The ancient city of Jerusalem, in the Judean mountains, is sacred to the three major monotheistic world religions of Judaism, Islam and Christianity and its history has been marked by political and religious turmoil. The seat of modern government, Israelis have designated it their capital. However, this is not recognized by the United Nations, as Arab East Jerusalem is part of the occupied territories captured in 1967.
Jerusalem was already the site of an important settlement by the fifteenth century BC. It was conquered by the Israelite King David about 1000 BC, who made it his capital. Solomon, David’s successor, built the first great Temple which came to be recognised as the focal point of the Jewish faith. It was destroyed in 586 BC by the Babylonians as they sacked Jerusalem and exiled the Jewish population. When the Persians conquered Babylon in 537 BC, the Jews were allowed to return to Jerusalem and a second Temple was completed by around 515 BC. Persian rule gave way to the Hellenistic period from 332–167 BC and then to the Hasmonean (or Maccabee) dynasty. Roman control of Jerusalem, which began in 63 BC, witnessed the crucifixion of Jesus Christ in AD 33, the first revolt of the Jews from AD 66–70 resulting in the destruction of the second Temple, and the second revolt from AD 132–35 in which Jerusalem was razed and the Jews banished, creating a Diaspora. The Romans rebuilt the city as Aelia Capitolina, the basis of today’s old city.
The legalization of Christianity in the Byzantine period from the early fourth century AD led to the building of churches at sites in Jerusalem linked to the life of Jesus, particularly the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Briefly under Persian rule from 614, the city fell in 638 to the Muslims who, believing the prophet Muhammad to have ascended into heaven from there, built the Dome of the Rock (now the third most important religious shrine of Islam) on the Temple site. It was stormed by Crusaders in 1099 and retaken by Saladin in 1187. Egyptian Mameluke rule gave way in 1517 to Ottoman Turkish domination for the next four centuries. From the mid-nineteenth century Jerusalem became the destination for increasing numbers of Jewish immigrants, particularly from Russia.
Arab-Jewish antagonism in Palestine intensified from the 1930s, resulting in the 1948–49 war at the end of the British mandate. Jerusalem was divided between the Arab East, belonging to Jordan, and the Israeli West. Following the Six-day war in 1967 the Israeli government merged the two sectors, and in 1980 passed legislation declaring that a united Jerusalem was the capital of Israel. However this claim was rejected by virtually the entire international community.
In addition to its religious significance, Jerusalem is the administrative heart of Israel, hosting the Knesset (Israeli parliament), the Supreme Court, government ministries and the Chief Rabbinate. It is also a centre of banking and finance, and has light industries such as diamond cutting and polishing and printing and publishing. The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, founded in 1918 and opened in 1925, is Israel’s leading higher education institute with 23,000 students.
Places of Interest
The old walled city, divided into the Jewish, Muslim, Christian and Armenian quarters, holds the most sacred religious sites: the Islamic Al-Aqsa Mosque and Dome of the Rock; the Western (Wailing) Wall, all that remains of the second Temple and the holiest place of prayer for Jewish people; and the Christian Church of the Holy Sepulchre, thought to be where Jesus Christ was crucified, buried and resurrected. Other attractions include the Israel Museum, National Library, and Yad Vashem (the country’s memorial to the victims of the Holocaust). The city is host to the annual Israel Festival of theatre, dance and music, the biennial Jerusalem International Book Fair, and other regular film, puppet theatre and choral music festivals.