All great things begin small. The earth was once just elemental particles before it gave way to an expanding cloud of chaos. Matter assumed density and over billions of years, the free-floating gases of the galaxies began to coalesce into bright, shining stars. And man emerged much later, climbing from the muck of darkness and into the light of understanding, walking with two feet on earth and searching the hills and plains with sharp eyes. As we know, the rest is a tapestry of dark and illustrious human history, filled with stories of violence, confusion, and treachery—but also filled with tales of tremendous triumph and integrity. And within this landscape of civilized evolution, God emerged to take credit for the exaltation of man and nature and consciousness, binding the minds of the believers together within a shared lore. And as soon as he did, the faithful began clamoring for the relics of his great kingdom.
This development gave rise to action, to faith, and to a communal sense of right and wrong. And from it sprang forth the powerful religions of the world—Judiasm, Christianity, and Islam. As pervasive systems of faith, each found unique ways to commune with this central figure, ultimately vying for His supreme affection amid a complex and frightening world. The eternal pursuit to know God was always best served through the adoption of a physical relic—a piece of history which could be venerated and celebrated by mortal men. This might be the skull of a saint, a bit of cloth from the Shroud of Turin, a mound of dirt where sacred feet once stood—or in the case of Jerusalem, an entire city. Considered the personal comfort item to the three most powerful religions of the world, Jerusalem is a spiritual souvenir like no other. It is the land that bridges both the earthly and celestial realm—the third eye of faith and the spiritual epicenter of the world.
For those who rely on deep, dark history for perspective, going all the way back to the beginning is often the best way to process questions about the present and formulate more thoughtful viewpoints. Observing where something started—as well as its evolution through time—can offer insight into its current condition and more importantly, clarity about any misconceptions. It offers comfort through a semblance of fact-based understanding. This is particularly true for ancient things with long and vibrant histories, like the holy city of Jerusalem. Although the religious tug of war over the area has been going on for almost 5,000 years, President Trump’s recent acknowledgment of Jerusalem as the true capital of Israel has ignited an ancient and volatile spark—and it has brought the essential question of who really holds dominion over the region to the forefront of human consciousness once again, a reminder that the issue has never been fully resolved. While reactions have included a call for the intifada, the burning of American flags, and a resurrection of past aggression, it is safe to say the majority of people have absolutely no idea why the topic is so divisive or why certain religions feel entitled to call Jerusalem “theirs.” For the truth behind that answer, we must follow the Raven way, way back to the Judean Mountains of the Middle East, to a time when the oldest city in the world was nothing but a glimmer in the eye of a divine king.
To understand the significance of Jerusalem, we must first acknowledge the sheer number of epic religious sites there, including the Temple Mount, the Dome of the Rock, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and the Garden Tomb. As the apple of God’s eye, Jerusalem is special for many reasons, primarily because it is one of the few places on earth where both mortal and divine feet are believed to have tread. We must also be ready to digest an incredible amount of history, both ancient and modern, which itself could (and has) filled may volumes. While the ins and outs of the spiritual and political landscape are complex, the basic outline is fairly simple: Man finds God, man loves God, man builds shrines for God, man fights for control of said shrines. Why man fights for these shrines with such vehemence is, of course, the question that sits at the heart of religion itself. The hard part of this process is remaining aware of where the theological and historical part ways, as they have become fused together through centuries of oral and written history. But one thing is clear after reviewing all the intricate details of Jerusalem’s continual rise and fall—the fight for the great city has very little to do with God.
Before Jerusalem was anything, it was a Semitic-speaking swath of land known in the 2nd millennium BCE as Canaan. The name Canaan is mentioned often in the Bible, where it clearly corresponds with the Levant, a geographical area nestled next to the Mediterranean Sea with the Arabian Desert to the south and Mesopotamia to the east. It stretched 400 miles from the Taurus Mountains to the Sinai desert and covered what is modern-day Cyprus, Jordan, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, and Syria. Living some 4,000 years ago during the Bronze Age, Canaanites were comprised of many indigenous populations, both settled and nomadic. Much of what we know about this location and its people has been gleaned through archaeological excavations like Tel Hazor, Tel Megiddo, and Gezer. Although the Canaanites left behind no surviving written records, these dig sites in Israel have revealed evidence of great cities, trading stations, and vast populations in the form of ruins, pottery, and whole skeletons. Science suggests half of the Canaanite’s gene pool originated with farmers dating back 10,000 years, while the other half may have come from Iran and merged with the local populace some 5,000 years ago. Based on genome studies of ancient skeletons, researchers at Harvard Medical School have proven that today’s Lebanese population has inherited more than 90 percent of their genes from these ancient Canaanites.
Ironically, the indigenous people of Canaan worshipped many gods like Astarte and Baal and were quite civilized in their literacy, numerology, and shipbuilding. But as the Book of Exodus tells us, this ended dramatically when Moses brought the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt towards the “promised land” of Canaan, where God had promised them a peaceful life in the “land of milk and honey.” Studies of local ruins have confirmed much of this assertion, as experts have dated the invasion of the Israelites to about 1250 BCE when some kind of catastrophic event—or series of events— destroyed its towns and cities. What caused this exactly is unknown, but the evidence suggests Canaan shrank to almost nothing by 1100 BCE, falling into the shadow of the emerging Kingdom of Israel. Situated next to the Kingdom of Judah, these two forces were known as the United Monarchy and saw the successful reigns of Saul, David, and Solomon as depicted in the Hebrew Bible. While it’s clear the Israelites moved into Canaan during the 12th century BCE, a band of Aegean people known as the Philistines also began expanding into neighboring areas. Armed with superior smithing abilities and a more organized central government, the Philistines posed a consistent threat the Israelis who—as a result of this aggression— clamored for the ascension of their first king. At this point in the biblical story, our knowledge of what happened in Jerusalem becomes a deeply romanticized tale of bravery, spirituality, and the desire to connect mortal man with the divine.
As the first king of Israel, Saul was expected to defeat the Philistines and redeem the kingdom’s sovereignty. But he was not able to consolidate and empower its loose confederation of tribes into a defensive force, and he failed to meet this challenge during his lifetime. This task was left to the well-loved Israeli King David, who was chosen by the Prophet Samuel because of his strong mind, physical prowess, and exceedingly sensitive heart. When it comes to a religious narrative, there are few figures more divinely romantic than King David who was a spiritual superhero, a fierce fighter, a determined lover, and the true father of ancient Jerusalem. In fact, it is through the image of David that we can see the eternal struggle to locate truth within religious rhetoric, as biblical scholars continue to bitterly debate his existence, even today. Although the heat of the controversy illustrates the intense emotions many people feel about the Bible and its main characters, it also reflects the excitement of the discoveries still being made on the subject. In the 1980s, a well-regarded scholar denied David’s existence by asserting “no ancient inscription mentions him.” While this was true at the time, a later discovery in 1993 uncovered an ancient Aramaic inscription in Israel spelling out The Tel Dan Stele, or the “House of David.” And thus, a legendary figure of both myth and reality was born, destined to fuse the two under the glorious banner of ancient Jerusalem.
Within the past decade, more archeological evidence has been discovered in the hills of Judea, including proof that the local population almost doubled during the 10th century BCE when King David ruled. This scientific finding correlates well with the biblical rendering, which would emerge some three centuries after his demise and document his consolidation of the region. Under his unique leadership, David brought the northern and southern tribes of Israel together alongside Jerusalem’s borders and established the city as the capital, all while maximizing the boundaries of his territory. But David was not a simple king whose only ambition was power—he was a dreamer, a visionary, and a deeply religious man. He created strength through his expansion, but he also provided himself the chance to pursue grander and more sublime dreams for his kingdom. According to the Bible, he gathered 30,000 of Israel’s youngest, most virile men and went to Baalah in Judah where he found the Ark of Covenant and brought it back to the city placing it in the city for all to see. This gold-covered wooden chest, this Pandora’s Box of artifacts, was thought to hold the personal prizes of Moses himself, essentially creating a relic within a relic. While this accomplishment was wildly titillating to all, it was clear Jerusalem did not have the proper repository for such a pristine holy artifact, a problem David was soon to rectify.
As the story goes, King David understood the need for balance between the physical and spiritual worlds, which demanded relics housed in lore and meaning. He had originally turned his fierce gaze to the inherent value of Jerusalem because it converged on the borders of Israel’s twelve original tribes, including his own. Even though the city was remote and far from trade routes, David admired its geographical symbolism and its ability to pull his people together under a shared fiction—a fiction he crafted with great care. The mountains behind Jerusalem then called Mount Moriah, inspired David to create a “land of vision” where people could band together under a common thread of faith and reverence. So, he purchased a simple threshing floor on Moriah from a man named Araunah and slated it to become the center of his imagined temple. Although he likely chose the site for its level ground, a threshing floor has long symbolized the place where God connected with his people during moments of simple, practical work.
Brilliantly imagined, David began plans to build the Temple Mount, or the Temple of Solomon, known to the Muslims as the Haram esh-Sharif in Arabic, which stands as one of the most revered religious sites in the world. But despite his spiritual insight, David was a man of proven violence who had killed the giant, Goliath, at just nine years old; bloodied himself in a victory over the Philistines; killed Bathsheba’s husband so he could bed her himself; and even provided Saul with 100 foreskins of his enemies in exchange for his daughter’s hand in marriage. Although he was powerful and wise, King David was not innocent—and according to God, he was therefore not a suitable candidate to build such a holy site. And so, the dream fell to David’s son, Solomon, who became king after his death. Solomon began work on his father’s dream around 975 BCE, bringing in huge blocks of quarried stone for the foundation and timbers from the forests of Lebanon on great rafts from the sea. In this way, the Temple became the fruition of a religious heart into something tangible, stable, and real—its steps lead to both the biblical and earthly worlds. Seven and a half years after Solomon began the project, the Temple was completed and dedicated to Yahweh in the kingdom of Judah, where it housed many sacred relics, including the glorious Ark of the Covenant.
According to the Bible, the First Temple was magnificent, carefully crafted with the choicest stone and labored over for months by humble subjects. It was inaugurated with great prayer and sacrifices of food and domestic animals, doors flung wide to receive prayers from all walks of faith. Just a few centuries later, during the Siege of Jerusalem in 587 BCE, the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar II pillaged the Temple and threw the Jews out of Judah as “every worst woe befell the city, which drank the cup of God’s fury to the dregs.” This began the first deportation of the Jewish population and marked the beginning of their larger diaspora. During this time, Nebuchadnezzar pulled all sorts of treasures and furnishings from the Temple, including gold vessels dedicated to David’s son, King Solomon, after which he razed the structure to the ground and destroyed the lovely city of Jerusalem. He took the elite into captivity in Babylon, leaving only some farmers behind who could continue to work the land. But just 70 years later, the Jews returned to Israel with the prophets Ezra and Nehemiah, and rebuilt the Second Temple on the same site, only to have it razed once again by the Romans in the year 70 CE. So, what was once a simple threshing floor in the time of King David grew into a much larger symbol of sanctity and dominion. Because the God of Israel was not localized in any sense, the Temple contained no idol which rendered it accessible to believers of all kinds.
Religiously speaking, the three great faiths of the world—Judiasm, Christianity, and Islam—share many things, including the need to be close to their one and only God. But despite their fervent similarities, their different historical timeline indicate a lot about their individual relationships with the Temple Mount and the ancient city of Jerusalem. This relationship is a curious one—with a telling linear sequence—that unlocks a lot of today’s controversy. The Jewish covenant between God and Abraham began around 1812 BCE and marked the beginning of modern religious history as we know it. Before this development, human faith was likely an amalgamation of ancient curiosities, “gods,” and rituals that fed our hunger for something greater than ourselves. And maybe it wasn’t—no one really knows. What we do know is the Jewish connection to Jerusalem is an ancient and powerful one that has endured 3,000 years of history and remained steadfast in its reverence. The destruction of the Temple looms large in the Jewish consciousness and is mentioned throughout their religious texts, in their holy services, and in their historical identity. In the words of Jerusalem’s mayor, the city represents “the purest expression of all that Jews prayed for, dreamed of, cried for, and died for in the two thousand years since the destruction of the Second Temple.”
And then there are the Christians who also lay claim to Jerusalem as their spiritual homeland. Although they have mostly backed off from any claim to ownership of the ancient city, their ties to it should not be underestimated, as they too sit at the crossroads of myth and reality. Both the Bible and history tell us the Jews of Judea suffered under Roman occupation during the years of 27 BCE to 476 CE, as they found their monotheistic views and imposing cultural systems appalling and oppressive. The Jews mostly sought to resist the Romans, as is well-documented in the life of Jesus, whose preachings would come to exemplify the Christian vernacular and whose death would not only mark the common era—it would define it. According to the New Testament, Jesus visited Jerusalem as a child and attended festivals around the Temple Mount where he was known to chase traders from the holy rooms. This assertion is lightly supported by the archeological discovery of some 1st-century stairs where Jesus and his disciples were believed to have preached their word. For Christians, Jerusalem is chock full of symbolic places, from the Cenacle of the Last Supper to Jesus’s betrayal near the Church of All Nations to his final trial before Pontius Pilate at the Antonia Fortress. For them, Jerusalem is Jesus.
So, where do the Muslims fit into all this rhetoric? We know the god Allah arrived fashionably late to the religious party in the 7th century, long after the Canaanites, Saul, David, and Jesus had already left their eternal mark. Jerusalem was not the site of Muslim prayer, nor was it connected to an event in Mohammad’s life. While the Jewish Bible mentions Jerusalem (or Zion) 823 times, and the Christian texts allude to it 161 times, the ancient city is not mentioned once in the Quran. Although the Quran depicts the image of Muhammad visiting the Al-Aqsa Mosque which is assumed to be Jerusalem, it is described only as “a place of prostration.” Despite the absence of its name, Islamic tafsirs insist the “Farthest Mosque” being referenced translates literally to al-masjid al-Aqsa in Arabic which refers to the Noble Sanctuary located in Jerusalem. According to the sacred story, Mohammed then ascended to heaven to meet with God who told him to pray five times a day and begin his holy mission of Islam. Muhammad viewed this spiritual assignment as an extension of the already existing Abrahamic traditions of Judaism and Christianity. And like the youngest child in a family who is constantly vying for parental affirmation, the Muslims have been clamoring for God’s acknowledgment ever since. For the Jews, the relationship began close to 4,000 years ago—for the Christians, it was some 2,000 years ago—yet for the Muslims, their faith only crystallized some 1,400 years ago. So why do so many Muslims throughout the world feel entitled to the land of ancient Jerusalem?
The answer is nuanced and appears to be more political than religious. If we continue to look for understanding through the historical timeline, it becomes clear Jerusalem’s value to the Muslim world has hinged almost entirely on its estimation in the eyes of others. This pattern first emerged when the Prophet Muhammad left his home in Mecca and traveled to the densely Jewish populated city of Medina in the 7th century. There, he adopted a number of Judaic practices, including a Yom Kippur-like fast, a prayer location much like a synagogue, the adherence to kosher food, and approval to marry Jewish women. In fact, the two religions share many spiritual markers, including the acknowledgment of Moses as a prophet and the common birthplace of the Middle East. But when the Jews criticized the emergence of Islam and its desire to also face the Temple Mount in Jerusalem during their daily quibla, the new faith broke from the old one and turned its attention towards Mecca instead. The Quran clearly marks this shift in practice and uses it to draw a distinction between the two religions. There is some suggestion that the Muslims felt spurned by the Jews at this point and were disappointed they had not been able to convert them into some sort of spiritual union. Originally, Muhammad had viewed the Jews and the Christians as natural allies and “People of the Book,” but he ultimately faced rejection from the Jews who did not accept him as a true prophet. This, of course, led to the major battles of Badr and Uhud which exiled two major Jewish tribes and slaughtered the adult males of the third.
Over the next few centuries, the Muslims would continue this mercurial relationship with Jerusalem, expressing a particularly keen interest only when it assumed relevance in the larger religious discussion. When a dissident leader in Mecca, ‘Abd Allah ibn al-Zubayr, revolted against the Umayyad Caliphate in 680, he sought to exalt and glorify Jerusalem to draw in the Byzantine Empire and put it on equal footing with Mecca. This political move failed, but it prompted the Umayyad ruler to also focus on Jerusalem, adding religious edifices, a palace, more roads to the ancient city, and the grand structure known as the Dome of the Rock, which was built right in 688, right on the spot of the Jewish Temple. It still stands today in its original form.
At this point, the historical narrative of Islam becomes suspiciously creative on the subject of Jerusalem. in 715 CE, the Umayyad went even further by building a second sanctuary in Jerusalem, again on the Temple Mount, and called it the Furthest Mosque. Because this site was assumed to be mentioned in the Quran, this move retroactively proved its importance in Muhammad’s life and essentially validated all mention of it in the Quran. While the logic of how a mosque build nearly 100 years after the Quran was received could explain something written in the Quran seems flawed, it gave “reality to the figurative” and fueled the Muslim agenda. Even though the geography was crafted to suit the religious narrative, rather than the other way around, these politically inspired construction projects by the Umayyad were what sealed the sanctity of Jerusalem for the Muslims and cemented their feelings of ownership.
When the Umayyad empire expired in 750, Jerusalem fell once again into obscurity (and serious disrepair), and all books praising the city were generally ignored for the next three and a half centuries. Although the Muslims still held rule over Jerusalem, it did not have any real political significance until the Crusaders conquered it in 1099. Even then, the Muslims didn’t seem to register much religious loss or humiliation until 1150 when jihad sentiments and propaganda began to simmer. Once again, the heightened emotions the Muslims felt about Jerusalem seemed based more on a desire to see the Christians fail than to preserve a relationship with the city. This growing frenzy to hold onto Jerusalem was ecstatically realized during the Muslim victory over the Crusaders in 1187, a conquest that glowed brightly for several decades afterward. It was at this time that Muslim scholars began suggesting Muhammad had, in fact, used the Dome of the Rock to launch himself into heaven—even though it had been built long after his lifetime.
A short time later, in 1219—when the Europeans attacked Egypt in the Fifth Crusade—Muslim leaders offered to trade Jerusalem to the attackers if they would just leave Egypt alone. But the Europeans refused. This gesture once again suggests Muslims regarded Jerusalem more as a bargaining chip than a sacred homeland. The story becomes more complicated when, just ten years later, the German leader Emperor Friedrich II decided to take the Muslims up on their offer, while promising to leave the Temple Mount undisturbed. But when the Muslims finally pushed the Franks out and regained the city a short time later, they offered Jerusalem to their enemies again in return for their help in warfare. This time, the Christians were not respectful of the Temple and turned the mosques into churches. But Palestine did not give up, and the invasion of 1244 returned the territory to Muslim hands for the next three centuries, at which time it was the capital of nothing, economically impoverished, susceptible to marauders, generally unprotected, and cultural diluted to just 4,000 residents. The Temple Mount, the apple of King David’s eye and the epicenter of the spiritual world, was now a crumbling, inconsequential ruin. When Constantin Volney visited Jerusalem in 1784, he noted its “destroyed wall, debris-filled moats,” a city “choked with ruins.” And the famous novelist Gustave Flaubert confirmed this finding in 1850 when he described the city as having “everywhere the odor of graves.” Even though many described it as a city devoid of its past ancient glamour, it belonged to the Muslims, and that was what seemed to matter most. Muslims during this time could afford to ignore Jerusalem because no one seemed to want it, a reality best summed up by the 20th-century historian James Parkes who wrote, “the city was something that was there, and it never occurred to a Muslim that it would not always be there.”
Turning to more contemporary histories, we can see the face of Jerusalem has suffered much of the same recently. During World War I, the British government finally arrived on the scene and recognized the lackluster Muslim interest in Old City. While the story of how the British took control of the holy land in 1917 is long and complicated—involving the first time ever use of tanks and gas shells, along with the death of some 16,000 troops—they forced the surrender of Turkish forces. They assured the populace there would be no further harm brought against Jerusalem or its religious relics, respecting the deep significance of its very soil. Church bells in Rome and London rang to celebrate the peaceful British arrival in the old city. This was the time of the Balfour Declaration, which favored the establishment of a Jewish national home in Palestine by the British. Although the U.K.’s House of Lords voted against the plan in 1922 because “it directly violated the pledges made to the people of Palestine,” Winston Churchill overturned the vote in the House of Commons and the declaration was confirmed. This paved the way for the creation of the Israeli state in 1948, which led to the exile of some 80,000 Palestinian families who were forced out by Jewish militias through threats and lethal violence—an incident the Arab world refers to as Al-Nakba, or the “catastrophe.” As most people know, there has never been peace in the region since, a fact well documented during the “Six Day War” when tensions between Israel and neighboring Arab nations ran so high, it erupted in a violent conflict of both air and land. As the story goes, the Israelis felt threatened, launched a massive attack, annihilated Egyptian air forces, conquered the Sinai on the ground, eventually taking the West Bank from the Jordanians and occupying the Golan Heights. Yes, there is a ton more to say on the subject, and yes, it is fraught with political, social, and religious implications. But for the sake of this discussion, it effectively illustrates the ongoing tensions around the region.
And so, back to the matter of Jerusalem and Trump’s recent announcement. When viewed in the light of this massive history, his behavior is nothing short of comical. The idea that one man—and not a particularly intelligent one at that—would stand up and declare another nation’s ownership of a city like Jerusalem demonstrates a supreme ignorance of history and a delusional sense of power. While it may be true the Jews and glorious King David gave birth to the original vision and holiness of Jerusalem, there’s no denying it has taken on further significance since that time. It has come to represent a connection to God for two other major religions of the world, and that is nothing to be taken lightly. But it also worth noting that the Muslim belief in ultimate dominion over Jerusalem is in no way validated by the events of history, religious or academic. In fact, history is rather contradictory of their claim. If ownership means who had it first, then yes—Jerusalem belongs to the Jews. If ownership means who managed to possess it the longest, then yes—Jerusalem belongs to the Arab world. (And frankly, Christianity has been so misbehaven over the past 2,000 years, they seem content to sit this one out entirely.) The whole scenario is painfully reminiscent of three children fighting for a favored toy in the sandbox. I had it first. I want it. You can’t have it. It’s mine. Because at the end of the day, that’s what the most venerated and holy city of Jerusalem really is—a religious souvenir from an ancient time few people actually remember. While modern reasoning suggests it might be time to shake off these religious ghosts, it seems the flawed and terrifying world of today has actually driven us straight back into their arms. And until we make peace with our fears—and the dark history behind them—the battle for Jerusalem will never disappear.
And the rest is history.