Jerusalem is unique among the cities of the world, with special,
although differing, claims on the religious and cultural sentiments
of millions of Jews, Christians, and Muslims. It is holy for the
three monotheistic religions because of religiously significant
events that took place in the city. It is therefore important to
set out the nature and meaning of Jewish, Christian and Muslim
commitments to Jerusalem and their implications. We hope that such
an approach will contribute to the discovery of common ground and
lead to constructive policies and programs for the welfare of all
the peoples in the region.
The Significance of Jerusalem for Jews
For the Jewish people, Jerusalem is not merely a locus of holy
sites or religiously and historically significant memories. The
city itself is holy,1 and for at least 3,000 years, Jerusalem has
become synonymous with hope and meaning in Jewish life. From
biblical times - when God, as tradition teaches, spoke of the place
that He would choose for His people - to the return of the Jewish
people to Zion in our day (however improbable it seemed until
then), the continuous and unwavering centrality of Jerusalem in
Jewish life has been unquestioned.2 (The name Zion properly
indicates the Temple Mount and later came to signify Jerusalem the
capital city and, eventually, the entire Holy Land.)
When, in 1006 B.C., King David unified the tribes of Israel and
captured Jerusalem, establishing there the center of his kingdom,
Jerusalem became the primary symbol of the tribes' transition from
"peoplehood" to "statehood." The sacred nature of the city was
assured when, during the reign of King David, the Ark of the
Covenant was brought up from Kiryat Ye'arim, west of Jerusalem, and
later placed by his son Solomon in the First Temple. As a reward
for his act, God promised King Solomon that "Your dynasty and your
sovereignty will stand firm before Me and your throne forever
secure" (2 Samuel 17:16).
The Talmud records that because of three transgressions - immoral
sexual behavior, unwarranted bloodshed, and idolatry - Jerusalem
fell to the Babylonians in 586 B.C.3 The city's Jewish inhabitants
were sent into exile and the First Temple destroyed. In Babylon,
the Jews were faced with the challenge of surviving as a people the
destruction of their spiritual and political center. Their sense of
devastating loss was poignantly expressed in Psalm 137:
By the rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept when we remembered
Zion. Upon the willows there we hung our harps, when our captors
demanded of us songs; our tormentors asked of us mirth: "Sing us
some of the songs of Zion!" How shall we sing the Lord's song in a
foreign land? If I ever forget you, O Jerusalem, withered be my
right hand! May my tongue cleave to my palate, if ever I think not
of you, if ever I set not Jerusalem above my highest joy!
After the Jews had been driven from Zion, it remained in their
hearts. The dream of Jerusalem's restoration also symbolized the
awaited messianic era when the Jews would be restored to Zion and
Zion to the Jews, with all peoples acknowledging God as Sovereign.4
This sequence is reflected in the standard Amidah prayer, the
central part of the daily service recited by observant Jews three
times a day, during which they pray for the rebuilding of Jerusalem
and for the flourishing of the Messiah. The traditional
significance of being buried on the Mount of Olives, across from
the Temple Mount, is based in part upon the desire to be ready at
hand for the coming of the Messiah.
The Second Temple was built in 515 B.C., after a decree by Coresh,
the King of Persia, and was later destroyed by the Romans in 70
A.D. Throughout the reigns of the Hasmonean rulers (leaders of the
Jewish community after the revolt against the Greeks in 16 B.C.),
and until the first Jewish revolt against the Romans in 70 A.D.,
Jerusalem was a center of pilgrimage. It was said that "He who has
not seen Sukkot in Jerusalem has not seen life."5 After the second
Jewish revolt was put down (132-135 A.D.) and a 1,800-year period
of exile began, the image of Jerusalem in Jewish thought took on
three dimensions: that of historical Jerusalem; that of Jerusalem
destroyed; and that of heavenly Jerusalem, the object of God's
promises and continuing commitment.
All over the world, Jews pray in the direction of Jerusalem and the
Temple Mount, mourn the destruction of both the First and Second
Temples on the fast day of the Ninth of Av (a Hebrew month), and
recite the solemn promise, "If I forget you, O Jerusalem, may my
right hand wither." Even during the Jewish marriage ceremony, a
glass is broken under the wedding canopy, as a reminder, in the
midst of the rejoicing, of the destruction of the Temple. Likewise,
it is a custom to leave a small section of a new home unplastered
or otherwise unfinished in memory of the destruction. And both the
Passover ceremony, known as the seder, and the liturgy for the Day
of Atonement end with the invocation "Next Year in
In Jewish law, Jerusalem is considered the center, or navel, of the
world, from which benefits to all nations flow. The beauty of
Jerusalem is thought to exceed all other beauties of the world: "Of
the ten portions of beauty which came down to the world, Jerusalem
took nine."6 It was in Jerusalem, the tradition teaches, that all
great events of history took place or are destined to occur, from
the creation of the world, the binding of Isaac, and the
establishment of the inner sanctuary of the Temple - the "Holy of
Holies" - to the dawn of the messianic era and the resurrection of
The significance of Jerusalem is also apparent in the proliferation
of sources, from the Bible onward, that refer to the city. The
Hebrew Bible mentions Jerusalem by that name some 700 times and by
the name of Zion some 150 times. The implicit references to
Jerusalem and Zion are even more numerous. In the words of Isaiah
2:3 and Micah 4:2, "For out of Zion will come forth Torah, and the
word of the Lord from Jerusalem."
The Significance of Jerusalem for Christians
The early Church recognized the primacy of Jerusalem at the center
of the Christian message. In the New Testament, Jerusalem
symbolizes the new people of God redeemed by the Messiah, Jesus
Christ. It is here that Christ will return to fulfill the Word of
God and that the Last Judgment will take place (Rev. 21:1-3). It is
the center of the world, Jerusalem, that will be the scene of
salvation, the focal point of the messianic age.
The significance of Jerusalem for Christians has two inseparable
elements: the holy places associated with the life and teachings of
Christ - with His crucifixion, burial and ascension - and the
community of Christians living in the city. Although it is the "new
Jerusalem" ("heavenly Jerusalem") that symbolizes the city of God
for Christians (Rev. 3:12), nevertheless, pilgrims from all over
the world encounter God in the earthly city. For many Christians,
visiting the holy places associated with the life and preaching of
Jesus Christ, and being in an environment where history comes to
life, have proven an inspiration to their fulfilling the
commandment of taking the Gospel into the world (Mark 16:15).
Jerusalem for them is the place where the gift of the Spirit is
present; where the Church was established (Acts 2). The first
Christian community came to incarnate the ecclesiastical ideal in
this city. The Church - the body of Christ, or the community of
believers in Christ - is an earthly reflection of the spiritual
entity in heavenly Jerusalem.7
Christians envision Jerusalem as the place foretold of salvation in
and through Jesus Christ. That is, Christians recognize in their
faith the long history of the people of God, with Jerusalem as its
center, as the history of salvation that fulfills God's design in
and through Jesus Christ. The one God chose Jerusalem to be the
place where His name alone would dwell in the midst of His people,
so that they might offer worship that is worthy of Him. The
prophets looked up to Jerusalem, especially after the purification
of the exile of the Hebrews: Jerusalem was to be called the "City
of justice, faithful City" (Isa. 1:26-27), where the Lord dwells in
holiness as in Sinai (cf. Psalm 68:18). They prophesied that the
Lord would place the city in the middle of the nations (Ez. 5:5),
where the Second Temple was to become a house of prayer for all the
peoples (Isa. 2:2, 56:6-7). Jerusalem, aglow with the presence of
God (Isa. 60:1), is meant to be a city whose gates are always open
(Isa.11), with peace as magistrate and justice as government
Jerusalem is Christianity's holy land, associated with the most
important events in Christianity. Yet there is a remarkable absence
of reference to the land in the New Testament. The Apostles were
unconcerned with the location of the various appearances of the
Risen Lord.8 These occurrences were considered unique in character,
unrepeatable, and confined to a limited period, but not
geographically located. Indeed, Jesus went to Jerusalem with the
aim of creating a community worthy of the name of the people of
God. The Book of Revelations proclaims the anticipation of the new,
heavenly Jerusalem (Rev. 3:12, 21:2, cf. Gal. 4:21-27, Heb. 12:22).
The name "Jerusalem" in the New Testament signifies not an earthly
city, but a heavenly one, which is the archetype of the Church. It
becomes a symbol of the final or ultimate community, where God
dwells with His own. Thus, the New Testament itself exhibits a
marked tendency towards what might be called a
"de-territorialization" of the concept of holiness. Christians see
the fulfillment of the Lord's promise in Jesus Christ, who embodies
the temple of God (Rev. 21:22). It is not the temple that is the
center, but Christ; it is not the Holy City or Land that
constitutes the "area" of holiness, but the new community, the body
of Christ.9 According to this view, the Church belongs to an
already existing heavenly city.
However, the land retains its physical significance in
Christianity. The need to remember Jesus entails the need to
remember the Jesus of a particular land. Jesus belongs not only to
time, but to space; and the spaces that He occupied take on a
significance of their own, so that the realia of Judaism continues
as realia in Christianity. History in the tradition demanded
Earthly Jerusalem, in the Christian tradition, prefigures heavenly
Jerusalem. It becomes the image and symbol of the Promised Land -
heavenly Jerusalem. Jerusalem is no longer only a land and an
earthly heritage, it is in a special way the spiritual heritage of
humankind in need of salvation.11 Paul shares in the apocalyptic
view that heavenly Jerusalem already exists on high. "But those who
live by faith in Christ already live the life of the New Jerusalem
and are citizens of Heaven" (Gal. 2:19-21, Phil. 3:20). Christians
on earth already share the glories of the heavenly city, which
belongs to that realm "where eye hath not seen nor ear heard": a
vision that emphasizes the transcendental meaning of the land.
Therefore, the New Testament finds holy space wherever Christ is or
has been and it personalizes "Holy Space" in Christ, who, as a
figure of history, is rooted in the land.
The Significance of Jerusalem for Muslims
The spiritual importance of Beit al-Maqdis12 (Jerusalem) and Masjid
al-Aqsa (the al-Aqsa Mosque) derives from the fact that for sixteen
months,13 the mosque was the first qibla (direction of prayer) for
Muslims. It is Islam's second most holy mosque, after Mecca.
Furthermore, Jerusalem is commonly associated with the "night
journey" (isra') of the Prophet Mohammad from Mecca to the Masjid
al-Aqsa, as recorded in the Quran (17:1), as well as his ascension
(mi'raj) to Heaven to receive the principles of Islam from Allah
(God). Both events happened one year before the hijra, Mohammad's
move from Mecca to Medina, in 622 A.D.14
Accounts of these famous events record that, on his way to Beit
al-Maqdis, the Prophet Mohammad visited the tomb of the Prophet
Ibrahim (Abraham) in Hebron (al-Khalil), where he performed two
prostrations (rak'a).15 He also visited the Church of the Nativity
in Bethlehem, where the Prophet Jesus ('Isa) was born, and
performed two rak'as there as well. Hence, the holiness of
Jerusalem to Islam has very strong roots, since Islam respects all
the prophets before the time of Mohammad, though granting him
primacy over and above those of Judaism and Christianity.
Jerusalem became an Islamic city in the first half of the seventh
century A.D. when the Muslims entered the Holy City (in 15 A.H./636
A.D.), during the reign of the second Muslim caliph, 'Umar ibn
al-Khattab). According to historical sources, "Umar came in person
for the purpose of receiving the surrender of the city from its
patriarch, Sophronius, who refused to give it up to anyone else.
The sources also state that the caliph declared a special covenant
(sulh, 'ahd) to the Christians living in the city; its text
developed over time into the form known as the Covenant of 'Umar
(al-'uhda al-'umariyya). In this covenant, the caliph guaranteed
religious freedom and the safety of the churches and secured the
lives, fortunes and properties of the people living in
The Muslims recognized the area of Mount Moriah, with the Rock
where the al-Aqsa Mosque stands, as the most holy spot in Beit
al-Maqdis for the Islamic religion. The significance of Jerusalem
for Muslims is documented in the Quran, in verses that mention it
using the name of al-Masjid al-Aqsa, and in the prophetic
traditions (hadith) of Mohammad, which give several accounts
relating the importance of Jerusalem. Among them is the tradition,
"Whoever wants to see a part of Paradise, let him look to Beit
al-Maqdis."16 According to another tradition, recounted by the last
Orthodox caliph, 'Ali ibn Abi Taleb, "The most exalted spot is Beit
al-Maqdis and the most exalted rock is the Rock of Beit
The importance lent to Jerusalem led the Umayyads to strengthen
their political and religious relationship with Beit al-Maqdis.
This first becomes apparent with the Umayyad caliph Mu'awiya, who
took his oath of allegiance (bay'a) in Jerusalem and was known as
the "Prince of the Holy Land" (Amir al-Ard al-Muqaddasa). There can
be no doubt that Abd al-Malik regarded Jerusalem as a holy place,
in particular, the site of Mount Moriah, where he laid out the plan
of Haram al-Sharif as it exists to this day. The connection with
Jerusalem was also strongly developed by Abd al-Malik, no stranger
to such ideas, since he had resided for a long time in
Syria-Palestine and was the governor of the province of Filastin
during the caliphate of Mu'awiya, which ended in 750 A.D.
In order to understand further the Islamic significance of
Jerusalem, we have to turn to the fada'il literature, the elegies
about the religious merits of Jerusalem.18 The fada'il literature
may have existed from the time of the Prophet and continued to be
transmitted in the Umayyad and later Islamic periods. The earliest
fada'il books by Abu Bakr al-Wasiti and Ibn al-Murajja were
compiled before the Crusades. But this type of literature was
produced principally in response to the Crusades, to draw the
attention of Muslims to Jerusalem and to reach jihad (holy war) to
free Jerusalem and the Holy Land from the Crusaders. The fada'il
literature is vital to understanding the Islamic meaning of
Jerusalem and the al-Aqsa Mosque.
The Islamization of Jerusalem occurred in the first year A.H. (620
A.D.), the year when Allah ordered Muslims to face the city as
their first qibla as they performed their daily prostrations, and
when the night journey and ascension to heaven took place. Because
Jerusalem was greatly revered before Islam, Allah made it the site
of reverence for Muslims as well, just as the ka'ba in Mecca had
been built by the Prophet Ibrahim and his son Isma'il (Ishmael)19
and then turned into the first holy place of Islam.
The reason, therefore, that Allah had Muslims pray toward Jerusalem
(al-Masjid al-Aqsa) for sixteen months and then ordered them to
pray toward the ka'ba, and the reason that the night journey
occurred between the two mosques - al-Masjid al-Haram in Mecca and
the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem - is in fact to confirm the link
between Islam and the pre-Islamic religions.
Extracted from Jerusalem: Points of Friction and Beyond. Edited by
Moshe Ma'oz and Sari Nusseibeh. The Hague: Kluwer Law
International, 2000. Reprinted by permission.
1. Mishnah Kelin 1, 6-9.
2. R.J. Werblowsky, The Meaning of Jerusalem to Jews, Christians
and Muslims (Jerusalem: Israeli Universities Study Group for Middle
Eastern Affairs, 1983), p. 14.
3. Tosefta Mehunot 13:22.
4. Raphael Jospe, "The Significance of Jerusalem: A Jewish
Perspective," Palestine-Israel Journal of Politics, Economics and
Culture, 2:2 (1995), p. 37.
5. Sukkah 51b.
6. Esther Rabbah (Vilna), 1:17.
7. Werblowsky, The Meaning of Jerusalem, p. 9.
8. This may be attributed to the fact that, during the first two
centuries, the early Christians expected a speedy end to the age
they lived in, and therefore had little interest in preserving the
memory of the holy sites. Moreover, as members of a persecuted
religion, they were unable to make public pilgrimages or erect
shrines. J.W. Parkes/R.P./S.P.C., in Encyclopaedia Judaica (New
York: Macmillan, 1971), s.v. "Holy Places."
9. Werblowsky, The Meaning of Jerusalem, p. 7.
10. Marc H. Tanenbaum and R.J. Zwi Werblowsky, eds., The Jerusalem
Colloquium on Religion, Peoplehood, Nation, and Land. Proceedings,
Truman Research Institute Publication No. 7 (Jerusalem: The Truman
Institute, the American Jewish Committee, and the Israel Interfaith
Committee, 1972), p. 152.
11. Msgr. Michel Sabbah, Reading the Bible Today in the Land of the
Bible. In pulchritudine pacis. Pastoral Letter 4 (Jerusalem: Latin
Patriarchate Printing Press, 1993), p. 53.
12. Encyclopedia of Islam (1971), s.v. "Bayt al-Maqdis."
13. Al-Suyuti, in A. Ramadan, ed., Ithaf al-Akhissa fi Fada'il
al-Masjid al-Aqsa (Cairo, 1984), pp. 183-184.
14. The Quranic verse that confirmed the night journey (al-Isra'
wa-al-Mi'raj) is the first verse of Surah 17, which was given the
name al-Isra'. The verse reads: "Glory to Allah who did take His
Servant for a journey by night from the Sacred Mosque to the
Farthest Mosque, whose precincts We did bless, in order that We
might show him some of our Signs, for He is the one who heareth and
seeth [all things]," 'Abd Allah Yusuf 'Ali, The Meaning of the Holy
Quran (Brentwood: Amana, 1991). The most significant hadith
concerning the religious status of the al-Aqsa Mosque is "You shall
journey to but three masjids (mosques): al-Masjid al-Haram (in
Mecca), al-Aqsa (in Jerusalem), and my Masjid (Medina)." Mentioned
in Bukhari, Sahih al-Bukhari, vol. 2 (1981), p. 58, and Muslim,
Sahih Muslim, vol. 2 (1978), pp. 975-76.
15. Mujir al-Din al-Hanbali, Al-Uns al-Jalil fi-Tarikh al-Quds
wa'al-Khalil, vol. 1 (Amman, 1973), pp. 238-239.
17. M. Dabbagh, Biladuna Filastin, vol. 3 (Beirut, 1988), pp.
18. Abu Bakr al-Wasiti, Fada'il al-Bayt al-Muqaddas, in I. Hasson,
ed. (Jerusalem, 1979); Ibn al-Jawzi in Jibra'il Jabbur, ed.,
Fada'il al-Quds (Beirut, 1980); al-Hanbali, Al-Uns al-Jalil; Ibn
al-Murajja, Abu al-Ma'ali al-Musharraf, in Ofer Livne-Kafri
Shafram, ed., Fada'il al-Bayt al-Maqdis wa al-Khalil wa Fada'il
al-Sham (1995); and others.
19. Al-Hamawi, Mu'jan al-Buldan, vol. 5 (Beirut, 1979), pp.