After about 1244 CE, the city remained a backwater of the late medieval Muslim empires and would not again exceed a population of 10,000 until the 16th century.
The history of Jerusalem during the Middle Ages is generally one of decline; beginning as a major city in the Byzantine Empire, Jerusalem prospered during the early centuries of Muslim control (640–969), but under the rule of the Fatimid caliphate (late 10th to 11th centuries) its population declined from about 200,000 to less than half that number by the time of the Christian conquest in 1099. The Christians massacred much of the population as they took the city, and while population quickly recovered during the Kingdom of Jerusalem, it was again decimated to below 2,000 people when the Khwarezmi Turks retook the city in 1244. After this, the city remained a backwater of the late medieval Muslim empires and would not again exceed a population of 10,000 until the 16th century. It was passed back and forth through various Muslim factions until decidedly conquered by the Ottomans in 1517, who maintained control until the British took it in 1917.
Jerusalem reached a peak in size and population at the end of the Second Temple Period: The city covered two square kilometers (0.8 sq mi.) and had a population of 200,000. In the five centuries following the Bar Kokhba revolt in the 2nd century, the city remained under Roman then Byzantine rule. During the 4th century, the Roman Emperor Constantine I constructed Christian sites in Jerusalem such as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
In 603, Pope Gregory I commissioned the Ravennate Abbot Probus, who was previously Gregory’s emissary at the Lombard court, to build a hospital in Jerusalem to treat and care for Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land. In 800, Charlemagne enlarged Probus’ hospital and added a library to it, but it was destroyed in 1005 by Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah along with three thousand other buildings in Jerusalem.
From the days of Constantine until the Arab conquest in 638, despite intensive lobbying by Judeo-Byzantines, Jews were forbidden to enter the city. Following the Arab capture of Jerusalem, the Jews were allowed back into the city by Muslim rulers such as Umar ibn al-Khattab. During the 8th to 11th centuries, Jerusalem’s prominence gradually diminished as the Arab powers in the region jockeyed for control.
Arab Caliphates (638 CE–14th century)
The city was one of the Arab Caliphate’s first conquests in 638. It is recorded in William of Tyre’s Chronicles that Umar personally came to receive the key to the city by the Greek Orthodox patriarch, Sophronius, and invited to offer Muslim prayers at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Umar chose to pray some distance from the church, so as not to endanger its status as a Christian temple. After fall of Jerusalem, Umar permitted Jews to practice their religion freely and live in Jerusalem. Sixty years later, the Umayyad Dynasty caliph Abd al-Malik commissioned and completed the construction of the Dome of the Rock over the Foundation Stone on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount. Although the Qur’an does not mention the name “Jerusalem”, the hadith specify that it was from Jerusalem that Muhammad ascended to heaven in the Night Journey, or Isra and Miraj. Al-Malik built the octagonal and gold-sheeted Dome over the location from which Muhammad was believed to have ascended into heaven. The Al-Aqsa Mosque (named for the “farthest mosque”) was also built nearby, again in honor of the story of the Night Journey.
Under the early centuries of Muslim rule, especially during the Umayyad (650–750) and Abbasid (750–969) dynasties, the city prospered; the 10th century geographers Ibn Hawqal and al-Istakhri describe it as “the most fertile province of Palestine”, while its native son geographer al-Muqaddasi (born 946) devoted many pages to its praises in his most famous work, The Best Divisions in the Knowledge of the Climes. Jerusalem under Muslim rule did not achieve the political or cultural status enjoyed by the capitals Damascus, Baghdad, Cairo etc.
With the decline of the Carolingian Empire in the early 10th century, another period of persecution by the Muslims began. However, the recovered Byzantines filled this void and as the Empire expanded under the Byzantine Crusades, Christians were again allowed to make pilgrimages to Jerusalem.
According to Rabbi Elijah of Chelm, German Jews lived in Jerusalem during the 11th century. The story is told that a German-speaking Palestinian Jew saved the life of a young German man surnamed Dolberger. So when the knights of the First Crusade came to besiege Jerusalem, one of Dolberger’s family members who was among them rescued Jews in Palestine and carried them back to Worms to repay the favor. Further evidence of German communities in the holy city comes in the form of halakic questions sent from Germany to Jerusalem during the second half of the 11th century.
As the Byzantine borders expanded into the Levant in the early 11th century, the limited tolerance of the Muslim rulers toward Christians in the Middle East, began to wane. The Egyptian Fatimid Caliph Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah ordered the destruction of all churches throughout Al-Islam starting with the churches in Jerusalem. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, revered by most Christians as the site of Christ’s crucifixion and burial, was among the places of worship destroyed, but permission was later given for its rebuilding.
In 1070–71, the Turkic emir Atsiz ibn Uvaq al-Khwarizmi besieged and captured the city, placing it under the nominal control of the ‘Abbasid caliphate. In 1077, on his return from a disastrous attempt to capture Cairo, the capital of the Fatimid caliphate, he found that in his absence the inhabitants of Jerusalem had rebelled and forced his garrison to shelter in the citadel. He therefore besieged the city again, and on recapturing it, slaughtered an estimated 3,000 of the rebel inhabitants, including those who had taken shelter in the Al-Aqsa Mosque. In 1079, Atsiz was murdered by his nominal ally Tutush, who subsequently established firmer ‘Abbasid authority in the area. A new period of turbulence began in 1091 with the death of Tutush’s governor in Jerusalem, Artuq and the succession of his two sons, who were bitter rivals. The city changed hands between them several times, until in 1098 the Fatimids, seizing the opportunity presented by the approach of the first Crusade, regained control.
Reports of the renewed killing of Christian pilgrims, and the defeat of the Byzantine Empire by the Seljuqs, led to the First Crusade. Europeans marched to recover the Holy Land, and on July 15, 1099, Christian soldiers were victorious in the one-month Siege of Jerusalem. In keeping with their alliance with the Muslims, the Jews had been among the most vigorous defenders of Jerusalem against the Crusaders. When the city fell, the Crusaders slaughtered most of the city’s Muslim and Jewish inhabitants, leaving the city “knee deep in blood”.
Jerusalem became the capital of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. Christian settlers from the West set about rebuilding the principal shrines associated with the life of Christ. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre was ambitiously rebuilt as a great Romanesque church, and Muslim shrines on the Temple Mount (the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque) were converted for Christian purposes. The Military Orders of the Knights Hospitaller and the Knights Templar were established during this period. Both grew out of the need to protect and care for the great influx of pilgrims traveling to Jerusalem, especially since Bedouin enslavement raids and terror attacks upon the roads by the remaining Muslim population continued. King Baldwin II of Jerusalem allowed the forming order of the Templars to set up a headquarters in the captured Al-Aqsa Mosque. The Crusaders believed the Mosque to have been built on top of the ruins of the Temple of Solomon (or rather his royal palace), and therefore referred to the Mosque as “Solomon’s Temple”, in Latin “Templum Solomonis”. It was from this location that the Order took its name of “Temple Knights” or “Templars”.
Under the Kingdom of Jerusalem the area experienced a great revival, including the re-establishment of the city and harbour of Caesarea, the restoration and fortification of the city of Tiberias, the expansion of the city of Ashkelon, the walling and rebuilding of Jaffa, the reconstruction of Bethlehem, the repopulation of dozens of towns, the restoration of large agriculture, and the construction of hundreds of churches, cathedrals, and castles. The old hospice, rebuilt in 1023 on the site of the monastery of Saint John the Baptist, was expanded into an infirmary under Hospitaller grand master Raymond du Puy de Provence near the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
In 1173 Benjamin of Tudela visited Jerusalem. He described it as a small city full of Jacobites, Armenians, Greeks, and Georgians.
In 1187, with the Muslim world united under the effective leadership of Saladin, Jerusalem was re-conquered by the Muslims after a successful siege. As part of this same campaign the armies of Saladin conquered, expelled, enslaved, or killed the remaining Christian communities of Galilee, Samaria, Judea, as well as the coastal towns of Ashkelon, Jaffa, Caesarea, and Acre.
In 1219 the walls of the city were razed by order of Al-Mu’azzam, the Ayyubid sultan of Damascus. This rendered Jerusalem defenseless and dealt a heavy blow to the city’s status.
Following another Crusade by the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II in 1227, the city was surrendered by Saladin’s descendant al-Kamil, in accordance with a diplomatic treaty in 1228. It remained under Christian control, under the treaty’s terms that no walls or fortifications could be built in the city or along the strip which united it with the coast. In 1239, after the ten-year truce expired, Frederick ordered the rebuilding of the walls. But without the formidable Crusader army he had originally employed ten years previous, his goals were effectively thwarted when the walls were again demolished by an-Nasir Da’ud, the emir of Kerak, in the same year.
In 1243 Jerusalem was firmly secured into the power of the Christian Kingdom, and the walls were repaired. However, the period was extremely brief as a large army of Turkish and Persian Muslims was advancing from the north.
Jerusalem fell again in 1244 to the Khawarezmi Turks, who had been displaced by the advance of the Mongols. As the Khwarezmians moved west, they allied with the Egyptians, under the Egyptian Ayyubid sultan Al-Malik al-Salih. He recruited his horsemen from the Khwarezmians, and directed the remains of the Khwarezmian Empire into the Levant, where he wanted to organize a strong defense against the Mongols. In keeping with his goal, the main effect of the Khwarezmians was to slaughter the local population, especially in Jerusalem. They invaded the city on July 11, 1244, and the city’s citadel, the so-called Tower of David, surrendered on August 23. The Khwarezmians then ruthlessly decimated the population, leaving only 2,000 people, Christians and Muslims, still living in the city. This attack triggered the Europeans to respond with the Seventh Crusade, although the new forces of French king Louis IX never even achieved success in Egypt, let alone advancing as far as Palestine.
After having troubles with the Khwarezmians, the Muslim Sultan Al-Salih then began ordering armed expeditions to raid into Christian communities and capture men, women and children. Called razzias, or by their original Arabic name Ghazw (sing.: ghazwa or ghaza), the raids extended into Caucasia, the Black Sea, Byzantium, and the coastal areas of Europe. The newly enslaved were divided according to category. Women were either turned into maids or sex slaves. The men depending upon age and ability were made into servants or killed. Young boys and girls were sent to Imams where they were indoctrinated into Islam. According to ability the young boys were then made into eunuchs or sent into decades long training as slave soldiers for the sultan. Called Mamluks, this army of indoctrinated slaves were forged into a potent armed force. The Sultan then used his new Mamluk army to eliminate the Khwarezmians, and Jerusalem returned to Egyptian Ayyubid rule in 1247.
Mamluk Control and Mongol Raids
When al-Salih died, his widow, the slave Shajar al-Durr, took power as Sultana, which power she then transferred to the Mamluk leader Aybeg, who became Sultan in 1250.Meanwhile, the Christian rulers of Antioch and Cilician Armenia subjected their territories to Mongol authority, and fought alongside the Mongols during the Empire’s expansion into Iraq and Syria. In 1260, a portion of the Mongol army advanced toward Egypt, and was engaged by the Mamluks in Galilee, at the pivotal Battle of Ain Jalut. The Mamluks were victorious, and the Mongols retreated. In early 1300, there were again some Mongol raids into the southern Levant, shortly after the Mongols had been successful in capturing cities in northern Syria; however, the Mongols occupied the area for only a few weeks, and then retreated again to Iran. The Mamluks regrouped and re-asserted control over the southern Levant a few months later, with little resistance.
There is little evidence to indicate whether or not the Mongol raids penetrated Jerusalem in either 1260 or 1300. Historical reports from the time period tend to conflict, depending on which nationality of historian was writing the report. There were also a large number of rumors and urban legends in Europe, claiming that the Mongols had captured Jerusalem and were going to return it to the Crusaders. However, these rumors turned out to be false. The general consensus of modern historians is that though Jerusalem may or may not have been subject to raids, that there was never any attempt by the Mongols to incorporate Jerusalem into their administrative system, which is what would be necessary to deem a territory “conquered” as opposed to “raided”.
Even during the conflicts, pilgrims continued to come in small numbers. Pope Nicholas IV negotiated an agreement with the Mamluk sultan to allow Latin clergy to serve in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. With the Sultan’s agreement, Pope Nicholas, a Franciscan himself, sent a group of friars to keep the Latin liturgy going in Jerusalem. With the city little more than a backwater, they had no formal quarters, and simply lived in a pilgrim hostel, until in 1300 King Robert of Sicily gave a large gift of money to the Sultan. Robert asked that the Franciscans be allowed to have the Sion Church, the Mary Chapel in the Holy Sepulchre, and the Nativity Cave, and the Sultan gave his permission. But the remainder of the Christian holy places were kept in decay.
Mamluk sultans made a point of visiting the city, endowing new buildings, encouraging Muslim settlement, and expanding mosques. During the reign of Sultan Baibars, the Mamluks renewed the Muslim alliance with the Jews and he established two new sanctuaries, one to Moses and one to Salih, to encourage numerous Muslim and Jewish pilgrims to be in the area at the same time as the Christians, who filled the city during Easter. In 1267 Nahmanides (also known as Ramban) made aliyah. In the Old City he established the Ramban Synagogue, the oldest active synagogue in Jerusalem. However, the city had no great political power, and was in fact considered by the Mamluks as a place of exile for out-of-favor officials. The city itself was ruled by a low-ranking emir.
In 1517, Jerusalem and its environs fell to the Ottoman Turks, who would maintain control of the city until the 20th century. Although the Europeans no longer controlled any territory in the Holy Land, Christian presence including Europeans remained in Jerusalem. During the Ottomans this presence increased as Greeks under Turkish Sultan patronage re-established, restored, or reconstructed Orthodox Churches, hospitals, and communities. This era saw the first expansion outside the Old City walls, as new neighborhoods were established to relieve the overcrowding that had become so prevalent. The first of these new neighborhoods included the Russian Compound and the Jewish Mishkenot Sha’ananim, both founded in 1860.
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