Jerusalem has often been a restless city, but the pace of change in this century has been truly frenetic. An observer, say, on a comet orbiting the earth every ten years, would gasp at the rapid transformations. For centuries the village of Jerusalem, then the town, and later the city, clustered around the springs and pools of the upper Kidron valley. Dwellings would sometimes climb up the mountainsides, sometimes trickle along the valley bottom. Even to our distant decennial observer, the expansion and contraction of this rugged isolated settlement would have seemed slow and languid. True, during the 40-year reign of an Israelite chieftain, Solomon, a sudden jerky heave left the city on top of the mountain, buildings emanating from a new temple built on an engineered plateau. Almost immediately afterward, though, the city returned to its pendulous pattern of leisurely growth and decline.

For most of the next two millennia, the cosmic observer would note that Jerusalem — constantly handicapped by limited water supplies, destroyed and sacked by conquest, subject to wild shifts in trading patterns — appeared to breathe in and out as the population swelled and contracted. City walls spring up erratically with Romans, Byzantines, Arabs and Crusaders building at different and contradictory angles until they finally coalesce and thicken around the twelfth century, at the dawn of the Ottoman era. All through these centuries, the focus of activity and change is within the city walls, close to water supplies and the sacred shrines. Then in the course of the nineteenth century, the pattern of ebb and flow is replaced by an exponential expansion which bursts from within the walls and spreads across the ridges and valleys around the city.

To record with the same accuracy in the twentieth century, beginning with developments during the British Mandate period after World War I, our perplexed observer would require yearly orbits. By the mid-1960s, these would have to be replaced by monthly ones, and by the mid-1980s the furious pace of construction and development would require a stationary observation post to keep in touch with all the changes taking place. By the 1990s, the Old City, for centuries the core of the city — the heart of Jerusalem, some would say — has become lost in the midst of dense housing estates, swirling ring roads and satellite neighborhood centers.

A Curious Elevation

Jerusalem’s uniqueness is essentially political and religious. Geographically and economically, the growth and importance of Jerusalem just does not make sense. It stands high on a barren mountain range with access restricted on the west by deep-sided valleys and on the east by a precipitous desert escarpment. The size of its population has always been dependent upon the availability of fresh water; local springs and wells provide only limited supplies. During periods of energetic state control over the environs of the city, aqueducts and pipelines fed the population with external supplies and allowed it to grow, but until this century these supplies were rarely constant. Frequent droughts caused shortages and, when the population turned to contaminated supplies held in cisterns, disease. [1] Even as late as the mid-1920s, drought in the expanding British-controlled city almost led to the abandonment of some of the outer Jewish settlements. [2]

Jerusalem’s historical economic base derived only minimally from its role as a market town for the hinterland. The area is not endowed with any significant exportable natural resource, though in recent centuries the city did achieve renown locally for its soap industry. The main trade routes which would have encouraged manufacturing followed the coastal plain or passed from Acre to Damascus far to the north. Its military value was insignificant enough that Napoleon ignored the city as he swept north from Egypt to besiege the Ottomans in Acre on his Levantine expedition.

In many senses, therefore, there was not much to favor the growth of a large urban settlement in Jerusalem. The fact that it continued and continues to be the focus of high drama, great passion and political tension requires further explanation. The key element must surely lie in the city’s centrality for the three great monotheistic faiths of the Middle East — Judaism, Christianity and Islam. As a holy city it serves as symbol, vehicle and embodiment of spiritual beliefs and aspirations, and so was given an elevated status which overcame its unpromising environment and location. As a sacred site, Jerusalem acquired standing as a political symbol, one that in the contemporary period has eclipsed all other cities in the region as a focus of competing claims.

Archaeological evidence suggests that the early Canaanite inhabitants of Jerusalem, the Jebusites, had a sophisticated priestly structure, with holy sites to match. Yet the lasting impetus in the sacralization of the city took place when the Israelite leader, David, made Jerusalem his political and religious capital. [3] But at the same time as the city began gradually to move up the mountainside, successive sieges, conquests and expulsions of the priestly and merchant classes prevented the development that might have been expected of the capital of a tribal confederation into one of the great urban centers of the Middle East.

The final expulsion of the Israelites from the city by the Romans in 70 AD also saw the rise of Safad, Tiberias and Hebron as alternative centers for Judaic spirituality. As a result, Jerusalem’s centrality to Judaism as the seat of the Ark of the Covenant was transferred into the realm of Jewish liturgy and ritual. The expulsion of Jews from the Iberian Peninsula beginning in the late fifteenth century led to the embryonic reformation of a Jewish community in Jerusalem, so that by the mid-eighteenth century established Sephardi families became part, albeit in a subordinate way, of the religious and political leadership of the city. Toward the end of the Ottoman era, the arrival of large numbers of Ashkenazi Jews led to divisions between the Sephardi and Ashkenazi rabbis as the latter found Ottoman restrictions on their worship and expansion increasingly irksome. [4]

Christian devotion to Jerusalem as a Holy City began in earnest during the latter part of the Roman Empire. An important catalyst was the visit to the city around 336 AD of Queen Helena, the mother of Constantine, the first Christian emperor of Rome, during which she ordered the construction of the first Church of the Holy Sepulcher on the supposed site of the crucifixion of Jesus. This led to the growth of the pilgrimage trade, which became and remains an enduring and significant element in the city’s economy. In turn, returning pilgrims consolidated Jerusalem’s place in the spiritual and political imagination of Christendom.

Multiple Attachments

The political conquest of the city in 638 AD by Arab Muslims led to an intense rivalry between Christendom and the Islamic Caliphate. The restoration of Christian rule over Jerusalem became a popular and unifying call used by the papacy to strengthen its influence over the fratricidal aristocracies of medieval Europe. Despite the resulting carnage and an occupation of over 100 years, the Crusader period left few lasting physical traces in the city, and the Crusader culture was soon completely eclipsed by an intellectual and cultural Islamic renaissance. Nevertheless, pilgrimages to the holy sites continued and the custodianship of particular shrines by one or other of the numerous denominations became, effectively, ecclesiastical fiefdoms recognized by the Ottoman authorities. In addition, the weakness of the Ottoman Empire in the modern era allowed both the churches and European consuls to exert leverage over the city’s governors to permit a dramatic increase in new construction for housing pilgrims, clergy and monastic orders.

In the twentieth century, the British occupation of the city gave the Christian — particularly Protestant — presence a further boost. Following the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, both the Israeli government and the Palestinian Arabs sought Western support, and Western churches flourished, as a result. Since 1967, largely in the context of the alliance between the US and Israel, American evangelical movements and the Mormon Church have been the main beneficiaries. [5]

While the Western name Jerusalem derives from the Hebrew (and before that Aramaic) word Yerushalayim (city of peace), in Arabic the city is known as al-Quds al-Sharif (the noble holy place) and Bayt al-Maqdis (the house of sanctity). Muslim attachment to al-Quds is founded on the “night” journey of the Prophet Muhammad to Jerusalem from Mecca. Jerusalem was the first qibla (direction of prayer) in Islam, before Muhammad switched this to Mecca. To compound religious and political sensibilities, tradition has it that before he ascended to heaven Muhammad tethered his mythical winged horse, Buraq, to the remnants of the Herodian wall that once enclosed the Jewish temple area, thus rendering that site holy to both religions.

Following the Muslim conquest, al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, both built upon the former temple plateau, became the third holiest site in Islam, and evolved into a meritorious “second leg” of the obligatory pilgrimage to Mecca. A whole corpus of literature known as the fada’il al-Quds (praising the Holy City) firmly lodged Jerusalem in the theological and political discourse of Islam. Keeping Jerusalem Muslim became a popular rallying cry for those who feared the encroachments and incursions of Christendom into the Levant.

Salah al-Din expelled the Crusaders in 1187, after which Jerusalem witnessed an unprecedented and unsurpassed architectural flowering. Wealthy and retired Mamluk officials built residences and mausolea there, and patronized juridical schools and Sufi convents. The tall, graceful buildings with ornamental stone-worked facades lining the roads and alleyways to the Haram al-Sharif compound have left a firm Islamic imprint on the character of the Old City to this day. [6] In the middle of the sixteenth century, following their conquest of greater Syria from the Mamluks, the Ottoman authorities rebuilt the city’s walls that still stand today. Muslim dominance over the Old City, however, was increasingly threatened during the twilight of the Ottoman era. The cumulative ceding of powers to Western consuls, the invasive wealth of the Christian churches and Jewish philanthropists, the poverty of the Ottoman municipal administration, and the steady influx of Jewish immigrants all combined to whittle away the attributes of Islamic and Muslim power over the city.

During the British Mandate period, Muslim domination was broken again when the creation of Jewish settlements outside the Old City walls established a Jewish demographic majority. The removal by the British of the Palestinian Muslim mayor and his temporary replacement by a Jewish deputy in 1938 gave political form to this transition and heralded the dramatic changes which were to occur later. [7] The partition of the city between Jordanian-controlled East Jerusalem and Israeli-controlled West Jerusalem in 1948 was a disaster for Arabs and Muslims. It happened so suddenly, so unexpectedly, that the sense of loss and shock was scarcely softened by the fact that for the time being they had hung on to the chief Christian and Muslim sites in the Old City.

Hurtling Toward Partition

On reflection, one can see how by the end of the nineteenth century the claims on Jerusalem of the three religious communities, and the great power rivalries within which the religious communities operated, were hurtling toward collision. As they jockeyed for demographic dominance, squabbled over administrative power, and enlisted foreign states for diplomatic and military support, the religious rivals created tensions and frictions which were only temporarily submerged by the outcome of the 1914-1918 war and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. After the next war three decades later, the intensification of the religious and community competition became too much for the British, and they slipped ignominiously away as militias and armies piled into the arena.

The Israeli-Jordanian partition of the city between 1948 and 1967 did not help either side of the city to flourish. Arab East Jerusalem was cut off from its main water sources, initially cut off from the southern West Bank, and cut off from access to the Mediterranean ports and the rich agricultural lands on the coastal plain that had fed and supported the city. The population stagnated and its composition altered as refugees from the western part of the city and the middle classes emigrated to Amman and the economic boom towns along the Persian Gulf. Some efforts were made to create a new commercial area along Salah al-Din Street, but the purposeful Hashemite transfer of government bureaucracies to Amman hampered the economy of this half of the city.

As for Israeli-controlled West Jerusalem, it was stuck in a political cul-de-sac, connected by a narrow wedge of land to the rest of Israel. With no hinterland, no transit economy and no through access, it only survived due to an act of political will on the part of the Israeli government, which, in an attempt to boost its population and economy, established national institutions and government offices there. For both sides, the border area ran like an open wound through the middle of the city. Barricades and the fear of sniper fire led residents to abandon the heart of the city. In 1967 the Israeli army conquered Jordanian-controlled East Jerusalem and enlarged the municipal boundaries to take in parts of the West Bank. The convergence of Israeli capital and Palestinian labor, and the determination by the Israeli government to nail down the new borders with housing estates and industrial zones, led to a flourishing economy in the Jerusalem area. These projects had the additional aim of creating a cordon sanitaire around Jerusalem, detaching as much as possible the annexed areas from their West Bank hinterland. Ironically, despite Israeli attempts to increase the Jewish majority in the whole of the city by pumping massive investment into Jerusalem, the Palestinian population in the east of the city continued to grow at a proportionate rate. One reason was simply the higher Palestinian birth rates, but another was a result of the occupation itself. The repressive rule of the Israeli military in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip made Jerusalem, in comparison, an area of cultural and economic respite for Palestinians in the Occupied Territories and, indeed, from inside Israel.

Since 1967 there has been little attempt to integrate the Palestinian population into the expanded Israeli city. Notwithstanding the existence of a Municipal Committee for the Equalization of Services and the largely cosmetic cultural centers, and even the possibility of Palestinian residents running for municipal election, the implicit policy is that Palestinians of Jerusalem are different from Israeli Jews and remain politically part of the West Bank hinterland. Social and educational services are provided at a qualitatively and quantitatively lower level. [8] Israeli governments, both Labor and Likud, have enforced a secret but strict quota on Palestinian housing construction, in order to ensure that the proportion of Palestinians in the city did not rise above the 26 percent share they constituted in 1967. [9]

From Conquest to Incorporation

The cumulative effects of this policy of constraint and imposition are now being felt. For the first 20 years of the Israeli takeover, Palestinian Jerusalem retained its Arab and Islamic identity. Despite massive Israeli development to attract new immigrants to the east side, Palestinian Arab and Islamic culture there remained vigorous, visible and consolidated. Some shops may have sported Hebrew signs or played popular Hebrew music on the Sabbath afternoon when Israeli crowds throng Salah al-Din Street and the Old City but, in the main, there was little accommodation to the dominant Israeli culture. The last five years, however, have seen the beginnings of an Israeli Jewish demographic parity in the eastern parts of the city, matched by a physical continuity of the Israeli housing estates and settlements surrounding the Palestinian areas. It seems as if a critical mass has been reached that is about to tip the balance. From one perspective, the myriad commercial, political, religious and kinship networks between the Palestinian areas of the city and the West Bank are now barely sufficient to prevent Jerusalem being transformed into an Israeli city with Palestinian enclaves scattered here and there.

Changes in the Old City give this impression a sharper edge. Twentieth-century custom inaccurately divides the city into four quarters — Armenian, Jewish, Christian and Muslim. Historically the Old City comprised many quarters, or harat, some no larger than an alleyway and named after a single clan. Others were religiously homogeneous but scattered throughout the city. For example, although Jews congregated in the Jewish quarter, or harat al-yahud, there were collections of Jewish residences elsewhere in the Old City. [10] Much of today’s Jewish quarter comprised harat belonging to wealthy Palestinian Jerusalemite families and waqfs (religious endowments) of the Muslim community.

On June 10, 1967, within days of the Israeli occupation of Jerusalem, Israeli authorities flattened an area between the Western Wall and the Jewish Quarter known as the harat al-magharib, or Moroccan Quarter, and forced the Palestinian inhabitants to leave. The Jewish Quarter itself was cleared of Palestinians, and all Palestinian property expropriated. In the 1980s, the ruling Likud government sponsored extensive efforts to introduce Jewish residents into the areas of predominantly Muslim residence, while retaining a ban on Palestinians returning to their expropriated properties. These activities have been coordinated by militant settler groups with messianic notions of rebuilding the Jewish Temple in the Haram al-Sharif. [11]

In the absence of a peace agreement, the “Israelization” of the Old City appears to be proceeding inexorably. The city’s Arab and Islamic character is increasingly overlaid by contrived architectural renovation and Western concepts of public and private space. Instead of being at the apex of Palestinian life, of its wholesale trade, of its religious rituals and cultural traditions, it is becoming an historical monument to be viewed and photographed — a place for tourists rather than for daily living.

Social tensions also exist within the Israeli Jewish community itself. Since the early 1970s, ultra-Orthodox Jewish sects, known as the haredim, have expanded beyond their traditional neighborhoods into adjacent areas. Such sects, well-funded by their confreres in Europe and North America, compete for primacy over certain areas and sites in Jerusalem in much the same way Christian denominations have jockeyed for custodianship over shrines in Jerusalem. In this they have been assisted by generous subsidies from successive government coalitions anxious to secure the support of the Orthodox political parties.

What alarms their less orthodox co-religionists and neighbors is the tendency to enforce both strict dress codes for women and traditional Sabbath restrictions in the areas they are penetrating. Woe to the late bus driver who has to pass by the militantly Orthodox area of Mea She’arim when the Sabbath siren has sounded. The ultra-Orthodox have violently opposed municipal support for opening cinemas on Friday evenings and the construction of a football stadium. [12] These quasi-Middle European enclaves, where Yiddish rather than Hebrew is spoken, have replicated themselves in all parts of the city, including the newer settlements in the annexed areas. The flight of young, more economically productive, more secular-minded Israeli Jerusalemites to Tel Aviv has been partially attributed to this development. [13]

Jerusalem city planners are aware that, in the absence of genuine trading links with Jordan and the rest of the Arab world, the coastal plain and the Tel Aviv urban region will remain the chief generator of Israel’s economic wealth. The area between Bet Shemesh, at the foot of the mountain ridge upon which Jerusalem stands, and Tel Aviv has the great advantages of flat, well-drained land, good access to the large port of Ashdod, and good communications with both the north and south of the country. Municipal planners fear it will pull Jerusalem and Jerusalemites toward it. Partly to resist this incipient draw to the west, and partly to counteract Palestinian economic development along Jerusalem’s eastern escarpment, the Israeli government has been at pains to promote the growth of Ma’ale Adumim, a new Israeli satellite town with an industrial zone, along the road to Jericho. Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s designation of this and other eastern edge settlements as security settlements, and therefore non-negotiable, means that the battle for land and demographic superiority in the wider Jerusalem area has reached its closing stages. Ma’ale Adumim was made a city with municipal status in February 1992, and Palestinians believe the settlement’s borders will soon be extended to reach the enlarged borders of Jerusalem, thus creating a geographically contiguous area under Israeli civil jurisdiction.

What political arrangements could possibly accommodate the faits accomplis of the present and the aspirations of the future? Continued Israeli occupation of East Jerusalem and the annexed areas is clearly unacceptable to Palestinians and will make problematic agreements on other issues. For Palestinians, Jerusalem is the geographical, political and administrative as well as spiritual center of Palestine; there simply can be no state without a part of Jerusalem as its capital. It bisects the West Bank. Many Israelis find it hard to perceive the prospect of Palestinian or Arab sovereignty over the pre-1967 areas as anything other than a threat to the Jewish state’s raison d’etre. Internationalization, along the lines envisaged by the UN in 1947, is fiercely opposed by Israelis.

A shift in Israel’s “non-negotiable” position has to happen before serious negotiations on Jerusalem can start. For better or worse, Jerusalem’s recent history shows a direct interplay between the relations between states on an international or regional level and the facts on the ground in the city. Future arrangements for sovereignty and administration will again reflect those relations, as well as the demands of both parties for recognition of their claims. Without international pressure there will be no shift in the Israeli position, and in the meantime changes on the ground will continue at the same frenetic pace.


[1] See the description by Capt. Charles Wilson in Ordnance Survey of Jerusalem (Her Majesty’s Treasury, 1865) (Facsimile Edition: Ariel Publishing House, Jerusalem, 1980), p. 86.
[2] Times, May 17, 1932. Reference kindly supplied by Richard Sexton.
[3] See G. Mendenhall, “Jerusalem from 1000-63 BC,” in K. al-Asali, ed., Jerusalem in History (Essex: Scorpion, 1989), pp. 42-53.
[4] See Ben Arieh’s account of these developments in Jerusalem in the Nineteenth Century: The Old City (New York: St Martin’s Press, 1984), pp. 280-296.
[5] An astute donation to the Jerusalem Foundation by the Mormon church was followed by permission to build the Brigham Young University campus on a prime site on the Mount of Olives — the largest non-Jewish building project in Jerusalem since 1967.
[6] See M. Burgoyne, Mamluk Jerusalem: An Architectural Study (London: World of Islam Festival Trust, 1987).
[7] D. Rubinstein, “The Jerusalem Municipality under the Ottomans, British and Jordanians,” in J. L. Kraemer, ed., Jerusalem: Problems and Prospects (New York: Praeger, 1980), p. 84.
[8] See D. Aronson, “The Politics of Social Welfare: The Case of East Jerusalem,” Middle East Report 146 (May-June 1987), pp. 33-35. See also D. Yuval, “The Delivery of Mother and Child Health Care in Jerusalem” unpublished Ph.D. thesis, University of Michigan, 1988.
[9] Jerusalem Post, March 8 and 12, 1993.
[10] See Ben Arieh, p. 376ff.
[11] See M. Dumper, “Israeli Settlement in the Old City of Jerusalem,” Journal of Palestine Studies 21/4 (Summer 1992).
[12] At the height of the intifada it was perplexing to Palestinians to see the same riot police they had encountered on one day being sent against crowds of rock-hurling black-garbed haredim the next.
[13] See report by M. Choshen and I. Kimhi, Migration to and from Jerusalem (Jerusalem: Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies, 1991).

How to cite this article:

Mick Dumper "Jerusalem: Then and Now," Middle East Report 182 (May/June 1993).

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