Jerusalem Strife Echoes Ancient History

Stefan Lovgren
for National Geographic News
October 29, 2004
It may be called the City of Peace, but no other city has been more
bitterly fought over than Jerusalem. In the past 4,000 years it has seen
at least 118 conflicts. It has been razed at least twice, has been
besieged 23 times, and has had at least five separate periods of violent
terrorist attacks in the past century.

Eric Cline is a historian and archaeologist at the George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and the author of the new book Jerusalem Besieged: From Ancient Canaan to Modern Israel. National Geographic News spoke with Cline about the holy city's turbulent history.

Why have scores of armies fought to conquer and rule Jerusalem?

This is really an anomaly in the history of the world, because Jerusalem doesn't have any of the characteristics that you usually find in a city that's constantly being fought over. It's not strategic geographically or economically, and it's not particularly important for military reasons.

The obvious answer is for religious and political reasons. It's a city that's sacred to three major religions and millions of people around the world. Most of the battles that have been fought for Jerusalem have been for control of the sacred spaces, especially the Temple Mount, as the Jews call it, or Haram al-Sharif, as the Muslims call it.

Do you think past battles are feeding current political propaganda?

In my research I was absolutely intrigued by the number of times that references or even explicit citations of the ancient battles crop up in the speeches and propaganda by modern political and military leaders in the area. These ancient battles are not dead, but very much alive in the consciousness of everybody—Jews, Muslims, Christians.

A diplomat walking into the region without knowing the history is going to be at a total loss. There's no way you can even attempt to start negotiating a peace unless you know the conflicted history of the region.

What is the origin of the city?

That's hard to say, because it's buried in the mist of history. Archaeology says the city was founded about 3000 B.C., probably by the Canaanites [a Semitic people of the ancient land of Canaan].

We're not sure what the original city looked like or how big it was. The Egyptians mention it, using the name Jerusalem, in their records 4,000 years ago. Around 1350 B.C., Abdi-Heba, the governor or mayor of Jerusalem writes to the Egyptian pharaoh, asking for help. He says the city is under siege. This is the earliest record we have of a conflict.

We get various mayors in Canaan writing to the Egyptians at this time, asking for soldiers to defend their cities. It seems to be local conflicts between rulers of the various Canaanite city-states. They would all have been vassals to the Egyptian king, so he's basically trying to keep peace among the various factions. In this case the Egyptian king sent 50 archers to Jerusalem to quell the uprising.

Who were the Jebusites?

They're cousins of the Canaanites. They take control of the city probably around 1200 or 1100 B.C.

Yassir Arafat [the chairman of the Palestinian Authority] first said he was a descendant of the Canaanites, but he now says he's a Jebusite. However, if you tried to do a DNA test on Arafat, you would be hard pressed to prove that he has any Jebusite blood running through his veins.

Most of the Arabs in that area came in from Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and other places after the Muslim conquest of Jerusalem in 638 A.D. Many modern Palestinians say they are descendants of the Canaanites, however.

When did the Israelites first appear?

It depends on where you think the Israelites came from. You have the Exodus [the departure of the Israelites from Egypt], but we can't prove that it took place.

There are several rival theories. One is that the Israelites were always in the land of Canaan, and they were peasants who slowly emerged from under the thumb of an overlord. Another is that they were nomads who gradually settled down.

We also don't know if the modern Israelis are actually related to the ancient Israelites. Ask any Jew today if he's a descendant of the Israelites, and he'll say 'of course.' But that's a question still to be answered by genetic studies.

So is it possible for anyone in the area today to prove a historic link to any of the original inhabitants?

It is important to keep in mind both the tumultuous history of this region over time and the massive waves of migration that have taken place during the past 4,000 years. As a result of assimilation, annihilation, and acculturation, it is highly unlikely that anyone living in the area today, whether Palestinian or Israeli, can provide a legitimate pedigree definitively extending back to any of the original inhabitants of [this land].

Tell us about David, the second king of Israel. How did his conquest of Jerusalem shape history?

Of all of the conflicts for Jerusalem, the battle between David and the Jebusites is probably the one that is most relevant today. In fact, it's still being fought. Yassir Arafat says he's a Jebusite and that the Jews simply took Jerusalem from [his people] in a battle.

You have the Israelis saying that the history of Jerusalem began with David's conquest in 1000 B.C. We know from archaeological evidence that the city was inhabited from 3000 B.C., so to say that its history begins only when David captures it is doing injustice to the archaeological record. No doubt both sides are stretching and embroidering the fabric of history.

The major consequence of David's capture of Jerusalem is that it begins Jewish rule in the city. Judaism is the first of the three major religions to be established in the city.

How did David capture the city?

According to the Bible, David captured the city by means of deception. He snuck a few chosen men into the citadel, and they then threw open the gates to David's waiting army. But there is not yet unequivocal archaeological evidence to corroborate this story.

This Jebusite fortress was pretty hard to capture. Jerusalem is surrounded on three sides by deep ravines. The only way you can capture it is either through a trick like David's or to approach it from the north, which is what happens again and again. At one point the city had three sets of walls facing north, and it was still its weakest point. David might have tried to capture it from the north, too, before resorting to another tactic.

The Temple Mount has been called the most contested piece of real estate on Earth. Why?

It's mainly because of the rock that sits on top of it. It once lay within the temple of King Solomon and later inside Herod's temple. It now lies beneath the golden-roofed Dome of the Rock, and is a vital part of the third most sacred site of the Islamic world.

According to Muslim tradition, the Prophet Mohammed ascended to the furthest reaches of heaven from this rock. According to Jewish tradition, this is the rock upon which Abraham offered his son Isaac as a sacrifice to God.

Most of the battles that have raged in Jerusalem in the past 4,000 years have been inspired by the desire of one or another group to establish cultural and religious hegemony over the region. The focal point of the region has always been the Temple Mount and the rock that stands upon it.

The problem is that Judaism, Islam, and Christianity all view Jerusalem as their holy city. If history is any indication, any conquest of the city by one of these groups at the expense of the others is doomed to be temporary, because the others will not rest until they can make Jerusalem a center for uninhibited worship. No negotiator, on either side, can offer to give up their claim to the city without appearing as a traitor to their people, which means you're probably not going to have a peaceful negotiation. If history is any indication, another military assault on Jerusalem will come.

Who was Nebuchadnezzar and why was he a role model for Saddam Hussein?

Nebuchadnezzar was a neo-Babylonian ruler who conquered Jerusalem in 597 and 586 B.C. and burnt it to the ground. He took the Jews off to Babylon and began the Babylonian exile. Of course, Babylon is in what is now modern-day Iraq.

Saddam Hussein, living in the same region, styled himself as a successor to Nebuchadnezzar and said he would do as his predecessor had done: destroy Jerusalem. Saddam once said, "Nebuchadnezzar stirs in me everything relating to pre-Islamic ancient history. What is important to me … is the link between the Arabs' abilities and the liberation of Palestine."

Saddam spent millions on rebuilding the ancient site of Babylon. He built a replica of Nebuchadnezzar's war chariot and put himself in it. Unfortunately for Saddam, since he's now in … prison, I rather doubt that he's going to be able to make himself a successor to Nebuchadnezzar.

Jesus Christ is not a major character in your book. Why?

There are no large conflicts in Jerusalem associated with Jesus. He's not trying to take over the city. Perhaps the most interesting aspect is that the Gospels said Jesus made a prediction that the city would fall, which it did when the Romans destroyed it [40 years after his death]. But that raises the question of when the Gospels were actually written.

If they were written down in the [A.D.] 50s or 60s, soon after Jesus died, then they accurately predict the coming fall of Jerusalem. But a lot of scholars say the gospels were written later, in the [A.D.] 80s or 90s. It would be very easy to predict something that has already happened.

Of course, it's because of Jesus that Christianity is introduced in Jerusalem. So he is important not as a military leader but as a religious leader. You cannot write the history of Jerusalem and leave out Jesus.

Is it more or less difficult to reconstruct the military history of Jerusalem compared to that of other cities?

It's not any more difficult to reconstruct the actual military history of Jerusalem than of any other city. But it is more difficult in that you have to be much more delicate.

Jerusalem is sacred to hundreds of millions of people around the world, and it is the epicenter of the current conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. It's very hard to treat the topic evenhandedly, which is not something that arises when you talk about many other cities in the world.

It's almost impossible to write a book on Jerusalem without offending someone. It's literally like writing in a minefield; you never know when your pen will set off a mine.

But to be able to show clearly how the ancient history is relevant to today is a real thrill. These battles are not dead. They're still being fought, and their outcomes are still resonating.

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