Jerusalem: The Sacred City*

Jerusalem is one of the most ancient cities in the world with evidence of human activity from 4500 BC. During the some 6000 years covered by the time line below, Jerusalem was attacked 52 times, captured or recaptured 44 times, besieged 23 times, and destroyed twice. I honestly do know how that compares to other cities but it seems impressive. Clearly it has been and continues to be a place of contention. It is also a plcce that is sacred to the Jews, Christians and Muslims.

Jewish tradition holds that the Temple Mount in Jerusalem is "the beginning of creation," the place where God gathered the dust to make Adam. (Islam has a similar tradition about the Dome of the Rock, which is likely built on the site of the Jewish Temple.) In the Bible we first meet Jerusalem when Abram meets Melchizadek in Genesis 14 but it is not called Jerusalem in that story; it is called Salem. In the story, Melchizadek is priest of God Most High and King of Salem. Next, in Genesis 22, Abram is told to sacrifice Isaac and the place is the "mountains of Moraiah." Tradition also says that this is the site where the temple was built and so this story too is also linked to Jerusalem. In the book of Judges, Jerusalem it is called Jebus, perhaps because it is a pagan stronghold at that point and could hardly be called Jerusalem. In David's time it is called the Jebusite City until David conquers it and makes it his capital; Jerusalem. After Solomon completes the Temple, God tells him: "I have heard the prayer and plea you have made before me; I have consecrated this temple, which you have built, by putting my Name there forever. My eyes and my heart will always be there (1 Kings 9.3)." Closing the loop from the beginning of creation to becoming, in some sense, the habitation of God. As we shall see, however, neither the temple nor Jerusalem turn out to be eternal.

Because of the faithfulness of God's people or lack there of, the promised land along with Jerusalem are lost to Israel. In the Bible Jerusalem becomes a metaphor in addition to a place and as such assumes other metaphorical names including: Salem, Mount Moriah, Adonai Jireh, Zion, the City of David, and Ariel. Some of these have more technical meanings and others are metaphors on their own with most referring back to the stories that are discussed on the Names of Jerusalem page.

In most of the Bible, especially in translation, it is clear what is being said from a geographic point of view. The story of the political control of Jerusalem, which is a rather large part of the following, serves mainly as a distraction from the spiritual significance of the city but it is an interesting story.

We start with the Jewish perspective:

The Talmud says Jerusalem was named by God. The name has two parts: Yira, which means "to see," and shalem, which means "peace."


Jerusalem was the place of Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac, and Abraham said of Jerusalem, "This is the place where God is seen." [see JPS Torah, Genesis 22.14


Elsewhere, God is a theory, but in Jerusalem, God is seen, and felt, as a tangible presence. In Jerusalem we reach beyond the frailty and vulnerability of our lives, and we sense and strive for transcendence. Elsewhere we grope for insight. In Jerusalem we anticipate clarity. Paris may be for lovers, but Jerusalem is for visionaries.


Jerusalem is a metaphor for a perfected world, and it gives us perspective on our lives. When Aldous Huxley said, "we have each of us our Jerusalem," he meant much more than a temporal city of taxi cabs and traffic jams. He meant a vision of what life might be.


The vision of life's promise is one we surrender at our peril, because it gives us the will to live. In exile for two thousand years Jews said "Next year in Jerusalem," and amidst poverty and oppression they preserved the dream of a world in which love and justice, not power and self-interest, would be the currency men live by.


Part of the name Jerusalem is "vision." The other part of the name is peace, but the peace of Jerusalem is not the absence of strife. Jerusalem has rarely known anything but strife. The peace of Jerusalem is the peace at the center of the spokes of a wheel, where opposing forces may be delicately balanced and reconciled.


The Talmud says that creation began in Jerusalem, and the world radiated outward from this place. Medieval maps show Jerusalem at the epicenter of Asia, Europe, and Africa. The world flows into this spot, and all life's forces resonate here. From this place, the whole world is cast into perspective.


Jerusalem, the center, which gives perspective to the rest of the world. Jerusalem where God is seen. Jerusalem the perfected world. Humanity has long understood that he who controls Jerusalem controls the world's memory. He controls the way God is seen. He controls the way life's forces are cast into perspective. He controls the way we collectively see our future.


Once the Temple Mount was the highest point in the city of Jerusalem, but in the year 135, Roman slaves carried away the dirt of the mountain, and turned it into the valley we now look down on from the Old City. The Romans expelled Jews from Jerusalem and barred them from reentering on pain of death. Jewish life, they proclaimed, has now ended.


The Crusaders rewrote Jerusalem's importance, the center no longer of Jewish national drama, but the site of the passion and death of Jesus. Like the Romans they expelled Jews, and destroyed synagogues.


The Muslims came after, and as those before them rewrote the memory of Jerusalem, expelling Jews and Christian. They systematically built mosques on every Jewish holy site. They airbrushed the past.

If the history has been rewritten and the past airbrushed, the history part of these pages becomes a difficult project. It turns out that we can come to some conclusions even if the source has a particular perspective. For example, confuses the history a bit by using the term Crusader to mean Christian or perhaps even Roman. The Crusaders, as we would ordinarily call them, arrived in the middle ages, which is in the middle of the Islamic period in the time line below and much later than the Byzantine period which included some of the Christian building that is referencing. This may be more a matter of vocabulary than airbrushing history but there is often a fine line.

We see Jerusalem change hands politically through the ages but through it all the spiritual claims of each group first begin and remain afterwards. It is clear that each group has written their own story. It has often been the case that in one parties zeal to possess Jerusalem the others have been pushed out. There are at least four perspectives: secular, Jewish, Christian, and Muslim and here they are woven together, or at least that is what I have attempted.

From the secular perspective the religious aspects are either down played or not understood. (Indeed the different religious traditions do not understand each other.) Our modern secularists see all religions as equally silly and often conflate the religious with the various political movements that have fought to control the city. (In fairness, those organizing these movements have often capitalized on the religious zeal of their followers.) The work of the secular historian, however, is useful in constructing the broad outline of the history of the city.

For everyone, knowledge of what is called the Proto-Caananite period below is limited. Society at that time was not as organized as we are today nor was there the population that we have today. The site that became Jerusalem did have water and so there is evidence of habitation around that water from 4500 BC, or so. The folks that lived there did not leave us a written record although other of that time did. We find references to Jerusalem in Egyptian writings.

In the Bible, Abraham is given the land by God but he will not possess it (Genesis 15.7; 13-14). We see here what Christians today think of as a foreshadow of the notion that it may not be the physical Jerusalem, or even the promised land, that is the important thing--faith in God is paramount. When Abraham's descendants come to claim their inheritance there are people living there (Caananites) that have a claim on the land in that they are living there. They have to fight to remove the other claimants. In the Bible story, Jerusalem does not become Jerusalem until the conquest of the city by David. Later Solomon builds the Temple in Jerusalem and the traditions that connect Jerusalem with Abraham and Adam solidify. Thorough time, Jerusalem was lost to the Jews on several occasions but the notion that Jerusalem was the center of the hope of Israel remained. Even without political control the temple observances often were able to continue.

In the book of II Kings 25 we read of the fall of the kingdom of Judah and the taking of the people into Babylonian captivity. This is the first time that the Jews lose control of Jerusalem since its conquest by David. This Babylonian captivity lasted from 586 - 538 BC. Even when the walls of the city and the temple were rebuilt (c. 516 BC) Jerusalem and the Jews were under the domination of the Persians. Religious observance at the rebuilt temple is reestablished and Jews start to live in Jerusalem again. Sovereignty over the city then moves to the Greeks (332 BC) and finally the Romans (63 BC) yet the temple remains and temple observances are generally allowed to continue, almost.

Antiochus IV Epiphanes began persecuting the Jews by outlawing Jewish tradition and worship. He ordered the Jews to worship Zeus and the supreme god which did not st well with them. In about 140 BC the Jews revolt against the Greeks and established autonomy within the Seleucid Empire. Antiochus IV Epiphanes began persecuting the Jews and outlawed This is the time of the Hasmoneans (140 - 116 BC) that give us the story that is commemorated in the Jewish feast of Hanukkah, where the Temple is purified and rededicated. When political control passes to the Romans, the Herodians, who take over from the Hasmoneans, still have limited autonomy within the Roman Empire. The Temple is expanded by Herod the Great and is often known as Herod's temple. About this the time that the Christian story begins and will eventually diverge from the Jewish story. Jesus is born in the time of Herod the Great. He is born in Bethlehem rather than Jerusalem but he comes to Jerusalem for temple ceremonies and teaching through out his lifetime. He is crucified and buried outside Jerusalem, in the time of Herod Antipas. A Christian community begins in Jerusalem but views itself as Jewish. (Christians believe that Jesus is the promised messiah of the Jews. Jews of that time and today disagree.) These early Jewish-Christians continue to use the temple as a place of worship.  Later the Christian Church becomes primarily gentile and loses its Jewishness.

The Jews continue to chafe under Roman rule and it is during the great rebellion that Jerusalem is destroyed. In 70 Titus Vespasian (a Roman) was sent in to stop the uprising and finally ends it by destroying the city. (The Great Rebellion was the first of the three Jewish-Roman wars fought between 66 and 136.)

Around 130 Hadrian thought of rebuilding Jerusalem as a gift to the Jewish people but, he was advised against it because it was thought that rebuilding the Second Temple would encourage sedition. The third Jewish-Roman war or the Bar Kochba revolt (132-136) enraged Hadrian to the point that he became determined to erase Judaism from the province. He forbade circumcision, the Roman province that had bieen called Judaea was renamed Syria Palaestina and Jews expelled from the city, except for one day each year. That day is the holiday of Tisha B'Av, the day the Jews remember the destruction of the temple and various other disasters of their history. This ban also affected Jewish Christians until the time of the Christianization of the Roman Empire in 380. The ban on the Jews would continue under Christian emperors until the 7th century.

In 135 Jerusalem was renamed Aelia Capitolina, and rebuilt it in the style of a typical Roman town. Hadrian had a Roman temple of Jupiter  built on the Temple Mount, the site of the Second Jewish Temple. He constructed a platform over the hill of Calvary and the Tomb of Jesus, erecting a statue of Jupiter over one and a temple to Venus over the other. At the same time he ordered a grove dedicated to the pagan god Adonis to be planted around the cave in Bethlehem, traditionally the birth place of Jesus. (Many think that the Romans did not understand the difference between the Jews and the Christians at this point. It may also be that the Christians did not think of themselves as different from the Jews at this point either.) Hadrian's attempts to replace Jewish and Christian worship at these sites ironically helped to preserve their identity for future generations.

Jerusalem was under Pagan control until the conversion of Constantine (c. 316). Constantine (and his mother) started the building of churches on the Christian sites. This is in the Byzantine age, which begins with Constantine, although some might consider it part of the Roman period. Some of the Christian sites were identified based on oral traditions and the locations of Hadrian's temples. The subsequent "Christianization" of the Empire happened in 380, when Theodosius issued his Edictum de fide catholica. The Christian rewriting of Jerusalem with further building would continue until the arrival of the Muslim Rashidun army.

As we see the Muslims were last to arrive, but Islam began before they did. Islam began around 610 some 300 years after Constantine. This is when Muhammad began receiving the revelations that would become the Qur'an. Islam teaches that Muhammad was sent to set right the interpolations to the ways of God that the Jews and Christians had made. (The Qur'an actually speaks highly of the prior revelations given to the Christians and Jews.)

Jerusalem was the first Qibla, the direction in which prayers are offered. In Islam, Jerusalem is also known as "the land of many prophets." Muslims revere many of the Biblical prophets, they say, the ones who taught the "oneness of God", these include Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, Solomon, and Jesus. As such Jerusalem was considered sacred from the beginning. In 621, in what the Muslims call the Isra and Mi'raj (Night Journey and Ascension). Mohamed was taken by Alah on the steed al-Buraq from Medina to Jerusalem and returned to Medina in a single night. As the distance between the two places is something like 800 miles this was a miraculous journey. In Islamic tradition this journey is thought of as being both physical and spiritual. On the journey Muhammad ascended into heaven and led many of these other prophets in prayer. The Dome of the Rock is built where Muhammad's ascent into heaven is said to have taken place. This cemented Jerusalem as a pivotal place in Islam. After this, in 622, Muslims were instructed to pray towards Mecca rather than Jerusalem for reasons that are not clear to me, at least.

Political control of Jerusalem passed to the Muslims when the Rashidun army, under the command of Abu Ubaidah, besieged Jerusalem in November 636. After six months, the the Christian Patriarch Sophronius agreed to surrender, on condition that he submit only to the Rashidun caliph. In April 637, Caliph Umar traveled to Jerusalem in person to receive the submission of the city. We should note that the Muslim conquest of the city was part of a wider military conflict between the shrinking Byzantine Empire and the expanding Islamic Empire or Califate (see Rise of Islam). This victory solidified the Arab control over Syria Palestinea as the Roman/Byzantine province was then called. This control would last until the First Crusade in the late 11th century when the European crusaders would briefly establish Crusader Kingdoms, including a Kingdom of Jerusalem, within Muslim territory.

When the Crusaders captured Jerusalem in 1099, they used the al-Aska mosque as a palace and the Dome of the Rock as a church. With varying borders the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem lasted from 1099 until 1187 when it was almost eliminated by Saladin. al-Aska became a mosque again when it was recaptured by Saladin.

Thus, Jerusalem came to be regarded as a holy site by Islam, as well as by Christianity and Judaism.

 This History section is an evolving mess of largely stolen text that traces the history of the City. The table below will contain links to a more detailed treatment.

Dates Period Highlights
4500 - 332 BC Ancient Period
  • First settlement
  • The patriarchs/Canaanites
  • Davidic kingdom.
  • The fall of Judah and the Babylonian captivity.
  • Rebuilding in the time of Ezra-Nehamiah.
332 BC - 638 Antiquity
  • Conquest by the Greeks
  • Hasmoneans
  • Herodians
  • Destruction
  • Rebuilt Roman City
  • Byzantine
638 - 1516 Middle Ages
  •  Muslim conquest - First Muslim Period
  • Crusader Conquest
  • Second Muslim Period
1516 - present Modern
  • Ottoman Period
  • British Mandate
  • Divided City
  • Reunification


Ancient Period

332 BC - 638 Antiquity

332-141 BC GreekHellenistic Kingdoms (Ptolemaic / Seleucid) period

141-37 BC Hasmonean kingdom

37 BC - 70  Herodian Period

37 BC - King Herod Restructures Second Temple (began in the days of Ezra-Nehamiah). Adds Retaining Walls and the resulting structure becomes known a Herod's Temple.
30  - Jesus Crucified by Romans in Jerusalem

70 - 324 Roman Period

70  - Roman Forces Destroy Jerusalem and Demolish Second Temple
135  - Jerusalem Rebuilt as a Roman City

324-638 Byzantine Period

335  - Church of the Holy Sepulchre Built
614  - Persians Capture Jerusalem
629  - Byzantine Christians Recapture Jerusalem from Persians

638 - 1516 Middle Ages

638-1099 First Muslim Period 

638 - Caliph Omar Enters Jerusalem
661-750 CE - Jerusalem Ruled Under Umayyad Dynasty
691 CE - Dome of the Rock Built on Site of Destroyed Jewish Temples
750-974 CE - Jerusalem Ruled Under Abassid Dynasty

1099-1187 Crusader Period

1099 CE - First Crusaders Capture Jerusalem

1187-1259 Second Muslim Period (Ayyubid Califate)

1187 CE - Saladin Captures Jerusalem from Crusaders
1229-1244 CE - Crusaders Briefly Recapture Jerusalem Two Times

1250-1516 Mamluk Sultanate

1250 - Muslim Caliph Dismantles Walls of Jerusalem; Population Rapidly Declines

1516 - present Modern

1516-1917 Ottoman Period

1517 - Ottoman Empire Captures Jerusalem
1538-1541 - Suleiman the Magnificent Rebuilds the Walls of Jerusalem

1917-1948 British Mandate

1917 - British Capture Jerusalem in World War I

1948-1967 Divided City

1948 - State of Israel Established; Jerusalem Divided By Armistice Lines Between Israel & Jordan

1967-Present  Reunification

1967 - Israel Captures Jerusalem's Old City and Eastern Half; Reunites City



* After giving this the title I struggled with the idea of a Christian Sacred City in the sence it is usually meant. The word sacred often carries mystical connotations and that is not what I mean to convey. As a protestant, I place my faith in God rather than the Church, sacraments or places. The reason that this page is here is that much of history converges on Jerusalem and that is the story I was trying to tell. 

References:  4/10/17  4/14/17  4/14/17  6/10/17  6/20/17  6/20/17 6/28/17 7/11/17