In modern times – at least since the mid-19th century – the Old City of Jerusalem has traditionally been described by outsiders as consisting of four distinct quarters: Muslim, Christian, Jewish and Armenian. Matthew Teller, in his very insightful and readable book, tells a very different story.
Teller, a freelance journalist and documentary filmmaker, combines millennia of Jerusalem history with insightful interviews with its people, using this unusual approach to present a subtle portrait of the current reality at the heart of the world’s most intractable and divisive conflict. world.
The old city is still surrounded by 16th century walls built by the Ottomans and only began to expand beyond them in the 1860s when Britain, then the rising global superpower, began to to take an interest in it, reinforced by its Protestant Christian identity. He occupied Palestine towards the end of World War I, issuing the Balfour Declaration in November 1917, a historic achievement for the nascent Zionist movement.
Much has changed since then, especially for the 32,000 Palestinians (about 90% of the Old City’s population) who now reside in what Teller defines as nine neighborhoods. These include different denominations of Christians, African Muslims and Sufis, Gypsies (known as Roma) and Israeli Jews (largely Orthodox) who live in much better conditions with the support of the state that controls them. Israel claims Jerusalem as its capital, although this is not recognized by most countries (except the United States), which maintain their embassies in Tel Aviv.
In English, a quarter is a place where “the others” live. In Arabic, however, it has a very different conceptual framework. Hara can mean both a street and a small neighborhood. In 1495, a historian identified 18 harat (plural) in Jerusalem, all in what is now known as the Old City. Another had 39 in an earlier period.
The main religious sites are the Haram al Sharif, or the compound of the al-Aqsa Mosque, the site of the Prophet Muhammad’s ascension to heaven from the Dome of the Rock and along the Haram, the Western Wall near the Temple Mount, which is of significant capital for the Jews. Important churches include the Holy Sepulchre, where Jesus was crucified and where rivalry between Ethiopian Orthodox monks and Egyptian Copts is rife.
But this story is not just about holy places, shrines, convents, synagogues, and pious pilgrims and missionaries exploring the 14 stations of the cross. It’s also narrow lanes between markets, lined with restaurants, souvenir shops, tourists and guides and, above all, the fascinating story of ordinary life past and present guided by signs trilingual signage. “A thorny path skirts its joys”, as a friend said to the author.
Each of the eight gates of the Old City offers insightful stories. Damascus Gate – Bab al-Amud (column gate in Arabic, referring to a Roman column that has not existed for over a thousand years) is the main transit point between the Old City and (still largely) Palestinian East Jerusalem. In Hebrew it is called Sha’ar Shechem (“Nablus Gate”, Nablus being the first major city north of Jerusalem).
Jaffa Gate is known in Arabic as the Bab al-Khalil – the “Hebron Gate” (Hebron is the largest city in the West Bank south of Jerusalem). It is called Sha’ar Yafo also in Hebrew, Yafo being the Hebrew name of Jaffa. The author, who has strong personal opinions, finds it “the most disturbing corner of a disturbing city”, which symbolizes the aspirations of foreigners who seek to dominate the life of Jerusalem.
Take on the role of Charles Ashbee, the adviser to the city’s 1917 British governor, Ronald Storrs. Ashbee was the main founder of the Arts and Crafts movement, was totally opposed to modernization and loved medieval walls. He ordered the demolition of the shops and cafes around them, created walkways along the ramparts and green lawns on the side. He also hated the clock tower that the Ottoman Sultan Abdulhamid II built above Jaffa Gate in 1908.
“British rule was intended to create, and then entrench, a divide between the walled ‘Old City’ – the idealized Jerusalem of the imagination – and the altogether less desirable ‘New City’ outside the walls,” Teller writes in a key passage. “Today, Israeli policy adapts the same idea, using new walls – this time of concrete – alongside tools such as economic and demographic manipulation to further divide Jerusalem and cut the city off from its Palestinian hinterland. .”
Teller repeatedly defines himself as a “non-believer,” which is why he is able to write about Jerusalem in such a solidly secular and iconoclastic way. (He even uses quotation marks around the conventional term Holy Land.) But he still manages to express affection for her and compassion for the people who live there.
Around 2,000 Jews were expelled during the 1948 war by Jordanian troops who conquered the Old City and the rest of East Jerusalem. For 19 years, minefields and barbed wire separated the two sides of the city. Some Jews were able to return after what the Israelis call the six-day war. In contrast, 28,000 Palestinians were also expelled from the western suburbs and nearby villages, including Deir Yassin, site of the notorious April 1948 massacre. None were able to return home.
The Jewish Quarter now feels very different from other areas of the Old City. It’s mostly modern, upscale and gentrified, built since Israel’s astonishing victory in June 1967, when the shabby Moroccan area next to the Western Wall was quickly demolished. Arabic is not heard there and Israeli police armed checkpoints are absent. But police have for decades recruited Palestinian informers to keep tabs on their own neighbors.
East Jerusalem as a whole, officially annexed by Israel in 1980, has attracted attention lately due to the planned eviction of Palestinian residents from the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood by Israeli settlers. This provided the spark that ignited last May’s 11-day war with Hamas in the Gaza Strip, which only deepened the gloom of the lingering “one-state reality” with unequal rights for Israelis and Palestinians.
It is good and timely to focus again on the Old City and its complicated past and turbulent present. “This town,” as Teller writes, using a brilliant simile, “wears its history like a teenager wears a school uniform—without joy.”
Nine Quarters of Jerusalem: A New Biography of the Old City by Matthew Teller is published by Profile Books (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply