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 destroyed.

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 Gaza.
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 captives.

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 God.

His mission, rejected by fundamental Judaism, was destined to make 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 City).

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 the People of the Book’, recipients of divine messages through God’s prophets.

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 wall.

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 the Wailing Wall.

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 rebuilding.

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 invalid measures.


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