I’ve done many projects in Israel, and Jerusalem has become one of my favorite cities in the world. As a Christian, the sites and history have profound meaning and significance for my faith. However in addition to its religious significance, I find the hidden history of Jerusalem to make it one of the the most fascinating places on earth.
Jerusalem is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, with documented settlements stretching back 4,000 years to the early Canaanite period. The city has been captured and recaptured 44 times, attacked 52 times, and besieged 23 times. Most people are familiar with the city’s history as recorded in the Bible, a general knowledge that usually ends with the Destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, as foretold by Jesus in the Gospels (Matthew 24:2). While you can visit Canaanite, Israelite, and Roman ruins, most of the iconic city walls, gates, churches, and historical sites famous today are remains of Byzantine, Islamic, Crusader, and Ottoman eras that followed the biblical periods.
It is from this long and layered history that the Old City of Jerusalem gradually segmented itself into the four quarters that exist today: the Muslim Quarter, the Christian Quarter, Armenian Quarter, and the Jewish Quarter. Each has its own distinct culture and feel, all located within a small area encircled by the 2.5 mile long wall which was rebuilt by the Ottomans. While tension is constant, there is also a sense of peace and normalcy that has arisen from hundreds of years of coexistence.
At the center of the Old City of Jerusalem is the Temple Mount, known to Muslims as, Haram esh-Sharif (“The Noble Sanctuary”). While only about 36 acres in size, it is likely the most religiously and politically contested spot on earth. The Temple Mount was the site of the 1st and 2nd Temples, until Jerusalem’s final destruction in A.D. 70. Muslims claim it is the site of Muhammad’s ascension to heaven in A.D. 621, which resulted in construction of the Dome of the Rock in A.D. 692, and the Al-Aqsa Mosque in A.D. 705 (the third holiest site in Islam behind Mecca and Medina). For Christians and our shared Judeo-Christian history, it is one of the few places in Jerusalem where you can unequivocally say “Jesus walked here,” and the site of significant Christian end-times prophecy.
The Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque were captured and controlled by the Crusaders briefly in A.D. 1099 and used as a meeting place for the Knights Templar. Since being retaken from the Crusaders in 1187, the Jerusalem Islamic Waqf (funded and administrated by the Kingdom of Jordan) has maintained continuous control, however Israeli police provide general security in a delicate political dance. Jews can visit as tourists at very limited times, but Jewish prayer is illegal per Israeli law. This has resulted in the “Western Wall,” the exposed lower retaining wall of the Herodian Temple, becoming the de-facto holiest site in Judaism. It is the closest that Jews can get to the site of the original temple while worshiping freely.
The incredible proximity of these competing holy sites results in constant tension that often makes news headlines around the world. On a recent production trip, we were able to receive rare filming permission atop the Temple Mount, negotiated by our trusted friend and Israeli producer, Eitan. However, when we went to the Waqf office to claim our permit, a member of our American team habitually said “We are here to film the Temple Mount.” The official loudly told him “Temple Mount? This is Haram esh-Sharif. There is no Temple Mount!” and quickly revoked our permit.
I’ve been blessed to visit Israel and first-hand experience the many-layered history of Jerusalem. Not only am I able to see and present to viewers evidences for my faith, but I’ve been able to spend in-depth time exploring the history and political challenges that face Israel today. I’ve conversed with Jews, Muslims, Christians, Israelis, Palestinians, and Jordanians who live in Middle East about their opinions on how to “fix the Middle East.” Like the hidden history of Jerusalem, the answer is often much more complicated than meets the eye.