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Book Excerpt: Jerusalem, the isolated hill town high in the Judean Hills

‘Jerusalem Through the Ages: From Its Beginnings to the Crusades’ presents a broad yet detailed account of how Jerusalem grew from a small community in a rocky outcropping into an internationally important city

By Jodi Magness
Published: Saturday 28 October 2023

Engraving from 1868 showing Mount Zion in Jerusalem. Credit: iStockEngraving from 1868 showing Mount Zion in Jerusalem. Credit: iStock

“His holy mountain, beautiful in elevation, is the joy of all the earth, Mount Zion . . . ” (Psalm 48:1-2). This psalm encapsulates Jerusalem’s distinguishing characteristic as a city high in the Judean hills, dominated by a prominent rocky outcrop called Mount Zion, which is enshrined within a great esplanade (open platform) in the southeast corner of the modern Old City (Pl. 1). This esplanade is known as the Temple Mount (Hebrew har ha-bayit [the mountain of the house]; in Arabic, al-haram al-sharif [the noble or sacred enclosure]), because it was the site of two successive temples to the God of Israel (Pl. 2).5 The rocky outcrop also came to be identified with Mount Moriah, where Abraham reportedly was prepared to sacrifice his son (Isaac in Jewish tradition; Ishmael in Islamic tradition). Zion (pronounced in Hebrew tsee-YOHN) is another name for Jerusalem, as for example in Psalm 87:1-2: “On the holy mount stands the city he founded; the Lord loves the gates of Zion . . . ” Today Mount Zion denotes an area outside the walls of the Old City. Jerusalem lies about 750 meters above sea level, straddling the watershed between the wooded Judean hills and fertile lowlands (Shefelah) to the west and the barren wilderness of Judea (Judean desert) to the east. The Dead Sea — the lowest point on earth at ca. 430 meters below sea level — is only 25 kilometers (15 miles) away.

Jerusalem’s mountainous setting was shaped by geological processes in the distant past. Approximately 100 million years ago, Palestine (a term I use in the British Mandatory sense to denote modern Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinian territories) and neighboring regions were covered by an ancestor of the Mediterranean Sea called the Tethys Sea. After the Tethys Sea receded, the sediments that had accumulated on its floor hardened into layers of lime- stone, dolomite, and chalk interspersed with lenses of flint or chert. Tectonic movements lifted and folded these layers into a north-south anticline (ridge) called the Judean mountains or hills. On the east the ridge descends through foothills to the Mediterranean coast, while on the west it drops abruptly at the escarpment along the Dead Sea, which is the lowest point on earth. The sides of the anticline are scored by deep valleys which drain to the Mediterranean Sea or the Dead Sea.

The prevailing winds carry moisture eastwards from the Mediterranean, causing rain to fall as clouds rise and condense along the western side of the ridge but evaporating farther to the west, creating the Judean desert. As a result, the western side of the watershed (e.g., the modern West Jerusalem neighborhoods of Beit Hakerem and Katamon) receives more rain at ca. 550 mm per year than the Old City at ca. 500 mm per year, while one kilometer to the east the annual amount drops to 380 mm. Typical of a Mediterranean climate, the rainy season coincides with the cooler winter months (October-April/May), leaving a long hot season with little or no rainfall. Until recently, Jerusalem’s inhabitants relied heavily on rainwater collected in cisterns and pools, some of which can still be seen in the courtyards of houses in the Old City. It was the Gihon spring — the most abundant perennial source of fresh water in the area — which attracted people to settle here over five thousand years ago. The spring produces approximately 1500 cubic meters of water daily and 550,000 cubic meters annually.

The different types of hard limestone and dolomite that make up Jerusalem’s rocky landscape are easily distinguishable and are denoted by modern Arabic names: Mizzi Yahudi (“Jewish hard rock”) is a dense grey dolomite; Mizzi Ahmar is a reddish dolomite; Meleke (“royal”) is a white limestone; and Mizzi Hilu (“sweet”) is a fine, yellowish-white limestone. For example, Mizzi Ahmar is exposed in the cliffs of the Ben-Hinnom Valley; Meleke, which is more widespread, is also visible in the Ben-Hinnom Valley as well as in the Kidron Valley; and to the east of the Damascus Gate there are Mizzi Hilu outcrops. As a medium-hard limestone, Meleke was preferred as a building material over the harder Mizzi Ahmar, which it overlies. As rainfall seeps through cracks and fissures in the hard limestone and dolomite and collects between the layers it dissolves the rock, creating hollows and caves — a geological phenomenon called “karst.” The Gihon spring is fed by water that has collected between layers of rock to form an underground aquifer. Gihon means “gushing” in Hebrew, referring to the spring’s intermittent or fluctuating flow, which is a feature of some karstic formations.

Despite Jerusalem’s status as a holy city, it is an isolated mountain town that is poor in natural resources.

Excerpted from Jerusalem Through the Ages: From Its Beginnings to the Crusades by Jodi Magness and published by Oxford University Press © Jodi Magness 2024. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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