The Holy City: recent impressions of old and new Jerusalem

The Holy City: recent impressions of old and new Jerusalem

Desmond Piggin

Today Jerusalem offers newly arrived visitors a view of a shining modern city which lies towards the desert on the eastern boundary of the tiny 50-year-old state of Israel, some 56 km inland from the Mediterranean coast. While what is called West Jerusalem is an example of modern Israeli industry, alongside it to the east is an old walled town, about a kilometre square inside a 16th Century Turkish wall, which is the original Holy City of Jerusalem.

The United Nations by a two- thirds resolution created Israel in 1947, with East Jerusalem made an international zone. It remains a Middle Eastern powder keg: the United Nations' doubtless peaceable intentions have proved no match for the antagonistic passions of two basically religious-motivated powers.

At the beginning of this century, outside this small city of Jerusalem lived few inhabitants. There was an Arab village, Silwan, which is still there, with its olives, camels and donkeys.

Twenty years ago there was little if any new housing to be seen from the main gate of the Old City. Across the valley between the old and the new, you could just see the old YMCA, which like the King David Hotel, was built in spacious grounds in spacious days, a decorous distance from the Holy City itself.

If you revisit Israel today, however, as I did after an absence of twenty years, you will be astonished by the broad motorway running from the main airport at Tel Aviv past the Old City. There are now new apartments close to its ancient walls, while under the main gate lies a modern concrete bus station. New Israel seems to be laying siege to the Old as did the Romans in 70AD.

The present state of Israel had an interesting origin. In 1917, Arthur Balfour, then British Foreign Secretary, wrote to Lord Rothschild: "His Majesty's Government views with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people ... it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities ...".

General Allenby five weeks later pronounced similarly upon the rights of all inhabitants when he marched into the city, at the head of allied (including Anzac cavalry) columns.

Britain and Balfour seemed remarkably generous in donating a country that did not belong to them, to a state that did not exist. Then, and in 1947, Arabs were in the great majority, and this made a mockery of the principles of self- determination.

The savage Great War was still raging in 1917, and Palestine then was under Turkish control. But Britain needed a friend at the mouth of the Suez Canal, just as today the USA needs friends around the oil wells of the Middle East. Such matters are relevant to the origin of Israel.

Britain had favoured Jewish immigration to Palestine, but originally not a Jewish state as such. However, she allowed the Jewish population to grow from about 55,000 to 615,000 by 1947, and was therefore very unpopular with the Arabs.

Despite her generosity, Britain was the victim of much Jewish terrorism because of her apparent sympathy for the Arabs. She was therefore glad to get rid of her Palestine mandate and to hand over the problem to the United Nations.

Zionism, the movement for a Jewish state, was strong in America - which later became a prime mover in bringing about the United Nations resolution on 29 November 1947. But this vote to partition Palestine, would reap for the West a whirlwind of hate from much of Islam.

Overall, Jerusalem has had a long and unhappy history. It was born of blood when Jewish King David took it from the Jebusites a thousand years before his descendant Jesus was born. Destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BC, its inhabitants were deported. Then it was taken from the Persians by Alexander the Great in 338 BC, fought over by his generals, and seized by the Romans.

Under the Romans, Jew and Christian alike were oppressed. The Emperor Hadrian desecrated the platform where the great Temple once stood, with a pagan shrine, while the place where Jesus was executed, was unintentionally marked for all time with a temple to Jupiter and Venus.

Christianity eventually triumphed, but Constantine's great basilica of 335AD would be destroyed by the Persians in 614AD and Jerusalem then taken by the Muslims in 636AD.

Jerusalem was recovered for Christendom in 1099 by what later became known as the First Crusade, and for an incredible century, a Christian King of Jerusalem ruled all of present Israel, parts of Lebanon and Syria, and territory up to the Mediterranean coast. Except for that relatively brief period, Jerusalem and Palestine remained under the Muslim Turks and their predecessors for twelve centuries.

Those who have fought for Jerusalem have more often fought for their religious faiths than for political power. This is why in 1947 the United Nations, in creating Israel, decreed to her a great portion of Palestine, but only an access to Jerusalem. Whatever has happened vis-a-vis the Arabs, and whatever Israel has declared, Jerusalem is still in the grant of United Nations. It is still an international zone for Jews, Muslims, and Christians, in fact for the world.

The Turks and their predecessors retained Jerusalem until the 1914-1918 war. But Turkey had backed the wrong horse in Germany and brought about the 'liberation' of her vast empire, including Palestine and Jerusalem.

Today, Jerusalem leaves you breathless. The site of Herod's magnificent Temple of the Jews to the one and only God is marked by a great and beautiful mosque of Islam.

King David originally captured a village, but his son Solomon founded a city with a temple that would then have been one of the wonders of the world. In 20BC Herod the Great, a foreigner by birth, Jewish by religion, and King of the Jews by favour of the Romans, began the 46 years of rebuilding the Temple. He doubled the temple platform, which still stands strong and firm in the Old City.

But the Jews, the proudest of races, would never be slaves, and rose against the Romans. So, the Roman Emperor Vespasian, and then his son Titus, ringed the city around with siege machines and structures till it fell with great bloodshed in 70AD. Again the Jews of Jerusalem were scattered to the four winds. The beautiful temple was razed and looted.

The Jews had became accustomed to emigration. They were already settled in colonies all over the world and it is estimated that this talented and miraculously surviving race already comprised 7 to 10 per cent of the Roman Empire.


In 130AD the Jews resettled at Jerusalem, rebelled again and were again slaughtered. This was the last time that the Jews held Jerusalem. In the Psalms they wept and still weep for Jerusalem as for a beloved.

Though Jerusalem was the capital of a Christian kingdom for a hundred years, not even all Christendom could preserve it from the tide of Islam.

Will the new Israel do better?

Jerusalem contains what is most holy to Christian, Muslim and Jew.

Within this wall are the four "Quarters", Arab, Christian, Armenian Christian, and Jewish, each a city within itself. Each, except the Muslim, has its own diversified sects and churches.

It is sometimes forgotten that all the faiths share the same patriarchs and prophets. The Arabs even honour Jesus, but as a lesser prophet. The Jews of course still await their Messiah of Israel, as written by the same prophets, and in accordance with their destiny as the chosen ones of God.

At the Mosque of the Rock on the Temple plateau, it is believed Muhammad sprang on horseback to heaven. At the wall of the platform, at its base, the Jews mourn for their Temple. Hence its name of "The Wailing Wall."

A few hundred yards away, is the place where Jesus was executed and buried for his kingship aspiration and extraordinary claim to be the Jewish Messiah and Son of God.

Any visitor to Israel feels strongly its Jewish nationalism and sense of belonging. The tension of a nation being given birth amidst the hate of huge neighbours is palpable. The young soldiers, little more than boys and girls, in shapeless denims, carry their guns wherever they go, and stand on watch in the high places wherever Palestinians gather.

There are parts where not even the soldiers will go at night. Certainly my taxi driver paled at the suggestion that he drive through New Gate where the Christian enclave begins.

No German ever loved his Fatherland as a Jew loves Israel, nor resented unsympathetic outsiders more. Where will it all end?

There are many trouble spots in the world today. But Jerusalem is not just a local Israeli/Palestinian problem. Jerusalem is the jewel of all Christianity, Islam and Jews beyond Israel.

Its international status will soon have to be dealt with openly by the whole world.

Desmond Piggin is a New Zealand Catholic writer.

Be the first to comment

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.