Why Is Jerusalem Called Jerusalem?

From its earliest name Ursalim, Jerusalem's name has mirrored the city's conquerors, passing through Jebus to the Roman Aelia Capitolina to al-Quds - and back to the ancient Israelite Yerushalayim.

Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad
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Israeli archaeology: Often controversial, always fascinating. Shown above: Excavating the City of David, Jerusalem.
Israeli archaeology: Often controversial, always fascinating. Shown above: Excavating the City of David, Jerusalem.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi
Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad

This Sunday is Jerusalem Day, which is an apt time to ask where this city, engulfed in bloody struggle from the earliest pagan era to this day, got its name – and how the English "Jerusalem" and the Hebrew "Yerushalaim" evolved from the same ancient word, and where the Arab name "Al-Quds" came from.

Going by the archaeological evidence found so far, Jerusalem was founded about 6,000 years ago, and it may have had roughly that name from the beginning. A city "Rushalimum" is mentioned as an enemy of the pharaoh in an ancient Egyptian list dating from the 19th century BCE, about 4,700 years ago. If it is indeed Jerusalem, it is the earliest reference.

The first sure reference to the city is in the Amarna Letters, an archive of correspondence discovered in Upper Egypt dating from the 14th century BCE, about 2,700 years ago. In those letters, between Egypt and their administrators in Canaan (which Egypt controlled at the time), the name is rendered as "Ursalim".

But what does the name mean? "Ursalim" is most likely a compound of two words in Western Semitic (a prehistoric language that would later birth Hebrew, Aramaic, Arabic, Ethiopic and more): the verb yaru (“to establish”) and the name Shalim (or Salem), the Canaanite god of dusk.

If accurate, then the name "Ursalim" (and Yerushayalim) would have meant “Shalim’s city” or “Established by Shalim,” indicating that Shalim was the original tutelary deity of the city.

Some claim the root s-l-m in the name Jerusalem refers to “peace,” shalom, not a pagan god. It is possible, but unlikely: if it were the pre-biblical Hebrew word for peace, shalmu, in the city’s name, it would have produced the name Yerushalom. (Long a sounds became o sounds in all Canaanite languages).

An ultra-Orthodox Jewish man writes some of the last words in a Torah scroll before its completion, March 14, 2010. AP

King David buys a city

While the Bible usually calls the city "Jerusalem," it is also uses other names, including “City of Jebus” (Judges 19:10) after the Jebusites, who lived in the city before King David allegedly purchased it from their king and made it his capital. This led to another name, “City of David” (e.g., 2 Samuel 5:6).

And there were more: the Temple Mount is called Zion (e.g., 1 Kings 8:1) and Moriah (e.g., Genesis 22:2), both of which came to apply by extension to the city itself. More rarely the names Shalem (Psalms 76:2), Neveh Tzedek (Jeremiah 31:22), and “City of the Great King” (Psalms 48:2) are also used.

Yet another name by which ancient Jerusalem was known, for a while, was Aelia Capitolina. That was the name the Romans gave to the city, after triumphing over the Jewish rebellion led by Bar Kochba in the 2nd century CE. That name derived from Aelius, the Emperor Hadrian's nomen gentile, and "Capitolina," referring to the Roman god Jupiter Capitolinus to which they dedicated the city in the year . That name fell into disuse after the Muslim conquest of the city in 632 CE.

A fragment of an ancient tablet welcoming Emperor Hadrian to Jerusalem, October 2014. Photos by Olivier Fitoussi

Enter the Norman Conquest

The pronunciation "Jerusalem", with a J, is a modern development.

In biblical times, the West Semitic name “Ursalim” evolved into "Yerushalem". That is roughly how the name was listed in the Greek translation of the Bible, the Septuagint, in the 2nd century BCE - Ierousalm.

While this form became fixed in ancient Greek, in Hebrew, the name's ending changed from Yerusha-lem to Yerusha-laim, which was a common ending in ancient Israelite place names. It isn’t clear when or why this change took place, but it was probably after 500 CE.

Meanwhile, over in Europe, the Greek name Ierousal m entered Latin as Hierosolyma. That morphed into the Late Latin name Hierusalem, which in turn became Old French Ierusalem.

As French developed from Latin, the language experienced a sound shift. Words starting with the letter "i" started being pronounced with a soft g (like in the word gym). This took place sometime before 500 CE.

In 1066, the Norman Conquest brought this pronunciation to England, in words that came from French and Latin, resulting in a dual use of the letter i. In words of Germanic origin (such as island) the letter was pronounced as a long i, while in words originating from Latin and French, it was pronounced as j, though none of these languages had the letter j yet. So from this point (roughly the 12th century), Jerusalem was pronounced “Jerusalem” but spelled “Ierusalem.”

In the 17th century, the newly invented letter j came over from the continent and Jerusalem began to be spelled in its modern form.

The origin of al-Quds

The difference between Hebrew “Yerushalaim” and English’s “Jerusalem” is tiny compared to the how different they are both from the Arabic name Al-Quds, which has a completely different derivation.

When Muslim armies conquered Jerusalem from the Byzantine Empire in 638, they called it “Iliya,” a shortened version of the ancient Roman name Aelia Capitolina . Another name that began to gain currency after the Muslim conquest was Bayt al-Maqdis, a translation of the Hebrew name of the Jerusalem Temple – Beit HaMikdash (Literally “Holy House”).

Bayt al-Maqdis is quite long and cumbersome, so as of the 9th century, an abbreviated name Al-Quds (“The Holy”), began to supersede the older Arabic names of the city. Today, almost all Muslims call the city Al-Quds, though Israeli law mandates that traffic signs in Arabic call the city Urshalim (as it is known to Christian Arabs) and only have the name “Al-Quds” in brackets.

Ancient map Of Jerusalem by Flemish cartographer Frans Hogenberg, circa 1575.

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