The geography

Rarely in human history can such an unsuitable site have become such a world-famous city as in the case of Jerusalem. It developed initially on a spur known as Ophel, which was the southern part of a 1,200 m. long spur running very roughly from north to south. At 800 m. above sea level, in the central hill country of ancient Palestine, it was surrounded on three sides by steep valleys, overshadowed by surrounding hills, and had steeply sloping sides. It owed its rise to fame to two main factors. It possessed an intermittent spring known as Gihon (possibly meaning ‘gusher’) and it was adopted around the year 1,000 BCE by the charismatic leader of a group of fighters whom we know as David, to be the capital of a dynastic state called Judah, which later, according to the Bible, became the united kingdom of Judah and Israel.

The history

Jerusalem before David

Little is known about the history of Jerusalem prior to the time of David. It is mentioned in Egyptian texts of the 19th-18th centuries BCE and the Amarna letters of the 14th century BCE, in which its king, Abdi-Hiba, who is evidently the ruler of the surrounding area, asserts his loyalty to the Egyptian pharaoh Amenophis IV. The name of the city, according to most experts, means ‘foundation of Salem’, Salem (or Shalem) being the name of a Canaanite god. According to Josh 10:1-4, a king of Jerusalem named Adoni-Zedek formed a coalition of Canaanite city states against the Israelites led by Joshua. The element Zedek in the king’s name has led some scholars to see a connection with David’s high priest Zadok (2 Sam 8:17) and to suggest that Zadok was the high priest or priest-king of pre-Davidic Jerusalem. However, for reasons of geography, the pre-Davidic city cannot have been more than a small garrison fortress.

Under David’s successors

Jerusalem slowly grew in size and importance. A temple dedicated to YHWH and a royal palace were built on the northern part of the spur, known as Tsion (Sion or Zion). The sloping sides of the spur were terraced so that they could be built on. Occupation spread to parts of the hill to the west; access to the spring was developed from within the city. Jerusalem became sufficiently important to attract the attention of the Assyrian king Sennacherib who besieged it in 701 BCE and, according to his own account, shut up its king Hezekiah ‘like a bird in a cage’. The Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar captured it in 597 BCE and destroyed it ten years later.

Jerusalem revived

In the 6th and 5th centuries Jerusalem slowly recovered from this disaster and, within the Persian Empire, became the centre of the Jewish religious community that was responsible for collecting and editing into their present form the texts that we call the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible. Following the conquests of Alexander the Great and the break-up of his empire after his death (323 BCE), Jerusalem came to the attention of the Greek ruler of Syria, Antiochus IV, who captured the city around 168 BCE. This inaugurated a century-and-a-half of resistance by the Jewish inhabitants of Judah. The city was recaptured in 164 BCE.

Jerusalem under Rome

In 65 BCE it became part of the Roman Empire and was later extensively rebuilt and enlarged by Herod the Great (37-4 BCE). Following the Jewish revolts against Roman rule in 67-73 and 132-5 CE, it was destroyed by the Romans in 70 and 132 CE, and rebuilt on the plan of a Roman military camp.

The history and significance of Jerusalem subsequent to the 2nd century CE lie outside the scope of this article.

Jerusalem in the Old Testament

The temple

The temple dedicated to YHWH, on the hill called Zion, is of central importance in the Old Testament. In the so-called Deuteronomistic history (Deuteronomy to 2 Kings) it is the place which YHWH has chosen to cause his name to dwell there, and kings of Judah and the northern kingdom, Israel, are judged as good or bad according to whether or not they allowed worship only in Jerusalem and not elsewhere. The books of Chronicles contain details about how the temple worship was inaugurated, while the book of Psalms contains texts for many situations for individual and communal worship.


The name Zion (including the phrase ‘daughter of Zion’) functions in psalms and prophetic literature as a designation for Jerusalem. A ‘Zion theology’ is present which identifies the city’s spring with the river of paradise (Ps 46; Ezek 47:1-12), affirms the lordship of YHWH over the world and its nations (Pss 47, 93, 97), and expresses hopes for the establishment of a universal rule of peace and justice in which a part will be played by a king of the line of David (Psalms 2, 110; Isa 11:1-9). To what extent some of these beliefs were taken over from pre-Davidic times is a matter of dispute.

In the Prophets

In the prophetic literature Jerusalem occupies an ambiguous position. While it is the focus for hopes for a better world (e.g., Isa 2:2-4) it is also seen to symbolise all that is corrupt and wicked in Israelite society (e.g., Isa 1:2-26). The destruction of Jerusalem is threatened in Micah (3:9-12), Jeremiah (7:9-15), and Ezekiel (9:1-8), and seen as the necessary preliminary to a new beginning that only YHWH can bring about.

Further reading

The literature on Jerusalem is vast. Useful articles can be found in: King, Philip J. “Jerusalem.” Pages 747-66 in vol. 3 of Anchor Bible Dictionary. 6 vols. Edited by David Noel Freeman. Garden City: Doubleday, 1992. Meyers, Eric M., ed. “Jerusalem.” Pages 224-38 in vol. 3 of The Oxford Encyclopedia of Archaeology in the Near East. 5 vols. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997. See also