Saturday,20 January, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1373, (14 - 20 December 2017)
Saturday,20 January, 2018
Issue 1373, (14 - 20 December 2017)

Ahram Weekly

City of religions

Designated a World Heritage Site by the UN cultural agency UNESCO in 1981, the Old City of Jerusalem is a holy city for Judaism, Christianity and Islam and has immense cultural and historical importance for all three

City of religions
City of religions
Al-Ahram Weekly

اقرأ باللغة العربية


For many Jews, the city is a symbol of religious identity, for Christians it is the scene of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and for Muslims it is the site of the Prophet Mohamed’s Night Journey and thus one of Islam’s most sacred religious sites.

Fought over many times by Muslims and Christians during the Christian Crusades of the mediaeval period, in the 20th century Jerusalem became a focus of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Taken together with the city’s religious heritage, this has meant that Jerusalem today is of enormous importance to all three monotheistic religions as well as the focus of Palestinian national aspirations.

It is for these reasons that the decision by US President Donald Trump to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv in a de facto recognition of the city as the capital of Israel has led to protests worldwide. Not only does Trump’s decision appear to discount the importance of Jerusalem for Muslims and Christians, but it also appears to recognise Israeli political sovereignty over the city.

The 1947 UN Partition Plan for the former British Mandate territory of Palestine recommended that Jerusalem be given a special international status “constituting it as a corpus separatum [a separate body] under the administration of the UN.” This recommendation was ignored by Israel, which in 1948 took control of what would later become West Jerusalem as well as of much of the territory allocated by the UN to a future Palestinian state.

The Old City of Jerusalem (East Jerusalem) lay on the Jordanian side of the armistice line after 1948, but was occupied by Israel in 1967 during the Six Day War. Despite its already fragile claims to West Jerusalem, Israel later incorporated East Jerusalem into the rest of the Jerusalem municipality, ignoring the Old City’s status as Occupied Palestinian Territory under international law.

“Since Israel was established in 1948, the United Nations and the United States, like most countries, have refused to recognise any country’s sovereignty over Jerusalem, a city holy to Muslims, Jews and Christians,” wrote member of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) executive committee Hanan Ashrawi in the New York Times this week.

“For this reason, the United States has always maintained its embassy to Israel in Tel Aviv. Since Israel militarily occupied East Jerusalem in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, the United States and the international community have rejected as illegal Israel’s attempts to cement its control over the city… With his announcement on Wednesday [6 December], Trump has legitimised Israel’s illegal actions and sent the message that the United States no longer has any regard for international conventions or norms,” Ashrawi wrote.

The Old City of Jerusalem is dominated by the raised platform of the Al-Haram Al-Sharif (the Noble Sanctuary), which contains the Dome of the Rock, the Al-Aqsa Mosque, and other structures that are among the holiest sites of Islam.

For Jews and Christians, the area is called the Temple Mount, the location of the ancient First and Second Temples within which was the “Holy of Holies,” the most sacred site in Judaism. Destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE, remains of the Second Temple are still to be found in the walls of the Temple Mount, especially the Western Wall, a site of pilgrimage and prayer for Jews from all over the world.

The surrounding Old City walls were built by the Ottoman sultan Suleiman the Magnificent in 1538-40 when Palestine was part of the former Ottoman Empire. These walls include the city’s famous seven gates, among them the Jaffa and Damascus Gates, still the Old City’s main entrances.

The Dome of the Rock with its magnificent gold-capped dome was built by the Umayyad caliph Abdel-Malik in 691 CE and is thus one of the oldest and most important works of Islamic architecture in the world today.

Octagonal in form with a central dome, the building is decorated inside and out with beautiful geometric and floral motifs. In religious terms, it is believed by some to mark the spot, signalled by the large rock preserved within the building, where the Prophet Mohamed ascended to heaven (another possible site being the neighbouring Al-Aqsa Mosque). This rock is also sacred in Judaism as it is believed to mark the site where Abraham prepared to sacrifice his son Isaac in the biblical story.

The Al-Aqsa Mosque, the “farthest mosque” of the Prophet Mohamed’s Night Journey, was originally built by the caliph Omar, but was later rebuilt and greatly expanded by Abdel-Malik and finished by his son Al-Walid in 705 CE. The present building is based around the structure built in the 11th century CE to replace earlier ones destroyed by earthquakes. It has been substantially extended and added to over the years.

Today, the rectangular Al-Aqsa Mosque, 83 metres long and 56 metres wide, covers some 144,000 square metres, with the mosque itself being about 35,000 square metres in area and holding up to 5,000 worshippers. The façade and dome were built in the 11th century and later extended. Inside, the mosque consists of seven hypostyle aisles for worshippers supported by 45 marble or stone columns.

For Christians, the significance of Jerusalem lies in its having witnessed the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ in the first century CE. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Old City, first built in the 4th century CE, is believed by many Christians to stand on the site of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ at Calvary and of the tomb from which he was later resurrected from the dead according to Christian theology.

The concentration of religious sites within the Old City of Jerusalem, and the larger symbolic significance of the surrounding city for Israelis and Palestinians, has meant that there has long been a consensus, reflected in successive UN decisions, that no single state should be allowed to claim sovereignty over the city.

Its unique importance for the three monotheistic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam has meant that the international community has long wanted to ensure that the sites of each religion are respected. Its importance for the Palestinians as well as for the Israelis in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has meant that the international community has wanted to see the city given special status as an internationally administered separate body.

However, it is these things that the US decision, announced by Trump on 6 December, has called into question, Ashrawi wrote in the New York Times this week. “By rewarding its claim on Jerusalem with official recognition, Trump is giving Israel a free hand to accelerate its policies of creeping annexation of the occupied Palestinian territories and its deliberate attempts to erase the Palestinians’ historical, political, cultural and demographic presence in historic Palestine,” she wrote.

“Moreover, the United States’ recognition of Jerusalem as part of Israel could embolden messianic Jewish extremists – some of whom are supported by Israeli government officials – who want to build a Jewish temple in the Noble Sanctuary mosque complex in the Old City of East Jerusalem, one of the most sensitive religious sites in the world.”

“This could easily ignite a major religious conflagration in the Middle East and beyond,” Ashrawi wrote, and it would clearly also spell the end to the unique religious co-existence that has hitherto been the aim of all those in the international community concerned with the future of Jerusalem.

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