By the late Professor Abdul Latif TIBAWI
Jerusalem is unique among the cities of the world in that it
possesses deep religious and historical associations to the adherents
of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. If Christian and Islamic
holy places are today prominent in the city and the Jewish hardly
exist except in the stones of the lower courses of the Wailing
Wall, itself part of the western wall of the third holy place
in Islam, it is because the city and Temple were more than once
Like that of other famous cities in ancient times Jerusalem's
location was dictated by considerations of defence and access
to water. Leaving aside the controversial question of exact demarcation,
which a century of excavations and voluminous studies failed to
resolve conclusively, it is safe to assume that at least part
of the present old city was the site of settlement by Semitic
tribes from the third millennium B.C. The settlement probably
began as a small Amorite fortress on a relatively barren plateau
surrounded by ravines and near a perennial spring.
Archaeologists found pottery dating from the early and middle
Bronze Ages to confirm settlement on the site. In hieroglyphic
texts found in upper Egypt, which go back to the middle of the
nineteenth century B.C. when the city-state of Jerusalem owed
allegiance to the pharaohs, there is a specific mention of Urushalim,
a clearly Semitic name which means either the City of Shalim or
the City of Peace, Shalim being a Canaanite god of peace. The
next mention of Jerusalem is in tablets also discovered in Egypt
which reveal that the city was ruled by a vassal who worshipped
a Hittite goddess. The two pieces of evidence illuminate Ezekiel's
reproach to the city: 'Thy birth and thy nativity is of the land
of Canaan; thy father was an Amorite and thy mother an Hittite'
(1 6: 3).
The land of Canaan in southern Syria was later known as Palestine.
Like the rest of Syria the country was strung with city-states,
tributaries to the Hittite or other empires in the north or the
Egyptian empire in the south. Towards the end of the thirteenth
century B.C. the Egyptian hold on Canaan was weakened. It was
then that certain tribes from the desert, variously described
as Hebrews or Israelites, inspired by the traditions of deliverance
from Egypt and the covenant with Yahweh in Sinai effected
some penetration of the land. Almost simultaneously the Philistines
came by sea and settled on the southern coast between Jaffa and
The Biblical account of the crossing of the Jordan under Joshua
does not prove conclusively that Jerusalem itself was taken. Indeed,
the indigenous inhabitants, described as Jebusites, continued
to bold the fortress of Jerusalem till its capture by David about
1010 B.C. According to 2 Samuel 24: 18-25 David had to deal peacefully
with a Jebusite king from whom he bought a threshing-floor, the
site of Solomon's Temple.
David led a confederacy of the twelve tribes and founded a hereditary
monarchy with Jerusalem as its capital. Here the Ark, symbolizing
the presence of Yahweh, was kept under a tent until it was housed
in Solomon's Temple, the seat of the national faith. A reputable
authority describes the Temple as of modest proportions about
40 X 20 yards, and consisting of a forecourt, the holy of holies,
and adjacent buildings.
After Solomon ten of the twelve tribes seceded to form the kingdom
of Israel in the north. Jerusalem remained the seat of Judah and
Benjamin. The two states were at war and victims of more powerful
invaders from the north and south. The Temple was once despoiled
by the king of Israel and once by the Philistines and more frequently
stripped of its treasures to buy off other invaders. Thus Jerusalem
continued a precarious existence between the rivalries of Assyria-Babylonia
and Egypt until 586 B.C. when Nebuchadnezzar dismantled the city,
destroyed the Temple, and carried away to Babylon many thousand
Some fifty years later, and under the supremacy of Persia, the
exiles were permitted to return and rebuilt the Temple in a country
that was a Persian satrapy. Those who returned completed the rebuilding
in 516 B.C. under Nehemiah and Ezra (Ezra 6: 15). While Alexander
the Great, who vanquished Persia, left Jerusalem alone, the city
was tossed between his successors, the Ptolemies in Egypt and
the Seleucids in Syria. The latter tried to impose the Hellenistic
civilization on the Hebrews. Antiochus IV appropriated treasures
and vessels from the Temple and had an altar to Zeus built in
the precinct and dedicated it with the sacrifice of a sow.
A revolt under the Maccabees in 164 B.C. wrested Jerusalem from
Seleucid control and established a theocracy. But soon the expansion
of Rome eastwards engulfed Syria, and Pompey took Jerusalem in
63 B.C. Under Roman suzerainty the city became the seat of an
Idumaean dynasty. The most illustrious of its members was Herod
the Great, himself half Arab, who was appointed by the Roman senate
as 'King of the Jews'. During his long reign Herod built a Roman
theatre, a race-course, and an amphitheatre. He also rebuilt the
Temple on a magnificent scale, which was finally completed in
A.D. 64. Not long after his death direct Roman rule was introduced.
Pontius Pilate was the procurator when
Jesus of Nazareth came preaching the grace, power, and truth of
His mission, rejected by fundamental Judaism, was destined to
Jerusalem the metropolis of Christianity after the obliteration
by the power of Rome of all vestiges of the political and religious
life of Judaism. Two desperate revolts failed to avert this doom.
The revolt which broke
out in Jerusalem in A.D. 66 was itself a bloody strife between
the Zealots and the moderates among the Jews in which even the
Temple was desecrated. In AL. 70 Titus stormed the city and in
the confusion the Temple perished in flames. The city was demolished
and its site became a Roman camp. Messianic hopes were rekindled
when Bar Kochba led the second revolt, which Aelius Hadrian crushed
at Battir near Jerusalem in A.D. 134. The site of the city was
now symbolically ploughed over, and above it rose Colonia Aelia
Capitolina from which the Jews were excluded on pain of death.
Over the site of the Temple rose one dedicated to Jupiter.
The destruction of Jerusalem affected also the small band of
the disciples, converts from Judaism, who proclaimed their master
Saviour and Messiah. The landmarks in their master's brief ministry
in the city or traces thereof were still there: the Mount of Olives,
the Gethsemane, the scene of the Last Supper, the House of Caiaphas,
the Via Dolorosa, and the Golgotha.
Over these and other scenes great monuments of the Christian
faith were soon to rise. The disciples with the small Christian
community were dedicated to the proclamation of the fulfilment
of the faith in Jesus the Messiah, and to preach the Gospel 'among
all nations, beginning at Jerusalem' (Luke 24: 47). Tradition
names James the Brother of the Lord as the first bishop of Jerusalem.
He was stoned to death by the Jews who persecuted the early Christians
in Jerusalem partly because they refused to participate in the
two revolts against Roman rule. Thus were the early Christians
driven out of Jerusalem to centres populated by Gentiles in and
outside Palestine in the Roman dominions.
They remained a persecuted minority till A.D. 313 when Christianity
became a religio licita, and eventually the established religion
of the Eastern Roman Empire under Constantine. As a result pilgrims
began to journey to Jerusalem and devotional and commemorative
buildings to rise in it. In A.D. 325 the Holy Sepulchre was located
and Constantine had a magnificent church built over it. His mother
Helena, who is reputed to have traced the true cross, had churches
built over the Mount of Olives, and by her orders pagan altars
in Jerusalem were dismantled.
More Christian churches, shrines, monasteries, and hospices were
built in the next two centuries (particularly by Eudocia and Justinian).
In A.D. 431 the Council of Ephesus recognized Jerusalem as the
seat of a patriarchate of the Orthodox Church. How thoroughly
Christian the city had become is clear from the mosaic map dating
from the sixth century found at Madaba.
In 614 the Persians swept over Syria and captured Jerusalem,
actively aided by the Jews. The city was given to sack and massacre.
The great churches were wrecked and thousands were butchered.
Heraclius recovered the city in 629 and wreaked a terrible vengeance
on the Jews. Restoration was still in progress when in 638 the
city was surrendered to 'Umar the second caliph.
'Umar is unique among the city's conquerors in that he entered
it, in the name of Islam, peacefully and in a spirit of humility
and reverence. On first seeing Jerusalem from the heights to the
south the Muslim army greeted it with the cry 'Allah is Most Great'.
Hence the mountain is known in Islamic tradition as Jabal al-Mukabbir
(The Mount of him who cries God is Most Great).
This respect for Jerusalem was not only because it was associated
in the Qur'an with David, Solomon, and Jesus, three of God's most
revered prophets, but also because it was the place towards which
the first Muslims turned their faces in prayer, and to which Muhammad
was miraculously carried by night from Mecca, and from which he
ascended to heaven (Qur'an xvii. i).
'Umar guaranteed to the Christian inhabitants of Jerusalem safety
of their lives, possessions, and churches and the free profession
of their faith. The stipulation that 'no Jew shall live with them
in Aelia' was made at the insistence of the Christians who suffered
at the hands of the Jews during the Persian invasion. However,
the ban on the Jews decreed by Hadrian was gradually relaxed in
the pre-Islamic period to allow them once a year to mourn the
Temple, over the Mount of Olives, against the payment of a tax.
'Umar's next concern was to locate the places hallowed by Muhammad's
nocturnal journey. With great difficulty the Rock, the traditional
spot from which Muhammad ascended to heaven, was discovered concealed
under a dunghill on the site of the old Temple. Umar led the Muslims
in prayer on a clean spot to the south and caused a small mosque
to be built on it. Some fifty years later, under 'Abdul-Malik,
the Dome of the Rock and the Aqsa Mosque were built on the area
which with an enclosure became al-Haram ash- Sharif (the Noble
Sanctuary), the third holy place in Islam. Jerusalem itself ceased
to be Aelia and became al-Quds ash-Sharif (the Holy and Noble
The city became a seat of Islamic learning and an object of pilgrimage.
But under the new dispensation it was shared with the adherents
of Christianity and Judaism. According to time Qur'an, they were
People of the Book', recipients of divine messages through God's
Thus, far from seeking to eliminate its predecessors, Islam adopted,
in an age of intolerance, a policy of coexistence.
Under peaceful conditions, which generally endured till the Crusades,
the Christian churches flourished and the flow of pilgrims continued.
The ban on the Jews in Umar's covenant with the Christians of
Jerusalem became in the circumstances obsolete. A trickle of Jews
returned to the city, which became and remained throughout Islamic
rule the city of the three faiths in fact as well as in name.
The worst violation of this happy equilibrium was perpetuated
by al Hakim who, ironically enough through his Christian vizier,
ordered the destruction of the Holy Sepulchre. That was the age
of the disintegration of the Islamic empire and the rise of the
Turkish element to power. Anarchy and local wars rendered the
pilgrim routes hazardous and contributed to the Crusades.
When in 1099 the Crusaders stormed Jerusalem they butchered the
Muslim population, including women and children and even those
who took refuge in the Sanctuary. The small Jewish community also
sought refuge in their only synagogue but the Crusaders burnt
it over their beads. The Dome of the Rock became a church but
al-Aqsa Mosque was used as barracks and stables. Nor were the
eastern Christians treated as brothers in Christ. The Orthodox
Patriarhate, deriving its episcopal authority from James, was
suppressed to give way to a new Latin Patriarchate. Under the
Crusaders the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was almost completely
rebuilt, and its present two-storied Romanesque façade
bears this out.
Saladin recovered the city in 1187. In triumph he showed mercy
and chivalry which contrasted sharply with the barbarism of the
Crusaders. He restored the Muslim holy places as well as the Orthodox
Patriarchate, and welcomed the Jews back. It was about this time
that Jewish wailing at the Western Wall, as distinct from that
on the Mount of Olives, is mentioned.
Saladin's son al-Afdal commemorated Muhammad's nocturnal journey
to Jerusalem. Tradition associates one spot outside the wall of
the Sanctuary and another inside it at the south-east corner as
the places where Muhammad's celestial steed (al-Buraq) was tethered
before its rider entered the place. Inside the wall a small mosque
was built; outside it the land was dedicated as a religious foundation
(waqf) for the benefit of pilgrims and scholars.
This happened to be the place where the Jews believe that remnants
of Herod's Temple survived in the lower courses of the Sanctuary
Because since then successive Muslim governments, Mamluk and
Ottoman, allowed the Jews to wail and lament here at the doorstep
of the Noble Sanctuary it became known as the Wailing Place or
Mamluk and Ottoman sultans embellished the city with endowed schools,
hostels, and public fountains, and the Sanctuary with new cloisters
and minarets around the enclosure. The superstructure of the present
walls of the city is the work of Sulaiman the Magnificent. The
restoration carried out in the Dome of the Rock and the Aqsa Mosque
by Mahmud II and his two successors amounted in places to complete
Until the middle of the nineteenth century the city was all within
the walls. It had a Muslim quarter round the Sanctuary and a Christian
quarter round the Holy Sepulchre. The Jewish community, exterminated
by the Crusaders, was re-created under Saladin and with his blessing.
Under Mamluk and Ottoman rule the number of Jews was augmented
when the lands of Islam welcomed the refugees from Spain. Until
the middle of the nineteenth century the majority of the Jews
in Jerusalem were destitute students of the Talmud or the aged
who subsisted on the charity of their kinsmen in Europe. They
were huddled on the fringe of the Muslim quarter near the Walling
Place. Their only place of worship was a synagogue dating from
the fifteenth century.
After the middle of the nineteenth century down to 1914 building
outside the walls began, partly owing to native Christian and
Muslim initiative, partly to European missionary and other enterprise,
and partly to the influx of Jewish refugees from Russia, who included
craftsmen, small traders, and Zionist nationalists. The Ottoman
government permitted the building of churches inside and outside
the walls and allowed the Jews to build two new Synagogues inside
the walls in what now became known as the Jewish quarter, so-called
because of its inhabitants not their dwellings which were and
remained predominantly owned by Muslims.
Christian missions and charitable bodies of different affiliations
vied with each other in the building of churches, schools, hospitals,
and hostels. As well as pilgrims Jerusalem attracted an increasing
number of travellers, especially after the opening in 1892 of
the Jerusalem-Jaffa railway. On the eve of the First World War
Jerusalem was one of the most prosperous and well-governed cities
in the Ottoman Empire.
When in December 1917 General Allenby entered the city he proclaimed
in the name of Britain the maintenance of the status quo in the
holy places and the protection of 'every sacred building, monument,
pious bequest...' Six months later Chaim Weizmann, the Zionist
leader, formally asked the British government to 'hand over' the
Wailing Wall and to facilitate the sale to him of the land in
front of it, the 700-year-old bequest made by Saladin's son in
memory of the Prophet Muhammad. (Britain had during the war made
conflicting promises to the Arabs and the Zionists.)
With Zionism the Wailing Wall ceased to be simply a place for
religious devotion and became a symbol of political ambitions.
Thus it was a political demonstration at the Wall by formations
of para-military Jewish youth that sparked in 1929 a bloody strife
between the Arabs and the Jews which was with difficulty quelled
by British forces.
Under the British mandate Jerusalem enjoyed material prosperity.
There was a considerable expansion of the Arab and Jewish quarters
outside the walls and on the outskirts. Two achievements of the
British administration stand out. The first was the construction
of a pipe line that brought abundant water to the city from Ras
al-'Ain, some thirty miles away. This proved to be the most effective
of the schemes devised throughout the centuries. The second achievement
was the appointment through the League of Nations of an international
commission, which in 1930 confirmed the Islamic ownership of the
Wailing Wall and the land in front of it. The Jews had only the
customary right of access to it for devotion. This report was
ratified by Britain and the League of Nations.
On the political level, however, Britain failed to solve the
problem of Palestine she created. Eventually the United Nations
passed a resolution in November 1947 to partition the country.
Jerusalem with its environs was reserved as a corpus separatum
for an international regime. A commission of the U.N. continued
to work on this scheme till April 1949 when Israel rejected the
idea and proceeded to make Jerusalem the seat of its government.
As a result of the fighting which had broken out between the
Arabs and the Jews after the partition resolution most of the
municipal area of the city was occupied by the Jews and the old
city remained in Arab hands.
During the fighting there was universal anxiety about the holy
places, and the Security Council passed a unanimous resolution
in March 1948 calling for a truce in the old city, where all the
holy places were located. This was accepted by the Arabs but rejected
by the Jews, who also refused a suggestion, by the Red Cross to
convert the old city into a hospital.
A sizeable Jewish force had entrenched itself in the Jewish quarter,
and when the time, came fought the Jordanian army, even from the
main synagogue which was destroyed. The report of the U.N. mediator
confirms that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Dome of the
Rock, and the Aqsa Mosque suffered damage. The armistice left
the old city in the Jordanian sector and practically all the Arab
and Jewish quarters outside the walls in the Israeli sector.
In June 1967 Israel occupied the Jordanian sector and promptly
proclaimed its annexation. Within days the land in front of the
Wailing Wall, an inalienable Islamic religious bequest and a place
associated with the founder of Islam, was seized by Israel. The
dwelling houses on it and two small mosques were demolished by
dynamite and bulldozed, and the inhabitants, beneficiaries of
the pious bequest, were evicted.
This and other measures were declared 'invalid' by two resolutions
of the General Assembly and two resolutions by the Security Council
of the United Nations. The Security Council in particular affirmed
the principle that 'the acquisition of territory by military conquest
is inadmissible' and 'censured in the strongest terms all measures
taken to change the status of the city of Jerusalem'. Following
the burning of part of the Aqsa Mosque in August 1969, the Security
Council passed a third resolution in which it 'condemned' Israel
for failure to comply with U.N. resolutions and persistence in
ALBRIGHT, W. F., The Archaeology of Palestine. London, 1956.
(Based on first-hand experience in the field.)
Gray, J., A History of Jerusalem. London, 1969. (An authoritative
survey of a Biblical scholar.)
KENYON, K. M., 'Excavating in Jerusalem', in the Palestine Exploration
Quarterly from 1961 onwards. (Scholarly reports and interpretations
of personal excavations.)
Perowne, S., The Life and Times of Herod the Great. London, 1956.
(A most in. formative work on its period.)
Strange, G. Lx., Palestine under the Moslems. London, 1890. (Very
useful in reproducing translation from Arabic sources.)
Tibawi, A. L., Jerusalem-Its Place in Islam and Arab History.
Beirut and London, ig6g. (Based on original Arabic sources, and
on official Egyptian, Ottoman, and British records.) For recent
years based on the U.N. publications and the reports in The Times.
The late Professor Abdul Latif TIBAWI was a distinguished Palestinian
educationist and historian who died in London in the 1980s. This
article on Jerusalem first appeared in the Islamic Quarterly,
January 1972. Th author complained that the version submitted
to 'The Encyclopaedia Britannica' had been amended possibly with
Zionist interests in mind.
The Islamic Quarterly, London
January- June 1972