I first visited Jerusalem in 1977, aged 16. As I walked down into the plaza in front of the Western Wall, and stared at the cool, ochre stones, pressing a prayer into the cracks between them, I was surprised at the depth of emotion I felt.
The Wall, known as the Kotel in Hebrew, is part of the retaining wall that surrounded the First and Second Temples, the holiest sites in Judaism, destroyed by the Babylonians and the Romans. In their place are al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock, two of Islam’s most sacred sites. Nearby is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, believed by many to be the site of Jesus’s crucifixion and burial. Today, the adherents of the three main Abrahamic faiths ferociously guard their slivers of territory within this historic area.
I have returned many times since. The emotion faded but the plaza nagged at me. Why, in the middle of a crowded, ancient city, surrounded by a maze of alleys and courtyards, was there such an open space? What was there before?
In his engaging biography of the Old City of Jerusalem, Matthew Teller has the answer. Maps now divide the Old City into four historic quarters: Muslim, Christian, Armenian and Jewish. Such borders are both arbitrary and nonsensical, argues Teller, pointing out that no Ottoman-ruled city (as Jerusalem was until 1917) would have a “Muslim Quarter”.
Teller largely blames Reverend Robert Willis, a Cambridge academic who never even visited Jerusalem but helped delineate a poorly defined map published in 1849, and later used by 19th-century Protestant missionaries, that somehow became a standard work of reference.
As for the plaza by the Western Wall, it was once home to a thriving, 700-year-old area known as the Haret al-Magharba, or the Maghrebi (north African) quarter, which included houses, shops and mosques. In June 1967, Israel captured the eastern half of Jerusalem and the Old City from Jordan, including the Haret al-Magharba. The whole city was now under Israeli control. Within days, the bulldozers and demolition squads arrived. The Haret al-Magharba simply vanished. Teller quotes Nazmi al-Jubeh, a former resident: “The fig and pomegranate trees were gone, and so were the alleys I used to walk and play in.”
Today the plaza is the epicentre of modern Zionism: up to 60,000 people can gather here for mass swearing-in ceremonies to the army or border police, and huge crowds mass to celebrate Jewish religious holidays. Most will have no idea of the fate of the Haret al-Magharba. Yet in demolishing the ancient neighbourhood, the modern Israelis were merely the latest in a series of conquerors in the endless cycle of destruction and construction.
Teller laments the rebuilt modern Jewish quarter as a “Westernised, upmarket residential enclave”. The real tragedy is that it had to be rebuilt at all. In 1948, during the Israeli War of Independence, which the Palestinians call the Nakba, or “Catastrophe”, the Jordanians captured the ancient Jewish quarter. The Jews were expelled, and their homes, shops and synagogues systematically demolished. For the Arab conquerors, there could be no record of many centuries of a Jewish presence.
Nine Quarters of Jerusalem highlights many obscure treasures in the Old City, from the hidden synagogue of the Karaites, a centuries-old branch of Judaism, to Sufi shrines, tiny museums and Armenian artisans’ workshops. I once spent a summer at the Hebrew University, and explored the city in depth. But I had no idea that there was a small African Muslim community living by al-Aqsa mosque.
A journalist and documentary maker, Teller is an informed, enthusiastic guide to one of the most contested sites in the world. He even had his bar-mitzvah at the Western Wall. But he underplays the ancient Jewish connection to Jerusalem. Only one of the book’s 18 chapters is devoted to stories from the Jewish quarter.
Each year, around this time, Jewish families end their Passover meal with the prayer, “Next year in Jerusalem”. Jerusalem is holy to Christians and Muslims, but it is also the city of King David and Solomon who, around 3,000 years ago, turned a once provincial city into the thriving capital of an empire.
Yes, some of the jarring modernist architecture in the Old City and its surrounds is inhabited by American-Jewish immigrants who buy out — or use Israeli law to evict — their Arab neighbours, believing they have a divine mission to re-Judaise the city. But to understand present-day Jerusalem, we need to hear their stories as well.
Nine Quarters of Jerusalem: A New Biography of the Old City by Matthew Teller, Profile Books £16.99/Other Press $27.99, 400 pages
Adam LeBor is the author of ‘City of Oranges: An intimate History of Arabs and Jews in Jaffa’
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