The Holy City of Jerusalem

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The Holy City of Jerusalem

Seismologists—scientists who study earthquakes—often refer to an earthquake's "epicenter": the place just below Earth's crust where the quake starts and from which it spreads. The word "epicenter" could be used as a figure of speech to refer to Jerusalem, the city in Palestine on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea that became the focus of the Crusades. While several of the Crusades never made it to Jerusalem, capturing—or, later, recapturing—the city was always the Crusaders' goal, for Jerusalem was the site of many of the major events in the life of Jesus Christ, founder of Christianity.

The "holy city," though, did not suddenly become an epicenter for conflict in the eleventh century. It had long been a source of conflict among three of the world's major religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. As the site of the Temple of Solomon, the holiest place of worship for Jews, Jerusalem had been the center of Judaism, and it remained so even after the city fell into the hands of the Roman Empire, the Temple of Solomon was destroyed, and the Roman emperor Hadrian built another temple on the site in the second century.

After the Crucifixion (death on the cross) of Christ, the early Christian church laid claim to Jerusalem as its holiest place, for the city was where many of the events in Christ's life took place, including his death, burial, and Resurrection (rising from the dead). Christian control over Jerusalem was confirmed when the Roman emperor Constantine converted to Christianity in 313, declared it the official religion of the empire, and launched a massive construction project in the city. This project included the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which housed the tomb of Christ, and other churches. The city remained in Christian hands after the Roman Empire collapsed in the fifth century, for it was part of the Byzantine Empire—the eastern part of the old Roman Empire—and came under the religious authority of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Thus, by the time Jerusalem fell to the Muslims in the seventh century, Christians and Jews had long been struggling with the question of who "owned" the city.

For Christians in the East and in the West, Jerusalem was a place of pilgrimage (see Chapter 3 on pilgrimages to the Holy Land). The goal of any devout Christian was to make at least one such journey to the holy places, or shrines, of Jerusalem and do penance (that is, repent for their sins) on the sites where Christ died and was buried. While most Europeans lacked the money to make a pilgrimage, even peasants and commoners would have been familiar with the concept of making such a trip. Because Christ's Crucifixion was central to Christian religious views, Christians were increasingly regarding Jews as people to be scorned. In their view, the Jews were responsible for Christ's death. For their part, Jews regarded Christians as occupiers of their holy city, and they wanted to rebuild their temple there.

Then, late in the seventh century, after Islamic leaders seized control of the city, Muslims built a place of worship, al-Aqsa Mosque, on a site next to the Foundation Stone, the rock upon which Abraham, considered the father of the Hebrew people, had been ready to sacrifice his son to God (see "Judaism" and "The Emergence of Islam" in Chapter 1). Now three major cultural-religious groups were contending for rights to the city. Under these conditions, hatreds were bound to fester and eventually lead to warfare. Since each group regarded the city as among its holiest places, each believed that the presence of the others on holy ground profaned that ground, or made it unholy, so each wanted to drive the others out.

Muslims and Jerusalem

After the death of Muhammad, the founder of the religion of Islam, in the early seventh century, leadership of the faith passed to a series of caliphs, or rulers and leaders of the Islamic faith. The second of these caliphs was Umar. By the time Umar succeeded to the position, Islam was beginning to expand, and over the next two centuries it established an empire that extended from parts of Spain and Italy in the West, across North Africa and Arabia, and into western Asia. One of the first goals of the caliphs was to gain control of Palestine and Jerusalem. In 636, Muslim forces under Umar clashed with Byzantine forces under the leadership of the emperor Heraclius in a battle on the banks of the Yarmuk River, near the Sea of Galilee. The battle took place in a terrible sandstorm, and the Muslims, accustomed to desert fighting, slaughtered thousands of Byzantine troops. Many of Heraclius's troops were Christian Arabs, but as many as twelve thousand of them deserted and converted to Islam.

When Jerusalem fell to Caliph Umar in 638, most of the city's inhabitants were either Jews or Christians. Initially, they feared for their welfare, but they soon discovered that life under Muslim rule was no worse than it had been under the Byzantine Empire and in many ways was better. Muhammad had taught that both Jews and Christians were "People of the Book." That is, their religions were based on scripture, as was Islam, and Islam was actually a continuation or fulfillment of these other two religions. Islam did not deny the legitimacy of the Old Testament prophets, such as Abraham, nor did it deny the authority of Christ as a prophet. In the eyes of Muslims, Judaism and Christianity were earlier expressions of God's kingdom on Earth. Islam was thought to be the final revelation of God's word, not a denial of Judaism or Christianity.

Accordingly, Jews and Christians were allowed to practice their religions freely and openly. Places of worship, including the synagogues of Jews and the churches of Christians, remained open, and Jews and Christians were even granted some measure of political independence. Muslims welcomed Christian pilgrims (people who journey to sacred places), who continued to come to Jerusalem both from Byzantine lands in the east and Roman Catholic lands to the west. These pilgrims, then and in later centuries, were a valuable source of income for the city.

This policy of tolerance toward Christians was made clear in the treaty between the former leaders of Jerusalem and Caliph Umar. This treaty came to be known as the Pact of Umar. It originated in 638, but over the next three hundred years it expanded while retaining Umar's name. Surviving written versions of the pact vary a great deal, but one that seems most complete dates from sometime in the ninth century. The pact does not refer to the Jews but focuses instead on relations between Muslims and Christians. Historians generally agree, however, that as a pact between a conqueror and a conquered people, it applied equally to Jews and Christians.

In the pact, quoted by Robert Payne in The History of Islam, Umar makes clear that Christians would retain the right to practice their religion: "This peace … guarantees them [Christians] security for their lives, property, churches, and the crucifixes [crosses] belonging to those who display and honour them.… There shall be no compulsion in matters of faith." Umar even refused to unroll his prayer mat in the city's Church of the Holy Sepulchre out of respect for Christians and the fear that if he did so, Muslims would come to regard the site as their own.

There were some restrictive rules, however. Jews and Christians were required to wear distinctive clothing. They were not allowed to carry weapons or ride on horseback. And while they had to pay special taxes, those taxes were lower than the taxes they had had to pay to the Byzantine rulers. Jews and Christians were also forbidden to hold public office and to study the Koran (the Islamic sacred text) or to imitate Muslims in dress or manner.

Miracle of the Holy Fire

Visitors to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre can take part in a ritual that predates the Crusades by centuries. This ritual is called the Miracle of the Holy Fire. It is performed at midday on the eve of Easter each year. Normally, only Eastern Orthodox Christians take part in the ceremony, but Roman Catholics often participate as well, especially in years when Easter falls on the same date for Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christians. (The two branches of Christianity use different church calendars, and Easter is often celebrated on different days.)

During the ritual, church leaders, including the Greek Orthodox patriarch—the chief religious leader—of Jerusalem, go down into the burial area while the congregation holds unlit candles and torches in the darkened church. The faithful believe that the fire of God, symbolizing Christ's Resurrection, is sent down and flames burst forth at the tomb of Christ. Church leaders then emerge from the tomb bearing a lighted torch. From those flames the patriarch lights a candle. The candle is then passed around to Christ's followers in the church. It is believed that Caliph Hakim ordered the destruction of the church in 1009 because he was angered at the Miracle of the Holy Fire.

All things considered, life for Christians and Jews under Muslim rule, in Jerusalem and other parts of the Middle East, was tolerable at worst and comfortable at best. Meanwhile, trade and business flourished. In fact, for Jews life was actually better. Under the Byzantine Empire, tensions between Christians and Jews in Jerusalem were often high. Christians, who blamed Jews for the death of Christ, were less tolerant of the Jews than the Muslims turned out to be. Byzantine rulers actively sought to convert the Jews to Christianity. For their part, the Jews resented Christians for controlling traditionally Jewish territory, especially in Jerusalem. These tensions had often led to outbreaks of violence and oppression, to the extent that many Jews provided help and information to the invading Muslim army in 638.

From 638 until well into the eleventh century, relative peace reigned in Jerusalem. The exception was during the years 1004 to 1021, when Jerusalem was under the rule of the caliph Hakim (often written al-Hakim). Hakim was insane, and he subjected both Jews and Christians to terrible persecution (prejudice)—although even he allowed pilgrims from the Byzantine Empire and western Europe to visit the holy sites in Jerusalem. After he was removed from office, though, the policy of religious toleration was restored, and peace again prevailed.

Destruction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

A crucial event during the rule of Caliph Hakim was the destruction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and other Christian buildings in the Holy Land in 1009 and 1010. Included among them were the Church of Saint Anne and the Church of Saint Mary on Mount Zion, the Church of Saint James in the city's Armenian quarter, and the Church of the Ascension on the Mount of Olives. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, though, was the largest Christian church in the city. Pilgrims to the holy city would have made the church their first destination. Its importance to Christians was that it was on the site where Christ was crucified, buried, and resurrected.

The church had been built in the fourth century by Constantine to enclose the place where Christ was crucified. He had called a meeting in Constantinople with the bishops from that part of the empire. One bishop who attended the meeting was Macarius, the bishop of Aelia Capitolina, the Roman name for Jerusalem. Macarius pointed out that the sites associated with the life and death of Christ were being neglected, largely because of a lack of funds.

Helena, Constantine's mother, was also at the meeting. Like her son, she had converted to Christianity. Accordingly, she made a pilgrimage to the city, bringing with her money
and her son's authority. While she was in Jerusalem, she found the place of Christ's Crucifixion, a rock called Golgotha. She also found a nearby tomb that, according to local tradition, had been the site of Christ's resurrection. The emperor then authorized construction of a church on the site—the same site where the Roman emperor Hadrian had built a temple in the second century. When the Roman buildings were being torn down to build the church, a series of tombs was found cut into the rock. One of the tombs was identified as that of Joseph of Arimathea, Christ's uncle, who had helped take Christ's body down from the cross and prepare it for burial. In a cave on the site, Helena found nails from what was believed to be the "True Cross" on which Christ was crucified, and even a plaque saying that the site was Christ's burial place. The True Cross would become a central relic (the remains of a martyr, or one who has died for the faith) of Christendom, a symbol of the Christian faith, and a rallying point for the Crusades.

Although the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was rebuilt in 1048, Pope Urban II would use its destruction earlier in the century to justify the Crusades. Hakim's action would become one in a series of "atrocities," or wicked acts, that the pope declared was happening to Christian sites in the city. He used the destruction of the church to inflame his listeners. Many of the Crusaders who went to the Holy Land did so from a desire to rescue the tomb of Christ from the hands of the infidels, or unbelievers.

Jerusalem under the Franks

Because so many of the early Crusaders were from the Frankish kingdom, or France, Muslims referred to all Crusaders as the Franj, or Franks, and their native land as Frangistan. From the time of the First Crusade until the thirteenth century, Jerusalem was under the control of the Franks for a total of a little more than a hundred years.

This occupation occurred in two distinct phases. The first began when the city fell to the Franks at the end of the First Crusade in July 1099 (see "The First Crusade" in Chapter 6). It remained in Frankish hands until 1187. That year, Muslim forces under Saladin defeated a Frankish army at the Battle of Hattin in July and then laid siege to Jerusalem until it fell in October. The Franks regained control in 1229, after Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, during the Sixth Crusade, negotiated the Treaty of Jaffa with the Egyptian sultan Malik al-Kamil. When the treaty expired in 1239, the city was briefly occupied by Muslims. It returned to Frankish control in 1241 but was lost once again when a clan of Turkish Muslims, the Khwarismians, attacked the city and drove out the Franks for the final time in 1244.

The extent of the changes made to Jerusalem during this relatively short period of time rivaled that of any other period in the city's history. The goals of the Crusaders were twofold. First, they wanted to transform the city into the spiritual and religious "capital" of Christendom by restoring its holy sites. But they also wanted to transform it into a western Christian kingdom in the East. The Crusaders, though, had yet another motive for rebuilding the city. After they breached the city's walls in July 1099, they carried out a mass slaughter for three days. The result was that the city was largely depopulated. Few of the Crusaders remained in the city after the Crusade, and those who did were left with the task of repopulating it.

First, though, they had to rebuild the city. They did not have the funds, and the West seemed unwilling to provide them. Much of the money that financed the rebuilding project came from the abandoned wealth of the Egyptian Fatimids, the ruling dynasty that had controlled the city before the arrival of the Turks. The Crusaders used this wealth immediately to begin restoring or rebuilding the churches that Caliph Hakim had destroyed. Central to this effort was the restoration of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which began immediately and took fifty years to complete. On July 15, 1149, the renovated church was consecrated (dedicated to a sacred purpose) once more, and the façade (front of the building) that was consecrated that day can still be seen by visitors to Jerusalem.

Building churches, though, was not the same thing as resettling Jerusalem. To attract people to the city, the Crusaders began to bring back and encourage the pilgrim trade, which had fallen off in the years just before and after the First Crusade. They knew that doing so would attract money, commerce (business), and people, especially permanent settlers, to the city. After the First Crusade, as the journey to the Holy Land became safer for European pilgrims, more and more began to arrive. In time, countless thousands of pilgrims had to be fed and housed each year.

This influx of what amounted to medieval "tourists" created the need for lodgings (called hostels), places for medical care, money exchanges, and markets for goods and services, and the Crusaders constructed these facilities. By the early thirteenth century a French "tour book" titled La Citez de Jherusalem shows the extent to which Jerusalem was taking good care of the pilgrim trade. The book not only describes the holy sites but also goes into great detail in directing pilgrims through the streets to markets, money exchanges, hostels, hospitals, and other institutions.

It is difficult for modern historians to know precisely how successful the Crusaders were in bringing people to the city. No reliable statistics exist about the number of pilgrims who traveled to Jerusalem. It is known that the Hospital of Saint John, run by the Knights Hospitallers (see "Knights Hospitallers" in Chapter 9), could accommodate two thousand visitors in a single day, suggesting that the numbers were large.

Another way to gauge the success of the Crusader-builders is to examine the public buildings and monuments they left behind. They strengthened and rebuilt the walls of the city. They constructed a palace, as well as monasteries (religious communities run by monks), convents (housing for nuns), hospitals, bathhouses, covered markets, and other buildings. Presumably, they would not have been able to do so without a major influx of money. Initially, this money flowed to the city largely from the pilgrim trade, though as time went on and more European settlers arrived, other forms of commerce and trade added to the wealth of the city.

Hygiene and food in the Holy Land

One way in which the cultures of Europe and the Middle East clashed was in attitudes toward personal cleanliness. The Europeans, from colder climates, rarely washed, and, in fact, hated bathing. In contrast, Middle Easterners, from a hot desert climate, bathed frequently. As time went on, though, Europeans took up the habit of bathing, and among the construction projects the Crusaders undertook were more public bathhouses. A bather first went into a heated room. After he worked up a sweat, an attendant would rub him down with soap and towel him off. He would then go to another room, where he could lie in comfort on a couch. The habit of bathing became so ingrained that it was required on some occasions. Anyone who wanted to be admitted to the Knights Templars, for example, had to bathe at a communal bathhouse before the ceremony of admission. Many Arabs in the city were disturbed because Europeans, unlike the Arabs, would often walk about in the bathhouses without towels. The habit of bathing was not limited to men. Women had their own separate bathhouses.

The Franks also saw food in the Middle East that they had never seen before. In addition to meats, game birds, and unusual spices that were unknown in Europe, they ate new types of fruit, including bananas, oranges, lemons, dates, peaches, plums, figs, quinces, and various nuts, such as almonds. They found no vineyards in the Holy Land, for Islam forbade the drinking of wine. The Crusaders planted vineyards and produced wine, which they cooled with snow brought from the tops of mountains in Lebanon and protected by straw as it was transported to the city.

For More Information


Benvenisti, Meron. The Crusaders in the Holy Land. New York: Macmillan, 1972.

Boas, Adrian J. Jerusalem in the Time of the Crusades: Society, Landscape, and Art in the Holy City under Frankish Rule. New York: Routledge, 2001.

Bridge, Antony. The Crusades. New York: Franklin Watts, 1982.

Payne, Robert. The History of Islam. New York: Dorset Press, 1987.

Peters, F. E. 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, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1985.


Hamilton, Bernard. "The Impact of Crusader Jerusalem on Western Christiandom." Catholic Historical Review 80 (October 1994): 695–713.

Web Sites

"The Crusader and Ayyubid Period (1099–1250 c.e.)." The Jerusalem Mosaic. (accessed on August 11, 2004).

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The Holy City of Jerusalem

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