The name of this holiest of cities means “founded in peace”, yet Jerusalem has been fought over for most of its long history.

Jerusalem is a sacred place for three major religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. One of the longest-inhabited cities in the world, it can trace its history back some 4000 years. Jerusalem lies on a line dividing the East from the West. Throughout its turbulent history, it has shifted from one sphere of influence to another with each successive conquest. Today it is claimed by Israel as its capital- a claim the United Nations does not recognize. Surrounded by a ring of modern development, the ancient center retains much of its stony grandeur.

A mountain stronghold

Jerusalem is sited at an ancient crossing of trade routes, on a platform sharply defined by steep slopes and deep valleys on three sides, making it easy to defend in time of war. This in turn is surrounded by rocky hills. Early settlers would have been attracted to the site by the reliable water supply from the spring of Gihon, and the fertile soil in the Kidron Valley to the south.

Jerusalem’s written history begins at the traditional date of 1451 B.C., when Joshua captured it for the Israelites from King Adonizedec. Around 1000, King David established it as capital of a united Israel, and his successor Solomon built the Temple, the principal holy place of the Jews. This stood on the Temple Mount, a natural hill which was later built up into a rectangular platform. Below this clustered narrow streets, often stepped to accommodate the steep slopes, lined with houses built of local limestone probably not much different in appearance from the older buildings in today’s city.

In 586 Nedbuchadnezzar, King of Babylon, captured and razed Jerusalem and deported the population. Cyrus allowed the Jews to return, and around 445 the walls were rebuilt. But in 333, Alexander The great captured the city. Jerusalem was now part of the Western world, in which it was to remain for the next thousand years. When Alexander’s brief conquests fell apart. Jerusalem became the property of the Hellenistic rulers of Egypt, though it was menaced by the Syrian Seleucids.

Eventually, in 63 B.C., it was captured by the Roman general Pompey, and the whole of Judaea became a Roman province. A revolt by the citizens led to the complete destruction of the city by the emporer Titus in A.D. 70. From the Romans, Jerusalem passed under Byzantine rule until the Islamic conquest of 638. With the exception of a brief period when Jerusalem was retaken by the Crusaders in the 12th century, the city was now firmly under oriental influence. In 1517, it became part of the Ottoman Empire.

The British captured the city from the Turks in 1917, by which time, despite its religious importance, it had declined to little more than a provincial town. From 1948, when the State of Israel established itself, until 1967 Jerusalem was a divided city, with most of the holy places in Jordan. After the Six-Day War of 1967, Israel took over the entire city. Today Jerusalem owes its character to many ethnic groups, including Jews, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Armenians, Turks, British, and other Europeans. All have contributed to build the holy city into a place like no other in the world.

The city of the Bible

Although Jerusalem was captured by Joshua, it was not settled by the Israelites. The city had to be retaken from the Jebusites by David around 1000 B.C. During his reign, the city covered an area of some 11 acres and was the capital of a kingdom stretching from Lebanon south into the Negev desert, and some way across to the east.

Solomon, his successor, lost much of the territory but building work continued apace in Jerusalem, including the Temple and Palace (about 950 B.C.), which took 20 years to complete. In Solomon’s reign, Jerusalem grew to cover an area of 32 acres. After his death in 928, the city declined in importance until its destruction by the Babylonians in 586.

During the reign of Herod the Great, “King of the Jews” under Roman rule (37-34 B.C.), considerable building took place, including a new and much larger Temple and the platform enclosing Temple Mount, as well as various other temples and palaces, fortresses, a theater, and a hippodrome. Under Herod Agrippa 1 (A.D. 37-44), more construction was undertaken, enlarging the city’s walls to the north and adding an imposing Triple Gate on the site of the present Damascus Gate.

The new buildings did not last long. After the Jewish revolt in 70, the city was systematically flattened. All that remained of the Temple was the lower parts of some of the walls. The Temple area remained an open space until the Islamic conquest in 638.


In 638, Jerusalem fell to the Arabs and was renamed Al-Quds. It was already a holy place for them. On the Temple Mount, Caliph Abd al-Malik built the Dome of the Rock, which was completed in 691. The adjoining al-Aqsa mosque was rebuilt on a large scale in about 710.

The Church of the Holy Sepulcher was destroyed in a fit of rage by the ruler al-Hakim in 1009. However, many buildings were provided for the Muslim community, including mosques, gates, hospitals, and baths served by a new water supply system. The city walls were also improved in 1033 and 1063.

The Crusaders who recaptured Jerusalem in 1099 killed almost all the city’s Muslims and Jews. They built numerous churches, many of which survive to this day, including a new  church of the Holy Sepulcher. The Dome of the Rock was turned into a church, while the al-Aqsa mosque became the administrative base of the Crusaders. Powerful monastic orders were also established at this time, and these undertook much of the construction work. But in 1187, Salah al-Din (Saladin) retook the city for the Muslims.

Saladin rebuilt the city walls and converted many Crusaders structures to Muslim use, while other buildings reverted to their original Islamic state. He also added many new buildings, of which some 24 survive to this day.

Succeeding Muslim rulers of Jerusalem gave the Old City much of its present character. During the Ottoman period (1517-1917). Suleiman the Magnificent (1494-1566) carried out considerable rebuilding. The city expanded outside the walls, and institutions were established to accommodate pilgrims from many parts of the world. The city was full of Christians and Jews who were tacitly permitted to practice their religions provided that they did not make too much public show. But as the Ottoman Empire declined, so did Jerusalsem.

 By the mid-19th century, it was in an advanced state of decay. The Crimean War re-  established European interest, and some repairs and new buildings were carried out.

Modern Jerusalem

 In 1917, Palestine, and Jerusalem with it, became a British Mandate. The city  expanded further, adding modern buildings to accommodate a growing population.  The urban management of Jerusalem improved rapidly during this period.  Administration and service buildings were provided in 1921, and the water supply  was enlarged and brought up to standard. New building codes required structures to  be constructed or faced with the fine local limestone to retain the city’s traditional  architectural character.

As Jewish immigration increased, Arab anxiety grew. There were terrorist acts by both sides against each other and the British. Eventually, war broke out. On May 14, 1948, the British left, and the following day the battle for Jerusalem began between the new state of Israel and the Arabs. The ceasefire in 1949 proposed establishing Jerusalem as an international city. In the event, it was divided in two between Israel and Jordan. For many years thereafter, the only crossing point was the famous Mandelbaum Gate – named after the original owner of the house next to it.

Israeli claims to Jerusalem as the capital of Israel were reinforced by their capture of the eastern half of the city in the 1967 war. The Israelis promptly set about expanding it, adding a ring of ugly modern concrete developments which have disfigured the surrounding hills.

The expansion of the modern city has been balanced by restoration and conservation of the Old City. Powerful religious interests conflict to what is to be preserved in a city where past development has taken place in layer upon layer of succeeding buildings. Jerusalem presents one of the most intractable restoration problems of any city.

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