By Irfan Husain
January 17, 2015
MORE blood has been spilt on the ancient streets of Jerusalem over a longer period of time than in any other city. A succession of conquerors and raiders have razed and pillaged the city, while many rulers have rebuilt it, adding to its jumble of holy sites. Its name has become intertwined with all three great monotheist faiths.
Like moths to a flame they have come: pilgrims and priests; Faqirs and frauds; messiahs and mendicants; heroes and harlots; cutthroats and kings. Dynasties rose and fell. But despite the unending conflict over who should own Jerusalem, one community has clung on tenaciously: the Jews.
For Jews, the dream of a final return to the city King David made his own has — together with their holy texts — allowed them to sustain a sense of nationhood in the long centuries in the Diaspora. But Jerusalem has been populated since 5000 BC, and mention of the city has been found in ancient Egyptian records dating back to around 1500 BC.
Many have razed and pillaged the holy city.
Until recently, I had only a vague idea of the intense pull the city exercises on religious Jews, Christians and Muslims, but without really understanding how a city could be the focus of so much possessive zeal and fervour. However, after reading Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Jerusalem: A Biography, I now have a better understanding of the passions Jerusalem arouses.
This is a work of enormous ambition, scope and erudition. Montefiore is best known for his two volumes on Stalin, and despite his family’s close association with Jerusalem and the Jewish cause in the 19th and 20th centuries, he remains strictly neutral. Sifting through the claims and counter-claims made by partisan observers and historians, the author takes no sides in the unending debate.
Meticulously, Montefiore takes the reader from the earliest origins of the city to its fiercely contested status now. From David’s dynasty, we pass on to the Persians, the Macedonians, the Maccabees, the Romans, the Herodians, and the Byzantines.
In 636, a Muslim army under Abu Ubbaidah besieged Jerusalem, and the Patriarch surrendered the following year. Muslim rule over the city, much of it relatively tolerant for the times, continued unbroken until the First Crusade in the late 11th century. The Dome of the Rock was completed in 691, and the Muslim rulers of Jerusalem went on to add a number of mosques and other glorious buildings.
In this period, Jerusalem remained a holy city for Muslims, Jews and Christians. The latter came annually at Easter from West and East for a pilgrimage at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, as well as the sites associated with Jesus Christ. They were heavily taxed by the Fatimid rulers of the city based in Cairo, and often harassed and robbed by Arab raiders.
In 1000, Hakim succeeded his father Aziz as the Fatimid caliph, and soon abandoned the traditional tolerance that had prevailed in Jerusalem. He is said to have destroyed the Jewish Quarter and razed the Church of the Holy Sepulchre ‘stone by stone’, going on to pull down synagogues and churches throughout the city, and then proceeded to ban Ramzan and persecute Sunnis and Shias alike.
Mercifully, the caliph, still only 36, rode out of Cairo and disappeared into the hills. But the effects of his rampage reverberated, albeit slowly: the first Crusader army, inspired by Pope Urban II, did not reach Jerusalem until 1099. After the Crusaders finally broke through the Muslim defences, a most fearsome slaughter ensued, terrifying even by the standards of those days. Montefiore quotes an exultant eyewitness:
“Wonderful sights were to be seen. Our men cut off the heads of their enemies … Piles of heads, feet and hands were to be seen on the streets. It was necessary to pick one’s way over the bodies of men and horses … they rode in blood up to their bridles. Indeed it was a just and splendid judgment of God that this place [Al Aqsa Mosque] should be filled with the blood of unbelievers.”
In 1187, Jerusalem was reconquered by Salahuddin Ayubi, and remained under Muslim control until the 20th century when the Ottomans were defeated in the First World War, and the British ruled Palestine until the creation of Israel in 1948. Since then it has been deeply contested with Israel claiming it as the ‘Eternal Capital’ of the Jews, while the Palestinians insist that it will also be the capital of their own state if and when one comes into being.
Somebody associated with the unending negotiations between Israel and Palestinians once said the latter never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity. One such came in 1931 when the British proposed the partition of Palestine with 70pc going to the Arabs, 20pc to the Jews, with the rest for Jerusalem which would be an international city supervised by the British. While Ben-Gurion, the first Israeli prime minister, accepted the proposal, the Arabs rejected it out of hand. The rest is history.