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Stories from the Old City: Matthew Teller’s Nine Quarters of Jerusalem

Nine Quarters of Jerusalem: A New Biography of the Old City, by Matthew Teller. London: Profile Books and New York: Other Press, 2022.

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Stories are the point of this book . . . . I wrote it to address the imbalance in stories—or narratives, or ideas—that exist about Jerusalem in my culture, English-speaking culture. Palestinian lives and voices have been too often excluded. I wanted to use my platform to try to help redress the balance.1

Over the course of more than 330 pages, the author of Nine Quarters of Jerusalem, journalist and filmmaker Matthew Teller, does just that: He introduces us to the people he meets and talks to, who tell him their stories, and to whom he listens with an open heart and an engaged intellect. But the book is also the story of a place: Jerusalem’s Old City—a city regarded as holy and as always on edge, a symbol of peace that is anything but peaceful.

How does one write a biography of a place? And clearly this is not just any place. As Ibn ‘Abbas, cousin of the Prophet Muhammad, reportedly said with delightful exaggeration: “There is not an inch in Jerusalem where a prophet has not prayed or an angel has not stood.”2 Beyond its religious significance, it is also a space marred by division. As Teller points out, every map of the Old City since the second half of the 19th century has shown it as a space consisting of four artificial quadrants, or quarters—Muslim, Christian, Armenian, and Jewish. But Teller rejects this schematic rendition and asks who came up with the idea of neat residential quarters where ethnic and sectarian groups know their place and cluster mindlessly with their own kind.

The UK edition of Matthew Teller’s Nine Quarters of Jerusalem: A New Biography of the Old City

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Matthew Teller

The US edition of Matthew Teller’s Nine Quarters of Jerusalem: A New Biography of the Old City

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Matthew Teller

How does one write a biography of a place?

The Origin of the Flawed Concept of Quarters

Teller traces the conceptualization of the Old City in terms of ethnic and sectarian clusters to George Williams, a British chaplain who traveled to Jerusalem in 1841. As Teller remarks, Williams must have been bewildered by the mélange of ethnicities living their lives within the walls of the Old City, and he needed a quick fix on how to wrap his brain around it all. And so he came up with the idea of quarters, which made sense to an outsider but would have been irrelevant to local residents, so accustomed were they to the mix of humanity that defined the walled city. How could a majority Muslim country have a “Muslim Quarter,” one might ask? Would London have an “Anglican Quarter” or Rome a “Catholic Quarter”? On a related matter, what would explain giving a small ethnic minority, the Armenians, their own quarter? Perhaps more to the point, Old City residents were oblivious to the demarcations and lived wherever they chose. Nevertheless, the quarter idea made sense to the colonial mind—it had a certain order and simplicity to it.

In 1841, the first map of Jerusalem’s Old City naming the four quarters was drawn. In 1849, George Williams labeled it.

Teller points out another simplistic British colonial schematic, that of the “Old City” vs. the “New City” division of Jerusalem. For Teller, “Jerusalem had always been one city, having conversations with itself along multiple axes of influence. [British people’s] inability to imagine its possessing an identity that superceded their own preoccupations of sect and ethnicity led directly to war and the partition that lingers today.”3 Fundamentally, then, Teller locates the sectarian and ethnic tensions and battles that continue to define much of Jerusalem’s modern history since the late 19th century in the colonial, divisive foundations of British rule in the region.

Williams’s 1849 division of the Old City into four quarters has become a standard depiction of the city. Here, tourist maps in the Old City feature the four quarters distinctly.

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AramcoWorld

“A City of Icebergs”

Moving on from colonial legacies in the region, Teller describes Jerusalem as “a city of icebergs.” He elaborates: “What you see here is only ever the ten per cent above the surface, and if you attempt to navigate on the evidence of your eyes alone, you may find yourself holed beneath the waterline and sinking fast.”4 And so he listens and digs below the surface of what is visible.

And he describes what he sees and hears as he enters the Old City through its gates—because how Jerusalem looks to him “depends [on] which gate you walk in through.”5

 

View of the Damascus Gate, north of the Old City, 1904–8

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Wikipedia

View of the Damascus Gate, northern facade, 1920

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Wikipedia

View of the northern facade of the Damascus Gate, 2010

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Wikipedia

Teller devotes a chapter to each gate and describes its ambience and the people he meets there; a few are highlighted here.

Bab al-Amud/Damascus Gate, a main entry point to the Old City, is associated with activity. Among the places of interest in its vicinity are the main souk street, Khan al-Zeit; the Spafford Children’s Center, started by the American Colony as a philanthropic project to serve Jerusalem’s children; and Izhiman Coffee.

Bab al-Zahra/Herod’s Gate takes us to Burj al-Luqluq, a community center that offers a safe space for children to play sports, learn skills, and attend programs.

Photo Essay The Gates of the Old City

A quick guide to the often-confusing gates to the Old City of Jerusalem

Bab Haret al-Maghariba/The Moroccan Gate, doorway to the al-Aqsa Mosque compound, was once an entry point to the Moroccan Quarter, but a month after Israel occupied East Jerusalem, including the Old City, in June 1967, it razed the quarter’s 137 homes to create a prayer plaza in front of the Western Wall (see The Destruction of Jerusalem’s Moroccan Quarter: From Centuries-Old Maghrebi Community to Western Wall Prayer Plaza). Teller names the families who were made homeless by the bulldozers and introduces us to the daughter of one of those families who recounts the agonizing destruction.

Then, Bab al-Khalil/Jaffa Gate offers a whiff of the city’s “colonial legacy.” It is a disquieting place, made so in part by the Palestinian-owned hotels located just inside the gate that have withstood ongoing threats of Israeli confiscation.

The remaining gates, and the people he meets in their vicinity, are also given their due, in rich and nuanced descriptions.

Burj al-Luqluq Social Center Society

A sports and play area that provides a breathing space for residents within the congested Old City and offers educational and cultural programs

Inside of the Jaffa Gate, western side of the Old City, 1908–22. On the right is the clock tower, built by the Ottomans in 1907. The clock tower on the gate was taken down and moved by the British in 1922.

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Wikipedia

British General Edmund Allenby led the British conquest of Jerusalem from the Ottomans in 1917. Here, he walks through Jaffa Gate into the Old City, marking the British victory.

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Wikipedia

The Jaffa Gate, left, with the Tower of David on the right, 2010

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Wikipedia

A Place of Scents . . . and Cameras

For Teller, Jerusalem is a place of scents, and cumin evokes it powerfully. Conversely, he conveys the sharply contrasting atmosphere of the Jewish Quarter in this minimalist description:

Enter Jerusalem’s Jewish Quarter, though, and you enter a place apart. It’s unmistakable. You hear no Arabic. You smell no cumin. You see no checkpoints staffed by armed police.

And everything, or almost everything, is new.6

Even those who are familiar with Israel’s role in making and exporting weapons and high-tech surveillance software to repressive governments across the world may not be aware of the extent to which Israel surveils the walled city and its 35,000 residents—90 percent of whom are Palestinian and 66 percent of whom are younger than age 30.7 Teller tells us: “Israeli police in a remote control centre monitor a network of 400 CCTV cameras, watching every street and alleyway in the Old City 24/7.” He elaborates that Israel uses satellite technology to track “the movement of individual smartphones through the street, while drones monitor activity from the air.”8

Evoking the Throne of God

One of the things that makes this book so compelling is the author’s ability to take the familiar and make readers see it with new eyes. His description of the Dome of the Rock, whose image is ubiquitous, still manages to convey the awesomeness of the place. He compares it to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, showing how it rejects that aesthetic influence, and continues:

It was also shatteringly, Islamically original. The Quran’s account of the Day of Judgement (69:15–18) speaks of the heavens splitting open and eight angels bearing God’s throne to the place of judgement, the Rock in Jerusalem: this ethereally beautiful building, compellingly, was nothing less than an evocation of the octagonal Throne of God itself. Façade-less and focus-less, it has no main entrance and no interior direction: function and form are one. . . . And the dome itself, rather than being an external consequence of interior design, as at, say, the Holy Sepulchre, has its own dynamic, designed as a visual magnet to draw attention from afar.9

The exterior of the Dome of the Rock, taken from the Temple Mount

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Wikipedia

Ornate details of the inside of the Dome of the Rock

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Wikipedia

A Mélange of Communities

This biography introduces communities that might not be familiar to readers. For instance, I was personally aware that the Old City housed a Sufi community, but the existence of the Dom—whose ancestors settled in northern and western Europe and are referred to as Roma—came as news to me. I was also unaware about the Karaite Jews, a small community whose prayer motions are similar to Muslims’. While they consider themselves to be Jewish, they are not recognized as such by the Chief Rabbinate.

Jerusalem’s Remarkable Women

Teller devotes a chapter to remarkable women who either come from Jerusalem or passed through it. These figures range from Rabi‘a al-‘Adawiyya, the Muslim saint and poet buried in Jerusalem and known to all schoolchildren, to the Jerusalem icon Hind al-Husseini, who established an orphanage for the surviving children of the Deir Yassin massacre and spent her life promoting female education.

The female figures less likely to be known to readers are Armenian-born Melisende, who ruled a Crusader kingdom for 30 years until her death in 1161; Roxelana, a Ukrainian girl kidnapped from her town in the 16th century and placed in Sultan Suleiman’s harem as a concubine but who managed to persuade him to marry her and wielded considerable power in her own right; Bayram, a self-taught and authoritative educator who lectured on Islam to Jerusalem’s women in the 15th century; and a few others he names who were living their lives on their own terms centuries ago.

Bio Hind Taher al-Husseini

A formidable figure who dedicated her life to the care of orphans, education of girls and women, preservation of Palestinian culture, and social service

Other Highlights

No biography of the Old City would be complete without mention of its thriving ceramics industry and Via Dolorosa, the street that draws Christians from around the world, and Teller devotes a chapter to each.

The Old City ceramics industry dates to the early days of the British Mandate, when British authorities recruited David Ohannessian, a master ceramicist, and the artisans he in turn recruited to repair the Dome of the Rock tiles.

The Via Dolorosa—the route Jesus is said to have walked while carrying the cross to Golgotha—has 14 clearly marked stations denoting phases and events during that burdened walk, and Teller informs us that the locations are all fictitious (as are several of the events).

Blog Post The Origins of an Iconic Jerusalem Art Form: Armenian Ceramics

We review the book Feast of Ashes, by Sato Moughalian, which chronicles the origins of the Armenian ceramic tradition in Jerusalem, first introduced there by the author’s grandfather, a refugee from the Armenian genocide. 

One of the things that makes this book so compelling is the author’s ability to take the familiar and make readers see it with new eyes.

Via Dolorosa (date unknown)

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Wikipedia

Ninth station along the Via Dolorosa, where Jesus is said to have fallen for the third time carrying the crucifix

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Wikipedia

De-symbolizing Jerusalem

The last gate Teller describes in his biography is Bab al-Jadid/The New Gate, which offers another lens for viewing the Old City. Here, the lens is the creative imagination: art as the means of not only coping with unpleasant political realities, but even of transforming them. Teller talks about Jack Persekian, cofounder of Gallery Anadiel and al-Mamal Foundation, who explained the thinking behind establishing artistic spaces in the Old City. After the Oslo Accords were signed in the early 1990s, job opportunities and international funding focused on Ramallah, while Palestinian Jerusalem was being gutted. Persekian explains the problems inherent in turning Jerusalem into a symbol primarily of religion and future Palestinian statehood:

Al-Ma‘mal Foundation for Contemporary Art

An art organization in the heart of Old City of Jerusalem that promotes the creation and appreciation of contemporary art

Holiness empties the city out, because the holiness of the symbol becomes far more important than the living [population]. . . . It’s very disturbing. Jerusalem is becoming less and less of a place where you can see people living, enjoying their life, creating a future for the younger generation.

Desymbolising Jerusalem comes through education. That’s what art is trying to do, to get people to think outside these prescribed narratives, look at things from different ways, express ideas and thoughts and feelings. It’s about liberating yourself. Once more individuals are liberated from within, you can eventually start to evolve a society that is on its way to freedom.10

It is a hopeful thought to hold onto.

Written from the heart, Teller’s Nine Quarters of Jerusalem delves into the iceberg’s underlying mass and offers readers a rich, nuanced, multifaceted, yet completely accessible account of this enigmatic city of ancient prophets and heavily surveilled contemporary residents. Both the city and its devoted yet tormented residents come to life in these pages.

Notes

1

Page 321.

2

Page 5.

3

Page 324.

4

Page 8.

5

Page 41.

6

Page 227.

7

Page 11.

8

Pages 10–11.

9

Page 130.

10

Page 318.

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