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A Very Brief History of Jerusalem

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The Jerusalem skyline

Jerusalem has a very long and somewhat repetitive history. For about 3,000 years, it has been conquered and reconquered, put under siege, destroyed, deserted and rebuilt (not necessarily in that order) time and time again. This is an attempt to provide a short summary of some main points in the history of Jerusalem.

Like every good story, the story of Jerusalem starts quite simply.

The Beginning

It all started a couple of thousand years ago, with a small unimportant Jebusite town by the not very original name of Jebus1. The reason it was small and unimportant was that the ground was not really fit for agriculture, there was not much water around, and the only trade route in the near vicinity was a minor one. The Israelites came by and started fighting the local peoples. Eventually they settled down as a somewhat uneasy federation of tribal territories, that later became a kingdom.

Good Times

David, the second king of the Kingdom of Israel, was a great military leader and expanded his kingdom substantially, so that it almost became a local power. He also conquered Jebus around 1000 BC and made it his capital. There were various religious reasons for choosing the place, but the main reason was that the town sat on the border between two tribal territories, so there was not one specific tribe that got all the power.

David's son, King Solomon, was wise enough to marry into practically every important royal family around in order to avoid wars. The Kingdom of Israel became rich and powerful - maybe the taxes were a bit high, but all-in-all Solomon was a good king, and he did not have any problems. During his reign Jerusalem grew bigger, and the first Temple was built in it - big and shiny and spreading the smell of roasting meat all over town. Three times a year pilgrims from all over the country came to the Temple, and so Jerusalem became not only a political and religious centre but a commercial one as well. Everything was good and everybody was happy, for a while.

Bad Times

When Solomon died, internal fights followed, and Israel was divided into two small rival kingdoms - the Kingdom of Israel that had its capital in Samaria and the smaller Kingdom of Judea that had its capital in Jerusalem. Invasions of neighbouring kingdoms were the natural consequence of this, and as early as five years into his rule King Rehoboam (Solomon's son) had to pay the Egyptian king Shishak with the gold treasure of the Temple to prevent him from conquering Jerusalem. Eventually, after years of fighting each other and everybody else, the both Israel and Judea were conquered by the Assyrians. Jerusalem was not conquered though the Assyrians laid siege on it. This might be attributed to the foresight of King Hezekiah, who dug a tunnel from the Spring of Gihon, the city's only water source then, to a pool within the city called the Siloam Pool.

When the Babylonians came they conquered the entire area, turning it into a protectorate-kingdom. After the king of Jerusalem tried to rebel against them, the Babylonians got angry, sent in forces and put Jerusalem under siege again. They broke in, ruined the Temple and deported most of the Jews to Babylon.

Jerusalem was left desolate for a while, but then the Persians took over the Babylonian Empire, and King Cyrus the Great let the Jews return to settle in their land and rebuild their Temple. They did so, slowly reconstructing what used to be a big city, but Jerusalem remained mainly a religious centre and not much more than that.

In Comes Western Civilization


Alexander the Great conquered the Persian Empire, and Jerusalem with it. Jerusalem became a Hellenic city, with gymnasiums, theatres, temples and all the other conveniences required for a civilized life back then. It was the new temples that eventually upset the Jews, and caused the great Maccabee Rebellion. The rebellion was surprisingly successful and drove the Hellenes away. Jerusalem became the capital of the newly-founded Hasmonean Kingdom.


Before long, the Hasmonean royal family started fighting each other, as royal families so often do. Some members of the royal family were stupid enough to call in the Romans for help. The Romans took advantage the opportunity, conquered the land, and made it a protectorate-kingdom under the rule of King Herod. Jerusalem developed magnificently, and the second Temple that was built by the returning exiles was renovated, making it much bigger and shinier than the first Temple. Herod's family occupied themselves by trying to assassinate each other, which was quite usual in the Roman Empire. At some point, the Romans decided they had enough and simply turned the whole area into a Roman province, called Provincia Judea.

However, like the Hellenes, the Romans had some troubles controlling the natives. A big revolt broke out in 66 AD, led by several radical groups. Jerusalem was regained, and maintained as an independent Jewish city for three years. Then the Romans sent in some military reinforcements, and put the city under siege. The various radical groups trapped inside did not fare very well - internal disagreements became internal fights, and one of the more fanatical groups burned down the city's food stocks. Finally, the Romans broke into the city, wrecked it and burnt down the Temple. Later, they crushed the last groups of insane fanatics, the most famous of which took cover in the stronghold of Masada in the Judea desert, and committed mass suicide to avoid surrendering to the Romans. Jerusalem was once again left desolate for some time, and then it was rebuilt under the name 'Aelia Capitolina'.


The land was quiet for a while, but not for long. The Roman Empire was divided into an Eastern Empire and a Western Empire. Provincia Judea was in the eastern section, under the rule of the Byzantines. They had problems keeping invaders away, but they still managed to remain a strong empire for quite a long time. Being very religious Christians, they had great interest in Jerusalem. They built churches where the old Roman temples used to stand, new relics were found every other day, and the Temple Mount was left desolate as Jesus Christ foretold it would be. No Jews were allowed in the city, except for one day a year when they could come and weep over their ruined Temple.

Muslims Take Over

In the 7th Century AD, a new force rose in the Middle East. The Muslim forces, led by the second caliph, Omar Ibn al-Khattab, swept out of the Arab peninsula and caught the Byzantines by surprise. They too had an interest in Jerusalem because of religious reasons (it is the third holiest city in Islam2), and so the great Dome of the Rock was built on Temple Mount, and the Western Wall was rediscovered under a huge dump by the Jews that were now allowed back in the city. As the capital of the Arab Empire moved from the Arab peninsula to Damascus and later to Baghdad, Jerusalem became less important, at least from a political aspect, and nothing interesting happened there for a while.

Religious Wars, Phase One

The Crusaders arrived right at the end of the 11th Century AD, slaughtering every heathen they happened to run into, and not paying much attention to the fact that the heathen empire they were raiding was much more enlightened than Europe at the time. They conquered Jerusalem in 1099, slaughtering as many Jews and Muslims as they possibly could, and King Baldwin I became the first ruler of the Crusaders' Kingdom, called the Kingdom of Jerusalem.

Religious Wars, Phase Two

It did not last long. The Muslims re-captured the land, and then the Crusaders re-captured it. Then there were various fights, agreements and breaking of agreements. Finally the Muslims drove the Crusaders away once and for all, residing there quietly until they began having the inevitable internal disagreements. The Arab Empire was divided into smaller kingdoms, which took over the area alternately. The Egyptians had Jerusalem for a while, and then the area was invaded by the Mameluks, who built some nice things around, but did not really do anything worth mentioning.

Temporary Stability

The Ottoman Empire came along in the beginning of the 16th Century, and they held the area for a relatively long period - about 400 years. Under the rule of Suleiman the Magnificent Jerusalem was great again, but as the years went by the Ottoman Empire became more and more corrupt and progressively weaker. The European Powers took advantage of that and grabbed all they could; they encouraged construction within Jerusalem as much as possible, often under the purpose of religion, acquiring land by building a church there and so on. The crumbling remains of the Ottoman Empire were defeated in The Great War of 1914-1918. General Allenby conquered Jerusalem in 1917, and the Sykes-Picot agreement that was drawn up a little later left the territory of Palestine under a British mandate.

The 20th Century

Great Britain

The British, like so many others before them, had trouble with the natives. The Jews liked them for a while, until the Great Arab Uprising in 1936 turned the British government pro-Arab. Several guerrilla organisations started working against the British and for an independent Israeli state. By 1947 the British government decided they just did not care anymore and took off, leaving the natives to fight amongst themselves.


The UN Partition Plan in 1947 left the Jerusalem area as an enclave under UN control. However this was not accepted by the Arabs and a war broke out, after which Israel had a somewhat bigger area than what they were originally supposed to have. Jerusalem was divided between Israel and Jordan (with a wide strip of no-man's-land in the middle, because the separation line was drawn on the cease-fire maps with a pencil). After the six-day war in 1967 the Eastern City was conquered, and the Israelis looked with pride on their re-united capital, and then failed to provide any municipal services to the eastern neighbourhoods, a situation that remains to this day.

When the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations commenced, the issue of Jerusalem was one of the 'big issues' left for later discussions. Both sides regard the city as a symbol; the Palestinians demand a part of it, including Temple Mount, the Israelis refuse to re-divide the city and are worried about security issues. Different solutions have been suggested, but none have seemed to do the trick, so the problem remains.

The future is still uncertain.

Further Reading

  • The website of Jerusalem's City Hall concentrates on touristy information, but has a pretty good list of links.

1The name 'Jerusalem' also existed back then. Different variations of it were found in Egyptian and Mesopotamian documents. The meaning of the name is not clear, but apparently it originates from the Akkadian word Uru, city, and the name of the Canaanite deity Salem.2This dates back to the beginning of Islam when Muhammad tried to appeal to the Jewish tribes in the Arab peninsula. Jerusalem might not be mentioned anywhere in the Quran, but it was the first Qibla (direction in which you pray), and was definitely important.

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