Jerusalem, quite literally meaning the ‘City of Peace,’ has hardly been representative of its nomenclature for most of its history. The less than one square kilometre of the old city of Jerusalem has been the centre of contention, first between great empires, and now between the three great monotheistic world religions — Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
For Jews, the city of Jerusalem was where the ‘promise’ made by God to Abraham was fulfilled when King David took over the city from the Jebusites and made it the capital of the new kingdom of Israel. It was in Jerusalem where King Solomon laid the foundation of the First Temple of God, where God’s presence was literally present in the Holy of Holies. Hence, Jerusalem became a symbol for not only the promise of God but of His actual presence in the Jewish religion.
For Christianity too Jerusalem formed a central pivot. As Christianity emerged out of Judaism, the city was automatically holy for the followers of Jesus Christ. But since Jesus was crucified, buried and then resurrected in Jerusalem, the places associated with his ‘Passion’ became important holy places for Christians.
In the aftermath of the destruction of the Second Jewish Temple by the Romans in AD 70, Jerusalem then became primarily a Christian city with several churches, monasteries, and other holy places, being established in the city after the Roman Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity in AD 312. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre was the exact place where Jesus was crucified and buried and rose from the dead and as such became one of the most important and holiest sites in the Christian religion. Thus, despite the transformation of Christianity from a reform movement within Judaism to a worldwide religion, Jerusalem remained the site of its historical reality and the place most closely associated with Jesus’s life on earth.
When Islam appeared on the world horizon in the seventh century, Jerusalem was automatically important for it. Islam claimed continuity from Judaism and Christianity, and so sites holy in the two earlier religions were holy in Islam too. In fact, the first ‘Qibla’ for Muslims, the direction in which people were supposed to pray, was Jerusalem too. Jerusalem further attained importance in Islam when the heaven ward journey of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) — the Mairaj — was done from Jerusalem. Hence, Islam had both a historical and living connection with the city.
Jerusalem remained under Byzantine Christian control until Umar, the second Caliph of Islam, took it over in the late seventh century. Thereafter, Umar built the Al-Aqsa Mosque to commemorate the Mairaj of the Prophet, while he constructed the Dome of the Rock at the spot where the Jewish Temple stood for eventual use of the Jews. The famous ‘Pact of Umar’ then allowed all religions — Muslims, Jews and Christians — to use their holy places with certain conditions. The agreement reached by Umar continued for a few centuries till in 1009 AD the Fatimid Caliph Al-Hakim destroyed the Christian sites, including the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This incident inflamed passions in Europe and eventually led to the Crusades.
After the end of the Crusades era, Jerusalem came firmly under Turkish Ottoman rule in the Middle Ages, and another agreement was reached whereby again all religions could access the city. This agreement, with revisions, held till the end of the Ottoman Empire in 1918, when the whole area became the Mandate of Palestine administered by the British under the auspices of the League of Nations and later the United Nations.
When the question of Israel-Palestine was being discussed in the United Nations in 1947, the status of Jerusalem was one of the most contested issues, as all sides claimed it — the one square kilometre had little land but many suitors. Resolution 181 of the UN General Assembly passed in November 1947, asked for the area of Jerusalem to be called ‘Corpus Separatum’ — the Separated Body, which would not become a part of either Israel or Palestine but become an international city. The argument was that peace could only be restored in the holy land when access and use of the holy city of Jerusalem was equally possible for adherents of all three religions.
Therefore, Jerusalem was to be under international administration, accessible, but not part of either Israel or Palestine. However, due to the almost immediate Arab-Israeli conflict in 1947-48, the Western part of Jerusalem came under Israeli control while the Eastern part became part of Palestine which then became part of the Kingdom of Jordan. Rather than being separated from both Israel and Palestine, Jerusalem then became a divided city.
The end of the Arab-Israeli war of 1967 brought all of Jerusalem under Israeli control, but all countries of the world refused to accept the de facto control of Israel over the city. Even foreign consulates in Jerusalem are accredited to ‘the city of Jerusalem’ rather than either Israel or Palestine. Most countries still either support the UN mandated Corpus Separatum principle, or at the very least, want Jerusalem to become the capital of both Israel and Palestine.
The recent decision by US President Donald Trump to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of only the State of Israel flies in the face of history, where Jerusalem has only remained peaceful and thriving when there is an agreement between the three great religions. The recognition of Jerusalem as only the capital of the Jewish state, undermines its historical role and importance and inflames the passions of both Christians and Muslims who also see Jerusalem as an integral part of the history of their religions. Moreover, Jerusalem is home to hundreds of thousands of Arabs — both Muslim and Christian — and historical communities of Greeks and Armenians, who will all become disenfranchised in this new dispensation.
Perhaps, it is time that the issue of Jerusalem is revisited, separately from the issue of Israel-Palestine, and the international status of the city is restored. The glorious history of Jerusalem is too significant to be limited to being the capital of just one country. The declaration by Trump, though unfortunate, should restart the unfinished conversation at the United Nations and be used to come up with a unique and new solution to the conflict. The time for building a New Jerusalem has come.