The Muslim Period

The Arab Period   The Crusader Period   The Ayyubid Period   The Ottoman Period

The Arab Period (638-1099)

The Arabs conquered Jerusalem around 638 C.E. The city retained its Roman name, Aelia, until the tenth century, when it was changed to the Arabic al-Quds (the Holy). At the time of its capture, Jerusalem was a sacred city for all three Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam). When the Arab armies took Jerusalem in 638, they occupied a center whose shrines had made it a major pilgrimage site in Christendom. The empire of the Umayyads, stretched over vast areas from the borders of France to the borders of India. However, after the Umayyads were replaced by the Abbasids, the steady decline of Jerusalem began. Damascus was the Umayyad Empireís capital until the Abbasids moved the capital to Baghdad. The proximity of the capital to Jerusalem was one of the reasons that Damascus caliphs paid special attention to the city. However, the move to Baghdad distanced the concerns of the Abbasid caliphs.(1)


In the first part of the Arab Period, the majority of the population was Christian. The construction of the Dome of the Rock in 691 - the first Muslim shrine and the first major Islamic public building - was meant to counterbalance the Church of the Holy Sepulcre. Both the Dome of the Rock and the Church of the Holy Sepulcre have concentric plans, and their diameters are identical, but the Dome of the Rock is decorated with antitinitarian Quranic quotations. Initially, Muslims like Jews of Arabia, faced Jerusalem to pray. However, when the Jews who lived in Medina at the time resisted both religious and political cooperation with the Muslims and did not accept Muhammadís prophetic claims, a new revelation from Allah directed Muhammad to shift the center of prayer to Mecca.(2)

The Dome of the Rock was built near the area formerly occupied by Herodís Temple and close by the Wailing Wall, the last remnant of Solomonís temple. The Dome of the Rock was constructed over the outcropping of limestone rock which Jewish tradition held to be the place of Abrahamís intended sacrifice of Isaac. Islamic tradition points to the sacred rock as the place from which Muhammad began his Ascent to Heaven to receive Allahís (God in Arabic) final revelation. In building the Dome of the Rock, the earliest Arab rulers of Palestine expressed their reverence for Jerusalem, city of the prophets from Abraham and Moses to Jesus, culminating with Muhammad, ďthe seal of the prophets.Ē The Dome of the Rock is the oldest existing Islamic monument in the world and for most still the greatest. The building of the Dome was a symbol of Islamic inheritance from the triumph over the religions of Jews and Christians, and equally an expression of the insecurity of Muslims in a city dominated by Christians from the initial Arab conquest in 638 until Salah al-Din drove out the Crusaders in 1187. In making the Dome a taller, more imposing copy of the Holy Sepulcre, the architects were making visible to all Jerusalemís Christians the power and permanence of Islam in the Holy City.(3)

In 638, when Jerusalem was surrendered to the Muslims, Umar (the first caliph), requested to be led to the Temple Mount, an acknowledgment of Islamís acceptance of the Hebraic prophetic tradition. After reaching the Temple Mount, the caliph found himself disgusted on seeing that Christians had heaped garbage in the sacred enclosure to express their contempt for the Judaic faith. Umar, out of respect for the Jews, ordered the area to be cleansed, an act which also prepared the sacred Jewish site for Muslim worship. Umar fulfilled the hopes of Jews by refusing the churchís request to continue the ban against Jewish residence and inviting them back into the city. In the seventh century, as Jerusalem came into Muslim hands, the ban on Jewish residence was lifted. After approximately 500 years of being Judenrein, Jerusalem again included a Jewish community. Jews long banned from living in Jerusalem by Christian rulers, were permitted to return, live, and worship in the city of Solomon and David.(4)

The Crusader Period (1099-1187)

Five centuries of peaceful coexistence elapsed before political events led to centuries of so-called holy wars. However, Fatimid Caliph al-Hakim reintroduced old persecution habits, including the wholesale destruction of two thousand churches throughout the empire, most notoriously the church of the Holy Sepulchre in 1009 (picture to left). By the eleventh century, European Christendomís response to Islam took two forms: the struggle to reconquer Spain (1000-1492) and Italy and Sicily (1061), and the undertaking of another series of Christian holy wars - the Crusades (1095-1453). In 1099, the Crusaders stormed Jerusalem and established Sovereignty over the Holy Land. When Jerusalem was conquered by the Crusaders, virtually all its Muslim and Jewish populations were butchered. During this period, residence of non-Christians was banned, and thus the city underwent a drastic demographic change. From a provincial town Jerusalem became the capital of the independent Latin Kingdom and one of the most important centers of Christendom. With minor changes, the intensive monumental building and the street grid gave the city the form preserved today.(5)

Most of the Crusader construction activity was concerned with religious edifices such as churches, monasteries, pilgrimís hostels, and a variety of other buildings which included various structures for the use of the religious orders. All through the Crusader Period, neither Muslims nor Jews were allowed to dwell in Jerusalem. The Noble Sanctuary, the Haram al-Sharif, was desecrated as the Dome of the Rock was converted into a church and the al-Aqsa mosque, renamed the Temple of Solomon, became the residence of the king. However, the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem lasted only eighty-eight years.(6)

The Ayyubid Period (1187-1516)

In 1187, Salah al-Din (Saladin) having reestablished Abbasid rule over Fatimid Egypt, recaptured the city of Jerusalem. For the next seven centuries, except for a short interlude, Jerusalem remained under Muslim rule. After the reconquest of Jerusalem, civilians were spared and churches and shrines were generally left untouched. Although Salah al-Din was faithful to his word and compassionate towards noncombatants, great efforts were taken to obliterate any signs of the Crusader occupation. Not only were the Mosques, such as the Dome of the Rock, which had been turned into churches now reverted to their original function, but quite a number of Crusader buildings were made into Muslim institutions.(7)

A result of the Crusades was the deterioration of the positions of Christian minorities in the Holy Land. Formerly, Christian minorities had been accorded rights and privileges under Muslim rule, after the establishment of the Latin Kingdom, they found themselves with less rights. In an effort to obtain relief from persecution by their fellow Christians, many abandoned their Nestorian beliefs, and adopted either Roman Catholicism, or Islam.(8)

Under threat of the Third Crusade, Salah al-Din and his successors reconstructed the walls of Jerusalem. Hardly had the reconstruction of the cityís defenses been completed in 1219 C.E. when Salah al-Dinís nephew, al-Malik al Muíazzam ĎIsa, who had carried out most of the building operations, gave the order to dismantle the walls. Most of the population of Jerusalem left the unwalled, ill-defended city. From that point until the Ottoman reconstruction 320 years later, the city remained unwalled. During the ineffective rule of Jerusalem by the Hohenstaufen emperor Frederick II (1229-1244), a second exodus followed. The Turkish Khawarism conquest exterminated the entire Christian population of Jerusalem of 7,000, except for 300 who survived by fleeing to Jafa. Additional attacks, this time by Mongols, further decimated the population, and the survivors fled to safe places.(9)

In 1260 the Mamluks, Turkish slave soldiers who served as a sort of praetorian guard, defeated the Mongols in the Battle of Ein Jalut in the Jezreel Valley. After the massacre perpetrated by the Khawarism hordes and the Mongol onslaughts, Jerusalem was virtually empty, but when the Mamluks established law and order, the city was gradually inhabited again. Law and order prevailed throughout most of the Mamluk sultanate period, a state which enabled the city to function without defensive walls. The Mamluk authorities did little to develop Jerusalemís economy or to enhance it in order to attract new citizens. However, substantial contributions were made toward the erection and maintenance of religious institutions - mosques, madrasas (religious schools), zawias (convents), khanakahs (Sufi mysticsí centers), hospitals, and hospices. On the eve of the Ottoman conquest, the city numbered forty-four madrasas and twenty zawias.(10)

The Ottoman Period (1516-1917)

Jerusalem fell to the Ottomans in 1517. Despite the Ottomanís respect for the Temple Mount and the third holiest shrine in Islam, the Dome of the Rock, the Sultan did not see fit to make the city a district capital. The Ottomans retained the administrative structure which the Mamluks had earlier set down: Jerusalem was a place that supported religion and not of one that supported an economy. The first half-century under Ottomans was an epoch of prosperity for Jerusalem, as it was for the rest of the Turkish empire. Under Suleiman, the Magnificent the realm reached its cultural, economic, and military zenith. In 1532 the aqueducts were repaired and started supplying water to the city once again, and between 1538 and 1541, after 320 years, the badly needed city wall was rebuilt, the same wall that still surrounds the Old City today.(11)

The one certain Ottoman accomplishment in Jerusalem was the rebuilding in 1537-1541 of the great defensive walls under Suleiman I (above). The Turks feared the Mamluks would try to regain control of Jerusalem. In addition to the new wall, the sultan had the facade of the Dome of the Rock redecorated with lovely green and blue Persian tiles. Even up until the decisive end of the Empire following the events of WW I, the Ottoman's continued to emphasize the splendor and richness of their Islamic heritage. (12)

Click here to return to the Historical Tour of Jerusalem Homepage.


Endnotes for this section

(1) Edited by Nitza Rosovsky; City of the Great King: Jerusalem from David to the Present; Harvard University Press: Cambridge, 1996; pg. 18-19.
(2) John L. Esposito; Islam: the Straight Path; Oxford University Press: New York, 1991; pg. 16.
(3) Idinopulos, Thomas A.; Jerusalem Blessed, Jerusalem Cursed; Ivan R. Dee: Chicago; 1991; pg. 207.
(4) Ibid; pg. 214.
(5) Edited by Nitza Rosovsky; City of the Great King: Jerusalem from David to the Present; Harvard University Press: Cambridge, 1996; pg. 18-19.
(6) Idinopulos, Thomas A.; Jerusalem Blessed, Jerusalem Cursed; Ivan R. Dee: Chicago; 1991; pg. 249.
(7) Ibid; pg. 250-251.
(8) Ibid.
(9) Ibid; pg. 255-256.
(10) Edited by Nitza Rosovsky; City of the Great King: Jerusalem from David to the Present; Harvard University Press: Cambridge, 1996; pg. 23-24.
(11) Ibid; pg. 25.
(12) Idinopulos, Thomas A.; Jerusalem Blessed, Jerusalem Cursed; Ivan R. Dee: Chicago; 1991; pg. 2265-266.



Click here to return to the Historical Tour of Jerusalem Homepage.