In 1896 the Lumière brothers, French pioneers of motion pictures, traveled to Jerusalem, then part of the Ottoman Empire, to film scenes of daily life. In the soundtrack to the remarkable footage (added later, as it was not technically possible to record sound at the time), we hear the clop of horses on cobblestones, the Muslim call to prayer, and the collision of church bells ringing out across the city. As various pedestrians flicker in and out of the grainy frames, a voiceover narrator identifies them one by one: “A veiled Sunni woman, one of the majority. An Orthodox Jew...an Armenian pope,” all of whom go about their business in the shadow of the “holy places of the three religions”—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—“scattered across a few hundred square meters.” The camera pauses at the Western (or Wailing) Wall—a remnant of the Temple Mount compound, Judaism’s holiest site—where we see a solitary Jew praying. “He is wearing a Turkish tarboush (fez),” the narrator intones, “and although he prays in Hebrew, his everyday language is Arabic.”
Just as this pious, Arabic-speaking (but distinctively Ottoman hat–wearing) Jew defies convenient categorization, so too does the city he inhabits. Journalist Matthew Teller’s myth-busting exploration of the ancient capital—revered by medieval cartographers as “the navel of the earth”—shines a welcome light on the staggering diversity of Jerusalem today. While the toponym is debatable (the ancient Greeks made similar claims about Delphi), Teller reserves his harshest criticism for the modern colonial mapmakers who superficially segmented Jerusalem into quarters—Christian, Muslim, Jewish and Armenian—a division which “underpins the common assumption that the present-day conflict in Jerusalem comes down to age-old hatred between religions...a falsehood worth debunking.”
Prior to the nineteenth century, if there were anything approaching “quarters” in Jerusalem (a name possibly derived from the location’s association with the ancient Canaanite god Shalim) it would be its harat, or neighborhoods, of which there were as many as thirty-nine at one point, nestled within the confines of the Old City’s Ottoman-era defensive stone walls, an area of some 0.35 square miles. Some harat (singular, haret) took their names from the respective faiths of their primary residents, such as Haret al-Yuhud (Jews) or Haret an-Nasara, a general term for Christians, linguistically derived from the town of Jesus’ childhood, Nazareth. Yet many others reflected the occupations of its residents or adjacent commercial activity. Cotton merchants dwelled in Haret al-Qattanin “named after a long-established covered market” while Haret Khan al-Zeit, from the Arabic for olive, zaytun, was the location of the city’s major oil bazaar. Still others took their names from tribal connections, such as Haret as-Sa’adiyya, “named after the Bani Sa’d tribe, who had long ago settled in the lanes between Herod’s Gate and Damascus Gate,” or Haret al-Magharba, home to Muslims who traced their ancestry to the Maghreb (Muslim North Africa). Distinctive, yet cohesive, these neighborhoods were the unifying warp and woof of Jerusalem’s rich and colorful, ethno-religious tapestry. “All,” as Teller states, “had emerged organically.” Then, “the British arrived.”
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