Demystifying and Rethinking Jerusalem’s Quarters

Map of the Quarters in Jerusalem. #Jerusalem #Israel | Jerusalem, Bible  land, Jerusalem israel

ELISABETH JOHNSON

Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, June/July 2022, pp. 57-58

Waging Peace

ON MARCH 16, the Balfour Project, the Bethlehem Cultural Festival and the Educational Bookshop in Jerusalem hosted a book launch via Zoom to celebrate the release of Matthew Teller’s new book, Nine Quarters of Jerusalem: A New Biography of the Old City. In a conversation with Mahmoud Muna of the Educational Bookshop, Teller spoke about his personal relationship with Jerusalem, his motivation for writing the book and shared a few stories about Jerusalem that he uncovered during his research. 

Teller, a non-practicing Jew from London, first visited Jerusalem when he was 11 years old and has returned repeatedly throughout his life. As a British citizen, a White man and a Jew, he noted that he enjoys the privilege of being able to freely travel to Jerusalem and engage its many communities. 

Over the course of his travels, Teller came to understand that tourism and politics often overshadow the secular and religious life of the diverse city’s inhabitants. Teller thus wanted to write a book that highlights the idea that “the people matter even more than the stones….We should not be overlooking, and particularly not suppressing, the people who live and work” in Jerusalem, he said. 

During his extensive travels to Jerusalem, Teller realized that the common practice of dividing the city into four quarters (Muslim, Christian, Jewish and Armenian) is an arbitrary and mythological representation of the city. Not only are there no lines or divisions cordoning off different neighborhoods within the city, the lines shown on maps do not even represent concentrations of cultural, ethnic or religious life. As an example, Muna noted that many churches and mosques are located outside of the quarter affiliated with their religion.

Teller explained the history of Jerusalem’s division into quarters. According to medieval Arab sources, there were once anywhere from 18 to 39 distinctly recognized communities in the city. Teller noted that the first maps to label distinct ethnic or religious areas of the city were drawn by Europeans in the 19th century, when groups of Protestant evangelists came trying to convert the population. According to his research, the divisions as we know them today first appeared on a map drawn by the British evangelist George Williams in 1849 and have been acknowledged on Western maps since. 

A boy looks at a map in Jerusalem’s Old City, on May 10, 2021

In addition to religion, Teller noted that splitting the city into quarters suited the British colonial mentality, as it provided a useful way to easily define and divide the native inhabitants. 

Teller shared a few stories he collected in the book about communities in Jerusalem that are often overlooked by the outside world. For instance, he discussed the small enduring Indian presence centered around the shrine of an influential Punjabi Sufi known as Baba Farid, who reportedly had a mystical experience while traveling to Jerusalem 800 years ago. 

Teller also highlighted the Karaite Jews, who are not recognized by most mainstream Jews but run the oldest continuously used synagogue in the city. One community that no longer exists in Jerusalem is the Moroccan Mughrabi Quarter, which was bulldozed overnight in 1967 to make room for the plaza in front of the Western Wall. The Mughrabi Quarter was established in the 12th century.

 Despite the title of his book, Teller made it clear that his writing does not cover all of the different communities represented in Jerusalem. Rather, his overarching goal is simply to highlight the often-overlooked communities of the city and to let them speak about their city for themselves.

Nine Quarters of Jerusalem is available from Middle East Books and More.

Elisabeth Johnson

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