British Mandate to Israeli Control

In 1917, four hundred years of Ottoman rule ended when Jerusalem fell without resistance to the British commander General Sir Edmund Allenby. It was the twenty-third recorded fall of the Holy City, and after his triumphal entry Allenby issued a proclamation:


"I make known to you that every sacred building, monument, holy spot, shrine, traditional site ... or customary place of prayer ... will be maintained and protected according to the existing customs and beliefs of those to whose faiths they are sacred."

Following the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire after World War I, Britain received a mandate from the League of Nations to govern Palestine and, from 1922 until 1948, Jerusalem served as the administrative seat of the British authorities. Able administration facilitated rapid development. But increased Jewish immigration led to racial conflict which grew to such intensity that the British could no longer control the situation. They turned the problem over to the United Nations which recommended that Palestine be divided between the Arabs and Jews. The Arabs rejected this resolution. When the British withdrew in May of 1948, war broke out. An armistice was accepted on July 18, 1948 leaving Jordan in control of the "West Bank" and the walled Old City of Jerusalem, while the new state of Israel controlled the western part of Jerusalem and the rest of the country.

Jerusalem remained divided until 1967, when Israel took the entire city following the Six Day War. In 1980 the city was officially proclaimed the capital of Israel — an action bitterly resented by the Arabs. Although the city is reunited today under Israeli control, it remains three cities in one: the Old City, the Israeli New City (West Jerusalem), and East Jerusalem.

The walled Old City, in the center, contains Muslim, Jewish, Christian, and Armenian quarters. Most of the narrow streets of the Old City are lined with shops where merchants sell foodstuffs and traditional handicrafts; homes are clustered around courtyards surrounded by high walls. Many of Jerusalem's religious landmarks are located in the Old City, including: the Western Wall (Kotel), the most sacred place of Judaism, the gold-domed Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa mosque (the third-most holy place to Muslims) and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher (sacred to Christians).

The New City, built mostly by Jews, has expanded since the 19th century. This section was under Israeli control during the partition and is the site of many government buildings. To the south is the Israel Museum, which includes the Shrine of the Book, where the Dead Sea Scrolls are located. Farther to the west are modern high-rise apartment buildings and the Hadassah-Hebrew University Medical Center.

East Jerusalem is the primarily Arab residential section huddled outside the east and north walls of the Old City, although Jews have outnumbered Arabs there since 1993. It is also the site of the Rockefeller Museum, with its fine archaeological collection.

City of Peace?

Such was (is) the stormy history of Jerusalem, a history of war and peace, of splendor and squalor, of destructions and reconstructions, of lofty wisdom and of blood flowing in its gutters. The story of Jerusalem is repeatedly interrupted by a succession of conquerors — Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Ptolemies, Seleucids, Romans, Moslem Arabs, Seljuks, Crusaders, Saracens, Mamelukes, Ottomans and Jews. Yet throughout the three thousand years since David made it his capital, the attachment of Jews, Christians and Muslims to Jerusalem remains unbroken. The question of who will have ultimate control remains a major obstacle to any lasting peace settlement in the Middle East. Even today the Palestinians want to declare East Jerusalem — that part of the city extending beyond the north and east walls of the Old City — capital of a Palestinian state. Stay tuned. The end of the story has not been written; perhaps it never will be...

Zion Gate (close-up)

Also known as the Gate of the Prophet, the bullet-scared entrance arch bears witness to the heavy fighting that raged here during Israel's War of Independence in 1948. Logically, it exits onto the highest part of the city known as Mount Zion near the traditional Tomb of David and site of the Upper Room of the Last Supper. Like the Jaffa Gate (in the west wall) and Lions Gate (in the east wall), it originally had an L-shaped internal structure with a 90° bend to prevent direct access by invaders.

Western Wall or "Wailing Wall"

The Western Wall was not part of the Temple. Rather, it is a section of the retaining wall built to support the huge plaza that completely surrounded the Temple. Originally it was more than twice the height of the today's Western Wall; excavations have revealed nineteen rows of Herodian stone blocks below the existing pavement.

From 1948 to 1967 the wall was in the Jordanian sector of Jerusalem, and inaccessible. It became the symbol of the reconquest of the city and the refounding of the Jewish state. Therefore, when the first Israeli troops reached the wall on June 7, 1967, it marked a key event in the history of the Jewish people. At the time the wall towered over a narrow alley 12 feet wide that could accommodate only a few hundred worshipers. After the reunification of the city the Jews demolished the Arab buildings of the so-called Moors Quarter facing the wall to provide better access for tens of thousands of devout Jews, creating the open plaza seen today. Also, the area in front of the wall was lowered 10 feet to expose more of the grand wall built by Herod.

During the night and early morning, the great Herodian stone blocks are covered with dew drops, which tradition says are the tears shed by the wall weeping with its mourners. Grass grows out of the upper seams of the chalky, yellow-white blocks. Worshipers and visitors often stuff the lower seams between the great stone blocks with bits of paper containing prayers in the belief that they will be answered. Black-robed Orthodox Jews are always seen standing at the wall, chanting and rhythmically bobbing up and down. The wall is actually an open-air synagogue and men must cover their heads to enter the prayer area on the left side. A separate section is provided on the extreme right for women who, in keeping with Orthodox tradition, are not permitted in the men's section.

Church of the Holy Sepulcher — today

With final chants still echoing off stone walls, the heavy wooden doors swing slowly shut. The lock creaks as an ancient metal key turns. Between now and dawn, there's no leaving the cavernous church, its dim recesses lit only by lamps and candles. During the day, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem's walled Old City — held by many Christians to be the site of the crucifixion and resurrection — is a beehive of activity. Tour guides and chanting monks raise their voices in a competing cacophony. Sightseers snap photographs and read aloud from guidebooks. Priests hurry their way into vestments like actors preparing to take the stage.

At night, though, the uproar vanishes. Pigeons flutter under the soaring dome. A cat slinks in the shadows. From a side chapel comes the sound of someone's soft sobbing. Candles lit by the faithful flicker, then gradually flutter out. Before the doors are locked for the night, guards in red fezzes wordlessly thump the floor with heavy silver-topped canes to signal the closing. A sacristan extinguishes glowing red lamps. Departing pilgrims plant a final few kisses on altars' pink-yellow stones. In the courtyard, the doorkeeper takes up the10-inch metal key and climbs a short ladder to the keyhole, head-height off the ground. With a turn of the wrist, he adds the passage of another day to 800 years of church history.

That history isn't a particularly pretty one. "One long story of bitter animosities and contentions" is how a British mandate district officer of Jerusalem, L.G.A. Cust, described it in 1929. He and other observers were less than captivated by the church's appearance. First built in 335 AD by the Emperor Constantine, it was razed in 1009, rebuilt over the next century by the Crusaders and later badly damaged by fire and earthquake. "The indifferent style of much of the architecture and the unsightly decoration are the result of... tasteless restoration," Cust noted.

A $5 million restoration of the main dome, completed [in 1997], now rewards a viewer's upward gaze with rays of light and gold-painted stars (right). But modern-day critics still tend toward the scathing. The church is dark and cramped, with a "hideous kiosk" for a tomb monument and neighboring buildings that "cling like barnacles," said Jerome Murphy-O'Connor, a Dominican priest who wrote an authoritative guide to Jerusalem's holy sites.

Architectural affronts aside, there is a long history of battles among denominations sharing the church. Over the centuries, its controlling sects — Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Armenian Orthodox, Ethiopian, Egyptian Copt and Syrian Orthodox — have fought over practically everything.

Cannily sizing up the situation in the early 1850s, the ruling Ottoman Turks wrote an exhaustive set of rules governing church use: who is allowed to light which candles, what sect can carry out which rites when — even who is entitled to sweep which section of the floor.

History does record the swift settlement of at least one church quarrel. In 1838, a conflict over unauthorized repairs at an adjoining convent was interrupted by an outbreak of the plague in Jerusalem. All the disputants died.

Long after midnight in Holy Sepulcher, a Franciscan father from South St. Paul, Minn., gazed into the enveloping darkness and tried to explain the hold the church has on believers. "Holy places do have a special power — as this one does," said the cleric, who wanted to be identified only as Father Jim. "But only if you come with an open heart."

During the week leading up to Easter, there are several all-night liturgies in the church, and worshipers may come and go freely. But for most of the year, those wanting to spend a night of prayer and contemplation there — as early pilgrims customarily did — must register in advance with one of the sects. One Russian pilgrim who would give only his first name, Oleg, said he felt his all-night stay was in keeping with the church's central place in Christianity. "It's part of the original sense of celebrating Easter," he said, shivering in the penetrating pre-dawn chill. "We are here in the darkness, keeping vigil, and soon the light will come."

The church is so apart from the everyday realm that it actually constitutes its own little time zone. The sects couldn't agree on switching to summer-time, so from spring until autumn, the Holy Sepulcher is an hour behind the rest of the city. When the doors open at 5 a.m., inside, it is still 4 a.m.

Easter celebrations at the Holy Sepulcher can inspire awe. The Catholic Church's rites fall a week earlier than those of the Eastern Orthodox so the denominations can mark them in their own manner, with clouds of incense, ethereal hymns and stately patriarchs' processions. Huge crowds of tourists gather every year for the festivities, and the traffic may prove more than the church can bear.

The small inner building housing the tomb of Jesus — the so-called edicule — is leaning dangerously, some scholars say. Although supported by a grid of steel beams and bars, architectural surveys show that he structure's eastern wall has moved an inch over the last several years.

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