Jerusalem Facts

Jerusalem, Israel: General Facts about Jerusalem

  • Jerusalem, by virtue of the number and diversity of people who have held it sacred, may be considered the most holy city in the world.
  • Jerusalem is important to the Jewish people because it is Ir Ha-Kodesh (the Holy City), the Biblical Zion, the City of David, the site of Solomon's Temple, and the eternal capital of the Israelite nation.
  • Jerusalem is important to Christians because it is where the young Jesus impressed the sages at the Jewish Temple, where he spent the last days of his ministry, and where the Last Supper, the Crucifixion and the Resurrection took place.
  • Jerusalem is important to Muslims because it is where the prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven. After the holy sites of Mecca and Medina, Jerusalem is the third most sacred place of Islam.
  • While highly charged with intense religious devotion and visited by countless pilgrims and sages, Jerusalem has also been ravaged by thirty centuries of warfare and strife.
  • Jerusalem is a holy place with a rich and ancient history.

History of Jerusalem

  • The earliest traces of human settlement in the Jerusalem area are from the late Chalcolithic and Early Bronze Age (3000 BCE). Excavations have shown that a town existed on the south side of Mount Moriah, also called Temple Mount. The name of this town was Urusalim, a word probably of Semitic origin that apparently means 'Foundation of Shalem' or 'Foundation of God'.
  • About 1000 BCE, Urusalim was captured by David, the founder of the joint kingdom of Israel and Judah, and became the Jewish kingdom's capital. In the earlier wandering years of the Israelites, their most sacred object, the Ark of the Covenant, was periodically moved about among several sanctuaries, but following David's capture of Urusalim, the Ark was moved to that city around 955 BCE. The Ark was a portable shrine containing the two stone Tablets of the Law that the prophet Moses had received upon Mt. Sinai. David renamed his city Jerusalem, meaning 'City of Peace' in Hebrew, and chose Mt. Moriah as the site of his future temple.
  • Mt. Moriah was already considered sacred for other reasons. It was also believed to be the site where Abraham had built an altar on which he prepared to sacrifice his son Isaac. At this same site, the patriarch Jacob gathered stone from the altar upon which his father Isaac was to be sacrificed, and using this stone as a pillow spent the night sleeping upon the rock. Upon waking from a visionary dream, Jacob anointed the stone pillow with oil he had received from heaven and the stone then sank deep into the earth, to become the foundation stone of the great temple that would later be built by Solomon. This hallowed site is known as Bethel, meaning “Gate or House of Heaven.”
  • The First Temple of the Jews was built during the reign of David's son, Solomon. The Temple’s construction took seven years and was completed in 957 BCE. Soon after the Temple’s construction, Nebuchadrezzar II of Babylon forced the Jews into exile, removed their temple treasures in 604 BCE and 597 BCE, and finally completely destroyed the temple in 586 BCE.
  • In 539 BCE, Cyrus of Persia conquered Babylon and allowed the Jews to return to Jerusalem. Reconstruction began and the Second Temple was completed by 515 BCE. This temple however, did not enshrine the Ark of the Covenant as that sacred object had disappeared sometime before the plundering by Nebuchadrezzar.
  • The date of the Ark's disappearance and its subsequent whereabouts is a mystery to archaeologists, historians and biblical scholars. Various possibilities have been forward, including the hidden tunnels beneath Solomon’s Temple; the Church of St. Mary of Zion in Axum, Ethiopia; and a castle of the Knights Templar in France.
  • During the next five centuries, following the time of Cyrus of Persia, Jerusalem was captured by Alexander the Great, controlled by Hellenistic, Egyptian, and Seleucid empires as well as experiencing occasional periods of Jewish freedom.
  • In 64 BCE, the Roman general Pompey captured Jerusalem, ushering in several centuries of Roman rule. During this period Herod the Great (ruled 37 BCE – 4CE) rebuilt and enlarged the Second Temple and created the famous Western Wall (also called the Wailing Wall) as part of the supporting structure for the enlarged Temple Mount.
  • In 6CE the Romans turned the governance of Jerusalem over to a series of administrators known as procurators, the fifth of whom, Pontius Pilate, ordered the execution of Jesus. During the next two centuries the Jews twice revolted against their Roman oppressors, the city of Jerusalem suffered greatly and the Second Temple was demolished in 70 CE.
  • In the year 135 CE, the Roman Emperor Hadrian began construction of a new city, called Aelia Capitolina, upon the ruins of old Jerusalem. On the site of the destroyed Jewish temple, Hadrian built a temple to the god Jove (the Greek Jupiter), but this temple was itself demolished by the Byzantines after the empire became Christian.
  • The conversion to Christianity of the Byzantine Emperor Constantine (306-337 CE) and the pilgrimage of his mother, Empress Helena, to Jerusalem in 326 CE inaugurated one of the city's most peaceful and prosperous epochs. According to Christian legends, Empress Helena discovered the relics of the 'True Cross of the Crucifixion' at the place of the Resurrection upon Mt. Calvary. Scholars however, believe this so-called 'finding' of the relics to be a story fabricated for political reasons by Constantine and his mother, and that the cross relics were most probably manufactured, as were so many other relics during early and medieval Christian times. Whatever the case, Helena's pilgrimage and Constantine's royal support made possible the building of many Christian shrines in the city.
  • Foremost among the Christian shrines was the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This church marked the site of the Resurrection and soon became the supremely sacred place in all of Christendom. Finished in 335 CE, the great basilica was apparently built upon the foundations of an earlier Roman shrine dedicated to the goddess Aphrodite. It was during this splendid era of church construction that the tradition of Christian pilgrimages to Jerusalem began.
  • The most visited pilgrimage sites were Bethlehem, were Jesus was born; Golgatha, the site of his supposed crucifixion (and where legend says the skull of Adam is buried); the Church of the Holy Sepulchre; and the Mount of Olives, where Jesus (supposedly) ascended to heaven. The Christian glorification of Jerusalem continued until 614 CE when the Persians invaded the city, killed many of its inhabitants and destroyed numerous churches and monasteries.
  • Following a brief period of Persian rule, the Muslim Caliph Umar captured Jerusalem in 638, six years after the death of Muhammad. Soon after his occupation of the city, Umar cleansed the Temple Mount, built a small mosque and dedicated the site to Muslim worship. The most imposing structure the Muslims found in Jerusalem was the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Nearby the Arab conquerors undertook to build a more spectacular edifice, the Dome of the Rock, not only to proclaim the supremacy of Islam, but also to ensure that Christianity would not tempt the new followers of Islam. The site chosen was the very same rock where previously had stood the Jupiter temple of the Romans and before that, the two temples of the Jews.
  • There was another reason for the Muslim veneration of this particular site, one more important than the political expediency of usurping another religion’s holy place. A certain passage in the Koran links the Prophet Muhammad with Jerusalem and the Temple Mount. That passage, the seventeenth Sura, entitled 'The Night Journey', relates that Muhammad was carried by night 'from the sacred temple to the temple that is most remote, whose precinct we have blessed, that we might show him our signs...' Muslim belief identifies the two temples mentioned in this verse as being in Mecca and Jerusalem (the Islamic name for Jerusalem is actually al-Kuds, meaning the Holy City).
  • According to tradition, Muhammad's mystic night journey was in the company of the Archangel Gabriel, and they rode on a winged steed called El Burak, which according to Islamic Hadith tradition was a winged, horse-like creature that was "smaller than a mule, but larger than a donkey." Stopping briefly at Mt. Sinai and Bethlehem, they finally alighted at Temple Mount in Jerusalem, and there encountered Abraham, Moses, Jesus and other prophets, whom Muhammad led in prayers. Gabriel then escorted Muhammad to the pinnacle of the rock, which the Arabs call as-Sakhra, where a ladder of golden light materialized. On this glittering shaft, Muhammad ascended through the seven heavens into the presence of Allah, from whom he received instructions for himself and his followers. Following his divine meeting, Muhammad was flown back to Mecca by Gabriel and the winged horse, arriving there before dawn.

Dome of the Rock

  • At this hallowed site, known in Arabic as Haram al Sharif, the 9th Caliph, Abd al-Malik, built the great Dome of the Rock between 687 and 691. Besides its association with the ‘Night Journey’ of Muhammad, Jerusalem was also chosen as the site of this first great work of Islamic architecture for political reasons.
  • Often incorrectly called the Mosque of Umar, the Dome of the Rock, known in Arabic as Qubbat As-Sakhrah, is not a mosque for public worship but rather a mashhad, a shrine for pilgrims. Adjacent to the Dome is the Al-Aqsa Mosque wherein Muslims make their prayers.
  • Designed by Byzantine architects engaged by the Caliph, the Dome of the Rock was the greatest monumental building in early Islamic history and remains today one of the most sublime examples of artistic genius that humanity has ever produced (the Great Mosque of Damascus, being a true mosque, is the earliest surviving monumental mosque).
  • The dome is 20 meters high, 10 meters in diameter, and its supporting structure, made of lead, was originally covered in pure gold (the real gold was removed over the centuries and the dome is now made of anodized aluminum). The sacred foundation stone is encircled by sixteen arches that formerly came from different churches in Jerusalem, which were destroyed during the Persian occupation of the city in 614 AD.
  • The Muslims in power before and during the Dome's construction period had tolerated Christianity and Judaism, allowing pilgrims of both religions to freely visit the Holy City. This era of peaceful coexistence ended in 969 however, when control of the city passed to the Fatimid caliphs of Egypt (a radical and somewhat intolerant Shiite sect) who systematically destroyed all synagogues and churches.
  • In 1071 the Seljuk Turks defeated the Byzantines, displaced the Egyptians as masters of the Holy Land, and closed the long established pilgrimage routes. The prohibition of Christian pilgrimage by these less tolerant Muslim rulers angered Western Europe and became a contributing cause of the Crusades, a series of invasions that culminated in the capture of Jerusalem in 1099.
  • From 1118 to 1127 a group of nine Frenchmen known as the original Knights Templars excavated beneath the El-Aqsa mosque on the site of the old Temple of Jerusalem. According to legend, they retrieved a vast wealth of gold bullion, hidden treasures and the Ark of the Covenant.
  • The Christian Kingdom lasted almost 90 years, during which time the Dome of the Rock was converted to a Christian shrine and named Templum Domini (meaning Temple of the Lord), the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was rebuilt, and hospices and monasteries were founded. The city was recaptured by the Muslims again in 1187, was ruled by the Mamlukes from the 13th to 15th centuries (except for the brief periods of Christian control in 1229-1239 and 1240-1244) and the Turks until the 19th century. The Jews, who had been barred by the Christian crusaders, returned from the 13th century onward, by the middle of the 19th century nearly half the city's population was Jewish, and in 1980 Jerusalem was officially made the capital of Israel.
  • The entire area of the Old City of Jerusalem has been charged since antiquity with the powerful energy of holiness, devotion and spiritual love. Over more than three millennia the control of the city's primary sacred places has shifted frequently between the religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
  • The energy or presence of the sacred in Jerusalem is not, however, monopolized by any of these faiths but rather gives rise to each of them. And this sacred presence, beyond the imposed limitations of dogma, philosophy or politics, has the wonderful quality of accumulating, and increasing in intensity, over time. The holy rock of Mt. Moriah was first a Jebusite place of worship, then the site of the Jewish Temples, next the sanctuary of the Roman god Jupiter, later capped by the Muslim's Dome of the Rock, next taken over by the Christians, and still later a Muslim shrine again. This same continuity of sacred use also occurred at the site of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which prior to its Christian use was the location of a temple of Aphrodite.
  • Besides the sites discussed above, the following places are also much visited by pilgrims in the Holy City. For the Jews, the most venerable locations are Mt Zion, the traditional site of King David's tomb, and the Western Wall, where stands the remaining part of Herod's 1st century BC expansion of the Temple plaza.
  • Devout Christian pilgrims will visit the fourteen stations of the Via Dolorosa, or 'Way of Sorrows'. Walking this route, the holiest Christian thoroughfare in the world, the pilgrim symbolically relives the events of Jesus' passion. Additionally, there are the shrine of the Ascension on the summit of the Mount of Olives, the garden of Gethsemane, and Mt. Zion, the site of the Last Supper. In the Dome of the Rock, beneath the ancient sacred stone, is a cave-like crypt known as Bir el- Arweh, the Well of Souls. Here, according to ancient folklore (not Islamic), the voices of the dead may sometimes be heard along with the sounds of the rivers of paradise.
  • Contemporary travelers and pilgrims in Israel can purchase maps of Jerusalem and these are extremely helpful for finding the holy places of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Ark of the Covenant

  • British researcher Graham Hancock. In his richly detailed book, The Sign and the Seal, Hancock presents evidence that the Ark was removed by Jewish priests from Solomon's temple during the rule of the apostate King Manasseh (687-642 BC). The Ark was then hidden for two hundred years in a Jewish temple on the Egyptian sacred island of Elephantine in the Nile.
  • The Ark was later taken to Ethiopia, to the island of Tana Kirkos in Lake Tana, where it remained for over 800 years until being brought to the city of Axum, capital of the Axumite kingdom. When that kingdom was converted to Christianity after 331 AD, the Ark of the Covenant was placed in a church of St. Mary of Zion where it remains to this day.
  • Writing in his book Lost Secrets of the Sacred Ark, author Laurence Gardner disagrees with Hancock’s assertions, and states that the Axumite Ark “Called a manbara tabot, is actually a casket which contains a venerated altar slab known as a tabot. The reality is that, although the Axum chest might be of some particular cultural significance in the region, there are manbara tabotat (plural of tabot) in churches across the breadth of Ethiopia. The tabotat that they contain are rectangular altar slabs, made of wood or stone. Clearly, the prized manbara tabot of Axum is of considerable sacred interest and, by linguistic definition, it is indeed an ark – but it is not the biblical Ark of the Covenant, nor anything remotely like it.”
  • Other sources researched by Laurence Gardner indicate that the Ark of the Covenant had been hidden beneath Solomon’s Temple at the time of King Josiah (597 BC) so as not to be seized by Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians. In his Mishneh Torah of 1180, the Spanish philosopher Moses Maimondes told that Solomon had constructed a special hiding place for the Ark in tunnels deep beneath the temple.
  • The prophet Jeremiah, son of Hilkiah who became the High Priest of Jerusalem, was the captain of Hilkiah’s Temple Guard. Prior to Nebuchadnezzar’s invasion, Hilkiah instructed Jeremiah to have his men secrete the Ark of the Covenant, along with other sacred treasures, in the vaults beneath the Temple.
  • More than 1700 years later a group of nine Frenchmen known as the original Knights Templars spent the years from 1118 to 1127 excavating beneath the El-Aqsa mosque on the site of the old Temple of Jerusalem. They retrieved, in addition to a vast wealth of gold bullion and hidden treasures, the true Ark of the Covenant. While the existence and exact location of this Ark are not currently known, the Templars soon became one of the most powerful religious and political institutions in medieval Europe.
Martin Gray is a cultural anthropologist, writer and photographer specializing in the study of pilgrimage traditions and sacred sites around the world. During a 40 year period he has visited more than 2000 pilgrimage places in 165 countries. The World Pilgrimage Guide at is the most comprehensive source of information on this subject.