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.

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