Dome of the Rock

A Tale of Jerusalem Through the Sands of Time

It has been destroyed, besieged, captured, attacked, erased from the world map even ! But it rose back from the scratch every time. One of the oldest cities in the world, I think the Gods themselves descended in solidarity to protect this holy city of Jerusalem, which hosts the holy trinity of the largest monotheistic world religions –  Judaism, Islam and Christianity. Capital city of the Jewish nation Israel, the Palestinian Authority has also asserted an equivalent claim over it as the capital city of the future sovereign Palestinian State. 

Long an object of veneration and conflict, the holy city of Jerusalem has played a central role in the spiritual and emotional perspective of the three major monotheistic religions. For Jews throughout the world it is the focus of age-old yearnings, a living proof of ancient grandeur and independence and a centre of national renaissance; for Christians it is the scene of Jesus’ agony and triumph; for Muslims it is the goal of the Prophet Muhammad’s mystic night journey and the site of one of Islam’s most sacred shrines. 

Sitting on spurs of bedrock between the Mediterranean Sea and the Dead Sea area, Jerusalem has been an urban center for approximately 5,000 years. To the north and west, it tapers off to the Jezreel Valley and the hills of the Galilee, while to the south lies the Judean desert. The city is surrounded by three steep ravines (to the east, south, and west). On the other side of the eastern ravine, across the Kidron valley, is the Mount of Olives. Today, Jerusalem consists of the modern, western section, built up after the institution of the state of Israel in 1948 CE, and the medieval section, known as the Old City, which is surrounded by walls and gates built during the reign of Suleiman I (1494-1566 CE) when the province was part of the Ottoman Empire. The Old City is divided into four quarters: the Jewish Quarter; the Christian Quarter; the Muslim Quarter; and the Armenian Quarter.

Israel – Palestine Conflict

Israeli Palestinian conflict
Image by Ben Kerckx from Pixabay

Palestinians, the Arab population that hails from the land Israel now controls, refer to the territory as Palestine, and want to establish a state by that name on all or part of the same land. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is over who gets what land and how it’s controlled. Though both Jews and Arabs claim rights over the land dating thousands of years, the present conflict finds its genesis in the 20th Century. Jews fleeing persecution in Europe wanted to establish a national homeland in what was then an Arab- and Muslim-majority territory in the Ottoman and later British Empire. The Arabs resisted, seeing the land as rightfully theirs. A United Nations resolution process clearly failed, Israel and the surrounding Arab nations fought several wars over the territory, eight of them recognized by the State of Israel. They are:

  • 1948 Arab–Israeli War (1947 – 1949) – Israel v/s Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Transjordan, Syria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Yemen. 
  • Sinai War (1956) – Israel, UK, France v/s Egypt
  • Six-Day War (1967) – Israel v/s Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Iraq
  • War of Attrition (1967–1970) – Israel v/s Egypt, Soviet Union, PLO, Jordan
  • Yom Kippur War (1973) – Israel v/s Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Algeria, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Cuba, North Korea
  • First Lebanon War (1982–1985)
  • Security Zone Campaign (1985–2000)
  • Second Lebanon War (2006)
  • Operation Protective Edge (2014)

Today’s lines largely reflect the outcomes of two of these wars, one waged in 1948 and another in 1967. The Six-Day War that was fought in 1967 between Israel and the Arab states of Egypt, Syria and Jordan, played a decisive role in determining the present position of Jerusalem as it left Israel in control of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, two territories home to large Palestinian populations. As of today, the West Bank is nominally controlled by the Palestinian Authority and is under Israeli occupation. This comes in the form of Israeli troops, who enforce Israeli security restrictions on Palestinian movement and activities, and Israeli “settlers,” Jews who build ever-expanding communities in the West Bank that effectively deny the land to Palestinians. Gaza is controlled by Hamas, an Islamist fundamentalist party, and is under Israeli blockade but not ground troop occupation. 

Jerusalem: What and How?

Jerusalem What and How?
Image by Walkerssk from Pixabay

What: Jerusalem is a city that straddles the border between Israel and the West Bank. It’s home to some of the holiest sites in both Judaism and Islam, and so both Israel and Palestine want to make it their capital. How to split the city fairly remains one of the fundamental issues dividing Israelis and Palestinians. Israel calls Jerusalem its undivided capital today, but until recently, no country recognized it as such. UN Security Council Resolution 478 condemned Israel’s decision to annex East Jerusalem as a violation of international law and called for a compromise solution. However on 6th December 2017, United States under Trump’s leadership officially recognized united Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and moved its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Following suit, several other countries like Guatemala, Honduras, Nauru, Kosovo, Malawi and Serbia recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Other Islamic nations like Iran, Oman, Pakistan and Venezuela have recognized united Jerusalem as Palestinian capital. Some countries like Australia, Argentina and Russia have taken a midway to contribute to the Israel-Palestine peace process and have recognized West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and East Jerusalem as Palestinian capital. 

How: From 1517 until the First World War, Jerusalem was part of Ottoman Empire. Since the 1860s, Jews have formed the largest religious group in the city and since around 1887, with the beginning of expansion outside the old city walls, Jews have been in the majority. Historically, the Vatican has had a particular interest in protecting Christian churches and holy places in the region, and acted particularly with the agency of Italy and France as Catholic states in advancing that objective. In the 19th century, European powers were competing for influence in the city, usually on the pretext of extending protection over Christian churches and holy places. Most of these European countries, especially France, entered into capitulation agreements with the Ottoman Empire and also established consulates in Jerusalem. In 1847 the first Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem since the Crusades was established. In 1917, post First World War, Great Britain captured Jerusalem. In 1922, Mandate for Jerusalem was also assigned to Britain as a part of League of Nations Mandate. From 1922 to 1948 the total population of the city rose from 52,000 to 165,000, comprised two-thirds of Jews and one-third of Arabs and with this increasing population, the conflict between the three communities – Jews, Christians and Arab Muslims heightened, resulting in recurrent conflicts. With expiry of British Mandate for Palestine in 1947, Britain referred the conflict to UN for peaceful resolution. the 1947 UN Partition Plan recommended the creation of a special international regime in the City of Jerusalem, constituting it as a corpus separatum under the administration of the UN. The international regime (which also included the city of Bethlehem) was to remain in force for a period of ten years, whereupon a referendum was to be held in which the residents were to decide the future regime of their city. However, this plan was not implemented, as the 1948 war erupted, while the British withdrew from Palestine and Israel declared its independence. For the first 20 years of Israel’s existence, Jerusalem was divided. Israel controlled the parts of Jerusalem and its suburbs inside the red dotted line on this map, while Jordan controlled everything outside of it (blue dotted lines separate Jerusalem proper from suburbs). Jordan controlled the Temple Mount, a hill in the map’s brown splotch. The hill hosts the Western Wall, a retaining wall of an ancient Jewish temple and one of Judaism’s holiest sites, and two of Islam’s most important landmarks, the al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock. Israeli Jews weren’t allowed to pray in the area while Jordan controlled it. During the 1967 war, Israel took control of East Jerusalem.

This war demanded a heavy price from the people who were displaced from their homeland. The Jewish residents of Eastern Jerusalem were expelled by Jordan’s Arab Legion. Jordan allowed Arab Palestinian refugees from the war to settle in the vacated Jewish Quarter, which became known as Harat al-Sharaf. After 1948, since the old walled city in its entirety was to the east of the armistice line, Jordan was able to take control of all the holy places therein. While Muslim holy sites were maintained and renovated, contrary to the terms of the armistice agreement, Jews were denied access to Jewish holy sites, many of which were destroyed or desecrated. Several restrictions were also placed on the Christians in the region who were barely allowed access to their religious sites. 

Ethnicity, People and Culture

Ethnicity, People and Culture in Jerusalem
Photo by Ondrej Bocek on Unsplash

Culture: Jerusalem is Israel’s political, religious, historical and cultural centre, with the Israel Museum being the foremost cultural attraction. In addition to its large collection of Western and Israeli paintings, the museum houses a comprehensive Middle Eastern archaeological collection, several important Dead Sea Scrolls and other relics, a notable collection of Jewish ritual art, Middle Eastern ethnological exhibits, a sculpture garden, and a youth wing. The Rockefeller Archaeological Museum (1938), located in east Jerusalem, concentrates on the archaeology of the Holy Land. There is an Islamic Museum on the Temple Mount (the area is known in Islam as Al-Ḥaram al-Sharīf), where the Al-Aqṣā Mosque and the Dome of the Rock are located. The Museum on the Seam (1983), located in the former no-man’s-land that divided Jewish west Jerusalem and Arab east Jerusalem, is a contemporary art museum often dealing with controversial social and political themes.

People: The people here are mainly classified according to their religious affiliation. A majority of the city’s residents are either secular or traditional Jews. Muslims are the most homogeneous of the communities, and Christians—who are represented by numerous sects and churches—are the most diversified. Residential segregation is the norm, and Jews and Arabs live almost exclusively in specific districts. 

  • Jews: Jews are mainly categorized as Ashkenazim (broadly, Jews of central and eastern European origin), Sephardim (Jews of Spanish and Portuguese origin), and Mizrahim (North African or Oriental Jews). Religious controversy plays a large part in local politics, and disputes often erupt over issues such as Sabbath observance or kashruth (dietary law). The most sacred spot is the Temple Mount, on which many Orthodox Jews refrain from setting foot for fear of profaning the sanctity of the site where once stood the most sacred Holy of Holies. In addition to the Western Wall—the most important centre of prayer and pilgrimage—other holy places include the reputed tomb of King David on Mount Zion, the Mount of Olives with its ancient Jewish cemetery, and the tombs of priestly families in the Valley of Kidron. Old synagogues and study houses in the Old City have been refurbished; particularly worthy of mention is the interconnected group of four synagogues begun in the 16th century by Jews exiled from Spain. Jerusalem is one of the world’s foremost centres of rabbinic learning and contains scores of yeshivas. Notable modern religious structures include the Jerusalem Great Synagogue and the synagogue and associated institutions of the followers of the Rebbe of Belz, a Hasidic rabbi whose court is in Jerusalem.
  • Muslims : Although a minority in 20th C, they outnumbered the Christians by 21st C. Almost all are Sunni Muslims. Jerusalem is revered by Muslims as the third holiest place on earth, and the pilgrimage to Jerusalem (taqdīs) is viewed as an optional complement to the pilgrimage to Mecca, the hajj. For Muslims, the Temple Mount site is known as the Haram al-Sharif, or the Noble Sanctuary, and is considered the third-holiest site in Islam, after Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia. It is where Muslims believe the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven and houses the Dome of the Rock shrine and Al-Aqsa mosque. According to David Brog, executive director of Christians United For Israel, “When the Muslims conquered Jerusalem in the seventh century, they built a mosque (as is their custom) on the very spot the vanquished had held sacred. This is why the plateau where the First and Second Temples once stood – the holiest site in Judaism – is now the very place where the Al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock stand today.” Other religious places of interest for Muslims are Dome of the Rock, Well of Souls or Holy of HoliesDome of the Chain, Al-Khanqah al-Salahiyya Mosque, Al-Yaqubi Mosque – the Crusader Church of St. James Intercisus, transformed after 1187 into a mosque and Mosque of Omar.

Who Controls Temple Mount/ Al Aqsa Now? During the 1967 Six Day War, Israel captured the Old City and along with it, the Temple Mount. However, Israeli leaders decided to allow the Islamic Waqf trust to continue running the site, with its housing of Islamic structures, including the Al-Aqsa mosque. Today, while the Waqf governs the Temple Mount itself, Israel controls the site’s entrances and — during periods of heightened tensions — can decide to limit visitors. 

  • Christians: Christians constitute the smallest but most religiously diverse section of the population. The main groups are Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant. Important religious sites for Christians in Jerusalem are Dome of the Ascension(Rebuilt by the Crusaders in the 12th Century), Via Dolorosa  (9 of the 14 Stations of the Cross), Church of the Holy Sepulchre ( Location of Christ’s crucifixion in a tug-o-war between Christian sects) ,Tomb of the Virgin Mary (A blend of Greek, Armenian, Syrian, Coptic and Ethiopian Orthodox churches battle for rights).

Language: The main languages spoken in Jerusalem are Hebrew in western Jerusalem and Arabic in eastern Jerusalem. Most people throughout the city speak sufficient English for communication. In particular, English is widely spoken in areas most visited by tourists, especially the Old City.

The End ? Nowhere Close !!

A surreal and vibrant city, Jerusalem is truly special. Beyond her religious and historic significance, Jerusalem is a modern and advanced city. It’s religious undertones definitely don’t strip her of her metropolitan charm that you have to experience to believe. Be it the cuisine or the culture, she is surely remarkable. For all of you who are interested in knowing a place to experience it at its best, I have offered you guys some glimpses into the extraordinary past of one of the oldest cities in this world. But there is so much more to it. And I am not done yet. This overdose of facts was just for the starters. My next blogs on Jerusalem would cover other interesting aspects about her beauty and charm. So stay tuned!

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