A Brief Biography of Jerusalem

A Brief Biography of Jerusalem

Does the history of the city change your relationship to it? In what ways? Do we only relate to cities in space, or also time?  

Jerusalem plays such an important conceptual role in Jewish life, (and Western culture) that I fear we may not get to know that actual terrestrial city well enough. We know many landmarks, but how did they come to be?

So in honor of Jerusalem Day, here’s a very abridged mini-bio of a city with a rich but complicated history. For now, let’s leave aside spiritual and religious concepts, and focus on history and facts. 

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Archeologists have found evidence of settlement in Jerusalem going back to the Copper Age, circa 3,500 B.C.E. Its advantages are obvious. Fertile and easily defensible hills with access to a natural stream of water in the nearby valley made it attractive. It was consistently settled through the Bronze age. This era of the city may be referred to in Genesis 14:18 as “Shalem”, with its king, “Malki Tzedek”. By the Iron age, its inhabitants are referred to as Jebusites. 

There is scholarly debate over the historicity of specifics recorded in the Book of Samuel regarding the Israelite conquest of the city.  What is agreed on is that it becomes that capital of that young kingdom some time around 1000 B.C.E. At this point, the city covered the land that is now the Silwan neighborhood of East Jerusalem, referred to by some as David’s city. 

When the Israelite kingdom split into Israel and Judah, Jerusalem remained the capital of the latter alone. Even its temple became less relevant to the northern kingdom of Israel. When that Kingdom was destroyed in the late 8th century B.C.E. by the Assyrians, Jerusalem became the only center for the people. Judah survived that same invasion. In successfully resisting the Assyrians, Jerusalemites built the famous water tunnel, today a tourist favorite, for King Hezekiah. 

In 586, B.C.E., the Kingdom of Judah was considered destroyed when the Babylonians sacked Jerusalem. Decades later Cyrus King of Persia allowed the Judeans to return and rebuild. Greek rule replaced the Persians and lasted for centuries. The city grew through fits and starts till Judea eventually became independent again. When the Hasmonean dynasty declared an independent Kingdom of Judea, Jerusalem was of course the political capital and cultural center. 

That independent kingdom was destroyed by the Romans in 70 C.E. with the second destruction of the city. Decades later, the Emperor Hadrian declared Jerusalem should be rebuilt with a Temple to Jupiter and renamed Aelia Capitolina. The failed Jewish revolt under Simon Bar Kochba did not prevent that from happening. 

As Rome became Christian in the 4th century, Jerusalem became considered a holy city throughout the empire as the site of Jesus’ last days. It was under Byzantine rule that the familiar Cardo in the Old City was completed. In 614, Jerusalem fell briefly under Persian rule by the Sassanid Empire. 

The rapid expansion of Islam in the early 7th century meant major changes for the city. By around 690 the two major buildings on the Temple Mount, The Al-Aksa mosque and the Dome of the Rock, were both built. This complex became a holy site for Musims, known as the Noble Sanctuary, al-Ḥaram al-Šarīf in Arabic. Jerusalem was ruled by the successive Rashidun, Umayyad, Abbasid and Fatimid Caliphates. 

The Crusader era began in 1099 with the sacking of the city by Christian soldiers. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the holiest site in Jerusalem for Christians, was rebuilt. During this period Yehuda Halevy, Maimonides and Benjamin of Tudela were able to visit. Eventually, the religious war over control ended with the Muslims as winners. During the era of Mamluk rule, from 1270 – 1517, the Armenian Quarter was firmly established. Jerusalem endured the Black Death pandemic along with so much of the world. 

The walls of the Old City as we know them today, including “David’s Citadel”, were built by the Ottoman Turks. They’re reign, from 1517-1917, was relatively stable and peaceful.  In 1700, Rabbi Yehuda HaHassid began the building of the Hurva synagogue. Jewish settlement outgrew the Old City in 1860, beginning the first Jewish neighborhood outside the walls, Yemin Moshe.

During the period of the British Mandate, Hebrew University was built on Mount Scopus. The King David Hotel opened in 1932. 

As we know, Jerusalem was declared the capital of a Jewish State once again with the creation of Israel in 1948. The city remained divided between Israel and Jordan, with the Old City on the Jordanian side, until 1967. Jerusalem Day commemorates the uniting of Jerusalem under Israeli rule. This control remains one of the major points of conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. 

Whatever the stresses, controversies and struggles, it is worth taking some time to appreciate the terrestrial city of Jerusalem. For 3,000 years, it has been the national and cultural center of the Jewish people. Our ability to experience, visit and even live within the current bustling metropolis that has grown from an ancient settlement is a breathtaking privilege for the Jews of today. Jerusalem Day, Yom Yerushalayim in Hebrew, is a lovely time to experience those feeling of appreciation. 

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