Fulfilling almost every imaginable cliche of the city as palimpsest, one embedded layer of Jerusalem has been further and further marginalized in a discourse within which gratuitous tourism has replaced the ritual of pilgrimage. Despite the short shrift given to Muslims by the Hachette Blue Guide, during the 1,310-year period dating from the Arab conquest in 638 until 1948, there were only 129 years in which Jerusalem was not under one form or another of Islamic sovereignty. This is not to suggest that such sovereignty was in any way uniform, ideal or free from the practice of various kinds of occupation or exploitation. It is only to sketch a context in which the city and its inhabitants acted and expressed themselves using a vernacular idiom of pre-industrial knowledge, the lingua franca of the old Levantine, Mediterranean and Arab world. Implicit connections spanning this vernacular idiom’s terms of currency can be sensed in two descriptions of the city, written almost a thousand years apart. The first is by the historian and geographer al-Muqaddasi, a tenth-century native Jerusalemite:

The buildings of the Holy City are of stone, and you will find nowhere finer or more solid construction…. The grapes are enormous, and there are no quinces equal to those of the Holy City. In Jerusalem are all manner of learned men and doctors, and for this reason the heart of every man of intelligence yearns toward her. All the year round, never are her streets empty of strangers. As to the saying that Jerusalem is the most illustrious of cities — is she not the one that unites the advantages of This World and those of the Next? As for the Holy City being the most productive of all places in good things, why, Allah — may He be exalted! — has gathered together here all the fruits of the lowlands, and of the plains, and of the hill country, even all those of the most opposite kinds: such as the orange and the almond, the date and the nut, the fig and banana, besides milk in plenty, and honey and sugar. [1]

The second account, by the Palestinian writer Jabra Ibrahim Jabra, speaks of the city in the late 1930s and early 1940s from the other side of catastrophe, through memory, in a voice already shaded by the tone of commemoration:

Do you know Jerusalem? I don’t know whether it really has seven hills, but I have walked up and down all its hills, among its houses built of stone — white stone, pink stone, red stone — castle-like houses, rising high and low along the roads as they go up and down. You’d think they were jewels holding the mantle of the Lord…those long walks on Jaffa Street or in the labyrinth of rocks and olive trees that surrounded the city. Have you ever sat down on the red earth, under an old, knotted olive tree, surrounded by thorn bushes and a few anemones that fought their way out through the struggling thorns? Or by those little yellow flowers that our farmers called hannun? How beautiful the olive groves were in Talbiyya, Katamoun and Musallaba! How beautiful was the valley that stretched all the way to Maliha! It was there that we left part of our lives as a gift, as a pledge that we would return. [2]

Jabra’s piece, even though located within the selective parameters of memory (written, as it is, from the backward glance of exile), still manages to fully express what is most striking about both passages: the fluid exchange between organic and human creation, between the urban and rural.

The finely constructed stone houses, the handcrafted jewels celebrating divinity, the learned people (implying the existence of libraries and schools), the constant traffic of pilgrims and visitors — all blend in unnoticeably with the vegetation of the lowlands, the plains and the hill country, with the uncrafted labyrinth of rocks, red earth, knotted olive trees, thorn bushes and anemones. The diverse terrain and the varied crops delivered by each part of the land also seem to indicate, without explicitly stating it, that a delicate balance of agricultural technique and urban economy can yield true riches. Tracing the threads that bind such a social structure together confirms this sense:

The Muslim city can be defined less as a willed, conscious, so to speak “programmed” social and physical entity than as a series of tensions between contradictory and at times downright incompatible poles, always subject to the variables of time and area. The city is commercial and artisanal, but much more of its wealth derives from agriculture, and the physical separation between urban living and the cultivation of land is never very clear. [3]

Both terrain and architecture, repositories of the most cohesive lexicon of the lingua franca mentioned earlier, provide a means for illustrating how the Islamic context enriched and informed the age-old intent of “traditional” culture to create objects imbued with the aura of events.

The labyrinth of rocks and terraced olive trees described by Jabra as surrounding Jerusalem mime the concentric nature of the architectural layering that attempted to redefine certain sites without fully usurping them, most obviously the Temple Mount area where the Dome of the Rock now stands. This monument, initiated in 685 and completed in 692, set not only the visual but also the structural tone of the city as “a mosaic of religious, ethnic and linguistic communities within the unifying field of a broadly defined Islamic civilization: a civilization that drew its characteristic qualities as a social order from the overwhelmingly Muslim character of the population without restricting participation in that civilization to Muslims.” [4] Yet this “overwhelming Muslim character” was itself a palimpsest and prism of the people, languages, texts, material culture and places within which the faith was revealed and sought its new adherents. The Dome of the Rock clearly expresses the nature and needs of such a social order and the choices offered by it. The stunning vigor of the Prophet Muhammad’s revelation is announced through the brilliant engineering of a building that squares the circle and hovers along the divide between earth and heaven, between the proposal for a new set of relations and a tribute to those already existing. At a time when Islam had little material proof to entice the more ancient and well-endowed civilizations it encountered, its new monuments were determined to impress, astound and directly engage “the people of the book,” both Jews and Christians.

By situating itself where it did, the Dome of the Rock completely redefined the “memory of the qualitative space upon which all religious rites and orientation are based.” This sense of qualitative space is particularly apt for the Dome of the Rock since “in Islamic architecture space is never divorced from form: It is not the materialization of abstract Euclidean space which then provides a frame into which things are ‘placed.’ Space is qualified by the forms that exist in it. A sacred center polarizes the spaces about it.” [5] By incorporating the complex network of existing event and myth regarding the sacred center of its own location (Mount Moriah as the earth’s navel and place of Adam’s creation and death; the rock where Abraham brought Isaac to be sacrificed; the area of the temple of Solomon and the Holy of Holies; the spot from which Muhammad ascended to heaven), the Dome shares the characteristics of a mode called “building the site.” In this method, the specific culture of the region — that is to say, its history in both a geological and agricultural sense — becomes inscribed into the form and realization of the work. This inscription, which arises out of “in-laying” the building into the site, has many levels of significance, for it has a capacity to embody, in built form, the prehistory of the place, its archaeological past and its subsequent cultivation and transformation across time. Through this layering into the site the idiosyncrasies of place find their expression without falling into sentimentality. [6]

Just how successful the Dome of the Rock has been in “polarizing space” and maintaining the “aura” of a complex occasion of events transformed across time can be seen through its present situation. Surrounded by sprawling modern suburban settlements crisscrossed by highways, the Dome is now witness to a radical transformation of a once familiar structure and economy of relations. Although threatened by the possibility of being “symbolized” out of actual time and place, hijacked into the sterile realm of ideological imagery and swamped by the scale of a new order (not to mention being blown up by new soldiers of faith bent on inducing a preview of the apocalypse), the Dome seems to have remained impervious to the kind of reductive reproduction that would deprive it of its “integrity and otherness.” Edward Said comments on a telephoto shot in which the Dome is seen through a compressed foreground of minarets and TV antennas against a background of trees and white gravestones lined along the Mount of Olives:

All across the Arab world there is a mixture of cultural styles that characterizes rapid development: Modern Western modes of dress, activity, and architecture are superimposed on traditional settings and ways of being. The commonest symbol of this is to be found in the typical photographs of an old city across which is laid a grid of radio and television antennae. What we get is a site of intensity that makes reference to two traditions, one native, the other foreign or Western, held in a kind of awkward check by each other. You are left to compute the various gains and losses resulting from this kind of balance, and you are also led to think of two worlds in sustained tension. A more just representation of how the mixture of elements actually occurs and is experienced in modern Arab life is found, I think, in photographs of traditional sites whose undeniable centrality stands out, and draws in, by subordinating, the intruding symbols of metropolitan modernity. This is the slower way everyone absorbs and reorients the new according to the still redoubtable force of the old and habitual. [7]

The inscription of time within a site marks a spot that is not necessarily a “progression” but is certainly a fact: Islam comes after and evolves out of the earlier texts and prophecies of the “people of the book” and in so doing redefines them. Its social order and the variety of writing produced within it occupy a large block of time, even though the interstices and nuances of that duration have largely collapsed into even larger but more amorphous and safely non-contradictory categories. As Ilan Halevi writes: “There must be a way out of this sad history. A way of neither remaining prisoners of its sad parameters, nor remaining entranced by the turn of phrases, the echo of visions, the texture of the paper. The page must be turned.” [8] The turning of the page, the further mark that another newer social order has superimposed over its predecessor, the definition and location of the “cleavage” that will initiate another “collective duration”: This sort of change relies very much on the generosity of interpretations, and the help art and imagination can provide in piercing the “sad parameters” of unchecked assumptions.


[1] Guy Le Strange, History of Jerusalem Under the Moslems (n.p., n.d.), p. 5.
[2] Jabra Ibrahim Jabra, The Ship (trans. Adnan Haydar and Roger Allen) (Washington, DC: Three Continents Press, 1985), pp. 20-24.
[3] Oleg Grabar, “Cities and Citizens,” in Bernard Lewis, ed., The World of Islam (London: Thames and Hudson, 1976). See also chapter 2, “Enframing,” of Timothy Mitchell’s Colonising Egypt (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988).
[4] Abdullah Schleiffer, “Islamic Jerusalem as Archetype of a Harmonious Environment,” in A. Saqqaf, The Middle East City, pp. 164-165.
[5] Nardel Ardalan and Laleh Bakhtiar, The Sense of Unity: The Sufi Tradition in Persian Architecture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1973), from the foreword by Seyyed Hossein Nasr, p. xii.
[6] Kenneth Frampton, “Towards a Critical Regionalism: Six Points for an Architecture of Resistance,” in Foster, ed., The Anti-Aesthetic, p. 26.
[7] Edward W. Said and Jean Mohr, After the Last Sky (London: Faber and Faber, 1986), pp. 147-149.
[8] Ilan Halevi, A History of the Jews (London: Zed Press, 1987), p. 252.

How to cite this article:

Ammiel Alcalay "Jerusalem, The Islamic City," Middle East Report 182 (May/June 1993).

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