Jerusalem is more than just another city for Jews and Christians (and Muslims too). Although one can point to a specific geographic location that corresponds to Jerusalem, the biblical text and centuries of tradition and preaching weave Jerusalem as an image that conjures up much more than a place. Jerusalem (also known as Zion) is origin: “And of Zion it shall be said, ‘This one and that one were born in it’; for the Most High himself will establish it” (Ps 87:5). It is also destination: “And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband” (Rev 21:2).
A brief survey of the history of earthly Jerusalem describes the vicissitudes of Jewish and Christian life in and attitudes toward Jerusalem through the centuries, from common origins to the hope for peace.
City of Shared Origins
For Jews and Christians, Jerusalem is the city of shared origins. Many believe that Mount Moriah, where Abraham bound Isaac in an act of supreme faith, is the holy mountain around which Jerusalem is built. Later, according to the Bible, King David conquered Jerusalem and declared it capital of his kingdom. In its precincts, David’s son Solomon constructed the Temple, center of Israel’s religious cult. The Bible tells that God chose Jerusalem: “I have chosen Jerusalem in order that my name may be there” (2 Chr 6:6). The people went up to the city three times a year to thank God and praise God’s name: “Our feet are standing within your gates, O Jerusalem [...] built as a city that is bound firmly together” (Ps 122:2-3). Priests served, kings reigned, sages taught and prophets preached there, until the catastrophic destruction of the city by the Babylonians in 587 BCE. However, rebuilt Jerusalem with a rededicated Temple at its center was testimony of God’s fidelity as the people returned from exile in 539 BCE. In Jerusalem, Ezra the priest probably edited the Pentateuch, from the ancient sources, providing the scripture that Jews and Christians share. Jerusalem remained the center of Jewish life under Persian, Greek and Roman rule, enjoying a few decades of Jewish autonomy after the Maccabean revolt. Towards the end of the first cent. BCE, King Herod transformed Jerusalem and its Temple into an architectural wonder of the ancient world.
Over the centuries, Jerusalem became associated with the expectation of a messianic reign that would bring peace to the world, as, e.g., in the messianic interpretation of Isa 2:3: “For out of Zion shall go forth instruction and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.” Jesus of Nazareth’s entry into the city in around 30 CE raised the hopes of some that the messiah had indeed come. Betrayed, arrested, crucified and buried, his Jewish disciples then claimed that they had then encountered him, gloriously risen. He commanded them, before he ascended into heaven: “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). According to the New Testament, Jerusalem witnessed the beginning of the church, a group of Jews who believed that Jesus was not only messiah but also son of God. There too, other Jews were not convinced of this and in the following decades two communities, both claiming their roots in Jerusalem, painfully separated from each other.
The Romans had crucified Jesus and forty years later, in 70 CE, during the suppression of a Jewish rebellion against their rule, they destroyed the city. In the centuries that followed, Jews and Christians lived within an empire that transformed Jerusalem into Aelia Capitolina, the Roman city that was renamed after the Bar Kochba revolt. In reformulating a Judaism that no longer had Temple or priests, sacrifices or pilgrimages, Jerusalem became both a memory and a hope in the literature of the sages that formed the core of Rabbinic Judaism. In the texts of the New Testament and those of the church fathers, Jerusalem preserved the sacred memory of Christ’s passion for those persecuted by the Romans. It also housed the empty tomb of Christ, witness to his resurrection. Both Jews and Christians meditated the scriptures of ancient Israel with Jerusalem as their central locus, trying to establish a monopoly over who was the true heir and unique interpreter of this heritage.
Emperor Constantine’s victory in the battle to rule the Roman empire led to Christianity becoming a licit religion in 313. The emperor’s pious mother initiated the transformation of Jerusalem into a Christian city, preserving the memory of the messiah, his life, death and resurrection, in the building of shrines, the most important being the Basilica of the Resurrection (also known as the Holy Sepulcher). This shrine was posited as the very center of the world. Byzantine domination in Jerusalem meant extreme marginalization of the Jews, mostly banned from the city. Only a short lasting Persian invasion from 614 to 629, leading to a persecution of the Christians and the destruction of many of their shrines, renewed hope that the Jews might return to Jerusalem.
However, Arab armies spreading the new religion of Islam defeated the Byzantines and Jerusalem was conquered in 638. According to Islamic sources, their prophet had made a miraculous night journey to Jerusalem, and, ascending into heaven, was confirmed by the prophets before him. Jews and Christians were granted the freedom to live and worship in the city, dominated by Islam, and designated as Beit al-Maqdis (Holy Dwelling). Umar ibn al-Khattab, the second caliph, visited the Basilica of the Resurrection, founding a mosque alongside it. He also went to the mountain where the Temple had once stood and uncovered the stone, identified by Muslims as the one from which Muhammed the prophet had made his ascent into heaven during his night journey. Muslim architecture transformed Jerusalem, with the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque standing at the center of the third most important sanctuary in the Muslim world, the Haram al-Sharif. By the early 11th cent., internal Muslim wars and growing with regard to religious minorities led to a period of unrest.
In 1095, Pope Urban II launched a war to liberate Jerusalem: “Jerusalem is the best of all lands, more fruitful than all others, as it were a second Paradise of delights. [...] [O]ur Savior [...] redeemed it with his death and glorified it with his tomb. This royal city is now held captive by her enemies [...] She asks and longs to be liberated.” In 1099, the Crusaders captured Jerusalem, massacring most of the Muslims and Jews as well as many of the Eastern Christians. Muslim shrines became churches and Crusader construction transformed Jerusalem into a Christian city again. In 1173, Benjamin of Tudela, a Jew from Spain, visited the city and found only two hundred Jews living there. When the great Muslim warrior Saladin captured the city in 1187, he allowed indigenous Christians to stay and welcomed other Christians banished by the Crusaders. He also permitted Jews to settle. However, Jerusalem would not know stability, passing from Muslim to Christian hands until 1247 when a Muslim dynasty of Kurdish origins, the Ayyubids, took the city. Before the end of the Crusader Kingdom in 1291, Jews had built a synagogue in the city named for the great medieval sage Nahmanides (Ramban), who visited in 1267, and the Franciscan monks, soon to become custodians of the Christian holy places, had established their presence.
After more than 250 years of Muslim Mameluke rule, great builders but less apt administrators, the Ottoman Turks took over Jerusalem in 1517. After centuries of relative neglect, Jerusalem went through a period of renewal. Ottoman ruler Suleiman the Magnificent was a master builder and transformed Jerusalem in the 16th cent., while also authorizing Jews and Christians to settle and build. The Ottoman system of confessional administration, granting each religious community the right to run its own affairs, led to a division of Jerusalem into separate quarters, Muslim, Jewish, Armenian and Christian, reflecting its multicultural character. In day-to-day affairs, Christians referred to recognized patriarchates (Greek Orthodox, Armenian and, after 1847, Latin Catholic) and a score of other Churches whereas a chief rabbi represented Jews from a variety of communities, both Sephardi and Ashkenazi. Although the Ottoman city knew long periods of peace, Ottoman rule began a slow decline in the 18th cent., Jerusalem becoming a provincial town. However, the 19th cent. brought renewed interest, and Christians and Jews came to the city to visit, to settle and to build. Europeans, both Jews and Christians, built institutions and neighborhoods outside the city walls and modern Jerusalem began to take form, a town where Jews, Christians and Muslims lived in relative calm.
Ottoman rule ended when the British occupied Jerusalem in December 1917 during the First World War. The League of Nations awarded the Mandate for Palestine to the British. For the first time since the Crusades, Jerusalem was under a Christian power, with the first military and then civil governor being Sir Ronald Storrs. In 1920 Sir Herbert Louis Samuel a British Jewish diplomat was appointed High Commissioner, and in 1923 the United Nations awarded the Mandate for Palestine formally to the British. Jerusalem continued to grow in the period of the Mandate (1923-48), its neighborhoods spreading in all directions. Church structures flourished and diversified with the growth of Protestant communities. The British also established an Ashkenazi chief rabbinate alongside the Sephardi one. However, British rule saw the increasingly violent struggle for independence fomented by Palestinian Arabs and Zionist Jews, pitted against one another. Christian Palestinian Arabs were among the leaders of the Palestinian national movement whereas some European Christians enthusiastically embraced the Zionist cause. Jewish immigration from Europe that had begun as a trickle in the late Ottoman period grew into a flood as many fled the increasingly antisemitic regimes of Europe. In the aftermath of the Shoah, hundreds of thousands of homeless European Jews, inspired by Zionism, turned to Palestine, dreaming of Jerusalem as the ancient capital they sought to restore. By the mid-1940s, Jerusalem was the scene of protracted violence as the British tried both to protect British rule and to separate Arabs and Jews in their mutually exclusive struggle for independence and control of Jerusalem.
As British rule ended, the United Nations decided to partition Palestine between Arabs and Jews. In the partition plan, Jerusalem would become a corpus separatum (separate body), administered by the UN. The plan was never executed as the actual borders of the State of Israel were established by the aftermath of the 1948 war. Jerusalem was divided between Israelis and Jordanians: West Jerusalem was proclaimed capital of Israel, and East Jerusalem was under Jordanian rule. In another war in 1967, the Israelis conquered East Jerusalem, along with the Egyptian and Jordanian areas of what had been Palestine. Under Israeli rule, laws have annexed the east part of the city and proclaimed Jerusalem “the eternal capital” of the State of Israel however division remains as the conflict goes on for control of the city between Israelis and Palestinians, Jews and Arabs. Many Jews and some Christians celebrate Israeli rule in Jerusalem as the fulfillment of biblical promise and the restoration of the Jewish people to their ancient capital and/or as some form of justice for Jews who have suffered so much through the centuries. However, many Muslims and some Christians see Israeli rule as imposed occupation and an act of aggression at the heart of the Arab world and/or a sign of the injustice Zionism has inflicted on the Palestinian people, still deprived of a homeland. Jerusalem remains a topic of contention for Jews and Christians (and Muslims too).
City of Peace?
Jerusalem evokes passion among Jews and Christians (and Muslims). The holy places testify to the deep ties that each community has cultivated with Jerusalem. As Israelis and Palestinians, Jews and Arabs struggle for control of the city, attempts to exclude the other have been more evident than sharing and compromising with the other. One 20th-cent. Christian pilgrim proposed a vision that holds out hope for Jerusalem. Pope John Paul II, in an apostolic letter on Jerusalem in 1984, wrote,
Christians honor her with a religious and intent concern because there the words of Christ so often resounded, there the great events of the Redemption were accomplished: the Passion, Death and Resurrection of the Lord. In the city of Jerusalem, the first Christian community sprang up and remained throughout the centuries a continual ecclesial presence despite difficulties. Jews ardently love her and in every age venerate her memory, abundant as she is in many remains and monuments from the time of David who chose her as the capital, and of Solomon who built the Temple there. Therefore, they turn their minds to her daily, one may say, and point to her as the sign of their nation. Muslims also call Jerusalem “holy,” with a profound attachment that goes back to the origins of Islam and springs from the fact that they have there many special places of pilgrimage and for more than a thousand years have dwelt there, almost without interruption (Redemptionis anno).
Finally, Jerusalem is not only an important earthly location in the historical development of Judaism and Christianity but also a concept, a symbol and a state of mind in religious thought, language and practice.
For Jews, Jerusalem is both memory of a glorious past and aspiration to a better future. In the Talmud, the Rabbis declared, “Ten measures of beauty descended to the world, Jerusalem took nine” (Kiddushin 49b), determining that when Jews pray, they direct themselves towards Jerusalem (Berakhot 27a). As for those who have the privilege of praying in Jerusalem, “it is as if they prayed before the throne of glory, because the gate of heaven is situated there” (PdRE 35). Religious Jews have always remembered their attachment to Jerusalem, dreaming of visiting it during their earthly life or being buried there. Those who have succeeded in visiting, flock to the Western Wall, a remnant of the Temple that once stood in Jerusalem as the centre of Jewish religious life.
Three times a day, Jews pray the Eighteen Benedictions, including, “And to Jerusalem, Your city, may You return in compassion, and may You rest within it, as You have spoken. May You rebuild it soon in our days as an eternal structure [...] Blessed are you God, who restores His presence to Zion.” Three times daily, Jews recite: “Have mercy Lord, our God [...] on Jerusalem Your city, on Zion the resting place of Your glory [...] Blessed are you God who rebuilds Jerusalem in His mercy. Jews conclude the Day of Atonement and Passover, momentous religious occasions, with the aspiration “Next year in Jerusalem.” A Rabbinic dictum captures the hope for the rebuilding of Jerusalem: “From the day Jerusalem was destroyed, God has no joy, until He rebuilds Jerusalem and returns Israel to it” (Yalkut Shimoni Lamentations 1009). Until that time, Jewish marriages include the dramatic act of the groom breaking a glass with his foot in memory of Jerusalem in ruins.
For Christians, Jerusalem is also a memory and a hope. It evokes the life of Christ, especially his passion, death and resurrection. As Pope John Paul II put it in his letter on Jerusalem, “Jerusalem has been the ideal goal, the natural place to which we direct our thoughts of love and thankfulness for the great gift of the Redemption which the Son of Man accomplished for all people in the Holy City” (Redemptionis anno, 1984). Christian liturgy and hymns repeatedly refer to Jerusalem as a sought after spiritual reality. William Blake composed one of the best-known English hymns in the 18th cent. “And did those feet in ancient time, walk upon England's mountain green? [...] Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand till we have built Jerusalem in England's green and pleasant land.” Since the 4th cent., throngs of Christians have made their way to Jerusalem to renew their faith and strengthen it. Jerusalem is an image for the Church on earth but also the heavenly reality and hoped for destination of all Christians as they pass from this world into the next.
As Jews and Christians meditate on a Jerusalem that is home to Muslims too, they might pray together a vision of peace for Jerusalem, penned by the Prophet Micah in the 8th cent. BCE.
Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths. For out of Zion shall go forth instruction and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He shall judge between many peoples, and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away. They shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore; but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid; for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken (Mic 4:2-4).
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