Jerusalem stands in the middle of the nation of Israel, a holy city to three of the world's great religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Before Muslims underwent pilgrimages to Mecca, the most venerated holy place in all of Islam was the Dome of the Rock, a magnificent mosque built over the sacred rock where Abraham prepared to sacrifice his son Isaac to the Lord and where the Prophet Muhammad (c. 570–632) is believed to have ascended to Paradise. For the Jews, Jerusalem is the site of King David's (d. 932 B.C.E.) ancient capital of Judea and a massive wall, called the "Wailing Wall," which is all that remains of the great Temple that was destroyed by the Romans in 70 C.E.. Christian pilgrims revere the city as the place where Jesus (c. 6 B.C.E.– c. 30 C.E.) was crucified and is believed to have risen from the dead, and for more than 1,600 years they have visited the most revered of all Christian holy places, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which was built over what was believed to be Christ's tomb.
According to Hebrew tradition, Jerusalem was chosen to be the earthly headquarters for the Lord's work among humankind in very ancient times, for Melchizedek, a priest, a survivor of the pre-flood world, the oldest living human at that time, was living there as King of Salem even before Father Abraham set out on his quest for the Promised Land. Obeying a commandment of the Lord, Melchizedek had come out of Babylonia to south central Canaan to build a city on the summit of the watershed between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean. Salem was constructed on the southeast hill of a mountain ridge with deep valleys on its east, south, and west sides. With the spring of Gihon at its feet to provide fresh water easily available for its inhabitants even during times of siege, the location of Salem made it a naturally impregnable fortress.
As the city of Jerusalem grew, it sprawled out over the two larger and three smaller hills of the ridge. With Egypt about 300 miles south-west; Assyria, 700 miles northeast; Babylon, 700 miles east; Persia, 1,000 miles east; Greece, 800 miles northwest; and Rome, 1,500 miles northwest, Jerusalem became a very cosmopolitan city with a steady flow of merchants and traders arriving from nations throughout the known world. David established Jerusalem as Israel's national capital in about 1000 B.C.E., and in about 950 B.C.E., his son Solomon built the magnificent temple that housed the Ark of the Covenant. The city and the temple were destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E., but by the time that Jesus walked its streets in about 29 C.E., Jerusalem had been restored to its former glory. In 70, a series of Jewish revolts against Rome brought the imperial army to the walls of Jerusalem on the day of Passover. After a five-month siege, the city walls were brought down, the Temple of Herod destroyed, and Jerusalem was left in ruins and desolate.
In 135, Barcocheba, a self-proclaimed messiah of the Jews, led another revolt against the Romans. He managed to gain control of the city and set about rebuilding the Temple, but his ambitious project was short-lived when the Roman army arrived in force and squelched the rebellion with great loss of life for the Jews. The conquerors decreed that no Jews could enter Jerusalem on pain of death, and a temple to Jupiter, father of the Roman gods, was built where the Temple had stood.
In 326, after the Roman emperor Constantine (d. 337) converted to Christianity, he traveled to the Holy Land to view the sacred sites for himself. Helena, his mother, received a vision that showed her the exact spot where Joseph of Arimathea, a wealthy follower of Jesus, had buried him after his crucifixion. The site lay beneath a temple to Venus that had been erected by a Roman army of occupation, but Constantine perceived the edifice as only a minor impediment. He ordered the temple of the goddess torn down and replaced by the Basilica of Constantine, the original Church of the Holy Sepulchre, near the Tomb Rotunda, which covered the tomb of Christ. In time, the Basilica, the tomb, and Calvary, the site of the crucifixion, were all brought under the roof of a vast Romanesque cathedral. For the next three centuries, Jerusalem remained a Christian city, and in the fifth century, it dominated Christendom as one of the seats of the Five Patriarchs, along with Rome, Constantinople, Antioch, and Alexandria.
In 638, a Muslim army under Caliph Omar Ibn al-Khattab (ruled 634–644) conquered Jerusalem. A devout follower of the Prophet Muhammad, the caliph was also tolerant of other religions. He ordered that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre be respected as a Christian place of worship and forbade it to be converted into a mosque. When he was taken to the Temple Mount, he was shocked to discover that the holy rock where Abraham had taken Isaac to be sacrificed, the place that had held the Ark of the Covenant in Solomon's Temple, and the spot where Muhammad had ascended to Paradise, lay exposed to the elements. After the area had been purified by prayers and a rainfall, the caliph ordered the Dome of the Rock to be built to shelter the sacred rock. The shrine with its massive dome gilded with gold mosaics was completed in 691.
The golden dome collapsed in 1016, but it was soon rebuilt. In 1099, Christian crusaders massacred the Muslim inhabitants of Jerusalem and converted the Dome of the Rock to a Christian shrine, replacing the crescent on the top of the dome with a cross and constructing an altar on the rock. The shrine returned to Muslim possession in 1187 when the great Muslim military genius Salah al-Din, known to the crusaders as Saladin, captured Jerusalem. In 1537, the Ottoman Turks replaced the gold mosaics on the outside of the dome with 45,000 Persian tiles. Today's visitor to the shrine will see the sun-light reflecting from sheets of gold-plated aluminum, imprinted with selected verses from the Koran, which were placed there during a complete restoration of the Dome of the Rock in 1956-1962. In 1967, the Old City of Jerusalem, including the Temple Mount, was seized by Israeli soldiers, but the Dome of the Rock remains available for worship by Muslims and visitation by others at scheduled times.
Interestingly, the Dome of the Rock plays a significant role in the end-time beliefs of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim Fundamentalists. Jews and Christians envision the site as one of the places in which Armageddon, the last great struggle between the forces of good and evil, will begin before the Messiah appears—or for the Christians, returns in a Second Coming. For the Muslims, it is here that Jesus will conquer the Antichrist and the chief eschatological figure, the Mahdi (Guided One) will appear to help destroy the forces of evil and to bring about the conversions of all Jews and Christians to Islam.
When the Muslims assumed control of the sacred rock of Abraham and the site of Solomon's Temple in the seventh century, the Jews began to focus their devotion on the huge blocks of stone along the western edge of the Old City, all that remained of the retaining wall of the temple built by King Herod (73–4 B.C.E.). Herod had begun the construction of the Temple in 19 B.C.E. and the main building was completed about 18 months later. However, Herod's intentions to build the most magnificent of all temples in the history of the Jewish people did not cease at that time. Construction continued until about 64 C.E. For centuries, the wall has been a place where Jews might gather to mourn the destruction of the Temple and the onset of the great Jewish Exile. Because it is a place of tears and sorrow, the name "Wailing Wall" was attached to the ruins, and it has become a site for Jewish pilgrimages, especially during Passover, Sukkot, and Shavuot.
Since 1968, Jerusalem has been a city divided by uneasy truces and sporadic fighting. Perhaps as the twenty-first century progresses, a lasting peace can be achieved and Jerusalem may truly become the City of God.
Halley, H. H. Halley's Bible Handbook: An Abbreviated Bible Commentary. 24th ed. Grand Rapids, Mich. Zondervan Publishing House, 1965.
Harpur, James. The Atlas of Sacred Places. Old Saybrook, Conn.: Konecky & Konecky, 1994.
Kunstel, Marcia, and Joseph Albright. Their Promised Land: Arab and Jew in History's Cauldron—One Valley in the Jerusalem Hills. New York: Crown Publishers, 1990.
Shanks, Hershel. The City of David: A Guide to Biblical Jerusalem. Washington, D.C.: Biblical Archaeological Society, 1975.
Starr, Chester G. A History of the Ancient World. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.
Westwood, Jennifer. Mysterious Places. New York: Galahad Books, 1996.