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An Overview of Jerusalem

I recently came across a fascinating book entitled The Handbook of Palestine by H.C. Luke and E. Keith-Roach.  Produced in 1922 by the British Mandate government which had just taken control of the country after a long Ottoman Turkish rule, it’s a fascinating snapshot of the Holy Land beginning its transition to the State of Israel and the other claimants of the land.  I plan to reproduce some of the more interesting parts of the book on a sporadic basis.

This post is an overview of Jerusalem.

Jerusalem’s unique history can only be touched upon here in outline. We have seen (Part I., § 3) that Urusalim appears among the cities of Palestine in the fifteenth century b.c.; and as Jebus the city was captured by David from the Jebusites about 1000 b.c. Enlarged by Solomon and embellished with the First Temple, it became, after the division of the kingdom, the capital of Judaea. In the reign of Rehoboam the city surrendered to the Egyptian King Shishak, who despoiled Temple and Palace of much of their ornaments.

King Hezekiah endowed his capital with a water-supply and, at the approach of Sennacherib, repaired the fortifications. Jehoiakin surrendered it to Nebuchadnezzar, who destroyed the Temple and carried away to Babylon the king, together with thousands of the principal inhabitants. The attempt of Zedekiah, the last king of Judah, to revolt led to the destruction of the city in 587 and to the second deportation of its inhabitants. After the return of the Jews from the Captivity in 538 the Second Temple was built by Nehemiah.

The Maccabean period has been referred to in Part I.; then came Herod the Great, a mighty builder, who aspired to renew in Jerusalem the glories of King Solomon. He built the Third Temple, erected a sumptuous royal palace protected by the towers Hippicus, Phasael and Mariamne, and endowed his capital with municipal buildings, theatre and a circus for gymnastic games.

The subsequent vicissitudes of Jerusalem are so entirely bound up with the general history of Palestine (of which a sketch is given in Part I.) that it is needless to recall them here. The next outstanding date after the city’s capture by Titus in 70 a.d. is its surrender to ‘Omar in 637. The Arabs treated the inhabitants with clemency, and permitted them to remain in the city on payment of the kharaj (poll-tax). The Khalif Harun al-Rashid is said actually to have sent the keys of the Holy Sepulchre to Charlemagne; and we have seen in § 1 above that the Carolingian Emperors sent contributions for the support of Christian pilgrims proceeding to Jerusalem.

The Arabs named the town Beit al-Maqdes (“house of the sanctuary”), or, more shortly, al-Quds (“the sanctuary”), and its present Arab name remains Quds al-Sherif. The oldest known plan of Jerusalem is contained in the mosaic map of Palestine discovered in 1897 at Madaba in Trans-jordania, and dates from about a century prior to the capture of the city by the Arabs.

The Crusading period has been dealt with in Part I. In 1517, as we have seen, Jerusalem surrendered to the Ottoman Turks under Sultan Selim I., and in 1542 the walls of Jerusalem were rebuilt in their present form by Suleyman the Magnificent. In 1862 the Prince of Wales, afterwards King Edward VII., visited Jerusalem and did much to bring about the constitution of the Palestine Exploration Fund. For the improvements wrought in Jerusalem since the British Occupation, see Part I., § 7.

It is not proposed here to describe or even to enumerate all the monuments and sights of Jerusalem, or to attempt to enter into the vexed question of its topography; this must be left to the guide-books. It must suffice to indicate the outstanding objects of interest of a city, where almost every stone has its history and significance.

The principal monuments are the Haram al-Sherif; the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, together with the remains of the basilica of Constantine; the walls, gates and citadel; the Wailing Wall of the Jews; the Armenian cathedral; the Caenaculum or tomb of David; the Jewish tombs in the valley of Jehoshaphat; the Crusaders’ Church of S. Anne; the Ecce Homo arch and adjoining remains; the Church of the Tomb of the Virgin and the Garden of Gethsemane; and the Mount of Olives. The old city within the walls, that ” city compact together ” with its vaulted suqs (bazaars) and narrow streets that have undergone no change for centuries, with its steep alleys flanked in many cases by masterpieces of Saracenic architecture, may well, however, be regarded as the greatest monument of all, unique in its compactness, in its appearance of hoar antiquity, and in that homogeneity which it is the aim of its present administrators jealously to preserve.

The Haram al-Sherif is the platform, artificially prolonged towards the east and south on substructures known in part as ” Solomon’s Stables,” upon which stood the Temple of Solomon and its successors. In the centre of the Haram area is an outcrop of the naked rock, now . surmounted by the beautiful mosque known as the Dome of the Rock. This rock can probably claim a greater continuity of religious tradition than any other spot in the world. On it there stood in all likelihood the altar of burnt-offerings of the First Temple; traces of a channel for carrying off the blood, which are visible in the rock, would appear to confirm this theory. Here, or hereabouts, stood Hadrian’s Temple of Aelia Capitolina; here the Khalif ‘Omar built a small wooden mosque, which subsequently gave place to the present masterpiece of Moslem architecture; on the rock, finally, the Crusaders erected an altar when they converted the mosque into the Templum Domini.

The Dome of the Rock (in Arabic, Qubbet al-Sakhra),1 was built by Khalif ‘Abd al-Melek towards the end of the seventh century, and was probably restored by the Khalif al-Mamun in the ninth century, and again in 913. The dome itself, consisting of two concentric wooden vaults, was erected by the mad Khalif Hakim in 1022 in the place of the original dome, which had collapsed six years previously.

The mosque is in the form of a flat-roofed octagon surmounted by a drum, on which is borne the dome. The outer surface is covered, as regards the lower part, with marble slabs, as regards the upper, with a brilliant series of coloured tiles added by Suleyman the Magnificent in 1561. It is of interest to record that the original kilns in which these tiles were manufactured were discovered in the Haram precincts after the British Occupation, and that potters from Kutahia have been brought to Jerusalem under the auspices of the Pro-Jerusalem Society to make tiles in the old manner to replace such original tiles as have been destroyed by weathering in the course of centuries.

The interior of the building is a marvel of colouring and decoration. The roof of the octagon is richly decorated in green, blue and gold; the drum is adorned with sumptuous mosaics by Byzantine artists of the tenth and eleventh centuries; the stucco incrustation of the inner dome produces a most rich effect with its red and golden tones. Not the least beautiful feature of the interior lies in the coloured glass of the windows. The rock itself is surrounded by a screen of wrought iron, placed there by the Crusaders when they converted the building to Christian use. The inscription on the inside of the drum records its construction in 72 A.H. (691 A.D.) by ‘Abd al-Melek, whose name was excised from the inscription and replaced by that of al-Mamun one hundred and twenty years later.

Many traditions, Moslem and Talmudic, attach to the rock, which is believed to hover over the waters of the flood and to be the centre of the world, the gate of hell, the scene of the sacrifice of Isaac, and much else of a fantastic nature. According to Moslem belief it was from the rock that Mohammed was translated to heaven on the back of al-Buraq, his magic steed of the human face.

To the south of the Dome of the Rock stands its tiny prototype, the Dome of the Chain, built by ‘Abd al-Melek as a treasure-house to contain the money which he had set apart iox the reconstruction of the Haram area. At the southern end of the Haram rises the celebrated Mosque al-Aqsa, the “more distant” shrine, to which God conveyed the Prophet in a single night (Sura xvii., i). The Aqsa mosque in its present form occupies the site of Justinian’s Church of the Panagia, and, despite almost complete reconstruction by the Khalifs and their successors, retains, in outline at all events, much of its original character of a Byzantine basilica. The dome, which is of wood, covered with lead without, is handsomely decorated in a manner similar to the dome of the Qubbet al-Sakhra. Its mihrab and pulpit have been referred to in § 1 above. A staircase in front of the narthex of the mosque leads down to the southern substructures and to the vestibule of the old Double Gate; ” Solomon’s Stables ” are entered from the south-east corner of the Haram area.

Enclosing and overlooking the Haram on the west and south are a series of superb madrasas and other Saracenic buildings of the highest merit {cf. § 1 above); the Suq al-Qattanin (bazaar of the cotton merchants), which forms the principal entrance to the Haram area, is the most important of the old vaulted bazaars of Palestine and Syria, and was preserved from imminent destruction in 1919 through the efforts of the Pro- Jerusalem Society. The minaret in the north-western corner of the Haram rises on the remains of the Antonia tower.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre2 stands in the north-western corner of the old city, but is concealed from view by the many Patriarchates, monasteries, chapels and other ecclesiastical buildings, which cluster round it and only leave open to view the southern fa9ade. Originally a group of small separate churches, rising on the holy sites in the fourth century and after, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre received its present form from the Crusaders, who erected one large Romanesque church to embrace the chapels covering the several sites. In 1799 a great part of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was rebuilt, only to be destroyed almost entirely by fire in 1808; another comprehensive rebuilding followed in 1810, Of its two conspicuous domes, the larger westerly dome, surmounting the Rotunda and the Sepulchre itself, was constructed of iron lattice girders under Russian auspices in 1868. The eastern dome is part of the Crusading building, and appears to have escaped untouched the reconstruction of 1810; it is probably the largest dome of its type ever built in Palestine. The belfry is twelfth-century work, but has lost its topmost story.

The two-storied Romanesque façade is interesting: the lower story forms a double portal, the lintels of both doors being adorned with admirable bas-reliefs of the twelfth century. The upper story encloses windows.

The interior is divided into two principal parts, the Rotunda and the old “Chorus Dominorum,” now the Orthodox cathedral. The Rotunda, whose central object is the small shrine covering the Tomb of Christ, dates in its present form, together with its dome and the shrine of the Sepulchre, from the nineteenth century, although the design and dimensions have been meticulously preserved from the earlier buildings. On the other hand, the “Chorus Dominorum” and transept date from the twelfth century, the vaulting over the transept being of particular interest as the earliest known example of the diagonal rib, a feature which differentiates pure Gothic from Romanesque. The chapels of Golgotha are reached by steps leading upwards from the east of the porch; the interesting chapel of S. Helena is at a lower level and is reached by a flight of steps descending from the ambulatory. From S. Helena’s chapel another flight of steps leads down to the chapel of the Invention of the Cross.

What renders the Church of the Holy Sepulchre of outstanding interest, apart from its sanctity in the eyes of a large portion of mankind, is the fact that it is shared by representatives of most of the Churches of Christendom. Roman Catholics, Orthodox, Armenians, Jacobites, Copts and Abyssinians have their appointed chapels and rights within its walls (formerly also Georgians and Nestorians), and in it is celebrated almost every known form of Christian liturgy and ritual. During Holy Week and at the other great festivals of the Christian year it offers to the spectator a diversity of Christian ceremonial visible nowhere else under one roof.

Adjoining the Holy Sepulchre to the south-east is the Orthodox monastery of Abraham, in one of whose chapels the Church of England has the right to celebrate services; below this, again, is the modern building belonging to the Russian Palestine Society, which encloses important remains of the “Martyrium” of Constantine.

The oldest part of the Walls is that which is also the enclosing wall of the Haram area; much of this is Herodian, but is partly concealed by immense masses of debris. The walls received additions at the hands of the Romans and the Byzantines, and were comprehensively restored by Saladin, not a little of whose work survives. The city walls, apart from the Haram section, owe their present form in the main to the Ottoman Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent. The Gates, beginning with the Damascus Gate, and going eastwards are: the Damascus Gate, Herod’s Gate, S. Stephen’s Gate, the Golden Gate (an elaborate Byzantine structure within the Haram area, built by the Empress Eudocia in the fifth century and walled up by the Turks in 1530; the Gate through which the Palm Sunday processions entered the city during the Crusades), the Dung Gate or Gate of the Magharbeh, the Zion Gate, the Jaffa Gate, and the modern opening known as the New Gate. Adjoining the Jaffa Gate is the Citadel, a massive fortress of five mighty towers, probably occupying the site of Herod’s Palace. The Citadel in its present form dates from the beginning of the fourteenth century, with six- teenth-century additions. But the drafted blocks of the foundations are of much earlier date, and the north-east tower probably corresponds with the tower of Phasael of the Herodian structure. Much work has been done by the Pro-Jerusalem Society in repairing the Citadel and in clear- ing up the debris with which the interior and the moat were encumbered.

The Wailing Wall of the Jews is an ancient section of the western Haram wall, and is much resorted to for the purpose of prayer by pious Jews, particularly on the Sabbath, when the festal dress of the Ashkenazim offers a picturesque spectacle.

The Armenian Patriarchate and Cathedral, the largest conventual enclosure in Palestine, occupies with its hospices, schools and gardens the greater part of the south-western quarter of the old city. The Cathedral of S. James the Less, with its rich treasury, is of considerable interest, and is lined with Kutahia tiles of an unusual figured type.3

Within the Armenian compound is shown an interesting old chapel regarded as occupying the site of the house of Annas; while to the south of the Zion Gate is the Armenian Monastery of Mt. Zion with the traditional house of Caiaphas and the tombs of the Armenian Patriarchs of Jerusalem. The house of Annas is also known as the ” Convent of the Olive Tree ” (from a very old olive believed to have sprung from the tree to which Christ was bound), and, together with the house of Caiaphas, is decorated with tiles similar to those of the Cathedral.

The Caenaculum or Tomb of David (al-Nebi Daud), to the south of the Zion Gate, is a venerable shrine known in the Middle Ages as “Mater Ecclesiarum” because considered to be the house of the Virgin Mary and the place where the Last Supper was celebrated. The existing monument is a Gothic church built, probably by Cypriote masons, in the middle of the fourteenth century; after being in the possession of the Augustinian Canons and afterwards of the Franciscans, it passed in 1547 into the hands of the Moslems, in whose ownership it has remained. The “Upper Chamber” is accessible to non-Moslem visitors, but the lower room, alleged to contain the Tomb of David, is shown only to Moslems.

The Valley of Jehoshaphat (Valley of the Kidron; Wadi Sitti Maryam) runs along the eastern boundary of the city, which it separates from the Mount of Olives, and has been from time immemorial the burial-place of the inhabitants of Jerusalem. Of particular interest are the Jewish monuments of uncertain dates known as the Tomb of Absalom (a remarkable rock-cube surmounted by a superstructure terminating in an oddly shaped spire), the so-called Tomb of Jehoshaphat, the Grotto of S. James, and the Pyramid of Zacharias. Below these tombs the valley leads past the village of Siloam (Silwan) until it is joined at right angles by the Valley of Hinnom.

Among the most complete remains of the Crusading era are the Church of S. Anne, inside S. Stephen’s Gate, and the Church of the Tomb of the Virgin, outside it on the road to the Gethsemane. The former was built by the Queen of Baldwin I. in the twelfth century, was offered to and refused by the British Government after the Crimean War, and was then presented to Napoleon III., by whom this well preserved Gothic building was intelligently restored.

The Church of the Tomb of the Virgin is in its present form the handiwork of Queen Melisende, whose tomb it contains.

The adjoining Garden of Gethsemane is divided into shares belonging respectively to the Latins, the Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem, the Russians, and the Armenians. The early Christian basilica recently excavated in the Latin Garden of Gethsemane has been referred to in § 2 above.

The Ecce Homo Arch is probably part of a Roman or Byzantine triumphal arch, whose northern end has been ingeniously incorporated within the church of the “Dames de Sion.”

The Mount of Olives (in Arabic, Jebel al-Tur) stands 2,680 feet above sea-level, and is crowned by a number of churches and convents, of which the most ancient is the small octagonal Church of the Ascension, dating from the fifth century (see § 1 above). Other buildings are the Orthodox Convent of Galilee; a modern Russian convent with its conspicuous view-tower; and a group of Latin buildings, including the Church of the Paternoster.

Dominating the northern end of the Mt. of Olives is a massively constructed German Protestant Hospice, built by William II in 1910 and now the Government House of the Palestine Administration.

The most satisfactory of the modern buildings of Jerusalem is the Anglican Cathedral and Close of S. George with its small and attractive cloister, built for the late Bishop Blyth by Mr. George Jeffery. Conspicuous are the German Catholic Church of the Dormition outside the Zion Gate (its design based on that of the Cathedral of Aix-la-Chapelle), and the Lutheran Church of the Muristan, embodying fragments of the mediaeval Church of S. Maria Latina.

One and a half miles west of the Jaffa Gate lies the ancient Orthodox Monastery of the Cross, for many centuries in the possession of the Georgians.

1See E. T. Richmond, The Dome of the Rock and its present Condition, Oxford 1922.

2The most recent English work on the Holy Sepulchre is Jeffery, A Brief Description of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem, and other Christian Churches in the Holy City, with some account of the mediaeval copies of the Holy Sepulchre surviving in Europe, Cambridge, 1919.

3These tiles are described and illustrated in C. A. Nomicos…


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