The first settlement on the site of Jerusalem was on the Ophel Ridge, immediately to the southeast of the present-day Jewish Quarter. This was a small Jebusite (pre-Israelite tribe) city, mentioned in Egyptian texts of the 20th century BC, which was conquered in 997 BC by the Israelites. They were led by their king, David, who brought the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem and made the city his capital.
Under Solomon (the son of David) the boundaries of the city were extended north to enclose the spur of land that is now the Haram ash-Sharif/Temple Mount. The construction of the First Temple began in 950 BC. After Solomon’s death, some 17 years later, the city became the capital of Judah as the 12 tribes of Israel divided. In 586 BC Jerusalem fell to Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon, and the city and the Temple were destroyed. The people of Jerusalem were exiled to Babylonia until three years later, when the king of Persia, Cyrus, allowed them to return.
The Second Temple was constructed around 520 BC, and around 445 BC the city walls were rebuilt under the leadership of Nehemiah, Governor of Judah.
The next notable stage in the history of Jerusalem came with Alexander the Great’s conquest of the city in 331 BC. On his death in 323, the Seleucids eventually took over until the Maccabean Revolt 30 years later. This launched the Hasmonean dynasty, which re-sanctified the Temple in 164 BC after it had been desecrated by the Seleucids.
Under the leadership of General Pompey, Jerusalem was conquered by the Romans around 63 BC. Some 25 years later they installed Herod the Great to rule what they called the Kingdom of Judea. Upon the death of Herod, the Romans resumed direct control, installing a procurator to administer the city. Pontius Pilate, best known for ordering the crucifixion of Jesus around AD 30, was the fifth procurator.
Another 36 years later came the First Revolt by the Jews against the Romans, but after four years of conflict, the Roman general Titus triumphed. With the Second Temple destroyed and Jerusalem burnt, many Jews became slaves and more fled into exile, marking the start of the Diaspora. Jerusalem continued as the capital but Emperor Hadrian decided to destroy it completely in AD 132 due to the threat of renewed Jewish national aspirations. This provoked the unsuccessful Second Revolt led by Simon Bar Kochba, after which Jews were forbidden to enter Aelia Capitolina, the new city built on the ruins of Jerusalem. Aelia Capitolina is the foundation of today’s Old City.
In AD 331 Christianity was legalised by Emperor Constantine, founder of the Eastern Roman Empire, and his mother visited the Holy Land searching for Christian holy places. This sparked off the building of basilicas and churches, and the city quickly grew to the size it had been under Herod the Great.
The Byzantine Empire was defeated by the Persians, who conquered Jerusalem in 614. Their rule lasted just 15 years before the Byzantines succeeded in retaking the city. That victory, however, was short-lived, for within another 10 years an Arab army, led by Caliph Omar under the banner of Islam, swept through Palestine. Omar’s entry into Jerusalem was to instigate almost 1300 years of Muslim supremacy in what had been first a Jewish city, then a Christian city and now a city of Islam. In 688 the Dome of the Rock was constructed on the site of the destroyed Temple. Under the early Islamic leaders, Jerusalem was a protected centre of pilgrimage for Jews and Christians as well as Muslims, but this came to an end in the 10th century. Under Caliph Hakim, non-Muslims were cruelly persecuted and churches and synagogues were destroyed, finally provoking the Crusades 90 years later.
The Crusaders took Jerusalem in 1099 from the Fatimids, who had only just regained control from the Seljuks. After almost 90 years the Latin Kingdom was defeated by Saladin (Salah ad-Din) in 1187. This was to be the most effective administration so far. Under Saladin, Muslims and Jews were allowed to resettle in the city. From the 13th to the 16th centuries, the Mamluks constructed a number of outstanding buildings dedicated to religious study.
Although a Muslim academic centre, Jerusalem became a relative backwater. In 1517 the Ottoman Turks defeated the Mamluks, adding Palestine to their large empire. Yet although they, too, are remembered for their lack of efficiency in local administration, their initial impact on the city is still much admired today. The impressive Old City walls that you see now were built by their second sultan, Süleyman the Magnificent. After Süleyman, Jerusalem’s rulers allowed the city, like the rest of the country, to decline. Buildings and streets were not maintained, and corruption among the authorities was rife.
As a result of the Turkish sultan’s 1856 Edict of Toleration for all religions, Jews and Christians were again able to settle in the city. In the 1860s, inspired and largely financed by an English Jew, Sir Moses Montefiore, Jewish settlement outside the city walls began. As Jewish immigration rapidly increased, these settlements developed into what is now the New City.
After WWI, Jerusalem, which had been captured by General Allenby’s forces from the Turks, became the administrative capital of the British Mandate. In these times of fervent Arab and Jewish nationalism, the city became a hotbed of political tensions. Jerusalem was always the most sought-after area of the country for both the Arabs and the Jews, and the city was the stage for terrorism and, occasionally, open warfare.
After the British withdrew from Palestine, the UN became responsible for supervising the situation. Its subsequent partition plan was accepted in principle by the Jews, but it was rejected by the Arabs. Jerusalem was to be internationalised, surrounded by independent Arab and Jewish states. In the 1948 Arab-Israeli War the Jordanians took the Old City and East Jerusalem, while the Jews held the New City. Patches of no-man’s-land separated them and the new State of Israel declared its part of Jerusalem as its capital.
For 19 years Jerusalem was a divided city, and Mandelbaum Gate became the official crossing point between East Jerusalem and the New City for the few who were permitted to move between them. The Six Day War in 1967 saw the reunification of the whole of Jerusalem, and the Israelis began a massive program of restoration, refurbishment and landscaping.
Controversy continues to surround the status of Jerusalem, and most countries maintain their embassies in Tel Aviv. Both Israelis and Palestinians see the city as their own capital and even though the Palestinian Authority (PA) is based in Ramallah, it hopes to one day move to East Jerusalem. Israel is determined to never let that happen and has been playing a cautious game of geopolitics to seal the city off from the Palestinian lands. In the latest move, the Jewish settlement of Ma’ale Adumim, the last barrier between Jerusalem and the West Bank, was incorporated into the city.