A Very Brief History of Jerusalem

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Jerusalem has a very long and somewhat repetitive history. For about 3000 years now 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.

And like every good story, the story of Jerusalem starts quite simply.

The Beginning

It all starts 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 wasn't really fit for agriculture, there wasn't 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, and eventually settled down as a somewhat uneasy federation of tribal territories, that some time later became a kingdom.

Good Times

David, the second king of the Kingdom of Israel, was a great military leader and got his kingdom much bigger, so 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 wasn't 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 didn't have any problems. In his reign Jerusalem grew bigger, and the first Temple was built in it, big and shiny and spreading a 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 centre as well. So everything was good and everybody was happy, for a while.

Bad Times

Then Solomon died, internal fights followed, and the kingdom 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 5 years into his rule King Rehoboam (Solomon's son) had to pay the Egyptian king Shishak with the gold treasures of the Temple to prevent him from conquering Jerusalem. Eventualy, after years of fighting each other and everybody else, both Israel and Judea were conquered by the Assyrians. Jerusalem wasn't conquered, though - the Assyrians put a siege on it, and then folded. This might be attributed to the forsight 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 whole area, turning it into a protectorate-kingdom. After the king of Jerusalem tried to rebel the Babylonians got mad, sent in forces, put Jerusalem under siege again, 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 go back to settle their land and rebuild their Temple. They did so, slowly reconstructing what used to be a big city, but Jerusalem stayed 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 and theatres and temples and all the rest of the things required for a civilized life back then. It was all these temples that eventually got the Jews upset, and caused the great Maccabee Rebellion; the rebellion was surprisingly successful and drove the Hellenes away, and 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, and some of them were stupid enough to call in the Romans for help. The Romans saw 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 assasinate each other, which was quite regular in the Roman Empire, and 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 that had serious disagreements between themselves. Jerusalem was regained, and kept 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 do 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. After some more time 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 re-built under the name Aelia Capitolina.


The land was quiet for a while, but not for long. The Roman Empire was divided to an Eastern Empire and a Western Empire, and Provincia Judea was of course in the eastern part, under the rule of the Byzantines. They had some problems keeping invaders away, but they still managed to stay a strong empire for quite a long time. Being the very religious Christians they were, they had great interest in Jerusalem, and so churches were built where the old Roman temples used to stand, new relics were found every other day, and the Temple Mount was left desolate since Jesus said 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 seventh 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 out of religious reasons (it's the third holiest city in Islam2), and so the great Dome of the Rock was built on Temple Mount, and the Western Wall was re-found by the Jews - that were now allowed back in the city - under a huge dump. As the capital of the Arab Empire moved from the Arab peninsula to Damascus and later to Baghdad Jerusalem became less and 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 of 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 didn't last long. The Muslims re-captured the land, then the Crusaders re-captured it, then there were various fights, agreements and breaking of agreements, and finally the Muslims drove the Crusaders away once and for all and sat there quietly until they started having the inevitable internal fights. The Arab Empire was divided into smaller kingdoms, who took over the area alternately. The Egyptians had Jerusalem for a while, and then the area was taken by the Mameluks, who built some nice things around, but didn't 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 time - 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 got weaker, and the European Powers took advantage of that and grabbed all they could - for instance by building in Jerusalem as much as possible (usually using the religious excuse, taking over land by building a church there and so on). The crumbling remains of the Ottoman Empire were defeated in WWI, General Allenby conquered Jerusalem in 1917, and the Sykes-Picot agreement that came a little afterwards left the territory of Palestine under a British mandate.

The Twentieth Century

Great Britain

The British, like so many others before them, had troubles 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 organizations started working against the British and for an independent Israeli state, and by 1947 the British government decided they just didn't care anymore and took off, leaving the natives to fight each other.


The UN Partition Plan in 1947 left the Jerusalem area as an enclave under UN control, but it 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 started, 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 seemed to do the trick, so the problem remains.

The future is yet uncertain.

Further Reading

Wikipedia has a good entry about Jerusalem, featuring both hystorical facts and general information;

The website of Jerusalem's City Hall concentrates on touristic 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 comes 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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