Much will be said and written over the coming months about the future of Jerusalem, especially of its oldest core. To come to reasonable solutions to the political problems requires a firm knowledge of what the city is and what it means to so many. For 1400 years it was ruled, built, and rebuilt by several Muslim regimes. Collectively, they gave to the city its present appearance. The lines that follow are simply an introduction to a rich visual and emotional history.
A Persian miniature of the 14th century, now kept in an Istanbul museum, shows the prophet Muhammad in conversation with a group of notables from “Mekka,” the holy city of ancient Arabia and of all Muslims. Above the prophet, the archangel Gabriel is represented carrying a toy-like city with walls, buildings, and even a river meandering through it. The city is Jerusalem.
Muhammad, it turns out, was describing to a skeptical audience his recent night-journey to Jerusalem on the way to his ascension into the heavens and his encounter with the divine world. The audience asked him to describe to them a city they knew he had never visited as a regular traveling merchant and Gabriel uprooted the city and set it in front of the Prophet’s eyes, so he could persuade everyone of the truth of his account.
Whether the Old City of Jerusalem will succeed in preserving its uniqueness with the onslaught of modernism and the Middle East peace process is anybody’s guess.
The painting is remarkable in several ways. One is that the Jerusalem carried by Gabriel bears little resemblance to the real city, thus illustrating a point about Jerusalem which has been true for centuries, that its shape and meaning are as much figments of many imaginations as they are parts of a construction created by man in beautiful Palestinian stone. Another is that Jerusalem appears as a walled city without surroundings, as though hanging alone in the air.
The historical city of Jerusalem, known as the Old City, remains strikingly separated visually from the modern city. It is more or less square, surrounded by walls, and only accessible through a limited number of often elaborate gates. Except to the north, where a fairly busy new city almost abuts the walls of the old, its surroundings are empty of living quarters and contain only a few monuments: Mt. Sion (to the southwest), a cemetery on a steep slope (east), ruins partly transformed into a park (southeast), and vehicle access to the west.
Within the walled enclosure, the most visible space, occupying nearly one fifth of the city, is a large platform alternately called the Temple Mount, because it was the location of Solomon’s Temple, or the Haram al-Sharif, the Muslim “Noble Sanctuary.” And there are a host of Muslim holy spaces, many connected with the night-journey of the Prophet, with two large mosques and the Dome of the Rock. Built in 691 AD, the Dome is a rare example of architecture from the ancient world that has maintained its shape and much of its decoration since its creation. The size of the Haram was the one established for the Second or Third Jewish Temple built by Herod the Great in the first years AD.
The rest of the city is divided by a few long streets dating from the Roman city of the first century AD into quarters of uneven sizes and shapes. There is a Jewish quarter to the south, now dominated by a large open space in front of the Western wall of the Herodian Temple/Haram al-Sharif, a space used for a variety of secular and pious, private or public, ceremonies.
There is a small Armenian quarter in the southwest that accommodates a large church and monastery and buildings for living or commercial activities. The Christian quarter in the northwestern section of the city is centered on the Holy Sepulcher, a large sanctuary dedicated to the crucifixion and burial of Christ, which also contains churches and ecclesiastical establishments belonging to nearly all the traditional divisions of the Christian world. All Christian denominations except Protestant ones share the administration of the Holy Sepulcher, sometimes with embarrassing conflicts, like the recent fisticuffs between Greek and Armenian monks.
The center of the city and its northeastern area is Muslim and consists mostly of dwellings, with a few administrative and commercial institutions. These divisions are not absolute and there are enclaves of groups within sections other than their own. Thus the Via Dolorosa and its small sanctuaries used for Christian Good Friday processions begins in the Muslim quarter and ends at the Holy Sepulcher.
The division of the city into quarters defined by religions is a creation of the Muslim rule of Jerusalem under the Mamluks (1260-1520), who ruled from Cairo, and was continued by the Ottomans (1520-1917) from Istanbul. The division was a way of maintaining peace between factions having a pious claim on Jerusalem. The city became and still is the best preserved late medieval Muslim city in existence. Its massive walls were rebuilt in the 16th century under the rule of the Ottoman sultan Suleyman the Magnificent, who shared a name with Solomon, the founder of the Jewish holy city and capital. And it is under Suleyman’s rule that the Dome of the Rock acquired the brilliantly colorful tiles, restored in recent decades, which make the building shine amidst the stones of the city.
The beauty of the Dome of the Rock served a Muslim holy purpose, but the construction of the walls contributed less to the defense of the city than to maintain its carefully studied equilibrium under Muslim law. Whether the city will succeed in preserving its uniqueness with the onslaught of modernism is anybody’s guess.
Oleg Grabar is professor emeritus at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, and author of The Dome of the Rock, Harvard University Press, (2006).