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A view of the Old City as seen from the Mount of Olives



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A Fascinating Biography of Jerusalem Tracing Its Evolution into a Global City

Jerusalem: History of a Global City, by Vincent Lemire, Katell Berthelot, Julien Loiseau, and Yann Potin. Translated by Juliana Froggatt. Oakland: University of California Press, 2022.

How do you write a biography of Jerusalem, a city of paradoxes with an overarching mythical dimension that cannot be reduced to its local history? Four French historians strive to do so in this recent biography of the city, Jerusalem: History of a Global City. In the opening paragraph of chapter 1, the authors identify the paradox of Jerusalem: At once a town with no major strategic importance, lacking desirable natural resources, it has become the nerve center of a regional conflict with global repercussions. Today, the city’s very name, uttered by millions in their weekly liturgical assemblies, symbolizes a universal eschatological hope.1

Cover of the book Jerusalem: History of a Global City

Cover of Jerusalem: History of a Global City


In the introduction, the authors describe that their aim is to write “a ground-level history, respectful of ambivalences and ambiguities, closer to the fractures of time and the spirits of places.”2 They explain that they will use as their “solid bases” both history and geography “to construct a history at once contextualized and situated, diachronic and geographic,” one of “intense interaction among [foundational monotheistic] traditions, giving rise to a large number of exchanges and transfers.”3 As for the sources, the authors use recent archaeological findings with relevance to Jerusalem in neighboring countries such as Egypt, new Ottoman municipal records made available to them, and contemporaneous accounts from diverse actors.

The authors begin their history of Jerusalem with a consideration of its geography, surrounded by three valleys and in close proximity to Gihon Spring (also known as St. Mary’s Pool or ‘Ayn Umm al-Daraj in Arabic), which permitted farming during the Bronze Age. They draw on local and regional excavations, providing evidence that either corroborates or outright refutes various biblical narratives.

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Gihon Spring, the freshwater source that enabled farming in Jerusalem in the Bronze Age

Gihon Spring, ancient Jerusalem’s major natural source of freshwater, is located near the bottom of the western slope of Wadi al-Joz. The spring attracted settlers to the area.


Courtesy of

A model of the biblical City of David

A model of the biblical City of David in the period of Herod’s Temple. The southern wall of the al-Haram al-Sharif appears at the top.



Chapter 1, the longest in the book, covers roughly 4,200 years. (The 22-page chronology at the end of the book is especially helpful in giving the reader a handle on the succession of rulers.) This chapter covers the Bronze Age, the period of Egyptian control, the Canaanite city, the City of David, and the extension to the Temple Mount. As with most historical accounts of antiquity, the authors highlight Jerusalem’s periods of wars, destruction, and reconstruction throughout this extensive span of time; they argue that the Temple of Jerusalem had “a fundamental role, at once social, political, and religious” and with its destruction and reconstruction during the sixth century BCE, “conferred on the city, little by little, its specificity and its greatness.”4

By the eighth or seventh centuries BCE, Jerusalem had experienced an urban boom and “was thus an extensive, developed, and prosperous city, a true religious and administrative center of the Kingdom of Judah” that stretched across 148 acres.5 The Babylonian invasion and destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE was followed by the Persian period and Jerusalem’s rebirth. Then, the rule of the Ptolemies during the Hellenistic era was a period of expansion across the hills to the west of the city, an area then known as the Upper City.

The archaeological evidence indicates that Jerusalem was a prosperous town in the first century. The authors describe that neighborhoods consisted of diverse populations and standards of living, largely thanks to King Herod, who was an enthusiastic builder, leaving his mark on the city and beyond, including the palaces of Jericho. In Jerusalem, he built two towers and a palace in what is now the Old City’s Armenian Quarter; he restored Jerusalem’s first wall and built a second one; and he renovated and enlarged the Temple, with impressive results. By 45 CE, the city covered 1.8 square kilometers and was home to 90,000 residents. It also became “a city of pilgrimage, to a degree never before reached in its history.”6

Graphic Snapshot of Jerusalem’s Diverse History

A look back at Jerusalem’s rulers since ancient times and the city’s population based on more recent censuses

A model of the Second Jewish Temple, located in the Israel Museum

A model of the Second Jewish Temple, located in the Israel Museum



By 45 CE, the city covered 1.8 square kilometers and was home to 90,000 residents.

Pool of Siloam, which was filled by the Gihon Spring

The Pool of Siloam, or Birkat Silwan in Arabic, probably taken in the early 20th century. Located on the southern slope of Wadi Hilweh in Silwan, the pool was fed by the waters of the Gihon Spring.


Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division [LC-DIG-matpc-04953]

Sketch of water sources of Jerusalem

Sketch of water sources of Jerusalem from the 1865 Ordnance Survey of Jerusalem’s Old City (map)


Wikimedia Commons

As for the crucifixion of Christ, believed today to be the watershed event of Pilate’s prefecture, the authors have the following to say:

Thus when Pilate, the prefect from 26 to 36, took funds from the Temple’s treasury to construct an additional aqueduct intended for the city’s growing water needs, the locals, viewing this as a profanation, gathered to protest, and the resulting repression caused many deaths. In comparison, the crucifixion of Jesus during Pilate’s prefecture was just a detail in the city’s story, an ordinary measure whose consequences for human history no one could have predicted.7

War broke out with Rome and dragged on for seven years between 66 and 73 CE, during which the Temple was destroyed yet again, followed by looting and “a veritable slaughter.”8 The center of Judaism thus moved toward the Galilee and the coast. Jerusalem was rebuilt in accordance with a Roman plan, but it was “dethroned,” rendering it little more than a Roman colony.

Chapter 2 covers 500 years, picking up the story from the destruction of the Second Temple to the Arab conquest between 635 and 638 CE. The authors describe these years as “the era when it was the privileged theater of the long genesis and refinement of the three monotheisms,” and “without doubt the least well documented period in Jerusalem’s history.”9 They explain how Jerusalem became a provincial city during the first two centuries in examination, an ecclesiastical district headed by a bishop, and a place of pilgrimage.

The authors identify the imperial decisions to destroy and then reconstruct Jerusalem under Hadrian as stemming from the same goal: ending the Jewish presence in Jerusalem first through annihilation and then by covering the former city with a new Roman colony, including the incorporation of the Second Temple’s sacredness into the Roman pantheon of divinities. The Roman emperor Constantine converted to Christianity in 312, but this should not be seen as ushering in a new Christian era; the authors argue that it is more useful to see a continuity between imperial policy and Christianity as the new state religion.

Nor did Christianity neatly sweep away the pagan period that preceded it; the authors describe the first phase of Jerusalem’s Christianization as one of “fragility and ambiguity.”10 By the fifth century, Christianity had a firm footing in Jerusalem; the city was a patriarchate, it had monasteries and convents, the worship of local saints was part of the calendar, and facilities were established to accommodate pilgrims.

The fourth-century Church of the Holy Sepulchre

The fourth-century Church of the Holy Sepulchre (also known as the Church of the Resurrection), considered to be the holiest site for Christians in the world



Within roughly a quarter of a century, control of Jerusalem changed hands three times: from the Byzantines to the Persians in 614; from the Persians to the Byzantines in 628; and from the Byzantines to the Arabs between 635 and 638. According to the authors, neither the date nor the identity of the Arab leader who laid siege to Jerusalem has been identified with certainty; they reductively attribute this to the Arab Empire being “still too young and too unsure of its destiny to write its own history.”11

By the fifth century, Christianity had a firm footing in Jerusalem.

Caliphs ruled Jerusalem from the 7th to the 11th centuries (chapter 3). The authors describe the arrival of Caliph Omar ibn al-Khattab to Jerusalem and his integration of Jerusalem into the new Islamic order. The Dome of the Rock is described in detail and shown to present both harbingers of End Times as well as a link between Jerusalem and the Prophet’s Night Journey:

The Dome of the Rock was thus at the end of the seventh century a central part of the affirmation of Islam’s superiority over the two old Religions of the Book, respectable witnesses of the laws previously revealed to humankind but now obsolete and outdated. The Islamization of a major place of remembrance associated with Abraham, ancestor of the three monotheisms, in the same city as the Basilica of the Anastasis (Church of the Holy Sepulchre) meant not only the appropriation of the Holy Land by but also a conclusion of sacred history favoring its sole legitimate heirs, the Muslims.12

By the end of the 10th century, the city was referred to by its residents as al-Quds, though scholars and geographers also used the term Bayt al-Maqdis.

Al-Aqsa Mosque, originally built in the seventh century, is one of the Islamic holy sites in the al-Haram al-Sharif.

An aerial view of al-Aqsa Mosque, originally built in the seventh century. It is one of the Islamic holy sites in the al-Haram al-Sharif.



So what was it like to live in Jerusalem in the year 1000? Geographer al-Muqaddasi described it as a wonderful place to live, with its stone houses, plentiful water, clean markets, delicious produce, pleasant inhabitants, numerous places of worship, and more. The city had a majority Christian population and a vibrant Jewish community. But between then and the First Crusade in 1096, the city experienced a “period of tribulations” in the form of the partial destruction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, ordered by a caliph in Cairo; an earthquake, which destroyed the al-Aqsa Mosque and parts of the Old City walls; and conquest by the Seljuk Turks in the 1070s.13

By the end of the 10th century, the city was referred to by its residents as al-Quds.

The First Crusade swept in to “liberate” Jerusalem from the Muslims in mid-July 1099, and what the Crusaders did during the less than nine decades of their presence in Jerusalem is the subject of chapter 4. As the Crusaders approached Jerusalem, the Arab Fatimids who were in power expelled the city’s Christians and banned them from return out of fear they would betray them and aid the invading forces. Upon seizing the city, the Franks massacred an estimated 3,000 Muslims and Jews at the al-Haram al-Sharif. But the Franks did not allow the Christians to return; the authors observe that the Franks regarded Jerusalem’s Christians, who did not pay homage to Rome, as heretical, with strange customs and beliefs.

With the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate exiled, the Catholic Crusaders set up a Frankish Kingdom in Jerusalem, and all subsequent Frankish kings were coronated and buried in the Holy Sepulchre, the seat of the Latin Patriarchate. The authors identify as the main legacies of the First Crusades the delineation of the Via Dolorosa, which formed part of Jerusalem’s Christian topography, and the architecture and decorative flourishes of the more than 80 churches they built.

A 19th-century painting by Émil Signol titled “Taking of Jerusalem by the Crusaders, 15th July 1099.”

A 19th-century painting by Émil Signol titled “Taking of Jerusalem by the Crusaders, 15th July 1099.” The Crusaders recaptured Jerusalem from the Muslims in 1099 during the First Crusade, which lasted from 1096 to 1099.


World History

Painting by Francisco Hayez, Crusaders Thirsting near Jerusalem, 1836–50

Oil painting by Italian artist Francisco Hayez titled “Crusaders Thirsting near Jerusalem,” 1836–50



But following the expulsion of the city’s Christians and the slaughter of its Muslims and Jews, the biggest problem the Crusaders faced was repopulating the city, which had become a ghost town. According to the account of William of Tyre, the Frankish king wanted to “obtain citizens” and found Christian candidates in what is today Jordan; he sent for them, and they came.14 In 1115, Melchites, Maronites, and Jacobites from Syria, followed by Christians from overseas places, were invited to settle in the Holy City. Thus, by the mid-12th century, Jerusalem was a prosperous city again, thanks in part to the pilgrim economy and the establishment of hospitals and hospices.

But barely 87 years after the Franks took control of Jerusalem—a city, the authors remind us, “of only secondary military importance”15—they were ousted by the Muslim warrior Salah al-Din al-Ayyubi in 1187 after a two-week siege (chapter 5). The city thus came back under Muslim rule, and the authors describe the work performed on the al-Haram al-Sharif to restore its function as a Muslim site of worship. This included replacing place names, creating access points to the sanctuary, and performing fortification work in preparation for the next siege.

Indeed, Jerusalem changed hands many times over the centuries; even its capture by the Crusaders, which seems significant to readers today, was seen at the time as “just another episode”16 in the ongoing war against the Byzantines. But under the Ayyubids, attention was given to turning Jerusalem into an Islamic city, though Jews were allowed to remain and the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate was allowed to return from exile. In the authors’ elegant wording: “The resettlement of Jews in Jerusalem is paradoxically the most eloquent testimony of the Holy City’s return to the Abode of Islam.”17

Church of St. Anne in Jerusalem, completed in 1138

The Church of St. Anne, completed in 1138, was built in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City. When Salah al-Din al-Ayyubi captured Jerusalem in 1187, he did not demolish the church, but turned it into a madrasa (school).



Coin dated 1190–1191 showing Salah al-Din al-Ayyubi sitting cross-legged on a high-backed throne

Coin dated 1190–1191 showing Salah al-Din al-Ayyubi sitting cross-legged on a high-backed throne


Classical Numismatic Group, Inc.

The authors summarize Salah al-Din’s accomplishments over a four-year period:

From a topographic point of view, his foundations tightly framed the city’s highest place of Christian devotion: the Church of the Holy Sepulchre now found itself between the Salahiyya Khanqah and ‘Umar’s oratory. From an institutional point of view, they covered the whole spectrum of pious works for the greater glory of Islam with which Sunni rulers now sought to associate their names: the care of the poor (the zawiya and the hospital), the training of men of law and religion (the madrasa), the mystical exaltation of God (the khanqah). In accordance with Shafi‘i law, Saladin built no new Friday mosque in the city (Jerusalem already had one, Al-Aqsa, incomparable in all respects) but instead a simple oratory, the Masjid ‘Umar, intended as a reminder that the conquest of 1187 was a reconquest, five centuries after the caliph’s legendary entry into the Holy City.18

Salah al-Din died in 1193. By the terms of the Treaty of Jaffa, concluded in 1229, control over Jerusalem was divided between the Franks, who took charge of the city, and the al-Haram al-Sharif, which remained within the Abode of Islam. The city changed hands seven more times before the Turkic Mamluks seized control after their victory against the Mongols in Ayn Jalut in 1260, ushering in a period of relative stability to Jerusalem that lasted for over six centuries. Indeed, for the city’s inhabitants, the Ottoman conquest in 1516–17 simply replaced one Turkic dynasty with another.

“The resettlement of Jews in Jerusalem is paradoxically the most eloquent testimony of the Holy City’s return to the Abode of Islam.”

The authors, Jerusalem: History of a Global City

The Ottomans’ 400-year rule of Jerusalem is the subject of chapter 6, and from the outset, the authors make clear that they reject the Western view that the Ottoman period was one of “prolonged fall” for Jerusalem. Far from being in decline, the authors assert, Europeans had simply lost interest in the city with the end of the Crusades, and so, paid little attention to what the Turkic rulers of the city were up to. Between the mid-13th century and the early 16th century, the Mamluks established at least 86 pious institutions in Jerusalem. And it was under the Ottomans that Jerusalem flourished even more, notably during the reign of Sultan Suleiman I, who oversaw the construction of the majestic Old City walls, intact to this day, between 1535 and 1542.

The authors argue that Jerusalem underwent major changes beginning in the mid-19th century: between 1850 and 1914, the population grew from 15,000 to 70,000, and the city expanded beyond the walls Suleiman I built. Administratively, the Ottomans turned Jerusalem into a mutasarrifate—“an autonomous regional capital” with a direct link to Istanbul—in 1872.19 Palestine was in the geographic center of the Ottoman Empire, and Jerusalem was an essential link in the network of major cities, including Nablus, Bethlehem, and Hebron.

Distant view of Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives

Distant view of Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives, 1850–60, under Ottoman rule


Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division [LC-USZC4-8592]

Under the Ottomans, a municipal council was established in Jerusalem beginning in the 1860s, whose work the authors are able to describe thanks to recently discovered records. These documents describe confrontations between the council and foreign consulates, who were meddling in local affairs. The authors note that “under the religious and community categories definitely observed by outside observers, other categories and other conflicts are perceptible if one takes the trouble to read local sources.”20 For example, the records show the participation of the city’s residents in collective discussions around taxation and the price of food, which concerned them all irrespective of religion. Similarly, the authors explain why the schematic of the Old City as one divided into four quarters is both simplistic and erroneous, failing to acknowledge the diversity found in its neighborhoods. Indeed, before Britain’s occupation of Palestine in 1917, the identity of Jerusalem’s residents was not compartmentalized or rigidly sectarian.

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Jerusalem from the southwest, 1898–1914

Jerusalem from the southwest, 1898–1914


Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division [LC-DIG-matpc-06584]

The authors make clear that they reject the Western view that the Ottoman period was one of “prolonged fall” for Jerusalem.

Photo of a Jerusalem alley taken between 1898 and 1914

A Jerusalem alley, ca. 1898–1914


Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division [LC-DIG-matpc-04868]

The last chapter deals with Jerusalem under the Colonial British Mandate and Israeli occupation. After relative stability under the Ottomans for four centuries, the city fell in 1917 into the careless, incompetent, and duplicitous hands of the British. For 30 years, British Mandate authorities oversaw the intercommunal unrest between the minority Jews—to whom they had promised support for the establishment of a Jewish national home in Palestine—and Palestinian Arabs, the majority, who were demanding self-determination in accordance with the terms of the covenant of the League of Nations, to which Britain was supposedly subordinate.

Symbolic of British ineptitude is their first act upon arrival in Palestine: the demolition of the clock tower just outside Jerusalem’s Jaffa Gate. It was “the first interfaith monument” and “the bearer of a shared modernity” in Jerusalem, built at the end of the Ottoman period barely 11 years earlier; but the new overlords found it inconsistent with “the authentic biblical and medieval image” they thought Jerusalem should convey.21 This destruction of a landmark of great significance to the native population is symbolic of the violence and ignorance with which British Mandate forces would rule for three decades, overseeing the initial phase of ethnic cleansing of Palestine that persists to this day under Israeli rule.

After relative stability under the Ottomans for four centuries, the city fell in 1917 into the careless, incompetent, and duplicitous hands of the British.

In 1948, Israel was created, and Jerusalem was divided between east and west. The far smaller eastern part was incorporated into Jordan and became a marginalized city; it was no longer an Arab capital, a focus of attention for Palestinians as it had been during the mandate. Israel, on the other hand, declared the far larger western side to be its capital, renaming it West Jerusalem.

After the 1967 War and Israel’s occupation of East Jerusalem, Israel unilaterally claimed to “unite” the two halves of the city, but in reality, they remain profoundly divided. Soon after the conquest, Israel moved to establish so-called facts on the ground to support “the exclusively religious link that united the Jewish people in Jerusalem.”22 Toward that end, and within days of occupying the city, Israel demolished the Moroccan Quarter (Haret al-Maghariba) of the Old City to construct the prayer plaza in front of the Western Wall, expelling the area’s non-Jewish residents and creating a space that would become the state’s “symbolic heart.”

Backgrounder The West Side Story, Part 4: The Erasure of the New City and Its Transformation into Jewish West Jerusalem

Jerusalem’s New City was violently transformed and severed from the rest of Jerusalem, its Palestinian inhabitants exiled and banned from returning to this day.

Although the Old City had not been central to Zionist ideology, after the 1967 occupation, it became “one of the main symbolic centers” of the state, and Israeli forces took to transforming it.23 As the authors explain, one of the main ways they did so was through redrawing the municipal boundaries of the city, which was hotly debated; ministers wanted to expand the territorial boundaries but did not want to accept the Palestinians living on the lands in question as residents.

The authors conclude that no matter how one looks at it, Israel’s purported goal of uniting the two parts of Jerusalem failed. Indeed, the encirclement of Jerusalem with Jewish-only settlements denotes not an integrated city with residents treated as equals, but rather, separate communities, one of which is insidiously being supplanted by members of the other.

Backgrounder The History of Israeli Settlement Expansion in and around East Jerusalem from 1967 to 1993

From 1967 to 1993, successive Israeli governments laid the foundations for an expanding settlement enterprise to Judaize Jerusalem and its surroundings.

The chapter ends with a review of the spatial and living conditions of Jerusalem’s residents to demonstrate that two very different Jerusalems exist. The Israeli-occupied Arab Palestinian eastern part of the city amounts to 37 percent of the territory of Jerusalem but receives only 13 percent of the municipal budget. What’s more, Israeli municipal restrictions on Palestinian residential expansion contribute to a severe housing crisis in East Jerusalem. Indeed, overcrowding is a feature of Palestinian life in Jerusalem, with 37 percent of homes including six or more people compared to 8 percent of Jewish Israeli homes with that number of residents.24

Blog Post Colonial Jerusalem

Colonial Jerusalem, written by Thomas Abowd in 2014, seems more relevant today than ever. A book review. 

The authors conclude that no matter how one looks at it, Israel’s purported goal of uniting the two parts of Jerusalem failed.

In terms of demographics, the authors indicate that about 30,000 Muslim and Christian Arabs and 40,000 Jews lived in Jerusalem in 1914 (43 percent vs. 57 percent); in the 2020s, the city had a population of 800,000, of which 300,000 were Palestinian Muslims and Christians and 500,000 were Israeli Jews (37.5 percent vs. 62.5 percent).25 

As for geography, on the eve of World War I, Jerusalem’s New City covered less than 4 square miles, and by the 2020s, it was about 77 square miles. These changes were not natural, but rather the result of deliberate policies designed to transform what had been a universal city into a political capital for Israel, even as it was simultaneously claimed by Palestinians.

Backgrounder The West Side Story, Part 1: Jerusalem before “East” and “West”

Before 1948, Jerusalem was not split between an “East” and a “West.” Rather, a cosmopolitan, multiethnic New City grew organically out of the Old City.

Cityscape of the Old City of Jerusalem, a UNESCO heritage site

Cityscape of the Old City of Jerusalem, a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) heritage site


UNESCO stock photo via Getty Images

In the conclusion, the authors return to the theme with which they began the book: the challenges of writing about a place that is “first and foremost an imaginary, imagined, transportable, projectable, and finally fantasized city.”26 This wonderfully written biography of Jerusalem for non-historians who want to get a better understanding of this abused city eloquently illustrates why Israeli policies to maintain Jewish dominance in the city are so unworthy of its rich and diverse history, such a regressive derailment from the promise it held before its occupation in the early 20th century.



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