by Alick Isaacs

1.  Jerusalem: The Stairway to Heaven 
2.  Earliest References 
3.  The First Temple Period - 1 
4.  The First Temple Period - 2 
5.  Return to Zion and the Second Temple 
6.  The Rise of Herod 
7.  The Destruction of the Second Temple 
8.  Jerusalem in the Middle Ages - Christianity and Islam
9.  Jerusalem in the Middle Ages - Islam and the Jews
10. Modernity Comes to Jerusalem
11. Zionism and Jerusalem
12. Jerusalem, Symbol of the Future

The History of Jerusalem
By: Alick Isaacs

Lecture 1-- The Stairway to Heaven

1. Introduction
Our subject does not exactly fit in to any one academic discipline. A historian would hardly be well advised to take on a period of 3000 years in one go. But as we discuss the history of Jerusalem we shall. A student of religion would have a hard time encompassing Judaism, Christianity and Islam in one study. But as we discuss the unique symbolic significance of this city we shall trace symbols and themes which have come to play a central role in all three of the great monotheistic faiths. The enthusiast, trying to probe the secrets of its magic, must tackle this broad spectrum of knowledge, dealing with some topics only superficially, in order to gain a deeper understanding of what it is that makes Jerusalem so special.

2. The Stairway To Heaven
Other than being a fabulous rock song from the glorious days of Led Zeppelin, "The Stairway to Heaven" is the title that I have chosen for this course. This is the name which I use to denote what is perhaps the most essential association which we have with the city of Jerusalem - the "other worldliness" of the city. This symbol which is captivated in the infamous Led Zepplin song title, echoes Jacob's declaration in Genesis 28.17 on seeing "the ladder set upon the earth and the top of it reached to heaven". Jacob awakes from his dream in awe, declaring:

  • "Surely the Lord is in this place...this is none other than the house of God and this is the gate of heaven."

Even although Jacob's dream takes place as he prepares to leave the land of Israel in Bet El, the midrash (Rabbinic folklore) says that only the foot of the ladder was in Bet El; the top which reached the gateway of heaven, the midrash says, was in Jerusalem. Mount Moriah, situated in the heart of Jerusalem is the gateway of heaven, the site of the meeting place between God and man also referred to by the midrash as the" umbilical cord of the world" and the "foundation stone of the earth" i.e. the place where the Creator and the created are joined.

This symbol recurs throughout the history of the city of Jerusalem. We shall encounter this idea during the next 12 weeks at almost every juncture. It is perhaps the source of the magnetic force which the city of Jerusalem possesses and has exerted on the world for thousands of years attracting pilgrims and conquerors alike such as; King David; Sancherib; Nebuchadnezzar; Alexander the Great; Pompey; Titus; the Crusaders; Saladin; Judah the Pious and Allenby. This force has often made of Jerusalem a source of conflict as it still is today. Jerusalem is at the core of the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis and remains perhaps the major obstacle to peace in the Middle East.

However, the image of Jerusalem as the stairway to heaven, has not remained unaltered by time. Throughout Jerusalem's history this concept has been enriched by the many different cultures which have left their mark on the city. It has undergone a thousand facelifts, altered time and again to suit cultural perceptions as diverse as Medieval Islam on the one hand and the modern secular west on the other. Mount Moriah, was the site of Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac. This spot, the place of the first sacrifice offered by man to the One Commanding God, became consecrated ground later to support the Temples built by King Solomon, Nehemiah and Herod. This place of sacrifice became a symbol of the communication between God and man and as such maintains its significance in the monotheistic faiths. This is the place where in Christian symbolism, God made a concession to Abraham exonerating him of his responsibility to sacrifice his son, as God Himself would later sacrifice His own son, relieving Mount Moriah of its burden and transferring the holiness of that spot to the apposite hill top, the Golgotha. For Moslems that same spot at the top of Mount Moriah, was to regain its status as the symbol of communication between God and Man, for it was here that Mohammed received the law from Allah and it was from here that he ascended the stairway to heaven.

3. Three Interpretations of Jerusalem's History


  1. City of Redemption
  2. The symbol of the stairway to heaven is the essence of the first and perhaps the most compelling of three approaches to the history of Jerusalem which I shall present during our course. Our first approach, or thesis, states that it is essential to tackle this theological symbol and its historical evolution in order to understand the history of the city of Jerusalem. Jerusalem as a symbol envelops past, present and future interpretations of this idea. In short, you can't understand the symbol without placing it in its historical context and you can't understand the history without placing it in its symbolic context. I shall refer to this feature of Jerusalem and to this approach to understanding its history as "Jerusalem's redemptive or Messianic quality". I shall argue that the search for direct contact with God and Divine redemption was the purpose of Abraham's first visit to Mount Moriah. This was the motivation behind David's choice of Jerusalem as his capital. The Romans destroyed the city in the year 70 in order to spoil the chances of the Jewish God from redeeming his people. It was the search for redemption in Jerusalem that fuelled the flames of Messianic fervour which swept the country in the 2nd century when Bar Kochba lead a dangerous but daring rebellion against the Romans. This same hope brought Helena the mother of Constantine to Jerusalem in search of the true cross and lead to the construction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the 4th century. The dream of direct contact with God brought the Islamic armies to the gates of the city in 638 and in turn the Crusaders in 1099. Hope for redemption brought Jews to the city in the 15th century; it brought secular Jews to Israel in the 19th and 20th centuries; it brought Allenby to the gates of the city on a white horse and in turn it brought him to enter the city through the Jaffa gate on foot. Finally, it brought the Zionist movement to nominate Jerusalem as the capital of the state and it brought tears to the eyes of the paratroopers who touched the stones of the Western wall in June 1967. A mystical force which is an inherent feature of the holy city has thus left an indelible mark on Jerusalem's history. The history of Jerusalem is thus divinely ordained, a cycle of destruction and rebuilding, of exile and redemption. This approach, whether it may appear to you at this stage convincing or fanatical, is only one of three which I shall present during the next 12 weeks.


  3. The Geo-Political center of the world
    The second feature or quality of the city which we shall describe is summarised in the thesis which emphasises Jerusalem's geo- political significance. The same events which I have listed above may be interpreted differently. The "umbilical cord of the world" is situated in its center. Jerusalem is, as the midrash says, "in the center of the world andMount Moriah is in the center of Jerusalem." The significance of this city in Jewish, Christian, Islamic and modern secular cultures is not a product of the city's inherent mystical quality. The Geo-Political thesis argues that Jerusalem rests on the watershed of the surrounding world. Due to its position it has always been a point of conflict and as such it has gained prominence. This approach argues that the significance of the city is a product of the competition between the great Empires which have dominated the world. The conquest of King David was motivated by military strategy. He chose this central and unconquered piece of land as his capital in a shrewd move, part of his struggle to assert his rule over the troublesome tribes of Israel. The city was conquered by each of the great Empires of antiquity; Babylonians, Persians, Greeks and Romans. As the Empires of power became Empires of faith the struggle continued between Christendom and Islam.

    Christianity and Islam heaped upon the city numerous religious symbols. These religious symbols however were not inherent to the city, they were products of the political rhetoric of the age of faith. The struggle for domination between Christendom and the Islamic armies was no different in essence than the competition between all the Empires throughout history who have time and again bashed down the gates of the city. In the early modern era, the Ottomans conquered Jerusalem from the Mamluks.

    With the collapse of the Ottoman Empire relinquished their hold on the city to the newly emerging modern "Empire": the League of Nations, who granted the conquering British the Mandate over Palestine.

    This political perspective does not imply that Jerusalem is devoid of religious and spiritual symbolism. It merely suggests that these symbols have been attributed to the city by those who have sought to conquer it.

    Jerusalem is special because it is, and always has been, the crossroads of human history. Warring Empires, from antiquity to modernity who have conquered, built, destroyed and rebuilt this city have made it a symbol.


  4. The City of Three Religions

    This third perspective which I shall present during our course is perhaps a synthesis of the two points of view outlined above. This approach argues that the significance and the importance of Jerusalem is not universal. Jerusalem is neither the "umbilical cord of the world" nor is it "the foundation stone of the earth". Jerusalem is the focal point of the conflict between the monotheistic faiths. Judaism, Christianity and Islam differ in their reasons for attributing holiness to the city. They also differ in their ranking of the city's significance; for example Jerusalem is "outranked" by both Mecca and Medina in Moslem tradition. However, the three monotheistic faiths share one common vision of Jerusalem. In each of the three cultures Mount Moriah plays a central role in its eschatological perception of human history. The Jewish Messiah; the Crucifixion, Resurrection, Ascension and Second Coming of Christ; and the final redemption which will bring the Qabba from Mecca to the Dome of the Rock; all focus on Jerusalem. In all three of the Monotheistic faiths, the Messianic age marks the final victory and universal recognition of the one true faith. In all three cases this glorious moment takes place in Jerusalem. According to this perception, the universal metahistoric significance of Jerusalem is only attributed to the city by Jews Christians and Moslems whose fatalistic convictions about the future rest on the hilltops of Jerusalem. This thesis argues that the story of the history of the city of Jerusalem has been dictated by the ceaseless determination of Jews, Christians and Moslems to "land" their own Messiah in the city.

Each of these three points of view reflects a different characteristic of the city past and present. Jerusalem is and has always been a symbol of faith. It is and has always been a focal point in world conflict and it does enjoy a position of prominence in each of the three great faiths. We shall never resolve these three points of view nor shall we attempt to do so. We shall embark on a journey through time starting with the Rusulimum of the ancient Egyptians and finishing with the peace process of the 1990's. We shall trace the development of each of the three symbols described and endeavour to understand its meaning as we go along.





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23 Aug 2005 / 18 Av 5765 0