Today, what’s on everyone’s mind is the transfer of power. How this has happened in the past is a topic which interests me greatly (see posts here and here). Before Democracy had spread across the globe, transfer of power between different conquerors was understandably violent. Or at least that is the thought. But there were peaceful transfers of power as well, and even “conquerors” who brought more diversity and “rights” for the population. Such is the case in Jerusalem during the transition from the Byzantine/Roman rule to the early Moslem Umayyid dynasty.

Some time around the Bar Cochva revolt in 135 CE, Hadrian made Jerusalem a Roman polis and renamed it Aelia Capitolina, dedicated to the Capitoline gods. Along with the massive rebuilding of the city, he decreed that Jerusalem would become a city devoid of Jews. During the superseding Byzantine times, this position was maintained; Jerusalem was homogeneous, and Christian.

Cracks in the Byzantine hegemony started before the Moslem conquest in 638 CE. Christianity became less monolithic and many monasteries of different Christian communities sprung up around the city, including an early Armenian monastery.

The Persian conquest in 614 CE shook up the city further and brought a new reality. Persians didn’t just take power, they conquered. Frightened Jerusalem Christians hid their treasures under the floors for safe keeping, as evidenced by a horde of gold coins all from the year 613 CE which were found in the Givati Parking Lot excavation. Masses of human bones from the Persian conquest have been found in several scattered burial plots around Jerusalem. Near the Mamilla pool between Mamilla and Jaffa Gate there was found a small chapel at the entrance to a cave. The inscription there attests to this being a burial place “for those who only God knows their names”. Inside the cave are about 1,000 skeletons, some of which have signs of a violent death – Christians who were killed by the Persians during this conquest. The Persians, who were vehemently anti-Christian, invited Jews back into the city. Findings in the Southern excavation of an impressive golden medallion the size of you palm, embossed with Jewish symbols, are a sign of Jewish return to Jerusalem after the Persian conquest. The Persians left almost as soon as they came, though, and the city returned, albeit briefly, to Christian control.

Dome of the Rock

A few short decades later would see the advent of a new era – the early Moslem period. Conquest of Jerusalem by Umar ibn al-Khattab, and signing of the surrender treaty would bring multiculturalism to Jerusalem. No archaeological finds attesting to a violent turnover exist from transfer to Moslem rule in Jerusalem. Umar does not destroy important churches in the city, including the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Subsequent Moslem rulers during the 7th, 8th, and 9th centuries build Moslem structures in Jerusalem, without harming existent Christian buildings. The Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa mosque were built to compete with the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in size and height, but, interestingly, the church itself was not destroyed. Additions on the church were even allowed and a new chapel was built during the 10th century CE. Christian pilgrimage continued and monasteries on Mt. Scopus continued regular functioning well into the 9th century.

Jerusalem itself was divided, and “quarters” which today play such an iconic role in the Old City, were defined. It is said that Umar stood at the top of the markets in the square, inside today’s Damascus gate, and saw the three markets which lead from it.

He asked his advisor, “Who owns the left market [leading to the Lion’s Gate]?”
His advisor replied, “The Christians.”
“And, who owns the right market [Beit HaBad St. market]?”
“The Christians.”
“Then we shall take the middle [al-Wad St. market].”

The Moslems took all of the eastern side of Jerusalem from al-Wad St. market to the Temple Mount area and left the rest of the Jerusalem for the Christians – an unprecedented declaration of Jerusalem’s multicultural character. Even the Moslem geographer, al-Muqaddasi wrote in the 10th century about the city’s varied population.

“Christians and Jews are predominant here, and the mosque devoid of congregations and assemblies.”

Archaeological finds prove that transfer of power does not have to be violent, and divergent opinions can exist in one city. One hopes that these paradigms will be followed for transitions today.


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