Jerusalem: A Very Short History

1. For more than 1300 years (638-1948 AD) Muslims brought Jerusalem peace, prosperity and a level of religious tolerance second-to-none in world history. This long period was interrupted twice — by a century of aggression, bloodshed and intolerance that marked the Crusades (1099-1187 A.D.), and some 30 years of British occupation (1917-1948).

2. The Muslims called their bloodless takeover of the city “Al-Fath,” meaning literally “the opening” — that is, an opening up of the city to adherents of all religions. The Muslims not only practiced freedom of religion, but also spread justice and peace, liberating the city from secular Roman tyrants as well as curbing the self-destructive behaviour and mutual persecution of Christian and Jewish religious fanatics.

3. On the day the Muslims took charge of Jerusalem, Khalifa Omar Ibn El-Khattab himself traveled all the way from Medina to accept the keys of the city from Jerusalem’s Archbishop. In a symbolic gesture of respect and humbleness he entered the city on foot.

4. Khalifa Omar gave security and safety to the city’s Christians and Jews. He was invited to visit the Church of Holy Sepulchre in the Old City. While in the church, the Muslim Zuhr (noon) prayer was called and he was invited to offer his prayers inside the Church but he declined the offer, fearing that future Muslims might build a mosque at the site of the church. He walked outside the church and prayed. Today, the Mosque of Omar stands at this site (not to be confused with the Al-Aqsa or Dome of the Rock mosques).

5. Through Muslim efforts, all the holy places of Jerusalem became equally respected for the first time in history. This came about in a climate of renewal and reform that included modern civic administration, public hygiene, free accommodation to pilgrims, and safe passage and security for all travellers — a very new and different atmosphere for a city which had witnessed so many destructive wars, assassinations, massacres of the innocent (including children), revenge-killings, brutal criminal punishments (such as the infamous crucifixions), epidemics, and sectarian persecutions.

6. When Jerusalem came under Muslim rule in 638, about half of the Walled Old City was given to the Christians, a good-sized quarter to the Jews, and only the remaining area was designated for Muslims; there, they later built two mosques. Such a generous and noble division of a major city has few precedents in the history of conquest. Muslims could easily have claimed the entire Walled Old City, but chose not to, respecting instead the numbers and traditions of its existing communities.

7. Among a number of Muslim holy places which still survive in the Walled Old City, are the two most famous mosques — the post-card beautiful golden Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque.

8. The Walled Old City was holy to Muslims even before their rulers took over and opened Jerusalem to all believers. Current anti-Palestinian and anti-Islam propaganda that describes Jerusalem as “third” in holiness and importance after Mecca and Medina, falsely undermines Muslims’ true claim to the city. A place is either holy or it is not — there are no hierarchies or degrees of holiness. Jerusalem, for example, is mentioned in the Qur’an by its location, not by its name; no Muslim scholar has disputed this distinction in 1400 years.

9. Jerusalem is holy to Muslims and still is. It was the first place where they used to face when they prayed (the first Qibla) and it is the place where the Prophet was divinely transported from Mecca to Jerusalem (the Prophet’s Isra’) and then to the Heavens and back (the Prophet’s Ma’rag).

10. When the Muslims took over Jerusalem, they did not displace neighbourhoods or tear down other buildings to build their mosques. Instead, they built them on empty lots, even on top of a local garbage dump!

11. As the Muslims were taking over Jerusalem they were following Islamic teachings governing conduct in time of war. The instructions of Khalifa Abu Bakr, Omar’s predecessor, which were given to the Muslim military, read in part: "Do not deceive or betray. Do not cut or burn a palm tree. Do not cut any fruit tree. Do not slaughter a lamb, cow or a camel. You will come by people who are in their churches or temples; leave them alone to perform their prayers or duties…." This was the essence of the Fourth Geneva Convention, written some 1300 years later.

12. From 3000 BC to 1200 BC, tribes from Arabia inhabited Palestine. The first people to settle in and around Jerusalem in about 3000 BC were an Arab tribe called the Jebusites. They were Palestine’s aboriginals, or First Nations. They had emigrated from the Arab peninsula in the south and what would become Jerusalem was first named after them. In 1200 BC, Sinai shepherds invaded Palestine and settled as a tiny minority living in the mountains. For some 700 years they intermarried with local tribes.

13. Another people, the Canaanites, were Semitic Arabs who settled in Jerusalem and throughout Palestine. Like the Jebusites, they arrived in the region much earlier than the Israelites, who were always a minority in both the city and surrounding countryside. Today’s Palestinians are the descendents of the Canaanites and the Jebusites.

14. Rev. William Neil (author of the One Volume Bible Commentary) wrote: “the Canaanites and the Israelites became one. By inter-marriage, treaty and trade, the fusion is more or less complete.” This assertion has led to the belief that Palestinians today have a stronger historical claim to Palestine than Jews living outside the region. In fact, some scholars call today’s Palestinians the true “ethnic Jews.”

15. In the Old Testament, we read in Judges 3:5-6; “The Israelites lived among the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites. They married the daughters of these peoples and give their daughters in marriage to their sons and served their gods.”

16. The tribes in Jerusalem and its surroundings before the arrival of the Israelites were mainly monotheists including the tribe of Jethro (Moses’ father-in-law), the Kenites, Kenizzites and the Calebites.

17. In about 3000 BC, the Jebusite priest-king Melchizadek (meaning "the honest king" in Arabic) was named King of Salem (King of Peace) for his piety. His city was named City of Peace, Auro (or Joro) Salem — which later evolved into the word Jerusalem.

18. For about 150 years (1200-1049 BC), Jerusalem was administrated by Egypt. A stele of Pharaoh Merneptah, son of Ramses II, describes an expedition to Palestine in which Merneptah defeated the Hittites, the Canaanites and the Hurrians.

19. In his book “Peace in the Holy Land,” John Bagot Glubb wrote: “The Israelites were a small minority compared to other tribes, nomadic or settled people. No tribe, including the Israelites, could rule the rest except with bloody wars.” In fact, in 1049 BC there were no peoples known as "Israelites" in Jerusalem (Judges 19:11-13).

20. In about 1050 BC, the prophet Samuel annointed Saul as king over Israel and told him that Yahweh [the god of Israel] wished him to destroy Israel’s enemies; “and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass.” (I Samuel 15:3) Saul did defeat Israel’s enemies, killing every human being, except the leader, whom he brought back as a prisoner. He also spared the best of the sheep and cattle. (I Samuel 15:8-9)

21. King David (1000-967 BC) and his son Solomon (967-927 BC) ruled from Jerusalem for some 70 years.

22. Glubb (cited above in 19) wrote, based on the Old Testament, that “The reigns of David and Solomon have been idealized as Glorious Days. [But] the royal family was extremely corrupt. The sons of David constantly assassinated one another. Soloman had all his brothers murdered. David’s reign was a long succession of rebellions, wars and assassinations … David’s son Amnon raped his own sister and was murdered by another son, Absalom, who subsequently rebelled and tried to kill his father … Solomon had 700 wives. Many of them were from neighboring countries and wished for shrines in which to worship their respective gods.”

23. Supporters of King David, then and now, believe that Jerusalem, the Jebusite town, is the special residence of Yahweh and that He made a special covenant with David, whose dynasty was to rule forever. (Psalm 122, and others)

24. David turned over seven of Saul’s sons and grandsons to the Gibeonites, who hanged them (II Samuel 21); they also wanted to have Joab (David’s commander and a potential rival) murdered. After David’s death (ca. 970-960 BC), Solomon ordered his elder brother Adonijah and other rivals, including Joab, assassinated. Solomon’s most important wife was the daughter of an Egyptian Pharaoh.

25. Although the ancient world was interested in lineage, details and changes in specific ethnologies were often overlooked; thus the chosen people of Yahweh (the God of the Israelites) became the chosen people of God. Yahweh slowly became understood as a universal, not a tribal God. By around 300 BC, the alternate Hebrew name Adonai began to be more widely used; it was a semi-secular term meaning "Lord" and was used also for human rulers. The Greek equivalent of later New Testament times was Kyrios (also meaning Lord).

26. In about 724 BC the northern Kingdom of Israel disappeared; it was followed by Judah (the southern kingdom) in 587 BC.

27. In 587 BC, the Babylonians captured Jerusalem and destroyed the City Temple.

28. After the fall of Babylon in 539 BC the Persians, led by Cyrus, ruled Palestine for more than 200 years (539-332 BC) and the Jews, many of whom returned from exile in Babylon, were able to rebuild the City Temple in Jerusalem. In 445 BC Judah comprised some 50,000 people of mixed race and Jerusalem was still a relatively small settlement. This was also the case during the Greek and the Roman periods.

29. In 397 BC Ezra, a prophet and legal expert, arrived in Jerusalem with a number of other exiles returning from Babylon to renew and reform the ancient religion of Yahweh. He took the radical step of prohibiting marriage between Jews and other peoples. During earlier times, especially periods of conquest, intermarriage was widely practiced. Joseph, exiled to Egypt by his jealous brothers, grew up there and took an Egyptian wife. Ezra emerged at a time when the Jews had been weakened and decimated by generations of conquest and hoped to rebuild the holy race of ancient times. He ordered all Jews who had married “strange wives” (Ezra 10:11-14) to divorce them. Author and church historian Rev. William Neil went so far as to label Ezra “a holy bigot” for encouraging the post-exile Jews to isolate themselves from the rest of humanity. Rabbi Raisin (author of Gentile Reactions to Jewish Ideals) also condemns his narrowness.

30. Since about 1000 BC the Philistines, originally sea-faring invaders from Crete and the Aegean archipelago, had established themselves on the southern coastal plains of Palestine. They were considerably more advanced socially and technologically than the Israelites, who mainly inhabited inland and mountainous regions.

31. In 332 BC Alexander the Great conquered Palestine. This began a steady process of Hellenization (an influx of Greek lifestyle and education) of Jewish society, particularly in the central city of Jerusalem. Over the next 150 years or so (about 332 to 167 BC) Hebrew was spoken less and less by the Judaeans, who took up Greek, wore Greek clothing, and adopted the Greek culture of physical fitness, including the habit (for men only) of exercising naked in gymnasiums. During this period Jerusalem was ruled first by the Egyptian Ptolemies and then by the Syrian Seleucids. Both ruling groups were tolerant of all religions, which left the Judaeans mainly free to live and worship as they wished. (Glubb, p.95)

32. But in 172 BC, Antiochus of Syria moved to widen the Hellenization (or secularization) of the Jews. Circumcision was forbidden; it was made an offence to refuse to eat pork; daily temple sacrifices ceased; and a statue of the Olympian god Zeus was even erected within the precincts of the City Temple in Jerusalem.

33. A revolt by Judas Maccabaeus in about 167 BC began a turbulent three decades of rule by the Hasmoneans. Although the Hasmoneans were not religious Jews, they forcibly converted Idumaeans and the Galileans, who became Jewish by religion, but not ethnic origin. However, they also killed many Hellenized Jews. During their rule, civil war and upheaval were the norm.

34. In 63 BC the Romans conquered Jerusalem but Hasmonean rule continued under Roman surveillance. The coastal plains, as well as some Greek cities conquered by the Hasmonaeans were liberated by the Roman general Pompey.

35. In 40 BC Rome appointed Herod as the local client-king of Judea. Amid violence and bloodshed, he captured Jerusalem in 37 BC.

36. Ever since the revolt of Judas Maccabaeus in 167 BC, “Palestine for 128 years had been torn by violence and soaked in blood,” says Glubb. “Herod maintained a regular army of mercenaries, including Thracians, Germans, Idumaeans and natives of Asia Minor.”

37. Herod had ten wives, whose children were in continual conflict and competition with one anothe. Two of them were even strangled by order of their father. Herod also ordered what history calls the Massacre of the Innocents in Bethlehem in attempts to find a new-born Jewish "king" called Jesus. Later, “it was his son Herod Antipas who beheaded John the Baptist and who, with his soldiers, mocked [Jesus] Christ on the morning of the Crucifixion,” said Glubb. John the Baptist used to say, “And think not to say within yourselves, ‘We have Abraham to our father’; for I say unto you, that God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham.” (New Testament, Matthew 3: 9)

38. “Under the Romans, Judea broke out once again in bitter, militant isolationism,” writes Glubb. In 70 AD the Roman emperor Titus destroyed the rebuilt (second) Temple and much of Jerusalem itself, to punish those Jews who had rebelled against his rule. Religious rivalry between Jews and Christians was arising from both groups claming to be the chosen people. In his book “Whose Land is Palestine?” Canadian author and Bible scholar, Frank H. Epp, comments; “There is no choosiness where choosiness or potential choosiness is denied to others.”

39. In 135 AD the Roman emperor Hadrian rebuilt the city, re-naming it Aelia Capitolina in honour of the pagan god, Jupiter.

40. In 313 AD the emperor Constantine, who claimed to have seen the cross of Christ in a vision, decreed that Christianity would be the official religion throughout his lands. Jerusalem now became a centre for Christian pilgrimage rather than Jewish worship and the era of religious persecution of Jews had begun.

41. In 614 AD Persia conquered Jerusalem again; after a brief period, the Emperor Heraculis recaptured it in 628 AD.

42. Following the Muslim “opening” of the Jerusalem in 639 AD, the Dome of the Rock Mosque was constructed (688-691 AD). Two years later, the Al-Aqsa Mosque was built nearby on the same site. The two mosques and their surroundings became known as Al-Haram Al-Sharif (the Holy Sanctuary).

43. From 638 to 1099 Jerusalem enjoyed some 460 years of peace, religious tolerance and social-political development under Muslim rule; this period of progress ended in 1099 when invading Crusaders from Europe indiscriminately slaughtered its inhabitants — Muslims, Jews and Christians alike. In 1099 AD the city had few resident Jews and following the Crusades in 1200 there was reportedly only one Jewish family surviving.

44. The Muslim leader Saladin liberated Jerusalem from the Crusaders in 1187 and allowed the Jews to return.

45. During Muslim rule, Jerusalem was administered from Medina (638-641 AD); from Damascus (641-750); from Baghdad (750-870), from Cairo (870-1517); and from 1517-1917 by Turkey.

46. In 969 AD the Fatimid regrettably allowed churches and synagogues in Jerusalem to be vandalized. This destruction was repeated in 1071 by the Seljuks.

47. In 1267 the Muslims of Spain sent Rabbi Moshe Ben Nahman to Jerusalem to revive the Jewish religion.

48. By 1572 there were reportedly 115 Jews in Jerusalem and by 1688 that number had increased slightly to 150. However following the Zionist movement in Europe, the city’s population soared in the late 1800s to some 50,000 with about half that number being Jewish. But even in 1854, Karl Marx, then a journalist with the New York Daily Tribune, reported that the Muslims in Jerusalem were the masters in every respect; virtually all the land in the Old City was owned by Arabs, even in the Jewish and Christian quarters.

49. The British occupation of Palestine began in 1917. Lord Allenby, planting his sword in the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, boasted “Now end the Crusades!”

50. Because of Jewish political pressure back home, the British favoured the local Jews over Palestinian Muslims and Christians in Palestine. In 1947 the Walled Old City had a population of 36,000 of which 2000 were Jews; Arab East Jerusalem in total had 39,000 residents, of whom 9,000 were Jews; and West Jerusalem had a population of 89,000, of whom nearly all (88,000) were Jews

51. In 1948, Jews in Palestine declared Israel a Jewish state and in 1967 Israel occupied all of Jerusalem — including Arab East Jerusalem, which includes the Walled Old City.

52. Since 1967, Israel has followed a policy (both overt and hidden) to empty Arab East Jerusalem, including the Walled Old City, of all Palestinians, whether Muslim or Christian.

53. On the morning of August 21, 1969 the Australian Zionist Denis Rohan set fire to the southeastern wing of the Al-Aqsa Mosque. Jordan restored the severely damaged wing of the building at a cost of about 9 million $US.

54. Between 1978 and 1982, Muslim religious authorities in Jerusalem documented some 200 specific acts of destruction and provocation enacted on or near Haram Al-Sharif by Jewish settlers.

55. Violence continued over the next two decades. In 1982, the American Jewish settler Allan Goodman sprayed Muslim worshippers with gunfire at the Haram Al-Sharif, killing two and wounding 30. In 1990, the Israeli military opened fire on Muslim worshippers killing 22 and wounding hundreds. And in 1996, Israel reopened an old tunnel under the Al-Aqsa Mosque, thus compromising its structural integrity. During the confrontation that followed, Israeli police killed 70 Muslims.

56. Since 1967 Israel — in defiance of international laws governing the behaviour of occupying powers toward their occupied peoples — has demolished more than 2,000 Palestinian homes in Arab East Jerusalem, under the pretext that they were constructed without a license.

57. Jewish settlers have also seized and occupied more than 70 Palestinian properties within the historic Old City precincts, most of which are located adjacent to Muslim holy places.

58. Israel has confiscated some 20,000 dunums of Palestinian-owned land — more than one third of the area of Arab East Jerusalem — for the construction of Jewish settlements. In 2001 alone, the Israeli Construction and Housing Ministry earmarked more than $5 million for Jewish settler security in AEJ.

59. Israeli policy of "quiet deportation" from AEJ has resulted in the revocation of more than 6,000 identity cards of former Palestinian residents of the city. This figure doesn’t include more thousands of their dependent children. Similarly, Palestinians living in the West Bank outside AEJ cannot visit the city freely.

60. As a result of this continual destruction, dislocation and incursion, Palestinian residents of Arab East Jerusalem live a miserable life. They are classified as "permanent residents" in the state of Israel. Israel nevertheless treats these Palestinians as "immigrants," although they were born in Arab East Jerusalem, live in the city, and have no other home.

61. Any Palestinian living in AEJ (whether Muslim or Christian) who marries another Palestinian from outside the city boundaries, is forbidden to return to AEJ once s/he leaves. Between 1967 and 2001, Israel’s insidious "Greater Jerusalem" plan is aimed at strengthening the Zionist vision of a metropolitan Jerusalem that covers 30 per cent of the West Bank. But less than one-quarter of the land area in this exclusionary plan lies within pre-1967 Israeli borders.

62. Epp (cited earlier) comments on some Christian groups who justify Israeli aggression against Palestinians using Bible’s prophesies: “The prophetic direction of the scriptural message is toward the universalization, not the tribalization of God, towards racial inclusivness rather than exclusivness with respect to the chosen people … Jerusalem becomes the eternal city of God and [humanity] rather than the temporal city of a nation or tribe.”

63. “For Abraham," continues Epp, “it must also be remembered, the promise of blessing had as much to do with revealing of a higher god as it had to do with sighting of new land. Besides, the promise was as much a promise given as a promise received. There was no promise without a convenant, and the moment Abraham heard ‘to your descendants will I give this land,’ he also understood ‘walk before me, and be blameless’ (Gen. 15:18). All of this means, of course, that it is foolish to talk about promised land purely in terms of flesh or race, as it is to talk of God’s coming society in terms of a particular hill or buildings, such as that once belonged to the Jebusites.”

64. On the day I finished this peice (Sunday July 10, 2005) the Israeli newspaper Haaretz published a news story which was ignored by the Canadian media. The headline was "55,000 Palestinians to be cutoff by Jerusalem fence". The paper reported that an Israeli separation fence, to be completed by September 2005, will cut off some 55,000 Palestinians, both Muslims and Christians, residents of Arab East Jerusalem from the rest of the city. "The number includes more 3,000 school children, who will have to pass through the fence in order to get to school," the paper continued.

65. Nearly 10 years ago, in November 1995, I went on a personal pilgrimage to AEJ’s Muslim holy places. My visit was tragically interrupted by the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin by an Israeli Jew. But I will not forget you, O Jerusalem!