Jerusalem: An Overview

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Jerusalem, an old Canaanite settlement in the uplands of Judaea, enters history rather offhandedly in the biblical narrative: David, king of Israel, then resident at nearby Hebron, decides to make this Jebusite city his capital. No reason is giveneven today the site has obvious security advantagesand indeed Jerusalem shows no particular religious associations until David buys a Jebusite threshing floor atop Mount Moriah just north of his new "City of David" and builds an altar there, where the Lord had stayed the hand of his avenging angel. This spot may have been an earlier Canaanite high place, but it now became the site of a grandiose temple possibly planned by David and certainly built by his son Solomon.

The Temple of Solomon was an enormous structure with interior courtyards of progressively limited access, in the midst of which stood an ornately adorned sanctuary. Outside it stood the great altar of sacrifice, and within, in a curtained inner chamber, the Holy of Holies, was installed the ark of the covenant containing the Tablets of the Law and other tokens of the Israelites' deliverance from Egypt and sojourn in the wilderness of Sinai. And there too were reinstituted all the cultic acts commanded to Moses on Sinai, the daily sacrifices, the feasts of the New Moon and the New Year, the Day of Atonement, and the three great pilgrimage feasts of Passover, Shavuʿot (Weeks), and Sukkot (Tabernacles), all performed and managed by a body of Aaronite priests and ministering Levites.

There is no sign of this building today, because it was destroyed by the Babylonians in 587/6 bce. Solomon's son Rehoboam could not maintain his father's empire intact, and the schism between the northern kingdom of Israel, with its own priests and shrines and its own rival temple atop Mount Gerizim in Samaria, and the southern kingdom of Judah, ruled from Jerusalem, persisted down to the fall of Samaria to the Assyrians in 721 bce. Although the days of Judah were likewise numbered, the southern kingdom sustained itself under royal saints (e.g., Hezekiah) and royal sinners (e.g., Manasseh) long enough for the reformer king Josiah to centralize all Israelite cult practices in Jerusalem. This was in 621 bce, and thereafter Jerusalem had few political rivals and no religious peers; for Jews, whether in Palestine or abroad, in what was known as the Diaspora, the Temple in Jerusalem was the unique site of Jewish sacrificial worship of God, and the divine presence dwelt there in a special way.

The Babylonians, then, took Jerusalem in 587/6 bce, razed the Temple, and carried off many of the Jews into exile. And it is likely that at that time the ark of the covenant disappeared as part of the spoils; the Holy of Holies of later versions of the Jerusalem Temple was, at any rate, empty. Sometime after 538 bce the Persian shah Cyrus II and his Achaemenid successors allowed the exiled Jews to return to Jerusalem. The city was rebuilt by Nehemiah, the Mosaic Law was repromulgated through the efforts of the priestly scribe Ezra, and under the auspices of Zerubbabel a reduced version of Solomon's Temple was constructed on the same site. The priesthoods were purified and God's cult restored. Jerusalem itself was rewalled and resettled and began to resume the growth that was already notable in the eighth century bce. In the wake of Alexander the Great, Greeks succeeded to Persians in the late fourth century in Palestine, and after 200 bce the Greco-Macedonian dynasty of the Seleucids ruled over what was a politically modest temple-state at Jerusalem.

The political straitening of Jerusalem was accompanied by an equally notable broadening of the religious character of the city. The chastening of the Israelites before, during, and immediately after their Babylonian exile produced a new type of religious leader in their midst, the prophet, and in their inspired visions Jerusalem became the symbol of and indeed identical with the Children of Israel and the Land of Israel, now cast down for its idolatry and fornication, now exalted, renewed, and glorified in the new age that would follow the present travails. Thus the historical Jerusalem, which often lay in ruin and misery, was transformed by Isaiah and Ezekiel, among others, into a heavenly and eschatological Jerusalem, a city whose holiness transcended the mere presence of the Temple but was rather coterminous with the glory of the Chosen People and served as a pledge of the presence of God.

The historical Jerusalem revived under Greek sovereignty, and a newly affluent upper class, including many priestly families, eased the way for the introduction there of the ideals and institutions of Hellenism. Under Antiochus IV Epiphanes (r. 175164 bce), the Hellenized Jews in Jerusalem requested and were granted permission by their sovereign to convert the city into a polis, a genuine Greek-style city. Subsequently, Antiochus and a significant number of Jews grew disenchanted with this Jerusalem experiment in cultural and political Hellenism, Antiochus because he scented treachery in the city, and Jewish pietists because they correctly perceived that Hellenism brought more than paved streets and gymnasiums; they saw that it was heavily freighted with spiritual values that constituted an attractive alternative and so a grave threat to Mosaic Judaism. The king instituted a full-scale attack on Judaism in Judaea and installed a Macedonian garrison and foreign cults in the Temple precinct. The outraged Jews mounted a bold resistance, and under the priestly family called the Maccabees they eventually drove most of the Greeks from Judaea and Jerusalem and in 164 bce rededicated the Temple there to the cult of the Lord.

The Hasmonean dynasty survived until 37 bce, when its own weaknesses permitted, and Roman choice dictated, the passage of power to the Idumaean Herod I (r. 3734 bce). Jerusalem was still growingit now covered the western hill as well as the eastern hill where Solomon's Temple and the City of David had been locatedand Hasmonean kingship had done nothing to inhibit its assimilation to a Hellenic-style settlement with notable public buildings and a regular street plan. The prodigious building activity of Herod increased the tempo of Greco-Roman urbanization. He extended the street plan, built an immense citadel at the western gate of the city, erected his own palace nearby, and sought to crown his labors by undertaking in 20 bce a reconstruction of the Temple. This mammoth Herodian temple complex, with its newly extended platform, not only doubled the size of Solomon's installation, it dwarfed every known temple assemblage in the Greco-Roman Near East. Today only the platform and some of its gates are extant, having survived the Roman destruction of 70 ce. For Jews, the western wall, a retaining wall of the platform, has been a potent symbol of Jewish historical continuity since Talmudic times. The platform itself has been venerated by Muslims as the aram al-Sharīf, the Holy Sanctuary, since the late seventh century.

Jewish sovereignty over Jerusalem did not last very long; the Romans by contrast held the city, although they never ruled from it, for six and a half centuries, and different Muslim dynasties, who likewise preferred to put their palaces elsewhere, held sway over Jerusalem from the mid-seventh to the early twentieth century. But however brief the span, Jewish kings ruled over a Jewish state in Jerusalem; Roman governors, some pagan, some Christian, ruled over Jerusalem; and for a very long time the city was a part, often not a very important part, of some form or other of a Muslim political organization, although never its capital. Nor was it under any circumstances the capital of "the Christian people" or "the Muslim people" simply because there never were such.

Jesus was born under Herodian and died under Roman sovereignty. Although at home in Galilee, he taught, performed miracles, died, and was buried in Herodian Jerusalem. He worshiped in Herod's Temple, with which he identified himself and whose destruction he openly predicted. As he had foreseen, it happened in 70 ce, at the end of a Jewish insurrection against the Romans, but only after Jesus himself had been tried in Jerusalem, crucified outside the western wall of the city, and buried nearby, having said that he would rise again in three days. A century thereafter Jerusalem, too, had its resurrection. In 132 ce the Roman emperor Hadrian published his plans for a new, very Roman Jerusalem. This may have been the provocation for a new revolt; what was left of the city was razed in 135 ce, and it was only then that Hadrian was free to construct his new Aelia Capitolina, named after his house and his god. The Jews for their part were banned from the city and its near vicinity.

Researchers have a good idea of what Aelia Capitolina looked like from the Madeba map, a sixth-century mosaic map that lays out Jerusalem's plan and chief buildings in that era. But there are major new installations visible on that map. They were the work of Constantine and his Christian imperial successors. In 330 ce Constantine, with the urging or the assistance of his mother Helena, set about identifying the chief sites of Jesus' redemptive activity in Palestine. He enshrined them with major basilicas, notably the cave of the nativity in Bethlehem and the places, by then inside Jerusalem's walls, of Jesus' execution, burial, and resurrection. Jesus' tomb was housed under a splendid rotunda, and the site of the execution was enshrined at the corner of an open courtyard; abutting both was an extremely large basilica. The work was capped with both celebrity and authority when in the course of the construction Helena discovered the remains, verified by miracle, of Jesus' own cross.

It was Constantine's initiative that began the conversion of Jerusalem into a Christian holy city, or perhaps better, of Palestine into a Christian holy land, because the Christians held no brief for the city as such. For the early Christians the historical Jerusalem had been destroyed because of the perfidy of the Jews, and if Christians too, following Paul and the Book of Revelation, could savor the notion of a heavenly Jerusalem as the symbol of the New Covenant, it had no visible or even sentimental connection with the earthly Jerusalem. Nevertheless, in the wake of Constantine's building program, Christian pilgrims, particularly those from overseas, began to arrive in increasing numbers. What those visitors came to see, and to experience, was not Jerusalem, but the entire network of Palestinian sites connected with Jesus, his apostles, and the early Christian saints, who were being identified with enthusiastic liturgical and architectural celebration from the fourth century onward.

One Jerusalem holy place was not celebrated in either fashion: The site of Herod's Temple, twice reduced to ruins by the Romans, was left in that sad state in graphic and continuous fulfillment of Jesus' prophecy. Christian visitors went up onto the platform and looked about and reflected, but the only liturgy marked there was the piteous Jewish return once a year on Tishʿah be-Av, the anniversary of its destruction, to mourn the fallen sanctuary. In the rest of the city, meanwhile, the effect of imperial investment began to manifest itself in the network of churches, shrines, hospices, and even hospitals as marked on the Madeba map. Now, with no claim to either political or commerical eminenceeven in the ecclesiastical hierarchy the city lost ground to nearby Caesarea and distant AntiochJerusalem was assuming a role it would have until 1967: that of a holy city supported and adorned for its holiness, and for the political benefits accruing from the official recognition of that holiness.

But throughout most of its history Jerusalem was also a contested city. The Jews were in no position to contest it with the Christians at this stagethey continued to be prohibited residence there by the Christian as well as by the pagan Roman emperorsbut in 638 the Muslims came up from the south and took the city from them and their Christian Roman empire in almost perfunctory fashion. Among the Muslims' first acts was to build a mosque on the deserted Temple mount and, within a century, to erect in the middle of that same platform an extraordinary Muslim shrine called the Dome of the Rock.

Although subsequently rebuilt, the mosque on the Temple mount is still called al-Masjid al-Aqā ("the distant sanctuary," i.e., mosque), as it was from the beginning, and the reason reaches back to the Qurʾān itself, where God describes how he "carried his servant by night from the Sacred Sanctuary to the Distant Sanctuary" (sūrah 17:1). The servant was of course Muammad, and the "Sacred Sanctuary" was easily identified as al-Masjid al-aram and the Kaʿbah at Mecca. But the "Distant Sanctuary" provoked more discussion from the early commentators until here too a consensus developed that the reference was to Jerusalem and its Temple area. Quickly another tradition was worked into the first, that of Muammad's ascension into heaven where the mysteries of the prophets and of revelation were disclosed to him.

The Aqā, then, was the congregational mosque of Jerusalem, a prayer place that also commemorated that "Distant Sanctuary" mentioned in God's book and visited by the Prophet in the course of his "night journey." And what of the Dome of the Rock? It is in fact an ornate octagonal shrine over a rock, a bedrock outcropping of Mount Moriah, which, according to the Muslim tradition, marked part of the foundation of the Temple. The Muslim connection with Jerusalem, for them simply "the Holy" (al-Quds) or "the Holy House," runs back, then, both through the Bible to the Temple and through the Qurʾān to Muammad, and it centers precisely and exclusively on the Temple mount. Some Muslims, not a great many surely, settled in what was now their holy city in the years after 638 ce, and some Jews as well, because the Muslims permitted the latter to resettle in the city that had been forbidden to them for five centuries. The Jews did so with alacrity; they moved their chief rabbinical yeshivah from Tiberias to Jerusalem and may even have prayed somewhere on the Temple platform itself.

The relationship of Jews, Christians, and Muslims in Jerusalem, where a majority of the population was Christian and the political sovereignty Muslim, was more or less harmonious. But this holy city was and is a narrow place where emulation breeds envy, and envy, arrogance. In 1009 the assuredly arrogant and possibly envious Fatimid caliph al-ākim burned down the Christians' Church of the Holy Sepulcher. It was eventually rebuilt, although on the reduced scale that separates the present church from its Constantinian predecessor, but some deep harm had been done. That harm was chiefly experienced in Christian Europe, which eventually launched a Crusade that took the city back from the Muslims in 1099.

The Western Crusade, with its religious propaganda and bloody violence, and the Muslims' response, which festooned the city with legends and blessings not unlike the Christians' own indulgences, poisoned relations between the two groups, and nowhere more disastrously than in Jerusalem itself. After the Muslim reoccupation of the city in 1187, Christians continued to come on pilgrimage, still following Jesus' "Way of the Cross" across the city, but now under the grimmest of circumstances; and the Muslim rulers, charged with the administration of an increasingly impoverished city, resorted to extortion against Jerusalem's only source of income, those same pilgrims. Between them were the Jews, too powerless as yet to be a political threatthe Christian pilgrims came from newly aggressive Christian nation-states, while the Jews found no European protectors until the nineteenth centuryand almost too poor to be squeezed.

But power and poverty are not all. The Jews have always regarded themselves as a people, a single historical people, and so they alone, not the Christians or the Muslims, were capable of possessing, and did actually possess, a national capital, which was Jerusalem. No Christian pope or Muslim caliphboth quite different from a national king to begin withever had Jerusalem as his seat. Christian and Muslim governors Jerusalem has had and, during the Crusades, even a number of Christian kings, but that was either sectarian sovereignty or rule by delegated authority.

This line of thought is merely moving along the surface, however. Jerusalem is more than a city or even a national capital; it is an idea. And it is safe to say that it is a biblical idea. As the Bible unfolds, one can easily follow the progressive identification being drawn between the people of Israel, or the Land of Israel, and Jerusalem and its Temple. People, city, and Temple become one, linked in destiny and God's plan, and then transformed, apotheosized, into the Heavenly Jerusalem. By the time the Jews returned from their Babylonian exile and were granted limited sovereignty in Judaea and permission to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem, the idea was firmly in place, so firmly indeed that even though the city was again lost to the Jews and then both the city and the Temple destroyed, the idea survived. It survived not as a vaguely conceived and fitfully remembered nostalgia but as a symbol solid as Jerusalem stonework built into the thought and liturgy of Judaism. Rabbis sitting in Galilean and Iraqi yeshivot two centuries and more after the actual Temple had disappeared could still cite the physical measurements of the entire complex and were still debating questions of priestly ritual performed there with as much vigor and conviction as if the Temple still stood in its glory. As indeed it did, in a tradition more perennial than stones or mortar or golden fretting.

The theme that Jerusalem is perennial was taken up and repeated in the synagogue liturgy that all Jews recite as part of their ordinary worship and that recurs throughout the art and literature, pious or prosaic, of the Middle Ages. "If I forget thee, O Jerusalem " rolls like an anthem across Jewish history, and in the sense of those words of the psalmist all Jews have always been Zionists, whether they believed that the restoration of Jerusalem could be achieved by political meansas very few did from the final debacle of 135 ce down to the late nineteenth centuryor that it would occur in some long-distant eschatological context. And their spiritual descendants inherited the notion from them, although without the same nationalist and tribal overtones: Christians and Muslims are both eschatological Zionists. Jesus saw as in a vision the eschatological destruction of Jerusalem and John's Book of Revelation saw its restoration as a heavenly city; in Islam the Kaʿbah itself will travel from Mecca to Jerusalem for the Day of Judgment.

See Also

Biblical Temple; Crusades; Pilgrimage, articles on Contemporary Jewish Pilgrimage, Eastern Christian Pilgrimage.


On the integration of the Jewish city into both ideology and the popular consciousness, see W. D. Davies's The Territorial Dimension of Judaism (Berkeley, Calif., 1982); The Temple of Solomon: Archaeological Fact and Medieval Tradition in Christian, Islamic and Jewish Art, edited by Joseph Gutmann (Missoula, Mont., 1976); Zion in Jewish Literature, edited by Abraham S. Halkin (New York, 1961); and Zev Vilnay's Legends of Jerusalem, vol. 1, The Sacred Land (Philadelphia, 1973). Vilnay's work includes many of the Muslim legends. On the conversion of Jerusalem to a Christian holy city, see W. D. Davies's The Gospel and the Land: Early Christianity and Jewish Territorial Doctrine (Berkeley, 1974); E. D. Hunt's Holy Land Pilgrimage in the Later Roman Empire, a.d. 312460 (Oxford, 1982); Peregrinatio Aetheriae: Egeria's Travels to the Holy Land, rev. ed., translated by John Wilkinson (London, 1981); and John Wilkinson's Jerusalem Pilgrims before the Crusades (Warminster, U.K., 1977).

On Muslim Jerusalem, the best introduction is the double article in The Encyclopaedia of Islam, new ed., vol. 5, fasc. 8384 (Leiden, 1980), under "al- uds""Part A: History," by S. D. Goitein, and "Part B: Monuments," by Oleg Grabar. Many of the Muslim historians' and travelers' accounts of the city are collected in Palestine under the Moslems, translated by Guy Le Strange (New York, 1890). Sections of this book dealing specifically with Jerusalem have recently been reprinted under the title Jerusalem under the Moslems (Jerusalem, n.d.).

For the most revealing travel accounts of the post-Crusader era, consult Jewish Travellers: A Treasury of Travelogues from Nine Centuries, 2d ed., edited by Elkan N. Adler (New York, 1966); The Wanderings of Felix Fabri, 2 vols., translated by Aubrey Stewart (18921893; New York, 1971); and The Travels of Ibn Battuta, a.d. 13251354, 2 vols., translated and edited by H. A. R. Gibb (Cambridge, U.K., 19581962).

On the ninteenth- and twentieth-century city, see Meron Benvenisti's Jerusalem: The Torn City (Jerusalem, 1976); N. A. Silberman's Digging for God and Country: Exploration, Archeology and the Secret Struggle for the Holy Land, 17991917 (New York, 1982); and Walter Zander's Israel and the Holy Places of Christendom (New York, 1971). Finally, for visitors to the Holy City of all the faiths and in all eras, see my Jerusalem: The Holy City in the Eyes of Chroniclers, Visitors, Pilgrims and Prophets from the Days of Abraham to the Beginnings of Modern Times (Princeton, N.J., 1985).

New Sources

Armstrong, Karen. Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths. New York, 1996.

Benvenisti, Meron. City of Stone: The Hidden History of Jerusalem. Translated by Maxine Kaufman Nunn. Berkeley, 1996.

Gonen, Rivka. Contested Holiness: Jewish, Muslim, and Christian Perspective on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Jersey City, 2003.

Janin, Hunt. Four Paths to Jerusalem: Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and Secular Pilgrimages, 1000 bce to 2001 ce. Jefferson, N.C., 2002.

Shanks, Hershel. Jerusalem: An Archaeological Biography. New York, 1995.

Vaughn, Andrew G., and Ann E. Killebrew, eds. Jerusalem in Bible and Archaeology: The First Temple Period. Leiden and Boston, 2003.

Wasserstein, Bernard. Divided Jerusalem: The Struggle for the Holy City. New Haven, Conn., 2001.

F. E. Peters (1987)

Revised Bibliography

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Jerusalem: An Overview

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