Jerusalem has existed for thousands of years and during that time the shape of the city has changed repeatedly – valleys filled in, hills taken away, other hills added by the accumulation of rubbish, and city boundaries altered from era to era. But the overall picture of an elevated city built on an uneven plateau remains as in Bible times.

Valleys and streams

The only convenient access to the city in ancient times was from the north, access on the other sides being hindered by cliffs that fell away into deep valleys. On the south-west side was the Valley of Hinnom, where at times idolaters set up altars on which they offered their children as burnt sacrifices to the god Molech (Josh 15:8; 2 Chron 28:3; 33:6). Jeremiah foretold God’s judgment on these people by announcing that in the place where they killed their children, they themselves would be killed and their corpses left to rot in the sun (Jer 7:31-34; 32:35). People also used the Valley of Hinnom as a place to dump broken pottery (Jer 19:1-13). Other rubbish accumulated, with the result that in later years the place became a public garbage dump where fires burnt continually. The Hebrew name ‘Valley of Hinnom’ transliterated via the Greek is gehenna, which was the word Jesus used to indicate the place of final judgment on the wicked (Matt 5:29-30; 10:28; 18:9; 23:33; Mark 9:43-48; cf. Rev 20:10,15; see HELL). Immediately to the east of the city another valley ran south, separating the city from the Mount of Olives.

This was known as the Valley of Kidron or the Valley of Jehoshaphat. In the rainy season a swiftly flowing stream ran from the hills north of Jerusalem through this valley, ending in the Dead Sea (2 Sam 15:23; 1 Kings 2:37; 15:13; 2 Chron 30:14; Joel 3:2,12; John 18:1). Between the city and the Kidron stream was the Spring of Gihon, whose waters King Hezekiah redirected into Jerusalem to improve the city’s water supply (2 Kings 20:20; 2 Chron 32:30; 33:14). The water flowed into pools, or reservoirs, some of which were damaged when the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem. They were later repaired in the time of Nehemiah (Neh 2:14; 3:15; cf. Isa 22:9-11). One of these reservoirs, the Pool of Siloam, was still in use hundreds of years later (John 9:7). Nearby was the Tower of Siloam which, somewhere about the time of Jesus, collapsed, killing eighteen people (Luke 13:4). In addition to the Spring of Gihon, there was a spring at En-rogel, just outside Jerusalem to the south (Josh 15:7; 2 Sam 17:17). The Jerusalem leaders had a means of sealing up these springs so that any besieging army would be without water (2 Chron 32:4). Apart from these two springs, Jerusalem had to depend for its water supply on rain water that was directed into stone reservoirs (2 Kings 18:31; Jer 38:6; John 5:2).

Mountains and hills

The commanding hill in Jerusalem was Zion, where for centuries a strong fortress enabled the city’s previous inhabitants, the Jebusites, to withstand Israel’s attacks. Finally, David defeated them (2 Sam 5:7; see JEBUSITES). The hill was also known as Moriah and was the place where David decided to build Israel’s temple (2 Chron 3:1; cf. Gen 22:2). Both the city and the temple were figuratively called Zion (1 Kings 8:1; 2 Kings 19:31; Ps 2:6; 9:11; 48:12; 74:2; Isa 8:18; see ZION). To the east of the Kidron stream was the Mount of Olives, so named because of its many olive orchards (2 Sam 15:30; 2 Kings 23:12-13; Ezek 11:23; Zech 14:4). The main road from Jerusalem to Jericho passed through the villages of Bethany and Bethphage on the slopes of the mountain (Mark 10:46; 11;1,11; Luke 10:30).

Also on the slopes of this mountain was a garden called Gethsemane, where Jesus often went with his disciples. On the night before his crucifixion he went to this garden to pray, and in the early hours of the morning was arrested there (Matt 26:30,36,47; Luke 21:37; 22:39,48). The Mount of Olives was also the place from which Jesus returned to heaven (Luke 24:50-51; Acts 1:9-12). Another hill outside Jerusalem was Golgotha (meaning ‘a skull’), the hill on which Jesus was crucified (Matt 27:33; Luke 23:33; John 19:17). No one is certain which of several possible sites is Golgotha or how the hill got its name, but it was on a main road not far outside one of the city gates. A garden containing a tomb was nearby (Matt 27:39; John 19:20,41).

Walls and buildings

From the days before Israel’s conquest under David, Jerusalem was a walled city and well fortified (Josh 15:63; 2 Sam 5:6-7). Walls and fortifications were repaired, enlarged, or added to by various Israelite kings. Among these kings were David (2 Sam 5:9; the Millo was some tower or other defence fortification), Solomon (1 Kings 9:15), Rehoboam (2 Chron 11:5), Asa (2 Chron 14:7), Uzziah (2 Chron 26:9), Jotham (2 Chron 27:3), Hezekiah (2 Chron 32:5) and Manasseh (2 Chron 33:14). Among the buildings that Solomon built as part of his program for the adornment of Jerusalem were an expensive temple, a magnificent palace, a military headquarters called the House of the Forest of Lebanon, an auditorium called the Hall of Pillars, a judgment court called the Hall of the Throne and a separate palace for the queen. All these buildings were contained within a large enclosure called the Great Court (1 Kings 7:1-12).

Several hundred years later, the armies of Babylon destroyed Jerusalem (587 BC). They broke down large sections of the city wall, burnt most of the houses and destroyed all the important buildings, including the temple and the palace (2 Kings 25:1-4,9). When Persia conquered Babylon in 539 BC and allowed the exiled Jews to return to Jerusalem, the people first of all rebuilt the temple, completing it in 516 BC (Ezra 6:14-15). But during the next seventy years they did no major reconstruction work. The city was still in a state of disrepair and the wall surrounding the city had not been rebuilt. The Persians’ appointment of Nehemiah as governor was specifically for this project of reconstruction (Neh 2:1-8). The book of Nehemiah shows how Nehemiah carried out the work, and gives details concerning different sections of the wall and the various city gates (Neh 2:13-3:32). Herod the Great, with help from the Roman authorities, carried out major reconstruction work in Jerusalem during the period just before the New Testament era. The program included civil and military buildings (Matt 27:27; Mark 15:16; John 19:13; Acts 23:10,35). To the Jews the greatest of Herod’s works was the construction of a new temple (the previous temple having been destroyed by the Romans). It was built on the same site as the previous temples but was much larger and far more magnificent. It took many decades to build and was not completed till long after Herod’s death (Mark 13:1; John 2:20; Acts 3:2; see HEROD; TEMPLE).

Old Testament history of Jerusalem

It seems that Jerusalem was originally known by its shorter name Salem, and was the city of which Melchizedek was priest-king (Gen 14:18). When the Israelites entered Canaan, the city was occupied by the Jebusites and was known as Jebus. Although the city at first fell to the conquering Israelites, the local people soon retook it. When the Israelites, after their conquest of Canaan, divided the land between their tribes, Jerusalem fell within the tribal area of Benjamin. By that time the Jebusites were firmly in control of Jerusalem again, and they remained in control till the time of David (Josh 15:8,63; 18:28; Judg 1:8,21; 19:10-11). No doubt David had several reasons for wanting to conquer Jerusalem and make it the capital of his kingdom. Firstly, a city that was so hard to conquer would make an excellent site for a capital. Secondly, the conquest of such a long-held enemy fortress was certain to win nationwide support for David.

Thirdly, since Jerusalem was not in the possession of any Israelite tribe, there could be no cause for inter-tribal jealousy if he made it his capital. Although the Jebusites thought their city was unconquerable (2 Sam 5:6), David’s men took it in a surprise attack. They entered the city secretly through a water tunnel, which the Jebusites used for bringing water into the city from a spring outside the city walls (2 Sam 5:7-10). David’s plans were to make Jerusalem the religious as well as the administrative centre of his kingdom. He placed the ark of the covenant in a special tent erected for it in the city, and made arrangements for his son and successor, Solomon, to build a permanent temple on Mt Zion (2 Sam 6:17; 7:12-13; 1 Chron 15:29; 22:1-5; 28:11). Solomon’s plans, however, were for more than a temple. He wanted to make Jerusalem a national showpiece, and his building program included a luxurious palace and many other magnificent buildings. But his oppressive policies of forced labour and heavy taxes created a feeling of rebellion among the people. The outcome was that most of Israel broke away from Jerusalem after Solomon’s death (1 Kings 12:1-19).

Only two tribes remained loyal to the throne of David, and together they became known as the kingdom of Judah, with their capital at Jerusalem as previously. The remaining ten tribes still called themselves Israel and formed a separate kingdom in the north, with their own capital and their own religious system (1 Kings 12:20-33). From this point on the history of Jerusalem is to a large extent the history of Judah (2 Chron Chaps. 12-36; see JUDAH, TRIBE AND KINGDOM). Jerusalem fell under the domination of Babylon in 605 BC, and after repeated attempts at rebellion was finally destroyed by Babylon in 587 BC (2 Kings 24:1; 25:1-12). After Persia conquered Babylon in 539 BC and released the captive people, the Jews returned to their land and reoccupied Jerusalem (Ezra 1:1-4; 6:15; Neh 2:17-20). Over the next century they rebuilt the temple, the city and the city walls, as outlined above. With the completion of Nehemiah’s program, the Old Testament history of Jerusalem comes to an end.

Into the New Testament era

During the four hundred years between the close of the book of Nehemiah and the opening of the New Testament, Jerusalem continued to have a colourful history. In 333 BC the Greek conqueror Alexander the Great won a decisive victory over Persia and the next year became the new controller of Jerusalem. Soon, however, the Greek Empire split. In the east there were two main sectors, Egyptian and Syrian, with Palestine being controlled by Egypt till 198 BC, and then by Syria. When, about 168 BC, fighting broke out among rival groups of Jews in Jerusalem, the Greek ruler in Syria, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, took the opportunity to invade Jerusalem, slaughter the Jews, and if possible destroy the Jewish religion.

After setting up a Greek altar in the Jewish temple, he took animals that the Jews considered unclean and offered them as sacrifices to the Greek gods. The Jews, led by a zealous group called the Maccabees, assembled a fighting force to resist Antiochus. After three years of fighting they won back their religious freedom and rededicated their temple (165 BC). The Maccabees decided to keep fighting till they had gained political freedom as well, and after twenty years were successful. For the next eighty years Jerusalem remained independent, but the Jews’ internal conflicts finally brought in the Romans who, in 63 BC, seized control of Jerusalem. After some initial confusion, Rome appointed as ruler of Palestine the man who became known as Herod the Great and whose extensive improvements to Jerusalem have been referred to above.

Jerusalem was the centre of opposition to Jesus and the place where he was eventually condemned and crucified (Matt 16:21; 23:37; Mark 11:15-18; John 11:55-57; 12:12,19). After Jesus’ resurrection, his disciples remained in Jerusalem till they received the promised Holy Spirit. The early church became established in Jerusalem, from where it spread to nations near and far (Acts 1:4; 8:1-4,14; 11;22; Rom 15:26-27). The Jerusalem church itself, however, had an unsettled early history. This was mainly because of its constant battle with narrow-minded Jewish legalists (Acts 11:2-3; 15:1-5). Paul tried to foster a sense of fellowship between the Jewish church in Jerusalem and the Gentile churches elsewhere (Acts 11:29-30; 21:20-26; Rom 15:25-27; Gal 2:9-10), but the city as a whole turned against him violently, as it had against Jesus (Acts 21:11-13,30-36; 22:22; 23:10-15,31-35).

Brief history to the present day

In AD 66 a group of Jewish extremists revolted against Rome, with the result that Rome attacked Jerusalem with its full force. In AD 70 most of the city, including the temple, was destroyed, as Jesus had foretold (Matt 24:1-2; Luke 19:41-44; 21:20-24). The Romans rebuilt Jerusalem in AD 132, declaring it a pagan city from which all Jews were excluded. When Constantine became Emperor in AD 313, he declared Jerusalem a Christian city. In AD 637 the Muslims conquered Jerusalem, and in 691 erected a mosque on the site where the Jewish temple previously stood. In 1542 the Muslim ruler rebuilt the city walls, and they still stand today. Except for brief and isolated periods, Jerusalem remained under Muslim control till 1967, when it was retaken by the Jews. The mosque on the temple hill, however, still stands.

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