Nine Quarters of Jerusalem: A New Biography of the Old City
The Old City of Jerusalem has witnessed a few quiet years in its thousands of years of history through numerous civilisations and conquerors.
Other near eastern counterparts may be more beautiful, even in areas more authentic, less tourist-ified but none can conjure the stories and certainly not the passions and symbolism of this beating heart of one of the most coveted and fought over pieces of terrain anywhere on earth.
"This is a compelling and original read. It will enthuse those who know the Old City with its fascinating stories and anecdotes but it will also serve as a rousing guide to those first-time visitors giving them a very different fare gleaned from earlier books"
Writer and broadcaster Matthew Teller sets about telling the stories of those who still make it a living breathing city from all is varying communities.
Many others have given us the archaeological perspective, the stories of the stones and mortar of this area but few have paid so much attention to bringing the inhabitants to life, not least those who for decades have given the city its character such as the Armenian families who made all the ceramic street name tiles based on skills honed in Kutahya in Turkey.
He also devoted time to the Sufis of the Old City and the gypsies, called the Rom, who largely inhabit one of the poorer areas of the city near the Lion’s Gate.
It is a welcome humanising approach.
The author also challenges the standard division of the city into four quarters. This was, as he shows, an invention of the British in the 19th Century, wanting to create nice easy divisions – the Muslim, Christian, Jewish and Armenian quarters, a reflection of their obsession with sect and ethnicity.
For Palestinians, even today they never used the Muslim quarter in daily life as it seems so absurd to them. But as Teller points out in Arabic they use Hara, meaning neighbourhood. At one point a writer in the 15th Century listed 18 differing neighbourhoods, an earlier one even wrote of 39.
Even then the notion of a Muslim quarter in the 19th Century could as Teller observes only have been drawn up by an outsider. It would have sounded back then as ridiculous as a Catholic quarter of Rome or a Hindu quarter of Delhi.
So the tourist maps and the guidebooks are all wrong in these subdivisions. A whole host of different communities often mixed constitute the 0.9km2 of the Old City and there are no easily demarcated boundaries between them.
But Teller takes this further as he does with other stories he tells but investigating just who in the British system devised this misleading notion of four quarters. He blames this on the work of one Rev George Williams, a man who also used all the Crusader era street names on his maps, not the Arabic ones.
But this was far from the only British influence in the Old City to suffer from Teller’s telling criticism. He relates the story of Charles Ashbee, a Civic Adviser to the British Mandate authorities, who together with Ronald Storrs, the British Military Governor of Jerusalem, transformed the Old City giving it a makeover that in many ways it still suffers from today.
"The Old City was also separated from the new, the ideal from the less desirable. Even today the Old City remains apart from the new"
Ashbee wanted to preserve the old city almost as a museum, stripping it of any modern accretions. He was obsessed with preserving the city’s walls even if this meant removing cafes and stalls that clustered against them. He was more concerned with being able to get a good view of these walls than how people lived within them.
The Old City became a showcase for visitors rather than the living thriving entity it has once been, a process that has escalated during the period of Israeli occupation. It was also separated from the new, the ideal from the less desirable. Even today, the Old City remains apart from the new.
Teller’s narrative moves from each neighbourhood often via one of the city’s eight existing gates to narrate his curious collection stories. A chapter on the 14 Stations of the Cross serves to emphasise the Jerusalem of the imagination, the Christian pilgrims who travel all over the world, wanting to retrace the last steps of Jesus Christ, even some of them, walking the Via Dolorosa on their knees.
The fact that the Via Dolorosa does not exist, it is a whole series of sections of linked streets; the fourteen stations are all made up; that the current street is 12 metres above where Jesus might have walked matters not though. I have met my fair share of Christians who genuinely believe that these are the literal stones on which Jesus and other Biblical figures trod.
Teller’s stated desire is to give voice to the less-advantaged. He makes no excuse for focusing on the destroyed 700-year-old Al Maghariba quarter, the 138 buildings that Israel bulldozed in the course of just two days in June 1967 making 650 homeless. All of this was done to produce the large plaza next to the Western Wall where Jews pray today.
This is not the only area of the Old City to have been desecrated of course. Teller revisits the Jewish areas that were dynamited during the Jordanian capture of the Old City and its subsequent occupation between 1948 and 1967.
What has shot up from 1967 in what is called the Jewish quarter, is almost all new. He sees it as a “gentrified, Westernised, upmarket residential enclave.” It is so different from the rest of the city, less mixed now given that Israeli law forbids non-Jews from purchasing property here, a prohibition not extended to Israeli settlers purchasing let alone seizing Palestinian property in other areas of the city.
This is a compelling and original read. It will enthuse those who know the Old City with its fascinating stories and anecdotes but it will also serve as a rousing guide to those first-time visitors giving them a very different fare gleaned from earlier books.
It rightly trashes the typical understanding of the city as one of two sides and four quarters. Above all, he deliberately and unashamedly focuses not on the stories of the powerful but on those who are less advantaged, and rarely listened to.
Chris Doyle is the director of CAABU (Council for Arab-British Understanding). He is a regular opinion writer and commentator on the Middle East and has organised and accompanied numerous British parliamentary delegations to the region.
Follow him on Twitter: @Doylech