The city of the Lord, the Zion of the Holy One of Israel … Awake, awake; put on thy strength, O Zion; put on thy beautiful garments, O Jerusalem, the holy city.

Isaiah 60.14, 52.1

My native city is Jerusalem, in which is situated the sacred shrine of the most high God. The holy city is the mother city not of one country, Judaea, but of most of the other neighbouring lands, as well as lands far away, most of Asia, [and] similarly Europe, to say nothing of the countries beyond the Euphrates.

Herod Agrippa I, King of Judaea, quoted in Philo, De Specialibus Legibus

He who has not seen Jerusalem in her splendour has never seen a desirable city in his life. He who has not seen the Temple in its full construction has never seen a glorious building in his life.

Babylonian Talmud, Tractate of the Tabernacle

If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy.

Psalm 137.5–6

Jerusalem is the most famous city of the East.

Pliny the Elder, Natural History, 5.15



When David captured the citadel of Zion, Jerusalem was already ancient. But it was scarcely a city, just a small mountain stronghold in a land that would have many names – Canaan, Judah, Judaea, Israel, Palestine, the Holy Land to Christians, the Promised Land to Jews. This territory, just 100 by 150 miles, lies between the south-eastern corner of the Mediterranean and the River Jordan. Its lush coastal plain offered the best path for invaders and traders between Egypt and the empires of the east. Yet the isolated and remote town of Jerusalem, 30 miles from the nearest coast, far from any trade routes, stood high amid the golden-rocked desolation of the cliffs, gorges and scree of the Judaean hills, exposed to freezing, sometimes even snowy, winters and to witheringly hot summers. Nonetheless, there was security atop these forbidding hills; and there was a spring in the valley beneath, just enough to support a town.

The romantic image of David’s city is far more vivid than any facts of verifiable history. In the fog of Jerusalem’s pre-history, fragments of pottery, ghostly rock-cut tombs, sections of wall, inscriptions in the palaces of faraway kings and the holy literature of the Bible can provide only fleeting glints of human life in an invincible gloom, separated by hundreds of years. The sporadic clues that emerge cast a flickering light on some random moment of a vanished civilization, followed by centuries of life of which we know nothing – until the next spark illuminates another image. Only the springs, mountains and valleys remain the same, and even they have been redirected, resculpted, refilled by millennia of weather, debris and human endeavour. This much or little is certain: by the time of King David, holiness, security and nature had combined to make Jerusalem an ancient fastness that was regarded as impregnable.

People had lived there as early as 5000 BC. In the early Bronze Age, around 3200 BC, when the mother of cities, Uruk, in what became Iraq, was already home to 40,000 citizens, and nearby Jericho was a fortified town, people buried their dead in tombs in Jerusalem’s hills, and started to build small square houses in what was probably a walled village on a hill above a spring. This village was then abandoned for many years. Jerusalem scarcely existed while the Egyptian pharaohs of the Old Kingdom reached the zenith of their pyramid building and completed the Great Sphinx. Then in the 1900S BC, at a time when Minoan civilization flourished in Crete, King Hammurabi was about to compile his legal code in Babylon and Britons worshipped at Stonehenge, some pottery, sherds of which were discovered near Luxor in Egypt, mentions a town named Ursalim, a version of Salem or Shalem, god of the evening star. The name may mean ‘Salem has founded’.*

Back in Jerusalem, a settlement had developed around the Gihon Spring: the Canaanite inhabitants cut a channel through the rock leading to a pool within the walls of their citadel. A fortified underground passageway protected their access to the water. The latest archaeological digs on the site reveal that they guarded the spring with a tower and a massive wall, 23 feet thick, using stones weighing 3 tons. The tower could also have served as a temple celebrating the cosmic sanctity of the spring. In other parts of Canaan, priestly kings built fortified tower-temples. Further up the hill, remnants of a city wall have been found, the earliest in Jerusalem. The Canaanites turn out to have been builders on a scale more impressive than anyone in Jerusalem until Herod the Great almost 2,000 years later.1

The Jerusalemites became subjects of Egypt which had conquered Palestine in 1458 BC. Egyptian garrisons guarded nearby Jaffa and Gaza. In 1350 BC, the frightened King of Jerusalem begged his overlord, Akhenaten, the pharaoh of the New Kingdom of Egypt, to send him help – even ‘fifty archers’ – to defend his small kingdom from the aggression of neighbouring kings and bands of marauding outlaws. King Abdi-Hepa called his citadel ‘the capital of the Land of Jerusalem of which the name is Beit Shulmani’, the House of Well-being. Perhaps the word Shulman is the origin of the ‘Shalem’ in the name of the city.

Abdi-Hepa was a paltry potentate in a world dominated by the Egyptians to the south, by the Hittites to the north (in today’s Turkey) and to the north-west by the Mycenean Greeks who would fight the Trojan War. The king’s first name is west Semitic – the Semites being the many Middle East peoples and languages, supposedly descended from Shem, son of Noah. Therefore Abdi-Hepa could have hailed from anywhere in the north-eastern Mediterranean. His appeals, found in the pharaoh’s archive, are panic-stricken and sycophantic, the first known words of a Jerusalemite:*

At the feet of the King I have fallen 7 and 7 times. Here is the deed that Milkily and Shuwardatu have done against the land – they have led the troops of Gezer … against the law of the King … The land of the King has gone over to the Habiru [marauding outlaws]. And now a town belonging to Jerusalem has gone over to the men of Qiltu. May the King listen to Abdi-Hepa your servant and send archers.

We hear no more, but whatever happened to this beleaguered king, just over a century later the Jerusalemites built steep terraced structures above the Gihon Spring on the Ophel hill that survive today, the foundation of a citadel or temple of Salem.2 These powerful walls, towers and terraces were part of the Canaanite citadel known as Zion that David would capture. Some time during the thirteenth century BC, a people called the Jebusites occupied Jerusalem. But now the old Mediterranean world was being torn apart by waves of so-called Sea Peoples who came from the Aegean.

In this storm of raids and migrations, the empires receded. The Hittites fell, Mycenae was mysteriously destroyed, Egypt was shaken – and a people called the Hebrews made their first appearance.


This new ‘Dark Age’, which lasted three centuries, allowed the Hebrews, also known as Israelites, an obscure people who worshipped one God, to settle and build a kingdom in the narrow land of Canaan. Their progress is illuminated by the stories about the creation of the world, their origins and their relationship with their God. They passed down these traditions which were then recorded in sacred Hebrew texts, later collated into the Five Books of Moses, the Pentateuch, the first section of the Jewish scriptures, the Tanakh. The Bible became the book of books, but it is not one document. It is a mystical library of interwoven texts by unknown authors who wrote and edited at different times with widely divergent aims.

This sacred work of so many epochs and so many hands contains some facts of provable history, some stories of unprovable myth, some poetry of soaring beauty, and many passages of unintelligible, perhaps coded, perhaps simply mistranslated, mystery. Most of it is written not to recount events but to promote a higher truth – the relationship of one people and their God. To the believer, the Bible is simply the fruit of divine revelation. To the historian, this is a contradictory, unreliable, repetitive,* yet invaluable source, often the only one available to us – and it is also, effectively, the first and paramount biography of Jerusalem.

The founding patriarch of the Hebrews was, according to Genesis the first book of the Bible, Abram – who is portrayed as travelling from Ur (in today’s Iraq) to settle in Hebron. This was in Canaan, the land promised to him by God, who renamed him the name ‘Father of Peoples’ – Abraham. On his travels, Abraham was welcomed by Melchizedek, the priest-king of Salem in the name of El-Elyon, the Most High God. This, the city’s first mention in the Bible, suggests that Jerusalem was already a Canaanite shrine ruled by priest-kings. Later God tested Abraham by ordering him to sacrifice his son Isaac on a mountain in ‘the land of Moriah’ – identified as Mount Moriah, the Temple Mount of Jerusalem.

Abraham’s roguish grandson Jacob used trickery to clinch his inheritance, but redeemed himself in a wrestling match with a stranger who turned out to be God, hence his new name, Israel – He who Strives with God. This was the appropriate birth of the Jewish people, whose relationship with God was to be so passionate and tormented. Israel was the father of the founders of the twelve tribes who emigrated to Egypt. There are so many contradictions in the stories of these so-called Patriarchs that they are impossible to date historically.

After 430 years, the Book of Exodus portrays the Israelites, repressed as slaves building the pharaoh’s cities, miraculously escaping Egypt with God’s help (still celebrated by Jews in the festival of Passover), led by a Hebrew prince named Moses. As they wandered through Sinai, God granted Moses the Ten Commandments. If the Israelites lived and worshipped according to these rules, God promised them the land of Canaan. When Moses sought the nature of this God, asking ‘What is thy name?’, he received the majestically forbidding reply, ‘I AM THAT I AM,’ a God without a name, rendered in Hebrew as YHWH: Yahweh or, as Christians later misspelt it, Jehovah.*

Many Semites did settle in Egypt; Ramses II the Great was probably the pharaoh who forced the Hebrews to work on his store-cities; Moses’ name was Egyptian, which suggests at least that he originated there; and there is no reason to doubt that the first charismatic leader of the monotheistic religions – Moses or someone like him – did receive this divine revelation for that is how religions begin. The tradition of a Semitic people who escaped repression is plausible but it defies dating.

Moses glimpsed the Promised Land from Mount Nebo but died before he could enter it. It was his successor Joshua who led the Israelites into Canaan. The Bible portrays their journey as both a bloody rampage and a gradual settlement. There is no archaeological evidence of a conquest but pastoral settlers did found many unwalled villages in the Judaean highlands. A small group of Israelites, who escaped Egypt, were probably among them. They were united by their worship of their God – Yahweh – whom they revered in a moveable temple, a tabernacle that held the sacred wooden chest known as the Ark of the Covenant. They perhaps crafted their identity by telling the stories of their founding Patriarchs. Many of these traditions, from Adam and the Garden of Eden to Abraham, would later be revered not just by Jews but by Christians and Muslims too – and would be located in Jerusalem.

The Israelites were now very close to the city for the first time.

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