Jerusalem, wrote historian Martin Gilbert, is not a ‘mere’ city. “It holds the central spiritual and physical place in the history of the Jews as a people.”
For more than 3,000 years, the Jewish people have looked to Jerusalem as their spiritual, political, and historical capital, even when they did not physically rule over the city.
Throughout its long history, Jerusalem has served (and still serves) as the political capital of only one nation – the one belonging to the Jews.
Its prominence in Jewish history began in 1004 BCE, when King David declared the city the capital of the first Jewish kingdom. David’s successor and son, King Solomon, built the First Temple there, according to the Bible, as a holy place to worship the Almighty. Unfortunately, history would not be kind to the Jewish people. Four hundred and ten years after King Solomon completed construction of Jerusalem, the Babylonians (early ancestors to today’s Iraqis) seized and destroyed the city, forcing the Jews into exile.
Fifty years later, the Jews, or Israelites as they were called, were permitted to return after Persia (present-day Iran) conquered Babylon. The Jews’ first order of business was to reclaim Jerusalem as their capital and rebuild the Holy Temple, recorded in history as the Second Temple.
Jerusalem was more than the Jewish kingdom’s political capital – it was a spiritual beacon. During the First and Second Temple periods, Jews throughout the kingdom would travel to Jerusalem three times yearly for the pilgrimages of the Jewish holy days of Sukkot, Passover, and Shavuot, until the Roman Empire destroyed the Second Temple in 70 CE and ended Jewish sovereignty over Jerusalem for the next 2,000 years. Despite that fate, Jews never relinquished their bond to Jerusalem or, for that matter, to Eretz Yisrael, the Land of Israel.
No matter where Jews lived throughout the world for those two millennia, their thoughts and prayers were directed toward Jerusalem. Even today, whether in Israel, the United States or anywhere else, Jewish ritual practice, holiday celebration and lifecycle events include recognition of Jerusalem as a core element of the Jewish experience. Consider that:
- Jews in prayer always turn toward Jerusalem.
- Arks (the sacred chests) that hold Torah scrolls in synagogues throughout the world face Jerusalem.
- Jews end Passover Seders each year with the words: “Next year in Jerusalem”; the same words are pronounced at the end of Yom Kippur, the most solemn day of the Jewish year.
- A three-week moratorium on weddings in the summer recalls the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem by the Babylonian army in 586 BCE. That period culminates in a special day of mourning – Tisha B’Av (the 9th day of the Hebrew month Av) – commemorating the destruction of both the First and Second Temples.
- Jewish wedding ceremonies – joyous occasions, are marked by sorrow over the loss of Jerusalem. The groom recites a biblical verse from the Babylonian Exile: “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning,”and breaks a glass in commemoration of the destruction of the Temples.
Even body language, often said to tell volumes about a person, reflects the importance of Jerusalem to Jews as a people and, arguably, the lower priority the city holds for Muslims:
- When Jews pray they face Jerusalem; in Jerusalem Israelis pray facing the Temple Mount.
- When Muslims pray, they face Mecca; in Jerusalem Muslims pray with their backs to the city.
- Even at burial, a Muslim face, is turned toward Mecca.
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Finally, consider the number of times ‘Jerusalem’ is mentioned in the two religions’ holy books:
- The Old Testament mentions ‘Jerusalem’ 349 times. Zion, another name for ‘Jerusalem,’ is mentioned 108 times.
- The Quran never mentions Jerusalem – not even once.
Even when others controlled Jerusalem, Jews maintained a physical presence in the city, despite being persecuted and impoverished. Before the advent of modern Zionism in the 1880s, Jews were moved by a form of religious Zionism to live in the Holy Land, settling particularly in four holy cities: Safed, Tiberias, Hebron, and most importantly – Jerusalem.
Consequently, Jews constituted a majority of the city’s population for generations. In 1898, “In this City of the Jews, where the Jewish population outnumbers all others three to one …” Jews constituted 75 percent of the Old City population in what Secretary-General Kofi Annan called ‘East Jerusalem.’ In 1914, when the Ottoman Turks ruled the city, 45,000 Jews made up a majority of the 65,000 residents. And at the time of Israeli statehood in 1948, 100,000 Jews lived in the city, compared to only 65,000 Arabs. Prior to unification, Jordanian-controlled ‘East Jerusalem’ was a mere 6 square kilometers, compared to 38 square kilometers on the ‘Jewish side.’
Despite 1,300 years of Muslim Arab rule, Jerusalem was never the capital of an Arab entity, nor was it ever mentioned in the Palestine Liberation Organization’s covenant until Israel regained control of East Jerusalem in the Six-Day War of 1967.
Overall, the role of Jerusalem in Islam is best understood as the outcome of political exigencies impacting on religious belief.
Mohammed, who founded Islam in 622 CE, was born and raised in present-day Saudi Arabia; he never set foot in Jerusalem. His connection to the city came years after his death when the Dome of the Rock shrine and the al-Aqsa mosque were built in 688 and 691, respectively, their construction spurred by political and religious rivalries. In 638 CE, the Caliph (or successor to Mohammad) Omar and his invading armies captured Jerusalem from the Byzantine Empire. One reason they wanted to erect a holy structure in Jerusalem was to proclaim Islam’s supremacy over Christianity and its most important shrine, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.
More important was the power struggle within Islam itself. The Damascus-based Umayyad Caliphs who controlled Jerusalem wanted to establish an alternative holy site if their rivals blocked access to Mecca. That was important because the Hajj or pilgrimage to Mecca was (and remains today) one of the Five Pillars of Islam. As a result, they built what became known as the Dome of the Rock shrine and the adjacent mosque.
To enhance the prestige of the ‘substitute Mecca,’ the Jerusalem mosque was named al-Aqsa. It means ‘the furthest mosque’ in Arabic, but has far broader implications, since it is the same phrase used in a key passage of the Quran called “The Night Journey.” In that passage, Mohammed arrives at ‘al-Aqsa’ on a winged steed accompanied by the Archangel Gabriel; from there they ascend into heaven for a divine meeting with Allah, after which Mohammed returns to Mecca. Naming the Jerusalem mosque al-Aqsa was an attempt to say the Dome of the Rock was the very spot from which Mohammed ascended to heaven, thus tying Jerusalem to divine revelation in Islamic belief. The problem however, is that Mohammed died in the year 632, nearly 50 years before the first construction of the al-Aqsa Mosque was completed.
Jerusalem never replaced the importance of Mecca in the Islamic world. When the Umayyad dynasty fell in 750, Jerusalem also fell into near obscurity for 350 years, until the Crusades. During those centuries, many Islamic sites in Jerusalem fell into disrepair and in 1016 the Dome of the Rock collapsed.
Still, for 1,300 years, various Islamic dynasties (Syrian, Egyptian, and Turkish) continued to govern Jerusalem as part of their overall control of the Land of Israel, disrupted only by the Crusaders. What is amazing is that over that period, not one Islamic dynasty ever made Jerusalem its capital.11 By the 19th century, Jerusalem had been so neglected by Islamic rulers that several prominent Western writers who visited Jerusalem were moved to write about it. French writer Gustav Flaubert, for example, found “ruins everywhere” during his visit in 1850 when it was part of the Turkish Empire (1516-1917). Seventeen years later Mark Twain wrote that Jerusalem had “become a pauper village.”
Indeed, Jerusalem’s importance in the Islamic world only appears evident when non-Muslims (including the Crusaders, the British, and the Jews) control or capture the city.Only at those points in history did Islamic leaders claim Jerusalem as their third most holy city after Mecca and Medina.That was again the case in 1967, when Israel captured Jordanian-controlled East Jerusalem (and the Old City) during the 1967 Six-Day War. Oddly, the PLO’s National Covenant, written in 1964, never mentioned Jerusalem. Only after Israel regained control of the entire city did the PLO updated its Covenant to include Jerusalem.
As recently as the mid-20th century, when Arabs last controlled parts of Jerusalem, they exhibited no respect for the Holy City.
In 1948, when Jordan took control of the eastern part of Jerusalem, including the Old City, it divided the city for the first time in its 3,000-year history. Under the 1949 armistice agreement with Israel, Jordan pledged to allow free access to all holy places but failed to honor that commitment. From 1948 until the Six-Day War in 1967, the part of Jerusalem controlled by the Jordanians again became an isolated and underdeveloped provincial town, with its religious sites the target of religious intolerance.
The Old City was rendered void of Jews. Jewish sites such as the Mount of Olives were desecrated. Jordan destroyed more than 50 synagogues, and erased all evidence of a Jewish presence. In addition, all Jews were forced out of the Jewish Quarter of the Old City adjacent to the Western Wall, an area where Jews had lived for generations.
For 19 years, Jews and Christians residing in Israel (and even Israeli Muslims) were barred from their holy places, despite Jordan’s pledge to allow free access. Jews, for example, were unable to pray at the Western Wall; Christian Arabs living in Israel were denied access to churches and other religious sites in the Old City and nearby Bethlehem, also under Jordanian control.During Jordan’s reign over eastern Jerusalem, its restrictive laws on Christian institutions led to a dramatic decline in the holy city’s Christian population by more than half – from 25,000 to 11,000,a pattern that characterized Christian Arabs in other Arab countries throughout the Middle East where religious freedom is not honored.
It was only after the Six-Day War that the Jewish Quarter was rebuilt and free access to holy places was reestablished. It is worth noting that after Jordan annexed the West Bank in the 1950s, it too failed to make Jerusalem – a city that Arabs now claim as ‘the third most holy site of Islam’ – its capital. Source: Myths and Facts
Since 1967 Israel has gone overboard making sure to protect the holy spots in the holy city. Even though the Temple Mount is the holiest spot in all of Judaism, the government does not allow Jews or Christians to pray on top of the Mount so as to not insult the Muslims. Even if you bow your head and look as if you are praying Israeli police will remove you.
I have been told that this story was true; Two years ago, an American couple was honeymooning in Jerusalem and had a chance encounter with Avi Dichter, who at the time was Israel’s public security minister. Dichter asks them if they are enjoying their trip. They respond that it is wonderful, that the only thing missing was they had always wanted to visit the temple mount. Being a nice guy Dichter says he could arrange it for them.
The groom tells Avi that he understands there are things the couple are not allowed to do on top of the temple mount. He reminds Dichter that they are newlyweds and asks if it would be OK if they stole a quick kiss while no one was looking. “Of course” said Avi. “What if it was a long kiss?” “Well you are newlyweds said the public security minister” “What if we no longer could control our passion, ripped off each others cloths and made mad passionate love..right there in front of everyone?” “I supposed that would be OK” said the security minister”, you are married” The groom continued, “What if we were overwhelmed with ecstasy we screamed out at the top of our lungs OH GOD, OH GOD !”
Are you crazy? asked Dichter, People Will Think You are Praying!
We thank God that for allowing us to gain control of the Holy City, but we want more. Every day Jews Pray that we will once again pray to God on top of that Temple Mount
Below is a video Tribute to Jerusalem.