Jerusalem's earliest settlements surrounded the Gihon Spring, in the Kidron Valley just southeast of the present-day Jewish Quarter. A small Canaanite city is mentioned in Egyptian texts of the 20th century BCE, and biblical sources say it was conquered around 1000 BCE by the Israelites under King David, who made the city his capital.
Biblical sources say that, under King Solomon (David’s son), the boundaries of the city were extended north to enclose the spur of land that is now Temple Mount/Al Haram Ash Sharif. The construction of the First Temple began around 950 BCE.
According to the Bible, some 17 years after Solomon’s death, the 10 northern tribes of Israel split off to form the separate Kingdom of Israel, and Jerusalem became the capital of the Kingdom of Judah. In 586 BCE, Jerusalem fell to Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, and both the city and the First Temple were destroyed; the people of Jerusalem were exiled to Babylonia. Three generations later, the king of Persia, Cyrus II, allowed them to return and even gave money for the reconstruction of the temple, in the hope that the exiled Judeans would become his allies.
The Second Temple was constructed from 516 BCE, and from 445 BCE Nehemiah, governor of Judah, led the decades-long rebuilding of the city walls.
The next notable stage in the history of Jerusalem came with Alexander the Great’s conquest of the city in 332 BCE. On his death in 323 BCE, the Seleucids eventually took over until the Maccabean Revolt 30 years later. This launched the Hasmonean dynasty, which resanctified the Temple in 165 BCE after it had been desecrated by the Seleucids.
Under the leadership of General Pompey, Jerusalem was besieged and conquered by the Romans around 63 BCE. Then Herod the Great marched into Jerusalem in 37 BCE, to rule what would become the Roman province of Judaea (Iudaea). A tyrant’s tyrant, Herod had his wife and children, as well as rabbis who opposed his rule, put to death. But he is also known for his ambitious construction and infrastructure projects, including expansion of Temple Mount.
Upon the death of Herod, the Romans resumed direct control, installing a procurator to administer the city. Pontius Pilate, who is best known for ordering the crucifixion of Jesus in Jerusalem around 30 CE, was the fifth procurator.
The Great Jewish Revolt against the Romans began in 66 CE, but after four years of conflict, the Roman general (and later emperor) Titus triumphed. Rome’s Arch of Titus, with its famous frieze of Roman soldiers carrying off the contents of the Temple, was built to celebrate his victory.
With the Second Temple destroyed and Jerusalem burnt, many Jews became slaves and more fled into exile. The ruined city continued to serve as the administrative and military headquarters of the Roman province of Judea; meanwhile Jerusalem was also becoming an early centre for Christianity.
Around 130 CE, Emperor Hadrian decided to rebuild it – not as a Jewish city (he feared renewed Jewish national aspirations) but as a Roman city complete with pagan temples. This provoked the Jews’ unsuccessful and bloody Bar Kochba Revolt (132–35 CE), led by Simon Bar Kochba. After the uprising was crushed, Jerusalem was renamed Aelia Capitolina and Judea became Syria Palaestina. The Romans rebuilt Jerusalem, but Jews were banned from the city.
Byzantines & Muslims
In 313 CE, the Western Roman Emperor, Constantine, and Eastern Roman Emperor, Licinius, met in Milan and agreed on an edict requiring tolerance of all previously persecuted religions. Eleven years after this, Constantine defeated Licinius in a civil war and became sole Emperor of the Roman Empire (later known as the Byzantine Empire). He legalised Christianity and his mother, Helena, visited the Holy Land in 326–28 CE searching for Christian holy places and claiming to have discovered the 'True Cross', on which Jesus was crucified. 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 CE. 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. In 688 CE 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 the mercurial Fatimid Caliph Al Hakim, non-Muslims were persecuted and churches and synagogues were destroyed, actions that eventually helped provoke the Crusades.
From Crusaders to Mamluks to Ottomans
The Crusaders took Jerusalem in 1099 from the Fatimids, who had only just regained control from the Seljuks. After ruling for almost 90 years, the Christians’ Latin Kingdom was defeated in 1187 by Saladin (Salah Ad Din), prompting the Third Crusade two years later, in which Richard I ('the Lionheart') of England fought to regain Holy Land territories from Saladin; Richard had many successes, but Jerusalem eluded him.
Meanwhile Saladin's efficient administration allowed Muslims and Jews 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 lauded today. The impressive Old City walls that were built in the mid-1500s by order of Sultan Suleiman, aka Suleiman the Magnificent, are still much admired today. But after Suleiman's reign, the city'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.
In the wake of the Turkish sultan’s 1856 Edict of Toleration for all religions, Jews – by this time a majority of the city’s population of about 25,000 – were allowed to establish Jerusalem’s earliest neighbourhoods beyond the city walls. Some of the first projects, begun in the 1860s, were inspired and financed by an Italian-born Englishman, Sir Moses Montefiore. As Jewish immigration rapidly increased, neighbourhoods grew into what is now the downtown area.
British Rule & Division
British forces under the command of General Edmund Allenby captured Jerusalem from the Turks in late 1917, turning the city into the administrative capital of the British-mandated territory of Palestine. In these times of fervent Arab and Jewish nationalism, the city became a hotbed of political tensions, and the city was the stage for terrorism and, occasionally, open warfare, between Jews and Arabs, among rival Arab factions (eg between supporters of the Nashashibi and Husseini families) and between Zionists and the British.
Under the United Nation’s 1947 Partition Plan, Jerusalem was to be internationalised, kept separate from the two states – one Jewish, the other Arab – that the United Nations proposed Palestine be divided into. Accepted in principle by the Zionist leadership but rejected by the Arab and Palestinian leaderships, the Partition Plan was outpaced by events as the 1948 Arab-Israeli War engulfed the city and the country.
During the 1948 war, the Old City and East Jerusalem, along with the West Bank, were captured by Jordan, while the Jews held onto most of what now forms the downtown area. 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 – like Berlin – was a divided city. Mandelbaum Gate, north of the western edge of the Old City, served as the only official crossing point between East and West Jerusalem for the few who were permitted to move between them. In the Six-Day War of 1967, Israel captured the Old City from Jordan and began a massive program of restoration, refurbishment, landscaping and construction.
Both Israelis and Palestinians see Jerusalem as their capital. At present, the Palestinian Authority is based in nearby Ramallah, but it hopes one day to move to East Jerusalem. Israel is determined to never let that happen and has constructed a separation barrier on security grounds that effectively seals the city off from the West Bank and has continued to expand settlements despite international condemnation.
Approximately 330,000 Palestinian Jerusalemites live in East Jerusalem neighbourhoods, which include the Old City; At Tur on the Mount of Olives; Silwan and Ras Al Amud near the southern edge of the Old City; and Sheikh Jarrah and Shuafat north of the Old City. Some of these areas are modern and economically stable; others are traditional and economically disadvantaged. A 2013 report on the Palestinian economy in East Jerusalem compiled by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development stated that Israeli authorities pursue a policy of physical, political and economic segregation of East Jerusalem from the rest of the West Bank and that its residents face official impediments with regard to housing, education, employment, taxation and representation. The report also stated that East Jerusalem receives a disproportionately small share of municipal services such as water, sewerage, road maintenance, postal services and garbage collection.
Israel has greatly expanded the municipal borders of Jerusalem, annexing parts of the West Bank to the city and developing numerous Israeli settlement neighbourhoods in East Jerusalem. The annexation is widely seen as illegitimate. Palestinians and some international organisations criticise settlements as obstacles to the peace process. Around 200,000 Israelis, viewed as settlers by the international community, live in East Jerusalem neighbourhoods. Their exact numbers are difficult to determine, as population statistics are tracked for established settlements (often gated communities with a high level of security) but not for 'outposts', smaller communities unrecognised by the Israeli government. Nonetheless, the Israeli government has continued to uphold a view of Jerusalem as Israel's indivisible capital, expanding settlements in spite of international condemnation.
Various peace plans propose that the city be partitioned, with Jewish neighbourhoods in Israel and Arab neighbourhoods in Palestine. There is little agreement on exactly how to handle the Old City, especially Temple Mount/Al Haram Ash Sharif, Judaism’s holiest site and Islam’s holiest site after Mecca and Medina.
Incidents of violent, often fatal, confrontation between extremist factions in both communities have been tragically common over recent years. After the killing of two Israeli police officers in 2017, metal detectors were introduced at entry points to Al Aqsa Mosque. Following widespread protests and violent clashes in which several Israelis and Palestinians were killed, the metal detectors were short-lived and proposed alternative security measures hotly debated. Controversial measures by the Israeli government to revoke the residency rights of Palestinian assailants (and even their families) have also met condemnation from the international community.
Cooperative initiatives between Israelis and Palestinians in Jerusalem – in areas as diverse as tourism, handicrafts, religious 'exchanges' and social clubs – attempt to heal wounds. Though laudable, the impact of these projects is depressingly lightweight when compared to the anguish of Jerusalem's last century and the lack of resolution in sight.