Jerusalem 6000

by John Worrell

The area now called Jerusalem has hosted human residence for at least six thousand years. Two- thirds of that time it has been known to outsiders by a recognizable form of the modern name. Archaeological and textual evidence indicate that it has probably always been a remarkably open, inter-ethnic city. For only a little more than 1% of those six millennia did it serve as the recognized capital of a unified nation called Israel spanning the area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.

Now one of the largest public-relations campaigns in human history is being mounted, bearing a title ("Jerusalem 3000") and strategy which seem to pretend that that 1% covers the entire last half of the long cultural chronicle, and that this is actually all that matters. Relieving Jerusalem's history of this political and propaganda burden, however, reveals a deeply human and richly textured narrative of civilization in which all of its residents and admirers may justly share pride.

Earliest archaeological remains so far unearthed here date to the very beginning of what is loosely called the "Canaanite" or Early Bronze Age, about 4,000 BC. For the next three millennia the town functioned as one of several which straddled the spine of hills separating the agricultural and trade- route areas along the seaboard and the Jordan Valley. Although it was not one of the most prominent of those Canaanite cities, its name does appear in Egyptian and Mesopotamian texts from about 2000 onward. The "salem" in the name, carried a connotation of "peace" or "wholeness" similar to that in both Arabic and Hebrew today. Some scholars believe that may have indicated a religious and political posture of peaceful neutrality in relationships with the various changing alignments of surrounding city-states.

When David forged a new union of the various groups throughout the land into a single political state, Jerusalem's reputation for neutrality may have been a major factor in his decision not to subdue it but to make it the new capital. This seems to have worked well during his reign and that of his son, Solomon, who expanded the territory even further. But it only lasted for about eight decades. The union collapsed [thus the national-capital period of something a little over 1% on our human-occupation timeline]. The majority of the people then split off and realigned themselves with the traditionally stronger northern center of Shechem (Nablus), soon building a new capital nearby at Samaria (Sabastiya). Thereafter, Jerusalem functioned principally as the religious and political center for the more sparsely populated area from approximately southward of present-day Ramallah.

Subsequent invasions by empires out of Mesopotamia devastated both the north and eventually the south; Jerusalem finally falling a quarter of the way into the 6th century BC. It had served as a primarily independent capital of the small southern (Judaean) kingdom for approximately three and one-half centuries [a little less than 6% of our inhabitation timeline]. Archaeology and the texts (Biblical and political documents from throughout the region) demonstrate that although leaders were sometimes exiled, Jerusalem and other cities and villages throughout the land were not depopulated nor simply replaced with outsiders. The majority of the population appear to have remained, tending the fields, flocks and shops. Jerusalem has been under limited Jewish control for three brief periods thereafter: under the Hasmoneans for about a century (2nd-1st centuries BC); for three years during the Bar Kochba revolt in the 1st century AD; and now, since 1948 and 1967, west and east respectively. Jerusalem has been occupied by ancient Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Crusaders, Turks, and assorted other outsiders. But from the early Canaanite periods through the latest Islamic ones, archaeology describes transitions of cultures and peoples that are far more gradual than drastic. The standard picture of serial invasions replacing one culture with another is not only far too simplistic--it is basically wrong. The history of this land and its people has been, instead, primarily a rich tale of cultural development. Regardless of how peaceful or belligerent a new group may have been, we find each successive wave learning from and interacting with those already here: Canaanites, Philistines, and Israelites; Semites, Greeks, and Romans; Jews, Christians, and Muslims--to name only some of the most familiar categories.

As far back as the written and material evidences can carry us, people calling this city home have been born and died, worked and played, cooperated and fought, worshipped together and separately. But repeatedly throughout less enlightened periods of history, they have also seen their lands confiscated, homes demolished, and family members deported. Such actions are not particularly new. What is different now is the declaration by one group to the world at large that this is a unique instance in which modern universal rights and laws do not apply. The claim is that a single brief ancient period of occupation provides one party with exclusive rights to ignore both the living residents of the present and 6000 years of the past.


John Worell, an American archeologist, has lived and worked in Jerusalem for the past three years.