An Ancient City -- Jerusalem is one of the world's oldest continuously inhabited cities. It was in existence long before it was first mentioned in Pharaonic records of the 2nd millennium B.C., or in the Bible.
Genesis relates that Abraham, in the shadowy period of approximately 1800 B.C., visited Melchizedek, "king of Salem," one of the first-known references to Jerusalem. However, for the next 800 years the city played no part in biblical or Jewish history. Then, in 1004 B.C., King David, the Israelites' great poet-warrior, captured Jerusalem, which was a small Jebusite/Canaanite city perched on a narrow hill just to the south of the present Old City walls. The city was considered neutral territory, situated on land not controlled by any of the 12 tribes of Israel, and seemed an ideal choice for a capital that would not exacerbate tribal rivalries. David brought the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem from his former capital, Hebron. On the Ophel, a stretch of ascending land between the settlement of Jerusalem and the high place that was to become the Temple Mount, David built his palace and declared that henceforth Jerusalem would be the capital.
Under the reign of David's son Solomon, Jerusalem grew in importance. The Bible records that it was the center of a brief-lived empire that stretched from southern Syria to the Gulf of Eilat. African ivory and gold, cedar from Lebanon, spices, textiles, and pottery from distant lands adorned Jerusalem's houses and were bargained for in its markets. The queen of Sheba came to Jerusalem with her entourage, bearing unimaginable treasures in exchange for Solomon's wisdom; tradition says she returned to her distant homeland (possibly in Africa) bearing his child. With the aid of Phoenician architects and artisans sent by his ally, King Hyram of Tyre, Solomon built the great Temple (960 B.C.) and constructed a more magnificent palace (although the Bible records the grandeur of Solomonic Jerusalem with awe, the city would actually have been a small, densely packed early-Iron Age settlement covering no more than several acres).
Under Solomon's visionless successors, the kingdom split in two: the larger kingdom of Israel to the north and the smaller kingdom of Judah to the south, with Jerusalem remaining the capital of small, struggling Judah.
The House of David continued to reign in Jerusalem for 3 1/2 centuries. Some of the Davidic rulers dispensed social justice and encouraged religious revivals under the influence of the great prophets; some of the kings turned to the worship of other gods. Invaders came and retreated. The northern kingdom of Israel, ruled by a succession of non-Davidic Jewish/Israelite dynasties, fell to Assyria in the late 8th century B.C. and vanished from history, its population dispersed throughout Assyria's great empire. The Assyrian armies then stormed across Judah, destroying its towns and cities.
Only Jerusalem was able to avoid defeat and destruction, thanks to one of the most miraculous and fateful engineering feats in history. An underground tunnel was dug in 701 B.C. by King Hezekiah (with the encouragement of the Prophet Isaiah) from inside the city's walls to Jerusalem's water source, the Gihon Spring, located in a valley outside the walls. The workers, digging from each end of the proposed tunnel, frantically hacked through the bedrock of Jerusalem in a wildly curving S-shaped route, somehow managing to meet, thereby creating underground access to the Gihon Spring (which was then camouflaged) before the dreaded Assyrians arrived to lay siege to the city. With its hidden water supply Jerusalem was able to withstand the Assyrian siege and was saved. The fragile beginnings of Western monotheism, precariously taking root in 8th-century-B.C. Jerusalem, were not swept away into the dustbin of history. Perhaps more than any other structure built by human beings, the water tunnel of King Hezekiah, which still exists today, changed the course of history.
In the next century, the messages of Isaiah and Jeremiah, and the religious reforms of King Josiah, strengthened Judean Judaism, so that unlike the religion of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, it would be able to survive both the defeats and exiles that lay ahead.
Jerusalem was conquered by the armies of Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, who in 586 B.C. destroyed The Temple, sacked the city, and carried most of Jerusalem's inhabitants into exile in Babylonia. But Babylonia soon fell to the Persians, and in 540 B.C. King Cyrus of Persia allowed the Jews to return to their homeland and rebuild a modest Second Temple. Only a small remnant of the exiles chose to leave what had become a comfortable, cosmopolitan Jewish community in Babylonia and resettle the ruins of Jerusalem. The next centuries were remarkably quiet, and it was during this period that many believe the core of postbiblical Jewish religion and tradition was created in Jerusalem.
The Hellenistic Period -- The city fell under the domain of Alexander the Great in 331 B.C. A continuation of Hellenistic rule later passed to the Syrian-based Seleucids, and it was against their attempts to forcibly Hellenize the Jews that the Maccabees, a priestly family from the Judean village of Mod'in, led their famous revolt between 167 and 141 B.C. The festival of Chanukah marks the miraculous recapture and rededication of the Jerusalem Temple during the revolt against the Seleucids.
For the next century, Jerusalem was the capital of an independent Jewish Commonwealth ruled by the increasingly Hellenized descendants of the Maccabees, who are known to history as the Hasmonean dynasty. To some Jews, however, including those who gravitated toward the ascetic Essene sect, the legendary House of David remained the spiritual and eternal royal dynasty; the Hasmoneans and the priesthood they controlled were merely transient temporal authorities. In the minds of many Jews living 2,000 years ago, the dichotomy between the spiritual and earthly Jerusalem, nurtured through centuries of psalmists, prophets, and the Babylonian exile began to take on new, mystically intense meaning. This dichotomy, with its many interpretations, has remained part of the Western world's concept of Jerusalem into modern times.
The Roman Occupation -- Pompey claimed Jerusalem for Rome in 63 B.C., and in 37 B.C. Herod (whose Idumaean father converted to Judaism) was appointed king of Judea by the Romans. Perhaps in an effort to make himself loved by his reluctant and resentful subjects, or perhaps to impress his Roman overseers with his industry, Herod rebuilt Jerusalem and designed a palatial temple area that dwarfed the original Temple of Solomon and replaced the less-grand Second Temple.
Herod died in 4 B.C. The city that he had built, with its fortress, towers, aqueducts, water reservoirs, and vast temple complex, was the Jerusalem that Jesus knew. Herod's great temple complex, initially opposed by many Jews who felt it was too Roman in its grandeur, became a symbol of Jewish national and religious aspirations and a constant flash point in Jewish opposition to Roman rule. As never before, The Temple became a center for Jewish pilgrimage from Judea, the Galilee, Babylonia, Persia, and all parts of the Roman Empire; more than 100,000 pilgrims could be accommodated in Jerusalem during the great festivals of Passover, Succot, and Shavuot. To a greater extent than ever, religion was Jerusalem's major industry, and it was increasingly big business. During this period, rabbinical Judaism was also developing, grounded in study, prayer, synagogues, and careful analysis of ethical and ritual rules governing Jews everywhere. This component of Judaism flourished alongside the priestly cult, which was centered on daily prayers and sacrifice at The Temple in Jerusalem.
It was to this city that was a magnet for the ancient Jewish world that Jesus came to celebrate Passover, and it was in Jerusalem that Jesus was imprisoned and crucified by Pontius Pilate, the Roman procurator. According to most Christian traditions, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher marks the site of the crucifixion and burial of Jesus, and the Via Dolorosa is the way Jesus trod, carrying the cross, from prison to Golgotha.
The Jewish rebellion against Roman rule in A.D. 66 drove the Roman occupiers from Jerusalem, and brought the Roman armies of Titus and Vespasian to reconquer Jerusalem. In A.D. 70, Rome laid siege to Jerusalem, starved out the population, destroyed the city and its Temple, and killed or sold into slavery most of its surviving inhabitants. The Roman 10th Legion was stationed beside the ruins of the Jaffa Gate for more than 60 years to prevent Jews from filtering back and reestablishing their city.
There is evidence, however, that a very small number of Jews and early Christians (who were considered to be a Jewish sect) may have continued to live in the ruins of Mount Zion, where they provided services for the 10th Legion's camp. During these decades, Jews were permitted to visit Jerusalem to mourn its destruction, and were still able to identify the exact locations of specific buildings and holy sites among the acres of ruins. Talmudic lore records that a group of rabbis walking on the Temple Mount noticed that a fox had made its lair in the wreckage of the Holy of Holies. Aging witnesses to Jesus' last days in Jerusalem would have been able to pass on their memories of where events took place to a younger generation. Although the city was now desolate, the powerful charisma of Jerusalem continued to grow.
Bar Kochba's revolt in A.D. 132, triggered by the decision of the Emperor Hadrian to rebuild Jerusalem as a non-Jewish Roman outpost, returned the ruined city to the Jews for 3 short years. The Temple site was rededicated, though probably not rebuilt, and daily sacrifice was reinstated. The revolt ended in A.D. 135 with even greater military disaster for the Jews than the revolt of A.D. 70. According to some estimates, half a million civilians died in each of the revolts against Rome, numbers unheard of in ancient warfare. Hadrian leveled the ruins of Jerusalem, sowed the land with salt, and, with an entirely different city plan and arrangement of streets, built a Roman city called "Aelia Capitolina" in honor of the imperial family and the Roman god Jupiter Capitolina. Hadrian filled Aelia Capitolina with pagan temples and barred Jews from residing in the city for all time. Herod's vast Temple Mount platform, and its great retaining walls, too massive and still too politically sensitive to demolish, were among the few features from Herodian Jerusalem that remained. According to some historians, a Roman temple (or at least, an altar) may have been installed on the site of the Jerusalem Temple itself. Jews were generally allowed into the city only to visit the ruins of the Temple Mount and only on the ninth day of the month of Av, the anniversary of The Temple's destruction.
The building of Aelia Capitolina was an attempt to make Jerusalem into just another provincial city on the fringe of the Roman Empire. Today, you can still see elements from this alien interlude in Jerusalem's history, including a fragment of the colonnaded Cardo, Aelia Capitolina's main north-south thoroughfare, which was uncovered by archaeologists in the 1970s. The basic layout of the present-day Old City, divided into quadrants by perpendicular intersecting market streets leading from the Damascus and Jaffa gates, is inherited from this time, as is the Arabic name for Damascus Gate (Bab-el-Amud, or "Gate of the Column"), recalling a towering, long-lost column that once stood inside the gate to serve, in traditional Roman fashion, as a distance marker.
The Byzantines -- Jerusalem's 200-year stint as an ordinary town ended with Emperor Constantine, who converted the Roman Empire to Christianity and turned Jerusalem into a Christian holy city. He built the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in approximately A.D. 330, and the Byzantine emperor, Justinian, 200 years later, renovated and enlarged it. Jerusalem regained its ancient name, and again became an extraordinary destination for religious pilgrimage from all over the ancient world -- this time by followers of a new religion. The city was filled with churches, monasteries, convents, and daily religious processions. Jews were forbidden to reside in Byzantine Jerusalem, but the tradition, begun after the Bar Kochba Revolt in A.D. 135, of allowing Jews to visit the city and mourn the loss of The Temple, continued. At times, Jews were allowed only to view the city from the Mount of Olives. In A.D. 614, the pre-Islamic Persians (who were then mostly Zoroastrians) captured Jerusalem from the Byzantines. They destroyed the churches and monasteries of the city, including the Holy Sepulcher, and left the corpses of thousands of the city's defenders and martyrs to be eaten by vultures -- an act still remembered and commemorated with horror by Jerusalem's Christian communities. After 25 years of warfare, the Byzantines recaptured Jerusalem in A.D. 629, and had only just begun to rebuild the Christian presence in the city when the armies of a new religion -- Islam -- swept out of the desert.
Islam & the Crusades -- Caliph Omar, second successor to Muhammad, began the Muslim occupation of Jerusalem in A.D. 638. In the decades after his death, according to his wishes that the Temple Mount not lie in ruins, with its sacred rock exposed to the elements, Caliph Abd el-Malik built the masterpiece Dome of the Rock (A.D. 687-91) marking the spot from which the Prophet Muhammad, in his miraculous night journey, rose from the earth to glimpse paradise. By A.D. 720, the Al Aqsa Mosque, Islam's third-holiest sanctuary, had been built at the southern edge of the Temple Mount. Under the tolerant rule of the early Muslims, Jews were again allowed to reside in Jerusalem and the Christian community continued to flourish.
Around the year A.D. 1000, the mad Caliph Al Hakim, ruling from Egypt, began a wave of anti-Christian persecution that culminated in the burning of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Feudal Europe responded with the Crusades, and in the wars that followed, the mystical concept of Jerusalem was burned more strongly than ever into the traditions of both Christianity and Islam. After the initial success of the First Crusade in 1099, Jerusalem changed hands several times between Crusaders and Muslims (most notably under Saladin). The Crusader Church of Saint Anne (A.D. 1147), with its near miraculous acoustics, is Jerusalem's great architectural treasure from this era. Hundreds of architectural fragments from Crusader buildings, in secondary use adorning Mamluke and Ottoman period buildings throughout the Old City, attest to the massive destruction inflicted on the city during these centuries. The entire Jewish population of Jerusalem was massacred when Crusader armies captured the city in 1099, but by the year 1260, not long after the Crusaders had been dislodged, a small Jewish community was reestablished. The Mamlukes, an Egyptian dynasty, added Jerusalem to their empire in 1244. Over the next 2 1/2 centuries, Jerusalem was slowly filled with Mamluke mansions, religious buildings, and covered markets, all notable for tall, "stalactite"-ornamented doorways and careful stonework.
Turkish Rule -- In 1517, the Ottoman Turks, also Muslims, took control of Jerusalem. In an aesthetic stroke of genius, the 16th-century Ottoman rulers faced the deteriorating exterior of the Dome of the Rock with dramatic cobalt blue and turquoise ceramic tiles from Persia and Anatolia. The Ottomans also rebuilt the magnificent walls around Jerusalem in 1538, but these largely ceremonial fortifications (gunpowder and cannon had made such defensive structures obsolete) surrounded a depopulated community devastated by centuries of Crusader wars and struggling to survive. By the early 19th century, the city's population, estimated to have been close to 100,000 in Herodian times, had shrunk to less than 15,000. Only in the second half of the 19th century did the city begin to come alive again, with its Jewish, Christian, and Muslim communities spreading into neighborhoods beyond the walls of the Old City.
In the last decades of the 19th century, as the European powers vied for influence in this strategic portion of the floundering Ottoman Empire, each government planted its flag in Jerusalem under the guise of vast church-related construction projects. The number of monuments to European nationalism that date from this brief era is amazing. Germany's massive neo-Romanesque Dormition Church and Monastery on Mount Zion recalls Worms Cathedral overlooking the Rhine; the delicate, Renaissance-inspired Holy Trinity Church in the Russian Compound echoes the late-15th-century Cathedral of the Assumption in the Kremlin; St. George's Cathedral in East Jerusalem, completed in 1912, is an enclave of neo-Gothic Britain built from Jerusalem stone, with a bell tower and cloister that calls to mind a fragment of Magdalene College at Oxford that somehow dropped into the Middle East. The exotically medieval Russian Church of Saint Mary Magdalene with its gilded onion-shaped domes transformed the vista of the Mount of Olives. Florentine, Ethiopian, and French architecture sprang up across the city in the form of hospitals, churches, convents, and pilgrimage facilities.
The British Arrive -- Turkish rule lasted exactly 400 years, until General Allenby marched through Jerusalem's Jaffa Gate at the head of a British regiment in the final year of World War I. Under the British Mandate (1918-48), the New City blossomed and much of downtown West Jerusalem took on its basic shape. Landmarks such as the YMCA, the King David Hotel, the Rockefeller Museum in East Jerusalem, the original Hadassah Hospital and Hebrew University on Mount Scopus, the art moderne Central Post Office on Jaffa Road, Saint Andrew's Church near Abu Tor, and West Jerusalem's King George Street all stand as monuments to that era. The Rechavia neighborhood, with its streamlined buildings and curving balconies designed in the International Style by refugee architects from Germany, and the exotic mansions built for the city's leading Arabic families in the adjacent neighborhood of Talbeyeh, are also part of Jerusalem's British Mandate-era heritage.
To the Present Day -- In November 1947, the United Nations voted to establish two states in Palestine: one Jewish, the other Arab. Jerusalem was to remain a united, international city, independent of either proposed state. In spite of this decision, by early 1948 the Jewish sector of Jerusalem found itself under siege by Arab forces and suffered shelling and bombardment for many weeks. Eventually, Israeli forces secured a narrow strip of mountainous land (the Burma Rd.), which connected the Jewish part of Jerusalem to the rest of Israel, and the siege was broken. The State of Israel was established in the 1948 War of Independence, but the cease-fire lines left Jerusalem split down the middle, from north to south, by a wall of concrete, barbed wire, and minefields. The modern western section of the city remained in Israeli hands, but the Old City, including the Jewish Quarter (from which all Jews had been expelled) and the modern Arab neighborhoods north of the Old City (along with the rest of West Bank), were annexed by the Kingdom of Jordan.
In the Six-Day War of 1967, East Jerusalem came under Israeli control and the city was reunited once again. But the distinctions left by 2 decades of division still remain: Downtown East Jerusalem and the Old City are predominantly Palestinian (Christian and Muslim Arabs), and West Jerusalem is predominantly Israeli.
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