The third holiest city in Islam

Muslim Jerusalem….in brief

Jerusalem, generally called simply “the Holy” (al-Quds) by the Muslims, is not mentioned by name in the Quran, but the Muslim tradition unanimously sees a reference to it in the allusion in 17: 1 where Muhammad was borne by night from Mecca to “the distant shrine” (al-masjid al-aqsa). Muslim armies took Jerusalem without resistance in 635 CE and immediately set to refurbishing its chief holy place, the neglected Temple mount of the “noble sanctuary” (al-haram al-sharif). Quickly they built at its southern end their congregational mosque (al-Aqsa), and then in 692 completed at its center the splendid shrine called the “Dome of the Rock,” revered as not only the terminus of the Night Journey but the biblical site of both Abraham’s sacrifice and Solomon’s Temple.

Excavations of extensive buildings south of the Haram suggest that the Umayyads may have had ambitious political plans for Jerusalem, but they apparently aborted when Damascus became the new capital of the “Abode of Islam.” The city’s history was generally uneventful dowm to the Crusades, and Christians and Jews –Jerusalem was filled with Christians and Christian holy places and the Jews had been permitted by the Muslims to return to the city for the first time since their ban by the Romans in 135 CE– may have outnumbered the Muslims. The Egyptian ruler al-Hakim had the Christians’ Holy Sepulcher Church burned down in 1009, one of the events that provoked the Europeans’ invasion of Palestine and their occupation of Jerusalem in 1099. The Latin Christian interregnum in Jerusalem lasted a scant century before Salah al-Din drove them out in 1187, long enough, however, for the Crusaders to convert the Dome of the Rock into a church and the Aqsa into the headquarters of the Knights Templars.

Under Salah al-Din the Muslim holy places were restored to their original use, and it was he too, aided by popular preachers, who raised Muslim appreciation of what was, after Mecca and Medina, the third holiest city in Islam. The Frankish Crusade appears to have taken the Muslims by surprise, but thereafter they were well aware of European intentions toward Jerusalem, and in the centuries after the Crusades the level of hostility between the Muslims and the indigenous Christian population, and particularly the European pilgrims who continued to visit the city (and whose accounts graphically document life there) rose appreciably. Salah al-Din also wished to make Jerusalem a safely Sunni city –the Shiciites were regarded as far more subversive enemies than the Christians–  and his goal was realized under his family’s successors in Egypt and Palestine, the Mamluks. From their accession in 1250 they invested heavily in Jerusalem, and many of the Sunni law schools (madrasas) and convents (khanaqas) they constructed around the northern and western margins of the Haram still retain some of their expensive elegance, though they are now empty of the students and Sufis who used to inhabit them.

The Ottomans who inherited the city in 1517 from the Mamluks continued their predecessors’ generous support of the holy city. It was they who built the walls that still set off the “Old City” today, somewhat uselessly, perhaps, since the greatest threat to the city came from abroad, and not in the form of armed warriors. The might of the Ottomans was tested and broken in the Balkans in the seventeenth-nineteenth century, and in sequel their control of their own affairs in their own dominions was progresively eroded.  Even before the Crusades the Christians of Jerusalem, the Latins, Greeks and Armenians, had learned the benefit of invoking the protection of other, more powerful of their correligionists, and somewhat later the European powers learned what benefits might accrue to them from manipulating         those invocations.

The disintegration of Ottoman sovereignty was nowhere more evident than in Palestine and Jerusalem in the nineteenth century. The city began to fill up with European consulates, European missionaries and, finally, European acheological missions, many of them instruments of national policy and all of them far beyond the reach of the Ottoman authorities in what was by then an exceedingly poor city. Even the Jews, always the least considerable and most wretched of Jerusalem’s medieval population, discovered they too had powerful friends and benefactors in Europe. With the aid of those benefactors, the Montefiores and Rothschilds chief among them, the lot of the Jerusalem Jews was improved and their numbers began to spiral upward so that by 1900 they were 35,000 –and the Muslims and Christians each 10,000– and out of a total population of 55,000.

Turkey joined Germany in its unsuccessful war against the Allies in 1914, and in December 1917 the city fell, without harm, to General Allenby and a British Expeditionary Army. It rested under the uneasy control of British governors during the entire Mandate period (1922-1948), and at the British withdrawal in 1948, the Jordanians hastened to occupy the Old City, despite the United Nations’ recommendations for internationalization. It remained a part of Jordan until the 1967 war, when the Israelis took it after fierce fighting. The whole city has since been integrated into the State of Israel, and declared its capital, though in June 1967 the Israel Minster of Defense Moshe Dayan acknowledged the entire Haram al-Sharif as the possession of the Muslims, and the policy has remained in force to this day.



Ben-Arieh, Yehoshua, Jerusalem in the Nineteenth Century. The Old City, New York, 1984. Charts in detail the rapid and radical changes to Jerusalem in the nineteenth century.

Benvenisti, Meron, Jeruaalem: The Torn City, Jerusalem, 1976. A generally balanced account of the fate of Jerusalem, and of the Muslim population and the Muslim holy places, after 1967.


Burgoyne, Michael. The Architecture of Islamic Jerusalem, Jerusalem 1976. An inventory of the chief Islamic monuments of the city.

Busse, Heribert. “The Sanctity of Jerusalem in Islam,” Judaism 17 (1968), 441-468.

Goitein, S. D. art. “Al-Kuds: Part A. History,” The Encyclopaedia of Islam, new edition, Leiden, 1980. A succinct yet detailed account of the history of Muslim Jeruslem.

Grabar, Oleg. art. “Al-Kuds: Part B. The Monuments” in The Encyclopaedia of Islam, new edition, Leiden, E. J. Brill, 1980. The best brief survey of the monuments of Muslim Jerusalem.

Peters, F. E. Jerusalem: The Holy City in the Eyes of Chroniclers, Visitors, Pilgrims and Prophets from the Days of Abraham to the Beginning of Modern Times, Princeton, 1985.  A broad collection of sources on the city, its visitors and their impressions from the earliest days to 1830s.

Peters, F. E. The Distant Shrine. The Muslim Era in Jerusalem, New York, 1993. The shaping of the city of Jerusalem from the seventh to the nineteenth century,

Peters, F. E. Jerusalem and Mecca: The Typology of the Holy City in the Near East, New York, 1987. A comparative study of two of Islam’s holiest cities.

Silberman, Neil Asher.Digging for God and Country. Exploration, Archeology and the Secret Struggle for the Holy Land, (1799-1917), New York, 1982. An informative and entertaining account of the archeological “invasion” of Jerusalem in the nineteenth century.

Tibawi, A. L. Jerusalem, its Place in Islamic and Arabic History, Beirut, 1969. A Muslim’s account of rthe importance of Jerusalem.

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