Beyond the Four Quarters

A new book about Jerusalem's Old City shatters some sacred cows while perpetuating others.

Just inside Jerusalem’s Jaffa Gate is a map of the Old City, presenting its famous four quarters: Muslim, Christian, Jewish, and Armenian. Before the pandemic, with Israel enjoying record numbers of foreign tourists, I regularly started the day there, describing the route we would be taking through the city to my clients—and emphasizing that, while they do help explain some of the history of the city, the four quarters are of relatively recent vintage, and conceal many other neighborhoods and communities.

The British travel writer Matthew Teller has written a new book, Nine Quarters of Jerusalem, built around this same insight. He writes: “It’s vital to understand where that idea [of four quarters] came from and why it has persisted, because four quarters underpins the common assumption that the present-day conflict in Jerusalem comes down to age-old hatred between religions – and that is a falsehood worth debunking.”

Teller argues that the word “quarter,” with its “nuances of power…nuances of military origin, class hierarchies and cultural, nationalistic or ethno-religious separation,” has no equivalent in Arabic; that it might mean “people sharing similar backgrounds, trades or outlooks” sticking together but not a place where “Other People Live.” I don’t think this is strictly true. The existence of the mellah, the areas in Moroccan cities that Jews were forced to live in between the fifteenth and nineteenth centuries, can be reasonably equated with the Jewish areas of European cities from the same time. What, though, about Jerusalem? There were no mellahs there. Rather, as Teller points out, there was a hara, a street or small neighborhood “inhabited by people bound by faith, origin or occupation.” In 1495, the Jerusalemite historian Muji al-Din identified 18 of these, including Haret Bab Hutta—named after the Gate of Forgiveness—in the north of the city, Haret al-Jawaldeh (“Tanners”), and Haret al-Yahud (“Jews”).

“Nonetheless,” Teller states, “populations across the city remained mixed, despite prevailing patterns of settlement linked to religious affiliation.” Well, not quite. Teller correctly notes that Muslims usually settled in the north and east of the city, allowing easy access to Al-Aqsa, and that Christians settled closer to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (the Armenians—also Christians, but not Arabs—settled around their fourth-century Church of St. James), while Jews “tended to settle close to the Wailing Wall in the south.” Teller offers some examples of this mixing before noting that by the turn of the twentieth century, more than a third of Jerusalem’s Muslims lived outside what is now known as the Muslim Quarter, and that both Christians and Jews lived inside it. The European maps that he refers to, though, were first published about 50 years earlier. What was the situation like then?

When the Europeans were composing their maps, Jews lived almost exclusively alongside the Sephardi synagogue complex in what is now the Jewish Quarter. The one exception was the relatively sparsely populated Bab Hutta area on the edge of the city, and in any case very few Jews lived there. They only began to expand into the rest of the Muslim Quarter during the second half of the century, as their numbers grew. Jews never lived in the Christian Quarter, for the simple reason that their relations with the Christians were worse than they were with the Muslims, and—something Teller overlooks—they were forbidden from approaching the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, with contemporary observers noting that they could be beaten if they did. Teller does note that the Ottomans used the term Maslakh (“slaughterhouse”) to refer to Haret al-Yahud, a reference to the abattoir that was in the area. He doesn’t mention, however, that the Jews believed that it had been deliberately sited there to harass them; it was only removed in 1856, after the intervention of the philanthropist Moses Montefiore.

Teller’s explanation for the overlap of the Muslim and Christian areas is likewise incomplete. “Many churches still thrive today in areas traditionally framed as Muslim,” he writes, citing as an example St Anne’s, “which for the last 150 years has been a Roman Catholic church and seminary located immediately opposite the northern gate of the Al-Aqsa compound.” The understanding one must take from this is that St Anne’s was a relatively late addition to the area. But the first church built in the area dates back to the fifth century, before the Islamic conquest of the city. The actual reason for the area eventually becoming “Muslim” is that Saladin converted it into a madrassah in the late twelfth century. (This is mentioned elsewhere in the book, without explaining the connection between the two episodes).

Teller does offer a qualification of this picture, which is worth quoting in full: “Beware, it’s tempting to infer from this that Jerusalem was some kind of paradise of coexistence, with everybody getting on famously until twentieth-century intolerance broke the spell. As strongly as we should resist that fantasy, we should also allow room for the image of Jerusalemites living the daily reality of sharing limited space with others. Ethno-religious identification does not, in and of itself, foment conflict. Political manipulation does that.”

It is, helpful, of course, to consider what does constitute “political manipulation.” First and foremost, when the Europeans invented the idea of the different quarters, there was a clear hierarchy in Jerusalem, with the Jews mostly on the bottom.

Teller goes on to quote from the diaries of the Jerusalemite musician Wasif Jawhariyyeh, noting “the absence of ethno-religious demarcation lines.” However, Jawhariyyeh was writing in the early twentieth century, when the city already looked somewhat different. This aside, Teller does acknowledge (in a footnote, though) that the musician may have overlooked “ethno-religious and class divisions,” and that “for less privileged groups in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries – Jews, say – the idea of four quarters may have loomed larger.”

At the start of the nineteenth century in Jerusalem, under Ottoman rule, both Jews and Christians had to pay special taxes, the hizye; there was a prohibition on the building of new synagogues; and repairs to existing synagogues could only be conducted after the issuance of a (costly) permit. They were discriminated against in law courts, were forbidden from bearing witness against a Muslim, and were obliged to wear clothing of a distinctive color. Only later, with the rise of Ibrahim Pasha, who was more tolerant of minorities, did Christians begin living in Muslim areas; Jews, for their part, were allowed to purchase homes in the Old City, and to renovate the Sephardi synagogues. As a result of this, larger numbers of Jews came to Jerusalem, and this is when the Jews began to populate Baba Hutta. While numbers are disputed, some have argued that, by the 1850s, the Jews were the single largest community in the city—30 years before the beginnings of Political Zionism.

Some scholars dispute the relevance of this; on Twitter one referred to them as a “hodge-podge” of communities while another referred to them as lacking real “congregational continuity.” What’s missing from this observation is what’s also missing from Teller’s analysis – the fact that Jewish life in Jerusalem was frequently made extremely difficult by the Ottoman rulers and the fact of living as a minority in a Muslim-majority empire meant that Jews lacked power in a city that had only been taken from them by imperial conquest. When this situation began to change, as it did with the coming of the British and the rise of the Zionist movement, Jews were able to establish themselves in the city more securely, and their numbers rose as a result.

Jews only began to live in today’s Muslim Quarter during the second half of the nineteenth century. Before this, the Jewish area was one-twelfth of the city, but home to nearly half the city’s residents. In the late 1860s, one contemporaneous observer wrote, “the Jews broke through the imaginary ‘ghetto’ line and rented courtyards in the region of Bab Kahn al-Zeit.” By World War I, there were more Jews living on Hebron Street than on the Street of the Jews. Baba Hutta aside, though, this was a pattern of concentric circles rippling outward, with each addition enlarging the original nucleus.

While the idea of the four quarters conceals a diverse range of communities (particularly within the different ethno-religious groups), the Europeans didn’t invent the idea from scratch; they did not, pace Teller, impose divide-and-rule sensibilities on an otherwise mostly peacefully coexisting population. The divisions and hierarchies between Muslims, Christians, and Jews represented an important reality that played a key role in the subsequent tragic history of the city—a reality that cannot simply be blamed on British colonialism and Zionism.

***

After addressing the issue of the four quarters, Teller examines the Old City’s famous walls. Their current iteration was built by Suleiman the Magnificent in the sixteenth century, following the outlines left by earlier walls. When the British conquered the city in 1917, they cleared the buildings that had been built in the late Ottoman period alongside the city’s walls, thus destroying the continuity between the Old City and the newer city developing on the outside. The British also forbade further construction there. Teller argues, correctly in my opinion, that this “transformed the city’s enclosed core from a living urban space at the heart of its communities to a sliced and diced ‘Old City’.” The British also decreed that all new buildings must be clad in so-called “Jerusalem Stone” (for more on this, see my review of Stone Men), a law that has remained in place to this day. Teller does not approve of this:

“This British-conceived municipal law, still in force today, has given the whole of Jerusalem a remarkable visual unity, even as it has crushed innovation and eclecticism. It has fetishized the visual regularity of blocks of limestone to such an extent that those blocks have come to symbolize not just Jerusalem but, in a strange sense, a particular idea of holiness itself. A building clad in Jerusalem stone is not just any building. It has Jerusalem status. It demands Jerusalem reverence. New must appear old. Inanimate stone has absorbed the pomposity of the colonial officials who were so set on promoting its use. The only way Jerusalem may be imagined, they said – and their heirs still say – is in textured rectangles of creamy-yellow limestone…A look that King Herod achieved two thousand years ago is the same look the entire city and every person living in it remain bound to by law, yesterday, today and forever. It’s hateful.”

This does seem rather intemperate, all the more so because—unlike much of the rest of the book—it’s not backed up by the views of Jerusalem’s current inhabitants. Teller’s invocation of King Herod elides the fact that Jerusalem was also built using “Jerusalem Stone” during the intervening two millennia, and for the simple reason that it was available locally and cheaply. Indeed, a look at what has become of the Ottoman cities of Palestine that abandoned the use of local materials, for example Tzfat, highlights the wisdom of the decision—its provenance notwithstanding—and the fact that it makes the buildings themselves far more durable.

***

Having provided the necessary background, Teller relates a series of stories from each of Jerusalem’s gates. Here, the book is much more convincing. Teller is an engaging narrator; while his descriptions of the city’s denizens sometimes feel a little earnest, they do possess a certain charm, as do some of his descriptions. Take, for example, his depiction of the bustle of the Damascus Gate area, or the “steady, rhythmic cooing” of Jerusalem in the early morning. Particularly interesting and useful are his chapters about Jerusalem’s Doms, Sufis, and Afro-Palestinians.

At the heart of the book is the story of Bab al-Magharba, “a long, difficult and eye-opening story that doesn’t get told nearly enough”: an account of the settlement of North African Muslims, around the time of Saladin, in an area adjacent to the Western Wall; and the neighborhood’s destruction in 1967 by Israel, to make way for the plaza that currently stands at the site.

Here, I fear, Teller’s sensitivity in listening to the city’s different narratives doesn’t extend to those of the city’s Jews. For example, he writes: “Today, ha-Kotel persists in Hebrew, but ‘Wailing Wall’ has fallen out of favour, partly because Israel’s militant nationalism says there’s nothing to wail about anymore and partly because ‘Western Wall’ raises the juicy possibility of an Israeli claim on the entire 488-metre length of the Haram’s western boundary.” This barb is particularly surprising, given that he correctly points out that the Wailing Wall is a non-Hebrew term, coined by (non-Jewish) onlookers watching Jews lament the destruction of the Temple. In other words, the reason why Jews don’t use the term has nothing to do with it falling out of favor. Rather, it isn’t a Jewish term, and indeed was used derisively by people without any sensitivity for Jewish suffering.

There is a strange double standard running through the book, regarding whether a given name for a Jerusalem landmark should be accepted or rejected. Teller notes, correctly, that King David had nothing to do with the Tower of David. (The name originated in a mistaken attribution during the Byzantine period.) “Israel doesn’t disabuse them,” he writes, proposing that “the state transubstantiates a symbol of Islam – the minaret [at the Tower of David] into a symbol of Judaism – King David – before your very eyes.” Not only is “Israel” (an apparently homogenous and undifferentiated whole) being blamed here for not changing a name that has been in existence for around 1,500 years, there is also a double standard at play: there are numerous examples of Islamic rulers transforming non-Islamic symbols, like the Church of St. Anne mentioned above. Teller, for whatever reasons, does not describe these transformations in the same way.

Elsewhere, Teller claims that the Dung Gate is now commonly known by the “ahistorical” Hebrew name Shaar ha-Kotel (which loosely translates to “Western Wall Gate”). So common, apparently, that I have never heard it used, and neither have any of my tour guide colleagues. (Worth pointing out—it would be particularly strange for Israeli Jews to reject the term Dung Gate, given the name’s biblical provenance.) Nor, to the best of my knowledge, does it appear on any Hebrew maps (I haven’t been able to find it on Google either).

Of the destruction of the Moroccan quarter, Teller writes that “Jordan’s destruction of Jewish neighbourhoods in the Old City in 1948 and displacement of the Jewish population inspired an unfulfilled desire for revenge, which had festered for nineteen years.” This “desire for revenge” seems speculative; and if revenge were really the main cause, why were the other Old City neighborhoods spared?

Teller focuses on the question of whether or not the Jordanians placed a public toilet placed next to the Western Wall, writing: “Over decades, Israel developed a narrative centered on Arab soiling of the Wall, which was used – and still is used – to justify what followed.” Whether there was a toilet there or not, there is a more substantive issue at play here. In the nineteenth century, Jews had to pay the Mughrabis [the community that originated in North Africa] protection money in order to keep them from disturbing prayer services (and, as Teller does mention, they frequently contested the right of Jews to place furniture and ritual objects at the Wall). As the missionary Thomson wrote: “No sight [that] meets the eye in Jerusalem is more sadly suggestive than this wailing of the Jews over the ruins of their Temple. It is a very old custom, and in past ages they have paid immense sums to their oppressors for the miserable satisfaction of kissing the stones and pouring out lamentations at the foot of their ancient sanctuary.”

Instead, in explaining the Israeli destruction of Bab al-Magharba, Teller returns to the theme of revenge. “Wall is the absence of Temple. Revenge is the absence of compassion. Wrong compounds wrong, bulldozing right into dust.” Teller could have written something similar about the Jordanian destruction of many of the synagogues in the Jewish Quarter after the 1948 War, but instead highlights the fact that the Jordanian army gave the Jews water before expelling them from their homes. What he doesn’t mention, though, is the basic unfairness of the situation whereby the Muslims were able to pray at their holiest place in the city (on top of the Jewish holy place which stood there roughly 700 years prior before being destroyed by an imperialist army following a national revolt), and the Christians were able to pray at their holiest place, while the Jews were left with a wall that—as Teller points out, correctly—originally never had any particular religious significance, and was itself adjacent to a neighborhood whose residents – at the very least – did not let them pray there unmolested. The significance of the Western Wall for Jews came about largely due to a fundamentally unjust situation, whereby successive imperial rulers of Jerusalem—Pagan, Christian, and Muslim—mostly denied the Jews the right to pray at their holiest site, indeed the traditional wellspring of Jewish experience, even though it had existed prior to each of their conquests of the city. For Teller, who is quick to point out the inequalities of contemporary Jerusalem, the fundamental injustice of the pre-1948 status quo in the “city of three faiths,” a status quo that was clearly significantly less equitable than the one that persists today, is never mentioned.

And there was, of course, a fairer solution that wouldn’t have necessitated the destruction of an entire neighborhood—setting aside a small portion of the Al-Aqsa/Temple Mount area for Jewish prayer. It is a massive complex, and this could have been done without much inconvenience to anyone, but this option was never on the table for the simple reason that any kind of ecumenical arrangement at Al-Aqsa is completely abhorrent to the Muslim world, and would have probably led to war. Given that they continue to live under an occupation which denies them the same rights as Israelis, I believe that Palestinian feelings on this issue should be respected, and I support the status quo whereby the Waqf hold religious control of the Al-Aqsa compound. But none of this should mean distorting earlier events. Teller’s sympathy with the Palestinian narrative of the moment (i.e., the narrative that has taken root since 1948) is at the expense of a much more tangled history.

***

These criticisms notwithstanding, much of Nine Quarters of Jerusalem is an original and engaging take on the city. Many of its chapters are packed with fascinating material that, to the best of my knowledge, is not available elsewhere in English. However, and despite Teller’s claim that his book gives a stage to disadvantaged Jerusalemites to tell their stories, the most memorable aspect of the text is his editorializing.

Teller is right to reject ideas of Jewish supremacy and domination in Jerusalem. But he takes similar ideas of Muslim supremacy and domination for granted, with lines such as “the Haram is a Muslim space” or “Jerusalem was a Muslim city.” There is a desperate need for new narratives about Jerusalem; but a story that lays the blame for all of the city’s problems at the door of Israel, implying the city was a more equitable space prior to Zionism, is not going to cut it. Nor will downplaying as irrelevant a key historic, and undisputable fact: that the Jews, as the name suggests, are an ethno-religious group whose homeland was originally Judea, the capital of which was Jerusalem, and that they were subsequently denied rights to their homeland by successive imperial rulers, up until Zionism rectified this historic injustice. The fantasies of nineteenth-century Protestants, or the excesses of certain contemporary biblical archaeologists, do not alter these facts.

Any New Jerusalem will have to reconcile, not reject, both the Palestinian and Jewish claims to the city; to recognize them both and to celebrate them both, so that they are no longer irreconcilable but rather two parts of a fascinating, beautiful, and unfortunately tragic history. Herod’s Gate and Bab az-Zahra, the Tower of David and the Citadel, and, yes, the Temple Mount and Al-Aqsa. Instead of either/or, both/and. That book, unfortunately, is yet to be written, and its realization on the ground is still some distance away.

*Matthew Teller, Nine Quarters of Jerusalem: A New Biography of the Old City, Profile Books, 2022, pp. 400.

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