The metaphor of a multi layered sandwich is my favorite way of describing the multi layered history of Jerusalem. From within these layers, though, let’s choose 4 stories with a Jewish connection. They will span over an era of 1,000 plus years, from the 7th century (1,300 years ago) to the 18th century (300 years ago).
*638- The Muslim conquest of Jerusalem. Omer Ibn Hattab, the Muslim caliph, will enter Jerusalem victorious at the head of his Muslim army, thus ending the 700 year Roman Byzantine rule of the city. Omer will request to go and see the sanctuary of David. He will be taken up to the Temple Mount which he finds contaminated by ‘ a dungheap which the Christians had put there to offend the Jews’. At this point Omer asks to be shown the Holy of Holies. One of the men who was accompanying him, a Jewish convert named Kaab el Ahbar, points to the foundation stone, which was also covered in debris. As Muslim soldiers are clearing the debris Kaab el Ahbar turns to Omer and suggests that he make 2 praying areas, one on the foundation stone for Moses, and the other north of that spot for Muhammed. To this he responds to Kaab “you are still leaning towards the Jews”. Omer then built a prayer house on the southern end of the Temple Mount, facing Mecca, in the general area where today’s El Aksa Mosque stands.
*1165- Maimonides (Rambam) visits the land of Israel. Escaping from Spain, he will arrive at the port city of Akko. From there he will set out “On Tuesday, the 4th day of the Hebrew month of Cheshvan (October)…we left Akko to travel to Jerusalem under danger, and I entered the big and Holy House (Temple Mount) and prayed there on Thursday, on the 6th day of Cheshvan. On Sunday, the 9th of the month, I left Jerusalem towards Hebron in order to kiss the grave of my forefathers (The Cave of the Patriarchs, burial site of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sara, Rivka & Lea)”. This is the era of Crusader rule in Israel (1099-1187) in which Jews were banned from living in Jerusalem. Maimonides found only 4 Jewish dyers living in the city under royal protection.
*1267- Nachmanides (Ramban) builds a synagogue in Jerusalem. After defending Barcelona’s Jews against Dominican claims of blasphemy, the Dominican’s then tried to have him killed. King James of Aragon was so impressed with him that he gave him 300 golden pieces to help him on his journey escaping those who wanted to take his life. The Ramban, aged 73, will travel to Jerusalem. Upon arrival he will see a city in ruins and will write the following to his son “What shall I tell you about the land, it lays in great waste, the rule is the more holy the site is so too it lays very much in ruins, and Jerusalem is the most ruined of all”. He then comes to Mt Zion (right outside today’s walls of the Old City) and found a “broken down house built with marble columns and a handsome dome. We took it for a prayer house because the city is a shambles and whoever wants to appropriate ruins does so”. The Ramban built a synagogue in Jerusalem at that time, despite the fact that when arriving he discovered only 2 Jewish brothers, dyers, living in the city. Roughly 100 years later (circa 1400) Jews moved into the area that is today known as the Jewish Quarter. They turned a structure with marble columns into a synagogue which today is named the Ramban synagogue (no connection to the original one on Mt Zion).
*1700- Yehuda the Hassid arrives with 1,000 followers in Jerusalem. Starting his journey in eastern Europe 3 years earlier with 1,500 followers, this group goes from town to town & village to village. Each place that they arrive at evokes excitement as people give them prayers and promise to give donations to help them build their community upon arrival in Jerusalem. By the time they arrive in the holy city they number 1,000 members. The group will hit a snag, though, when their leader, Yehuda the Hassid, dies within 5 days of their arrival. Donations that were promised fall through and the community is left penniless. They will then borrow money from the local Muslim community for their synagogue. Unfortunately, they don’t have the ability to return this loan and as a result the Muslims will destroy their synagogue in 1721. This is the first version of what is today known as the Hurva Synagogue, which stands 80 feet high in the middle of the Jewish Quarter and can be seen from many lookout points around Jerusalem.