A Very Brief History of Jerusalem

During its 6,000 years, the holy city has risen and fallen, and risen anew, countless times. Throughout the centuries, however, it was hardly the bastion of monotheism it is today.

Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad
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View of the city of Jerusalem.
View of the city of Jerusalem.Credit: Michal Fattal
Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad

This story was originally published in May 2014

Jerusalem Day is a holiday instituted by the Israeli government in 1968 as an annual celebration of the city’s unification following the Six-Day War a year earlier. On the occasion of the 46th Jerusalem Day, celebrated Wednesday, May 28, the following is an extremely brief history of this holiest of cities.

Some 6,000 years ago, ancient peoples settled the hills around the Gihon Spring (located just east of Jerusalem's Old City walls today). The city they founded remained as it was for centuries – a hilltop agricultural backwater, in the periphery of the powerful Egyptian empire. It was called Rusalimum (or Urusalimum), which some believe means “dwelling-place of Shalim,” the Canaanite god of dawn.

The invasion around 3,500 years ago of the “Sea Peoples” – or Philistines, as they are called in the Bible – destabilized the region and Egypt, causing it to lose its grip over Canaan. Some time in the early first millennium B.C.E. (i.e., some 3,000 years ago), a small kingdom called Judea was established – by King David, according to the Bible – with Jerusalem as its capital.

As a new form of centralized government took shape, the inhabitants of Jerusalem gradually became henotheists: that is, they formally worshiped one god while in practice continuing to believe in a multitude of other deities. The first great Temple was erected, and the peoples of the kingdom’s outlying areas were gradually made to abandon their old rituals and to practice religion, among other ways, by making pilgrimages to Jerusalem.

During the rest of the city's history, the influx of religious pilgrims and administrative matters would constitute its main economic backbone.

Assyrian conquest

In 733 B.C.E., the Judean king, Ahaz of Jerusalem, appealed to Tiglath-pileser III, ruler of the Assyrian Empire, to intercede on his behalf in a conflict with the kingdom of Israel, his northern neighbor. Tiglath-pileser obliged Ahaz, destroyed Israel, and turned Judea into a vassal state.

But empires don’t last forever and the Assyrians were conquered by the Babylonians in 605 B.C.E. Eight years later, King Nebuchadnezzar II sacked Jerusalem and took its aristocracy, including its king, Jehoiachin, into captivity in Babylonia.

Zedekiah, who was made vassal king in Jehoiachin’s place, rebelled in 587 B.C.E., which prompted Nebuchadnezzar to descend on Jerusalem with great vengeance. He destroyed the city and its First Temple, and captured local leaders and brought them to Babylonia.

After its Babylonian-appointed governor Gedaliah was assassinated, Jerusalem was abandoned and remained desolate for several decades.

But Babylonia’s turn to fall came soon enough: In 538 B.C.E., King Cyrus II of Persia invaded Babylonia and assumed control of its vast empire. Seeking to make the exiled Judeans his allies, the king decreed that same year that they could return to Jerusalem and rebuild their Temple. To that end, Cyrus even contributed funds and restored the pillaged treasures of the First Temple.

The Second Temple was completed in 516 B.C.E., and Jerusalem became the center of the now-monotheist Judean people, as well as the administrative center of the Persian province of Judea.

But once again, events far beyond Jerusalem would alter its fate: In 334 B.C.E. Alexander the Great of Macedonia invaded the Persian Empire and brought it under his power. After Alexander's death nine years later, his generals, the Diadochi, fought for control over the kingdom, and it was divided into a number of smaller Hellenistic kingdoms. Judea and its capital Jerusalem fell under the control of Ptolemy I, who ruled the region from Alexandria, in what is modern-day Egypt.

This was a period of growth in Jerusalem. It increasingly took the form of a Hellenistic polis (city-state), a process that continued after the Seleucid Empire, whose capital was in Antioch (now a city in modern-day Turkey), seized control of Judea from the Ptolemaic Empire in 198 B.C.E. Gradually, the upper social strata of Jerusalem's inhabitants adopted more and more elements of the Greek way of life, which constituted the predominant international culture during that era. This angered the more traditional Jews in their midst, prompting the Maccabean revolt against the Seleucids and the establishment of an independent Hasmonean Kingdom with its capital in Jerusalem.

Herod rebuilds the Temple

Subsequently, the Hasmonean monarchs themselves became more and more Hellenized, and after internal infighting within the dynasty and an attempted rebellion against the Romans – the Romans deposed the Hasmoneans and installed King Herod in 37 B.C.E. as their vassal ruler over the Kingdom of Judea.

On the one hand, Herod was a cruel despot, despised by his people. On the other hand, he undertook unprecedented, large-scale building projects in his kingdom – including, and most importantly, the spectacular rebuilding and remodeling of the Second Temple in Jerusalem.

After Herod's death in 4 B.C.E., Jerusalem and Judea were placed under the control of Roman-appointed governors who ruled from Caesarea, the new capital that had been established by Herod. Though Jerusalem lost its status as administrative center, it remained a major hub for Jewish pilgrims from all over the Roman Empire.

It was during this time that a charismatic young Galilean named Jesus began preaching to his fellow Jews. It is believed that he was crucified after Passover, possibly in 33 C.E. His followers would spread his message after his death, forming small Jewish sects from which Christianity was to arise, several decades thereafter.

Meanwhile, in 66 C.E., the Jews of Judea rebelled against their Roman overlords. Nero, the emperor, was informed of the revolt while attending the Olympic Games and dispatched his experienced general, Vespasian, to quash the uprising. While Vespasian was fighting the rebels, Nero increasingly descended into violent madness, ultimately being pronounced “the enemy of the People of Rome” by the Roman Senate. He escaped the city and committed suicide in 68 C.E.

The Senate subsequently called Vespasian back to Rome to rule as emperor, leaving his son Titus to finish the job of ending the revolt in Judea; this occurred in the year 70 C.E., as infighting among Jewish factions weakened their resistance, and more and more territory fell under Roman control. Thousands of refugees made their way to Jerusalem as the Roman legions marched in to take over the holy city. After a siege, the Romans breached the walls and slaughtered thousands of men, women and children. The Second Temple was pillaged and destroyed.

For decades the city lay in waste, and Jews were forbidden to visit.

The pagan period

It was Emperor Hadrian who rescued Jerusalem from its lowly situation when, in the year 135, he visited it and ordered it be rebuilt as a pagan city. It was renamed Aelia Capitolina, and thus it remained for some 150 years: a small, unimportant pagan backwater in the eastern part of the Roman empire.

But after Emperor Constantine I determined that Christianity would be the official religion of the Roman Empire, he ordered Jerusalem to be reinstated as a Christian holy city in the early part of the 4th century, and erected the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on the site where tradition says Jesus was crucified and buried.

Jerusalem remained Christian for centuries, with pilgrims pouring in from around the Christian world. Jews were usually banned from visiting the city, although on the anniversary of the Second Temple’s destruction they were allowed to visit its former site on the Temple Mount, which the Christians were using as a garbage dump.

Meanwhile, in the deserts of Arabia, a shepherd and merchant named Mohammed was preaching a new religion based on Christian and Jewish traditions. Although the Koran doesn’t specifically mention Jerusalem, tradition has it that Mohammed flew on the back of a mythical creature named Al-Buraq – a winged horse with the head of a man – from Mecca to the Temple Mount and from there ascended to heaven.

After the prophet Mohammed died in the year 632, his followers carried out a series of conquests that eventually spanned an area including India in the east and Spain in the west. Jerusalem would be one of the first cities they would capture.

Within six years of the prophet’s death, the people of Jerusalem capitulated to the Muslim caliph Umar ibn al-Khattab, in return for a promise that they would be allowed to continue worshiping in the city. One of Umar’s successors, Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan, erected the Dome of the Rock on Jerusalem's Temple Mount in 691; moreover, he and his son Al-Walid I built the nearby Al-Aqsa Mosque.

Their dynasty – the Umayyads – remained in control of Jerusalem and the vast Arab empire until the 11th century, when it was conquered by a new dynasty, the Fatimids. One of the latter's rulers, Caliph Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah, ordered that all of Jerusalem’s churches be destroyed in 1009, and persecuted Christian and Jewish worshipers.

This prompted Christian Europe to mobilize and dispatch its warriors – the Crusaders – to wrest control of the holy city once again. In 1099, they captured Jerusalem and killed nearly all of its Jewish and Muslim inhabitants. The Crusaders then established the city as the capital of a Christian kingdom, the Kingdom of Jerusalem. The Muslim holy sites were adapted to serve Christian purposes, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was rebuilt.

The rise of the Mamluks

The Kingdom of Jerusalem didn’t last long: In 1187, Saladin, founder of the Muslim Ayyubid dynasty, reconquered Jerusalem, although Islamic control of the city would be relatively short-lived. In 1229, a treaty between Ayyubid Sultan Al-Malik Al-Kamil and Holy Roman Emperor Friedrich II brought back Nazareth, Bethlehem, a coastal strip of the Holy Land and most of Jerusalem to Christian hands. The Temple Mount, however, remained under Muslim control.

This arrangement didn’t last long, either. In 1244 Sunni Muslim Turks conquered Jerusalem and almost completely destroyed it. Their control of what remained of the city was short-lived, too, however, for in 1250, Egypt – and with it Jerusalem – was captured by the Mamluks.

Under Mamluk rule, Jerusalem underwent a slight renaissance, as some major construction took place and pilgrimages by Muslim, Christian and Jewish believers were revived. Such was the state of affairs until 1516, when the Ottoman Empire conquered the entire region, ended Mamluk rule, and gained control of the city.

Under Turkish ruled, Jerusalem regressed and became a small backwater, losing its status as a provincial capital and its massive influx of pilgrims. However, thanks to Suleiman the Magnificent, the city’s walls, torn down during the tumultuous 13th century, were rebuilt. Moreover, the Ottomans were tolerant rulers, allowing the three religions to coexist side by side within the city.

Toward the end of the Ottoman era, a number of settlements began to sprout up around the tiny and expanding, walled Old City of Jerusalem.

Mandatory rule

The Ottomans ruled Jerusalem nearly uninterruptedly for 400 years, until World War I, when General Edmund Allenby conquered Palestine on behalf of the Mandatory British government, entering Jerusalem as victor in 1917.

The British reestablished the city as a major administrative capital in the region. However, the fact that they promised Jerusalem and Palestine to both Jews and Arabs fanned hostility between the two peoples who were living in the land. This hostility continued to mount both during and after World War II, as large numbers of Jewish refugees from war-torn Europe began to flood Palestine.

When British rule ended in Palestine in 1948, war ensued and Jerusalem was split in two. The eastern half became part of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, while the western half was capital of the Jewish State of Israel.

Thus the situation remained until 1967, when Israel launched the preemptive Six-Day War against Egypt, Syria and Jordan, during which it gained control of the Golan Heights, the Sinai Peninsula, the West Bank, and all of Jerusalem.

Today, Jerusalem is thriving and bigger than ever before, but still largely divided into locales inhabited by Muslims and Christians in its east, and Jews in its west. A massive separation barrier now cuts it off from its eastern suburbs and the West Bank.

As mentioned at the outset, Jerusalem’s name apparently derives from a name of a forgotten Canaanite god. Some people prefer to believe that its name means “city of peace.” May it live up to that appellation one day.

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