The history of Jerusalem

The history of Jerusalem is the history of a living city perhaps unlike that of any other in the world.

Jerusalem has been a prized possession and much fought over

Jerusalem (al-Quds in Arabic) represents the heart of three world religions: a holy place for Islam, Judaism and Christianity, yet it is also a dangerous flashpoint to one of the world’s most intractable conflicts, the Palestine-Israel issue.

Jerusalem is Islam’s third holiest site and home to the al-Aqsa mosque (Muslims worldwide faced this mosque in prayer before the direction was changed to the mosque in Makka).

It also holds the Dome of the Rock, where the Prophet Muhammad ascended on his night journey to heaven. The al-Haram al-Sharif, or the Noble Sanctuary as it is also called, is held by Jews and Muslims alike to be the place where the Prophet Ibrahim was prevented from sacrificing his son Ismail (or Isaac to Christians and Jews) by God’s intervention.

Jerusalem history

But for many people throughout history, Jerusalem has been a prized possession and much fought over. Archaeological work in the area suggests that the city was inhabited as far back as 4000BC.

Its earliest known name may be Jebusite, the translation of a Canaanite town. Together with the later arriving Philistines, they are believed to be the earliest known ancestors to present day Palestinians.

“Philistinians” settled along the stretch of the Mediterranean coast that extended approximately from Jaffa to the Gaza Strip, and was within the land of Canaan for many centuries. Having left such an indelible mark, the land of Philistia, or Palestine as it became known, has remained to this day.

David invades

In 1000BC, the Israelite king, David, invaded Jerusalem and walled and fortified the city against further invasion. Later, when King Solomon built the temple, Jerusalem became a spiritual capital, first for the Jews and later for Christians and Muslims too.

In 586BC it fell to the Babylonians and their temple was destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar but later rebuilt. Alexander the Great also captured the whole of Palestine in 332BC and in the subsequent years, the Egyptian Ptolmies and Syrian Seleucids ruled Jerusalem.

Towards the approach of the 1st century, the city was the ruling capital of the Maccabean empire of Simon Maccabee, before giving way to the long rule of the Romans.

During the Roman era, the town of Bethlehem near Jerusalem witnessed the birth of Jesus Christ, a prophet in Islam and, in the Christian belief, the son of God.

Jerusalem is a spiritual capital for Jews, Christians and Muslims
Jerusalem is a spiritual capital for Jews, Christians and Muslims

Jerusalem is a spiritual capital for
Jews, Christians and Muslims

Jesus preached the importance of worshipping one God in the towns of Nazareth and Galilee where he lived.

But it would be in Jerusalem where he was tried by the Roman official Pontius Pilate as a rebel and false prophet.

The sentence he received was death, and Christians believe he was then crucified. This act became the central pillar of Christianity and the place of his (alleged) crucifixion in Jerusalem became the holiest site in Christendom.

His followers flocked to the site in pilgrimage and a church, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, was built around it. Biblical Palestine became a holy land for Christians.

A Roman capital

After Jerusalem was conquered by the Romans, it became the capital of the Herod dynasty that ruled under the direction of Rome. In AD70 the Roman emperor Titus destroyed the Temple to punish and discourage the Jews who had rebelled against his rule.

In AD135 the Roman emperor Hadrian rebuilt the city, giving it new walls and officially naming the land as Palestine while re-naming Jerusalem as Aelia Capitolina in honour to his pagan God, Jupiter.

From AD313, with the widespread acceptance of Christianity by Rome, Jerusalem underwent a revival, greatly aided by St Helena (wife of Emperor Constantine), who sponsored much re-building of the city in the early 4th century. It became a centre for Christian pilgrimage.

By AD638, with the rapid spread of a new religion in the region, Islam, the city was captured by an army led by Abu Ubaydah under the caliphate of Umar ibn al-Khattab and Islam came to Palestine.

Ever since the time of Muhammad, Muslims have considered Jerusalem to be an important place for pilgrimage after Makka, due to its religious significance as being the place of the prophet’s miraculous journey to heaven.


The famous golden roof of the
Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem

Between AD688 and AD691, the Dome of the Rock mosque was contsructed by al-Walid ibn Abd al-Malik. Two years later, the al-Aqsa mosque was built on the same site, commemorating the place of the prophet’s prostrations. The two mosques and their surroundings became known as al-Haram al-Sharif and it became the third holiest site for Muslims.

By the 11th century, Islam had been in the region for more than 500 years. The city gained a worldwide reputation as a city of the three faiths. But with the Fatimids in power, their empire fighting Christian expansionism, the rulers began to restrict the flow of Christian pilgrims. The Fatimid ruler al-Hakim destroyed the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (later rebuilt) in response to an uprising, an act that contributed to the onslaught brought by the coming Crusaders.

In AD1095, Pope Urban II preached for a crusade against Muslims in Palestine. Those who will fight, he said, are promised heavenly redemption for their sins and booty for what they capture or conquer.


In AD1099, Jerusalem was conquered by the Crusaders and its inhabitants slaughtered (Muslim, Christians and Jews alike). For much of the 12th century it became the capital of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem.

In AD1187, under the leadership of Salah al-Din, Muslims recaptured the city and, much to the relief of the Christian inhabitants, there was no revenge killing. Those who wanted to leave were permitted to do so, with all their goods and belongings, and those who wanted to stay were guaranteed protection for their lives, property, and places of worship. Before he departed to reconquer Muslim lands, Salah al-Din appointed Diya al-Din Isa al-Hakkari as governor and protector of the city.

Thereafter, under Mamluk and then Ottoman rule, Jerusalem was rebuilt and restored especially by Sulayman II (also known as Sulayman the Magnificent), building walls, gates, towers, and aqueducts for the city.

Tiles inside the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem
Tiles inside the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem

Tiles inside the Dome of the Rock
in Jerusalem

His most notable work is the beautiful tile work commissioned for the exterior of the Dome of the Rock. With the incomparable skills of Persian master ceramicists, 40,000 tiles were fired and put into place, crowned by the inscription of verses from the Quran. They remain to this day.

By AD1228, a sixth Crusade landed on the shores of Palestine and, a year later under treaty, the German emperor, Frederick II, crowned himself as king of Jerusalem. Fifteen years later it was retaken by an Egyptian army led by the pasha (governor), Kharazmi. It was held by the Egyptians in the face of the seventh Crusade until the 15th century, when it passed in to the hands of the Ottoman Turks. 

During Ottoman rule there was a small but significant Jewish presence in Palestine and, by the 19th century, at the onset of Ottoman collapse, Jerusalem had become a more open city. Christian pilgrims increased and churches, hospices, and other institutions were built.

A master plan

European Jewish immigration into Jerusalem was also on the rise and has been seen by some groups as pivotal to a master plan concieved by Zionists. By 1900, Jews made up the largest community in the city and the expanded settlement outside the Old City walls.

In 1914, the First World war led to turmoil, destruction and the need for expansion and conquest by the European powers. So, in 1917, Jerusalem was captured by British forces under General Edmund Allenby.

The same year, British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour signalled the British Government’s support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine to wealthy and influential Zionist Lord Rothschild.

The capital question

After the war, Jerusalem was made the capital of Palestine but held under British mandate. As the end of the mandate neared, Arabs and Jews both sought to hold possession of the city. But the minorities in the city, such as the Christians, favoured a city open to all the three religions.

This opinion was given weight by Europeans at the United Nations, which, in partitioning Palestine into Arab and Jewish states, declared that Jerusalem would be an internationally administered city, but in a projected Arab state.
Even before the partition came in to effect on 14 May 1948, fighting between Jews and Arabs broke out in the city. On 28 May, the Jews in the Old City surrendered but the New City remained in Jewish hands.

The Old City and all areas held by the Arab Legion – the quadrant marking East Jerusalem – were annexed by Jordan in April 1949. The newly created state of Israel responded by retaining the area it held and so on 14 December 1949, the New City of Jerusalem was declared the capital of Israel, a politically motivated goal that symbolised Jewish history and power. (Under continuing UN resolutions disputing the status of the city, Israel later made Tel Aviv its capital.) 

In 1967, Israeli forces took the Old City in the Six Day war with Egypt, Syria and Jordan. They formally annexed the Old City and placed all of Jerusalem under central administration.

Arab East Jerusalemites were offered regular Israeli citizenship but nearly all chose to maintain their status as Jordanians. Israel then transferred many Arabs out of the Old City but assured access to the holy sites for Muslims and Christians.

By July 1980, Israel’s parliament approved a bill affirming Jerusalem as the country’s historic and undivided capital for all Jews but the position of successive Israeli governments has been to keep Tel Aviv as the capital city (as recognised by the UN) while threatening to “declare”. With suburbanisation and housing developments in formerly Jordanian-held territory, Jerusalem had become Israel’s largest city. But strife between Arabs and Jews has persisted.

For example, Israeli excavation work around the city destroyed numerous items of Islamic art and architecture and altered much of the recognisable features of the Old City. But it was the digging carried out near al-Aqsa mosque and at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the 1970s that led to much violence between Muslim and Jewish inhabitants.

In addition, the destruction of Arab buildings and the confiscation of Arab land, together with the changing of Islamic street and building names to Jewish ones, has continued since 1967 in order to Judaise the city, while simultaneously deporting its natives and depriving those who left from returning to their homeland.

Land in Jewish hands

Approximately 15,500 Arabs have been deported and replaced since 1967, according to UN figures, in order to increase the Jewish numbers in the city. Consequently, Jewish inhabitants possess most of the estates and land in the city.

In 1918, the Jews used to possess only four per cent of the land, the Arabs 94% and the minorities made up two per cent; however by 1985, the position had reversed with 84% ownership for the Jews, 14% for the Arabs, and about one per cent for minorities.

UN resolutions

Such has been the controversy surrounding the status of Jerusalem as the capital for Muslims and/or Jews that it has been the subject of numerous United Nations resolutions and remains the make or break point in any final status talks.

Jerusalem was discussed as a third directive of UN Resolution 181 in 1947, which tackled the issue of the city as a separate entity (corpus separatum).
A plan was submitted to the UN on 4 April 1950 outlining the management of the holy places, which were to be controlled by the UN through a legislative council:
1. Jerusalem should be divided into two sectors: one run by the Arabs and the other run by the Jews.

2. Jerusalem should be an unarmed, neutral region and nobody would have the right to declare it as his or her capital.

3. A public council should be formed from the whole region, and a special system should be laid down to defend the holy places.
Further to this, the most important resolutions issued by the UN and the Security Council concerning Jerusalem have been:

1. Resolution 2253, issued by the General Assembly on 4 July 1967, considered all the Israeli activities in Eastern Jerusalem illegal and should, therefore, cease. Ninety members adopted it, 20 abstained. Israel did not take part in the discussions or the voting.

2. Resolution 2254, issued by the General Assembly on 14 July 1967, condemned Israel’s failure to apply the previous resolution, and asked Israel to cancel all activities in Eastern Jerusalem and especially not to change the features of the city.

3. Resolution 250, issued by the Security Council on 27 April 1968, asked Israel not to hold a military parade in Jerusalem.

4. Resolution 251, issued by the Security Council on 2 May 1968, condemned the holding of the military parade in Jerusalem.

5. Resolution 252, issued by the Security Council on 21 May 1968, asked Israel to cancel all activities in Jerusalem, and condemned the occupation of any land through armed aggression. It also considered all of these activities illegal and insisted that the situation in the city should remain as it was.

6. Resolution 267, issued by the Security Council on 3 July 1969, confirmed resolution 252.

7. Resolution 271, issued by the Security Council on 15 September 1969, asked Israel to safeguard al-Aqsa mosque and to cancel all activities that may change the features of the city.

8. Resolution 298, issued by the Security Council on 25 September 1971, regretted Israeli nonchalance toward international laws and resolutions concerning Jerusalem. The resolution confirmed that all administrative and legislative procedures taken by Israel in the city, such as estate transfer and land confiscation, were illegal, as well as confirming that no more activities that may change the city features or demography should be undertaken.

Other resolutions where Jerusalem has been discussed include:
1. Resolution 298, issued on 25 September 1974.
2. Resolution 446, issued on 22 March 1979.
3. Resolution 452, issued on 20 September 1979.
4. Resolution 476, issued on 1 March 1980.
5. Resolution 471, issued on 5 June 1980.
6. Resolution 592, issued on 30 June 1980.
7. Resolution 478, issued on 20 August 1980.
8. Resolution 592, issued on 8 September 1986.
9. Resolution 605, issued on 22 December 1986.
10. Resolution 904, issued on  13 March 1994.

The issue of the status of East Jerusalem, annexed by Israel but regarded by Palestinians as part of the capital of their own state, remains difficult.

In 1998, Israel announced a controversial plan to expand Jerusalem by annexing nearby towns. The plan was widely condemned by Arab countries and UN council members. Israel said it would freeze such a measure.

Since the start of the second Intifada of September 2000, Israel has routinely annexed access of the local Arab towns to Jerusalem, thus sealing the city for its own designs.

The old city of Jerusalem


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Source: Al Jazeera