Jerusalem — Past and Present - i

This is the first installment of the Nizam Endowment Lecture delivered by the author at the Visva Bharti University (Shantiniketan) on 15 February, 2011

Jerusalem, known in Arabic as Al-Quds or Bait Al-Maqdis (Holy Sanctuary) and in Hebrew as ‘Yuroshlayim,’ is one of the oldest cities on the face of the earth. It is located at the meeting point of Asia and Africa. Its known history runs into at least four millennia. It is also the most contested city in history. Sacred to all the three Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, believers of all these three religions have tried to capture it by force at various points in history. Jews always remembered it (Psalms: 5-6:137) and looked forward to regain it saying in their daily prayers: “Next Year in Jerusalem.” Christians sought to take it over because it is the burial place of Jesus Christ. Christians succeeded to rule it for a little less than a hundred years during the Crusades. Muslims consider it one of their ‘three sacred mosques’ as described by the Prophet (pbuh) to which special journey is allowed. Muslims call it “the First of the Two Directions” (“Ula al-Qiblatain”) as the believers in Islam prayed facing towards Jerusalem for about ten years in the beginning of Islam until they were ordered by Allah to pray towards the Ka’bah in Mecca.

Historical records show that Jerusalem existed in the middle of the second millennium before Christ. Tal Al-Amarneh Tablets, kept in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, refer to this city as “Oroshlim” in the Babylonian language with explanatory comments in the Canaanite language. These tablets go back to the time of Pharaoh Amenophis III (r. 1386-1349 BC) and his son Emperor Akhnaton (1375-1350 BC) (Zaza, Al-Quds, Riyadh, n.d., pp. 12-13). The area at the time was ruled by Egypt. Later, “Oroshlim” is mentioned in the inscriptions of the Assyrian Emperor Sankharib (c. 700 BC) as ‘Orslimoh’. In Greek inscriptions left behind by Alexander the Great (c. 330 BC), the city is called ‘Hiroslima’ or ‘Slima’ for short.

Most probably ‘Oroshlim’ is a compound of two words: ‘Or’, meaning a town or place, and ‘Shlim’, the name of the god of peace in ancient pre-Jewish Palestine (Zaza, p.14). The name ‘Quds’ too is found in some form in ancient writings. For instance, the Greek historian Hirodotus (484-425 BC) twice mentions a city called ‘Kiditis’ as a big city in the Palestinian part of Syria (Zaza, p.13). Quds is believed to be a corruption of the Aramaic name ‘Kidista.’ Jerusalem is mentioned even in the Bible (Nechemia 1:11).

Jerusalem, though it existed, was unknown to the Jews, for at least one thousand years before David. Moreover, Jews had no historical presence or memorable activity in the city for a continuous 18 centuries after Jews were finally uprooted and expelled by Emperor Hadrian in 136 CE.

The Herbew tribes attacked Palestine during the time of Yoshua, successor of Moses (c. 1450 BC). Jerusalem withstood their attacks for long. Yoshua had allocated the area of Jerusalem to the tirbes of Benjamin and Yahuda but they failed for long to occupy it by ousting its entrenched Jebusite dwellers (Joshua 63:15). They could overrun Jerusalem only after the death of Joshua but had to share the area with the Jebusites (Judges 21:1). It is for this reason that the Bible at times mentions Jerusalem as ‘Jebus’ (e.g., Judges: 11:19) where a town solely dwelt by the Jebusites is mentioned during the time of David (c. 1000 BC).

King David’s time witnessed a fierce struggle for land between the native Palestinians and Hebrews. The natives were led by a giant called ‘Goliath’ who was killed by David and only after that Jews dominated the south of Palestine. It was David, after succeeding Saul (c.  876 BC), who made Jerusalem his capital and fortress. Until then it was dominated by the Jebusites. During the time of David, who belonged to tribe of Yehuda, Hebrews came to be called ‘Jews’. David slowly elbowed Jebusites out and took over the whole area which included the height they called Moriah Mountain which today hosts the Al-Aqsa complex. David consecrated the place, according to Jews, as the Temple of God around which they weaved a lot of stories and myths and even claimed that this was the first place created by God on earth (Zaza, p.23) and that God created ten parts of beauty out which he gave nine to Jerusalem and the remaining one part to the rest of the world.

This elevated ground has the Rock (Sakhrah) sacred to both Jews and Muslims. Jews believe that it was at the heart of their Temple while Muslims believe that it was the place from where Prophet Muhammad ascended to the Heavens during the event known as Al-Isra’ wa-l-Mi’raj on 17 Rajab of the year preceding Hijrah (c. 621 CE) while the Prophet was still at Mecca.

Jerusalem remained at the Centre of the Jewish presence in Palestine only during the reign of King David and his son Solomon. After Solomon, the Jewish kingdom was divided into two parts and Jerusalem or the Temple of Jerusalem became the centre of affection of only one of the two Jewish kingdoms in the north and south of Palestine.

During the reign of Rahb’am, son of Solomon, the Egyptian army invaded Jerusalem c. 970 BC. The Jewish kingdom at Jerusalem never saw peace later as Adomians, Arabs, Aramians, Israelis of the Northern Kingdom and the Egyptians from the west invaded it from time to time for the next few centuries.

The most devastating was the invasion of the king of Babylon Nebuchadnazzar (c. 588 BC). He overran Jerusalem and conquered large parts of the surrounding areas including Gaza due to the persistent revolts and hatching conspiracies with neighbouring kingdoms against their enemies. The Babylonians burnt down Jerusalem and ruined it. They enslaved most of the Jewish residents of Jerusalem and took them to Babylon where they lived for seventy years in slavery until Korush the Persian emperor invaded Babylon. He allowed Jews to return to Jerusalem and permitted them to rebuild their kingdom and Temple there. The Temple, known as the Second Temple (Soloman’s being the first) was rebuilt 18 years later by Ezra and Nechemia.

Alexander the Great invaded Palestine in c. 332 BC and left Jews mostly untouched. But his successor Ptolemy I conquered Jerusalem in 310 BC and took many of its Jews to Alexandria by force. Syrians and Romans from the north and the Egyptians from the south-west kept invading the area. Jewish partisanship to this or that power was largely responsible for their persecution from time to time. Infighting too was very common among Jewish groups. As a result, the Roman Emperor Vespasian resolved to crush them for good during 66-70 CE. He sent his son Titus with a huge army. He overran Jerusalem and sacked in on 8 Dec. 70 CE. He expelled all Jews from that part of Palestine in what is known in Jewish history as the ‘Second Exodus’ which continued until 1948 when Israel was established in Palestine after expelling the majority of its Arab inhabitants who still live today in refugee camps in countries around Israel.

Remaining Jews as well as those who managed to sneak back, staged an uprising against the Romans in what is known as Bacochba Revolt in 136 CE. Roman Emperor Hadrian himself came to teach them a lesson. He totally destroyed Jerusalem including the Second Temple and expelled every single Jew from the land. He built a temple for Jupiter in its place and built a new pagan city which he named ‘Aelia Capitolina.’

Jews were allowed to return to the city only one day in the year (Zaza, p.32). On such visits, they used to cry at the ‘Wailing Wall’ said to be the only remnant of the Second Temple and now part of the Aqsa Mosque walls. Muslims call it the Western or Buraq Wall of the Aqsa Mosque. Jews were not allowed to dwell in the city for the next few centuries. This was the situation when Muslim Arabs conquered Jerusalem in 639. The terms of the surrender, known as Umarian Covenant (Al-’Uhdah al-’Umariyah) included a request of the natives of Jerusalem that Jews should not be allowed to dwell therein (see text in Zafarul-Islam Khan, Tarikh Filastin al-Qadim, Beirut, 6th edition, 1992 [first published in 1973] pp. 142-5). This policy was formally reversed by Salahuddin (Saladin) when he re-conquered Jerusalem from the Crusaders in October 1187.

The area around Jerusalem, or the southern Hebrew kingdom, was the centre of Jewish life and political power for only 73 years (33 years of King David and 40 years of King Soloman). It shrank to half its size with the death of King Soloman. And when Muslims conquered Jerusalem at the hands of Caliph ‘Umar in 639 CE, it had not seen a Jewish presence for over five centuries (Zaza, p.38).

Masjid Al-Aqsa
Masjid Al-Aqsa

The current site of the Aqsa Mosque was a heap of garbage when Caliph Umar visited the place. He was guided to it when he asked about the site of the Masjid Aqsa. He and his companions cleared it and performed prayer there. (see Zafarul-Islam Khan, Tarikh Filastin Al-Qadim, p. 141). Later, a mosque named after Caliph Umar was built at the site. Now that mosque is more properly called Al-Aqsa Mosque which should not be confused with the Dome of the Rock (Qubbat Al-Sakhrah) which was originally built by the Omayad Caliph ‘Abd al-Malik Marwan in 688 CE (see Zafarul-Islam Khan, op. cit., pp. 160f). The Dome of the Rock is considered as one of the most beautiful structures in the world. Caliph Abdul Malik is reported to have diverted the revenue of Egypt for seven years to build this and allied structures on the Aqsa complex. Abdul Malik also appointed 10 Jewish servants to take care of the cleaning and lighting of the Aqsa complex (Tarikh Mujiruddin, MSS, Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris, cited in Zaza, p.35). However, Caliph ‘Umar ibn ‘Abd al-’Aziz (r. 715-717 CE) sacked the Jewish servants and entrusted their jobs to Muslims (Zaza, p.35).

Crusaders conquered Jerusalem in July 1099 led by the French king Godfrey, killing, according to their own accounts, 70,000 Muslim, Jewish and even non-Catholic inhabitants including people who had taken refuge in mosques, Orthodox churches and synogogues.

Salahudin Ayyubi, or Saladin as the Europeans call him, regained Jerusalem on 2 October 1187 giving Christians most generous terms. He also at once allowed Jews to return and live in Jerusalem and all parts of Palestine. His personal physician was Jewish known as Musa ibn Maimun (Maimonides) who was such a great Hebrew scholar that Jews say ‘From Moses to Moses, there is no one like Moses’.

Jerusalem continued under Islamic rule ever since until 9 October 1917 when it fell in British hands at the fag end of the First World War mainly due to the Arab Revolt. The British had dragged Arabs into the First World War against the Ottomans promising them freedom after the war in vast areas which included Syria including Palestine, Arabia and Iraq. But at the same time the British secretly concluded a pact with the French to share Arab territories among themselves and had also given a pledge, known as Balfour Declaration, to the Jews to establish a Jewish homeland in Palestine (see text in Zafarul-Islam Khan, Palestine Documents, pp. 63-5).

Jewish interest in Jerusalem in particular, and Palestine in general, had started again only in early 1860s when small groups of European Jews started coming to settle in and around Jerusalem thanks to the generous support of wealthy Jews like Baron Hirsh and the Rothchilds. Instead of being pushed by some romantic attachment to the holy land, they were more pushed due to the continued persecution of Jews in Europe. Despite this movement, they gained a foot-hold in Jerusalem and the rest of Palestine only in the wake of the British occupation in 1917 which facilitated their unhindered immigration and colonisation.

This is the first instalment of the Nizam Endowment Lecture delivered by the author at the Visva Bharti University (Shantiniketan) on 15 February, 2011