elsewhere. Jordanian government was both unable and reluctant to invest in the economy, the infrastructure and services of the city.  Administrative offices were relocated to Amman and the city fell back onto its traditional economic base of pilgrimage and its post-War equivalent, tourism.  Water and electricity supplies remained intermittent right up to 1967.  Shorn of its access to the ports and agricultural wealth of the coastal plain and forbidden to develop politically as a centre for Palestinian nationalism, East Jerusalem suffered a sharp decline.

In contrast, Israeli West Jerusalem was made the capital of the new State of Israel. The government sought to overcome its geographic disadvantages of having lost its hinterland and access to the Arabian interior by investing heavily to attract immigrants and employment.  Most government offices and national institutions such as the Knesset, the Israeli Parliament, a new university and the Great Synagogue were built there.  Israel had captured the main water supply to Jerusalem and power supplies were made available from sources on the coastal plain.  As a result of these activities the population doubled to 200,000 Israeli Jews.  Nevertheless, in relation to the development of other Israeli cities like Haifa and Tel Aviv, the future of West Jerusalem was precarious.  Its economy was heavily dependent upon government and public sector employment. Without access to the Holy Places it had little attraction for tourists and its status as a front-line city made private investors cautious.

The occupation of East Jerusalem in 1967 to the present-day by Israel has led to dramatic changes in the city as a whole.  Tensions between the Palestinian and Israeli Jewish communities has been a constant theme throughout this period and reflected the broad political conflict at the national level. . The Arab East Jerusalem municipality was dismissed and its area absorbed into the Israeli one.  Its borders were then extended to the edges of Ramallah and Bethlehem to the north and south. Palestinians refused to recognise the legitimacy of Israeli control and have boycotted local elections since 1967.

The Israeli government adopted a policy of ensuring that the Israeli Jewish population of the city remained always at least two-thirds that of the Palestinian Arab population and large suburban estates, known as settlements, were constructed on the east side to house Israeli Jews.  They also had the effect of expropriating Palestinian-owned land and cutting off the Palestinian areas of Jerusalem from the hinterland of the West Bank thus undermining Palestinian claims to sovereignty over East Jerusalem.  Both communities sought to strengthen their institutional presence in the city through the location of hospitals, educational institutions and cultural and intellectual activities.  The Israeli Jewish community had the great advantage of government support with legal and military backing, while the Palestinian initiatives were more ad hoc and lacked coherence.  Nevertheless they managed to maintain control over most of the Holy Places, particularly the Haram al-Sharif.  Discussions over the future of the city between the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships has centred on the possibility of shared municipal frameworks with security issues and the issue of control over shared holy sites proving to be among the more difficult issues to resolve.

Given its history, Jerusalem abounds with historically important and architecturally splendid sites and only a very few can be mentioned here.  Most of the sites are contained within the Old City whose dramatic Ottoman walls and original gates were built by Sulayman al-Qanuni (the Lawmaker)(1520-1566) The walls partly followed the lines of the Emperor Hadrian’s fortifications and the seven gates are Mamluk-inspired with a L-shape entrance for defensive purposes. The eighth gate, the Golden Gate has Roman foundations and is permanently closed.  Islamic eschatology holds that it will be opened on the Day of Judgement while in the Jewish tradition, it the gate through which the Messiah will enter Jerusalem.  Bab al-Khalil, also known as Jaffa Gate, is beside the Citadel built on Herodian foundations but extensively and ornately rebuilt by the Mamluks.

Probably the most spectacular site in Jerusalem is the Haram ash-Sharif, (the noble sanctuary) also known in Judaism as the Temple Mount.  A large enclossure, it is the third holiest site in Islam and was built between 685 and 709 C.E. Among other famous sites and very beautifully constructed monumental buildings it includes the Qubbat al Sakhra (the Dome of the Rock) and al-Aqsa mosque. The Dome of the Rock is where Muslims believe that the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven and where Abraham attempted to sacrifice his son to God. Al-Aqsa mosque is regarded as the place referred to in the Qur’an where Muhammed prayed following his famous “night journey”. Despite the troubled political circumstances of the present, the Haram still transmits a sense of rich spirituality and peaceful reflection amidst a busy and bustling city.

The subterranean areas of the Haram include a large vault, known as Soloman’s Stables. Although much repaired and restored by the Romans and the Middle Ages, the vault is a Herodian creation and thought to be part of the original Jewish Temple built in 970 B.C.E.   This was built by King Soloman to house the Ark of the Covenant and the priestly Holy of Holies. All that has survived of the original Jewish Temple is the western or Wailing Wall.  In 1967 a Palestinian area known as the Moroccan quarter adjacent to the wall was demolished to create a huge plaza which is now the site of Jewish and Israeli nationalist rituals.The Old City also contains the Holy Sepulchre, the most revered site in Christendom, and the place where Jesus Christ is believed to have been crucified, died, entombed and to have rose again. Although originally built by Emperor Constantine, the current structure is Crusader. Inside is a myriad collection of chapels reflecting the iconography, and ritual styles of the different Christian sects which have a presence in the church. Below the Old City are also a number of water channels, the most notable of which is  Hezekiah’s Tunnel, which flows through the city and out again exiting in the Kidron valley at Birket Silwan or the Pool of Siloam.

Edited version of my entry in Encyclopaedia of Cities of the Middle East and North Africa (Oxford: ABC-Clio, 2006) (Co-Editor with Bruce Stanley)


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