The Jewel in Jerusalem's Crown is Her Diversity
Updated: Jan 11
Text and Photos by Matt Churchill
We often hear about the divided nature of Jerusalem because of conflict. There's the East side of the city which was under Jordanian control from 1948 - 1967 and there's the West side which was part of Israel until the 1967 War, after which both sides were included in one Jerusalem municipality under Israeli sovereignty. But we often still think in terms of these apparent binary oppositions: East/West, Jews/Arabs, Israeli/Palestinian, Christian/Muslim. There were always bound to be rough edges. After all, Jerusalem has been conquered some 44 times in 5,000 years and her walls contain some of the most sacred shrines in the world.
There are also earthly and heavenly dimensions to the city's character. Mystics have had visions of a future city of gold descending from the clouds and many have had this in mind when they encounter the grit and grime of the old city for the first time. The uneven, dark cobblestone alleyways and ripe smells coming from the butcher's market, Suq al-Lahamim, can be disconcerting for a pilgrim expecting something a little more pristine and polished. In fact, a psychological condition exists to describe the those suffering on the edge of bipolarity, called "Jerusalem Syndrome." Sometimes you see them in the city center clothed in purple flags decorated with gold sequins, or in the visitor's line for the Temple Mount wearing sackcloth covered in ashes. They are usually turned away for inappropriate dress and escorted to the next flight back home.
If you make the necessary adjustments to your expectations, you will find an exquisite assortment of peoples and cultures inside the four quarters of the Old City, as well as beyond her walls. The different neighborhoods and markets have been likened to a mosaic of tiny tesserae placed together to make a painting of profound perspective. On a very real level, Jerusalem belongs to everyone, and we are all the old bits of colorful stone and glass which go into this precious picture. There's a rhyme and reason to the way the four quarters were fitted around the homes and holy sites and the rest of this article will be devoted to helping you navigate the way.
The Christian Quarter: Dozens of denominations are huddled around the holiest site in the world for Christianity. In 325 CE Queen Helena, the mother of Constantine the Great, discovered the true site of Calvary with the help of local Christians living in the Mount Zion neighborhood. Subsequently, she built the Basilica of the Anastasia, the Church of the Resurrection, around the northwest point of Jerusalem where Jesus was crucified, buried and rose from the grave. The Byzantine era (325 - 638 CE) ushered in a great wave of building projects throughout the holy land connecting pilgrims to important biblical sites.
This is the perfect way to establish a "Quarter." Once you've built the church on top of Golgotha, then you must fortify it with monasteries having many rooms for the monks and nuns who take care of it. Afterwards the pilgrims will come, and where will they stay? Of course in the spacious convents! But these travelers will need a place to change their money, stores for buying food and a tavern to enjoy a mug of beer and a bit of gossip after a long day of touring. This is exactly the way the markets in the Christian Quarter are laid out and you have streets which cater to their specific communities, whether Armenian, Georgian, Greek, Ethiopian, Latin, German, Frankish, Syriac, Maronite, or Coptic.
And after the markets and tourism are established, you can raise a family business. The people of the Christian Quarter are fabulous. Many are Palestinian Christians who have founded their homes long ago. There is even a famous professional basketball player who retired and became the Santa Claus of the Old City, welcoming hundreds of children into his house weekly to make a wish around the Christmas season.
The Muslim Quarter: This is the largest and densest area of the Old City, sometimes resembling a labyrinth of corridors and caravanserai which lead to the Noble Sanctuary, Haram al-Sharif. Almost 30,000 people live in clustered neighborhoods along the northern and western walls of the Temple Mount. Yes that's right, the place where the aniconic Temple of the Bible once stood. After it was destroyed by General Titus in 70 CE, the Romans remade Jerusalem into a pagan camp for their legions and renamed her Aelia Capitolina. When Constantine the Great converted to Christianity, the Roman agoras were used by the Byzantines to prop up the Church of the Holy Sepulchre above Mount Moriah (it already stands at a higher elevation) as if to solidify the supremacy of the Christian faith above that of the Jews whose temple had been toppled over. But when Islam arrived in 638 CE, during the Great Arab Conquests, the Caliph Omar ibn al-Khattab had renewed interest in the site of Solomon's Temple.
Within 70 years the most important Islamic mosques of Jerusalem would be commissioned on the vacant Herodian esplanade. The octagonal Dome of the Rock (built in 691 CE) enshrines the place where the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven on the Night Journey and the Aqsa Mosque was built in 705 CE on the southern promenade facing Mecca. This was the coming Islam and the Arabian tribes to the holy city and it has made a spectacular difference. The food, the music, the hospitality, and the spirituality set the tone in the Old City.
There was a hiatus for about one hundred years (1099 - 1188) when the Crusaders conquered Jerusalem and took over the Haram, putting it in the hands of the Knights Templar. It was Saladin and the Ayyubids who would wrest control away from the Christians and establish the current neighborhoods which buttress themselves along the retaining walls of the sacred temenos. In fact, Saladin gave his best soldiers properties in Al-Quds so that, should the Crusaders come again, he would have his best men defending the holy sites which he had just cleansed and restored to the Islamic faith.
Today there are nine portals which lead to the Temple Mount through the Muslim Quarter, but access is restricted to Muslims. There is a separate line for tourists near the Western Wall plaza and you don't want to miss it. Once you get past security you will be face to face with some of the oldest and most beautiful Islamic architecture in the world. And there are many more treasures in store when visiting hours are over. The Church of Saint Anne commemorates the birthplace of the Virgin Mary. The Ecce Homo convent preserves the last remains of the Antonia Fortress where Jesus had his trial. And the Arabic suq inside Damascus Gate will provide you with whatever energy you may need in the course of your day. My tip is to try the Qatayef in Khan el-Zeit, the Olive Market. It is a special dough served during Ramadan, filled with goat's cheese, drenched in honey and folded into the shape of a crescent moon.
The Jewish Quarter: After the Temple was destroyed by the Romans, for many centuries the Jews were not allowed to reside inside the walls of Jerusalem. Their closest vantage point to mourn over the ruins of the Temple was from the Mount of Olives. That is one of the reasons why so many Jews want to be buried there and why the Eastern Wall of the esplanade was a visible focus then. The bulk of the Jewish presence in the holy land during these long years was in the Galilee and Golan regions to the north and the old Judean territories to the south. In the 7th century they were allowed to return and live in Early Islamic Jerusalem. That is when attention was shifted to the Western Wall, after all, this was the area in closer proximity the Holy of Holies. Now Jews could pray at a section of the last supporting wall of the Temple that could be easily accessed from inside the protective ramparts of the city.
But it wasn't until the 16th century when the Jewish people came into the section of the Old City where they live today. That happened in the wake of Jews being exiled from Spain and Portugal en masse at the very end of the 15th century. The Ottomans welcomed these cultured refugees into their territories (after all, they were doctors and lawyers and scientists) and they were allowed to live in places like Saloniki, Istanbul, Safed, and Jerusalem. Suleiman the Magnificent awarded the Jews the current "Quarter" that is just on the western slope above the "Wailing Wall." This neighborhood was reinvigorated with the rise of Zionism in the 19th century and has never looked back since. Literally, Jews have been regathered here from the four corners of the earth: Yemen, Iraq, Ethiopia, Persia, Morocco, Poland, England, France, Russia, and America.
The Jewish Quarter hit hard times in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. Most of the synagogues and buildings were destroyed during the Jordanian conquest. And Jews only lived west of the Old City until 1967, when they were allowed to move back again to their historic neighborhood. Because of the fact that the Jewish Quarter had been massively damaged, it underwent monumental archeological surveys and restorations during the 1970's and 1980's. The result is some of the most impressive findings that Jerusalem has to offer: Hezekiah's "Broad Wall," the Roman-Byzantine cardo, Herodian Mansions, and much more! There is an appropriate modern twist to this most renovated section of the Old City: gelato shops, hummus bars, and jewelry stores.
The Armenian Quarter: The Armenians are one of the oldest Christian communities in the world. They converted as a collective in the early 4th century and translated the Bible into their national tongue in the early 5th century. Many came on pilgrimage to the holy city and never went back, establishing neighborhoods and shops that are still in their possession. In fact, they have a walled compound within their quarter of the Old City, where about 2,000 worship and live next to their holiest shrine: the Cathedral of Saint James. Very close to where King Herod's palace was located, the church is believed to be on the site where James the Apostle was beheaded. From here his body was smuggled and shipped off to Spain on the Camino de Santiago by his disciples.
Jesus also had a brother named James who was the leader of the early Christian community in Jerusalem in the days when the Temple stood. This special neighborhood grew up around the Room of the Last Supper which became the first house-church in Christianity. Now to be fair we have two sites in Jerusalem commemorating the Upper Room: the Crusader hall on Mount Zion above David's Tomb and the Syriac Church of Saint Mark in the Armenian Quarter. Either way they are a five-minute walk from each other which means we are probably in the right vicinity to where these events really took place.
The Armenian Genocide took place during World War I. One and a half million were murdered by the Turks in deportations, starvation policies and death marches. About 16,000 Armenian refugees came to Palestine during the British Mandate Period and their descendants live in Jerusalem to this day. Some were acclaimed artists in ceramics and you will definitely want to see one of the workshops where they fire up the fiance at 1,300 degrees celcius. In the 1920's the turquoise tiles of the Dome of the Rock were badly in need of repair. It was a refugee and artist, David Ohannessian, who was commissioned by the British to restore the Turkish ceramics of one of the holiest sites in the world.
Churchillisraeltours.com welcomes you to Jerusalem in the near future, Inshallah.