Jerusalem is a city with a long and storied history. It serves as a center of great importance for three religions, and it has been fought over for millennia. From Neolithic, hunter-gatherer beginnings to the modern era where it serves as a spiritual capital to two countries: Israel and Palestine.
To say that Jerusalem has had a difficult past would be an understatement. In his book, Jerusalem Besieged: From Ancient Canaan to Modern Israel, historian Eric H. Cline gives a tally of Jerusalem’s conflicts: the city has been attacked 52 times, captured and recaptured 44 times, suffered through 23 sieges, and has been destroyed twice.
The significance of Jerusalem to human history and civilization is thus an incredibly important story.
The Early Days of Jerusalem
The site that is regarded as the birth of the city of Jerusalem is a place called Gihon Spring. Being a source of fresh water, it was, naturally, an excellent place to build a settlement. This happened at the end of the 4th millennium BCE. However, it was 2000 years later when the city was first mentioned in historical texts. The Egyptian Execration Texts refer to the city as Rusalimum. The modern dame is believed to be derived from the word shalom or salaam, meaning “peace” in Hebrew and Arabic, respectively. It is more likely, however, that the name is derived from the Canaanite “Urushalem” meaning “Foundation of Shalem,” with Shalem/Shalim being the Canaanite god of dusk. It was indeed the Canaanites who are recorded as the earliest inhabitants.
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By around 1700 BCE, the Canaanites had built 26-foot-high walls around the eastern side of the settlement to protect their water source. A few hundred years later, Jerusalem became a vassal of the Egyptian New Kingdom, and letters from this period refer to the city as being named Urusalim. The Egyptian hold on power was weakened by a number of factors, such as the invasion of the Sea Peoples, The Bronze Age collapse, and the Battle of Kadesh in 1274 BCE between the Egyptians and the Hittites. This battle was a brutal stalemate (which ended in the world’s first peace treaty), and it serves as a focal point for the beginning of the decline of both empires.
As the regional powers lost influence over huge portions of the Levant, small kingdoms rose up to take their place. The Bible noted that at this time, around the end of the 2nd millennium BCE, Jerusalem was known as “Jebus” and was inhabited by the Jebusites, who were a Canaanite tribe.
The Biblical Jerusalem
Around 1000 BCE, The Israelites under King David attacked the city of Jerusalem and sacked it. After the conquest, Jerusalem became the City of David and the capital of the United Kingdom of Israel. Upon the ophel (raised section) of Jerusalem, King David built an altar. According to the Bible, the son of David, King Solomon, built the famous Temple of Solomon on this site.
At this point, the dates of the Biblical events become difficult to determine. Some time after King Solomon’s death in 930 BCE, the Kingdom of Judah split from the Kingdom of Israel. Jerusalem became the capital of Judah, while Israel relocated its capital to Shechem. The region became politically unstable, and over the next two centuries, Jerusalem would suffer at the hands of invaders.
Jerusalem was captured and pillaged by the Egyptians, and around 75 years later, the armies of Jerusalem fought against the forces of the Neo-Assyrians at the Battle of Qarqar. Although Jerusalem was not captured this time, its defense was significantly weakened, and shortly after, the city was sacked by the Philistines, the Arabs, and the Ethiopians.
A few years later, the Damascene Arameans achieved the conquest of Jerusalem in their campaign against Judah. Fifty years later, Jerusalem would be sacked by the Israelites, who, in the process, would destroy the city’s walls. Ownership of the city was returned to Judah.
In 701 BCE, Jerusalem was besieged by the Neo-Assyrians under the rule of Sennacherib, but the city survived the siege. The Bible states that this was due to an angel swooping down and killing 185,000 Assyrian soldiers, while Sennacherib wrote in his account that he was paid off.
Just over a hundred years later, in 597 BCE, Jerusalem was besieged and conquered by the Babylonians. The Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar, placed Zedekiah on the throne as a vassal to Babylon, but shortly after, Zedekiah rebelled. The Babylonian reaction was swift and brutal. Nebuchadnezzar forced Zedekiah to watch as the Babylonians killed all of his children, and then they plucked out his eyes so that it would be the last thing he would ever see. The Babylonians then destroyed Solomon’s Temple and the city walls. A vast number of the city’s residents, along with Zedekiah, were taken into captivity and brought back to Babylon.
Several decades later, the Babylonians were conquered by the Achaemenid Persians, who allowed the Jews to return to Judah, upon which the Jews rebuilt the temple. The second temple was completed in 516 during the reign of Darius the Great of Persia. Until the Hellenic invasion of Alexander the Great in the 4th century BCE, Jerusalem was governed as part of the Persian Empire, which was known for its liberal attitude towards respecting diverse cultures and religions. Jerusalem was likely to have experienced relative peace and stability for almost two centuries and probably prospered under Persian rule.
The Hellenic Period
In the latter half of the 4th century BCE, the Persian Empire was conquered by the Greeks during the conquests of Alexander the Great. Thus, Jerusalem and the lands of the Levant all fell under Greek control. After the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE, his empire fractured into successor states. Jerusalem fell under the jurisdiction of the Ptolemaic Empire but was acquired by the Seleucids in 198 BCE after their victory against the Ptolemaic armies at the Battle of Panium.
Over the next few decades, the Hellenization of Jerusalem sparked a rebellion. During this time, Judaic practices were suppressed, and many Jews sided with the rebels. The revolt was named the Maccabean Revolt after Judas Maccabeus took over leadership after his father, the original leader, died. In 164 BCE, the revolt achieved significant success in capturing Jerusalem and restoring temple worship. This event is celebrated today in the form of the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah.
The Roman Period
The success of the Maccabean Revolt would also lead to the formation of an independent Judean state known as the Hasmonean state, which would last for over a century. In 67 BCE, a succession dispute began, and among the chaos, the Romans under Pompey Magnus were able to assert claim to the city via political maneuvering. In 37 BCE, Herod the Great laid siege to the city, capturing it after 40 days. This event ended the rule of the Hasmoneans and began the rule of Herod as a client of the Roman Empire.
Under the rule of Herod, Jerusalem was expanded, and trade flourished. The second temple was rebuilt and was grander than ever, boasting incredible riches. Herod died in 4 BCE, and ten years later, the province of Judea, including the city of Jerusalem, came under direct Roman rule.
Soon after, Jerusalem became a center for a new sect of Judaic thinking which would champion the poverty-stricken sections of the city. This would evolve into Christianity. According to the New Testament, it was here that Jesus Christ would preach his gospels and eventually be crucified and resurrected.
Over the first decades of the new millennium, tensions would rise between the Romans and their Jewish subjects. These tensions came to a head in 70 CE when the Jewish residents of Jerusalem led a major revolt against Roman rule. Under the leadership of the future Roman emperor, Titus, the Romans besieged the city for five months before the defense of Jerusalem finally collapsed. Titus razed much of the city, burning the Temple in the process. All that remains was a section of wall known today as the Western Wall.
Jerusalem would rise from the ashes as the Roman city of Aelia Capitolina. Jews were forbidden from entering this city, which was a major cause of the Bar Kochba Revolt in 132 CE. Although the revolt and its leader, Simon Bar Kochba, saw early successes, establishing control over much of Judea for a few years, there is no indication that they managed to enter or control Aelia Capitolina. The revolt was crushed by Emperor Hadrian, and around half a million Jews were killed.
In the early 4th century, Rome converted to Christianity, and Jerusalem became a major focus of the empire’s favor. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre was built on the spot where it is believed Jesus was crucified. The city would thrive for some time, but there is no evidence that Jews were treated any better within its walls or if Jews were even allowed in.
The Sassanids would conquer Jerusalem in 614 CE, and it would be recaptured by the Byzantines in 629. Nine years later, the Holy City would fall to the Muslim Arab Rashidun Caliphate. It was one of the first cities to fall to the new Abrahamic religion.
This conquest signaled a new era, but it would not be free of conflict and violence. Religion would continue to shape the world, and Jerusalem, at the center of it all, would be the grandest prize.
The position Jerusalem occupies in the minds of many people is that of being the center of the world. It is at the heart of three major religions and has been fought over probably more so than any other city in history.
Today, the city is split between Israel and Palestine. The events of today echo the events of the past with alarming similarity as the city remains the focus of competing religious and political ideologies, guiding Jerusalem down the familiar path of conflict that it has known for 5,000 years.