A Tolerant City?

A new book sheds light on the history of medieval Jerusalem but its conclusions are ultimately unconvincing.

Jerusalem has been attacked 52 times, captured and recaptured 44 times, besieged 23 times, and destroyed twice. Reasonably, many conclude from this that the history of Jerusalem is a history of war. In Jerusalem Falls: Seven Centuries of War and Peace, John D. Hosler, professor of military history at the Command and General Staff College, challenges this paradigm, at least for the seven centuries between the Arab conquest in the seventh century and the rise of the Mamluks in the thirteenth. “It was not military conquest itself but rather poor political relations that produced the bulk of suffering inside its [Jerusalem’s] walls,” he writes. “Physical conflict was highly episodic and not the dominant theme, nor anywhere close to being so.”

During the period covered in Hosler’s book, Jerusalem was attacked 19 times. Most of these attacks did not feature extensive sieges or warfare. Still, five episodes stand out. The first was the Persian conquest of the city in 614, and its retaking by the Byzantines in 630, which was followed by mass executions and the forced conversions of Jews. Second was the massacre of 3,000 Shia by the Khwarazmian (Turco-Persian) general Atsiz Beg in 1077, which Hosler says “does not appear to have been driven by religious acrimony.” Third, and most infamously, was the Crusader conquest and massacre of the city’s Muslims and Jews in 1099—followed by the mass capture and rape of the Christian women whose families couldn’t afford Saladin’s ransom demands after his conquest of the city; and finally, the elimination of the remaining Christians by the Khwarazmians in 1244 (the Jews had already fled). Hosler concludes from this that “the bulk of Jerusalem’s falls occurred in a restrained, even mundane fashion; and that the rest did not – could not – transform the city into the exclusive domain of any given faith confession.” He also challenges the popular notion of Jerusalem as a city uniquely riven by religious discord: “Although it is common to attribute to the medieval period only a generalized tale of religious strife, these falls can serve as prisms into an alternative, and rather surprising narrative: the story of concord and resolution.”

These are bold claims. But do they hold up? Firstly, the years of the Persian-Byzantine conflict were certainly characterized by religious enmity. Following centuries of persecution at the hands of the Byzantines, including oppressive laws and the destruction of synagogues, the Jews naturally took the side of the Persians; when the Byzantines returned, the Christians had their revenge. The Crusades were obviously driven by religious passions, which also played a role in Saladin’s conquest, and of course the Khwarazmian massacre of the Christians and destruction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in 1244. The only possible exception, then, is the 1077 massacre by Atsiz Beg.

Hosler’s second claim is that these violent episodes were exceptions, and that most of this period was characterized by religious tolerance. He defines this as when “people of minority creeds and background were “put up with” by local rulers and religious minorities for specific, practical reasons.” This interpretation seems to mistake realpolitik for tolerance. Rulers generally didn’t want to harm religious minorities (Jews or Christians for most of the period) because of the important role they played in Jerusalem’s economy and development. There is no evidence, though, of any tolerance, grudging or otherwise, at least not in the way we understand it today. Hosler calls it “misleading” to point to individual events as “evidence of interfaith strife in the Fatimid and Artuqid periods…in their midst travelers and pilgrims still visited the city and marveled at its unique features.” One could say the same about contemporary Jerusalem, a city certainly riven by nationalist and interfaith strife; it does not seem that the medieval city was markedly different. The overall normality of daily life over an extended period is not so remarkable and can be seen in many other places that suffer from religious violence, for example the Indian subcontinent.

A key plank in Hosler’s thesis is the “status quo,” a series of arrangements governing interfaith relations in the city that evolved over course of centuries. It began with the famous Pact of Umar following the Muslim conquest—itself renewed by Ottoman sultan Mehmed II in 1458, before Osman III issued another decree in 1757 to try to settle strife between the Christians. According to Hosler, “this tolerance and cohabitation [in the Pact of Umar] set the tone for later developments such as the tradition of the ‘status quo’ and, for Jews, later manifestations of Muslim-Jewish tolerance in Jerusalem under the Fatimid and Ayyubid caliphates. This is not the typical image of ‘conquest’ in our modern sensibilities.”

Missing from this analysis is any mention of the power differentials between the different groups. It is true that the Pact of Umar was relatively tolerant for its time, but it still introduced a hierarchy of Muslims on top and Jews at the bottom; the latter, therefore, often faced persecution that was only partially addressed through appeals to the caliph, with both Christians and Jews suffering because of dhimmitude—for example, the extortionate taxes levied on them by the Ayyubids.

These power relations are reflected in Hosler’s summary of the status quo, a “running political-religious tradition that had been established in the seventh century and maintained in various formulations thereafter: Muslim prayer on the Temple Mount, Christian prayer in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and a tolerated, piecemeal Jewish presence in the city at large.” What is really being described here, though, is a reality whereby Jerusalem was dominated for seven centuries by imperial conquerors and their (mostly Muslim) successors, while the Jews, whose presence in the city had preceded both Christians and Muslims by at least a thousand years, were reduced to watching on from the sidelines, reliant on the “tolerance” of these supposedly enlightened rulers. It is impossible to understand the contemporary history of the city without being aware of this history.

Read as a survey of the medieval history of Jerusalem, Hosler’s book is useful. While the general public has some familiarity with the history of the city in the biblical period and in late antiquity, few know about the Middle Ages. In this regard, Jerusalem Falls is a precious resource. Its conclusions, though, are on shakier ground; it confuses realpolitik for tolerance and eulogizes the status quo without fully analyzing the circumstances in which it was born and then persisted. Jerusalem is a troubled city precisely because it has been contested by the three monotheistic faiths for many centuries. Ignoring this fact will not make it a more peaceful or tolerant place. To the contrary: it is only when we face this fact head-on that we might be able to consider a new status quo, one founded on more egalitarian grounds.

*John D. Hosler, Jerusalem Falls: Seven Centuries of War and Peace, Yale University Press,  2022, pp. 384.


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