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Al Quds ­— vision and reality

By Sally Bland - May 15,2022 - Last updated at Sep 10,2022

Nine Quarters of Jerusalem: A New Biography of the Old City

Matthew Teller

London: Profile Books, 2022

Pp. 336


In his new book, author Matthew Teller takes the reader on a somewhat unconventional tour of the Old City of Jerusalem. While there are captivating descriptions of the city’s famous landmarks as well as less known nooks and crannies, the emphasis is on people, their lives and history.

The dynamics of the book stem from the author’s interviews and friendships with scores of the Old City’s inhabitants from different walks of life, different religious communities, and sometimes different ethnic and language groups. Though some speak of catastrophes and injustices, including those brought on by Israel’s ethnic cleansing and restrictions, the overall effect is upbeat. 

One cannot help but be impressed by the interviewees’ energy, resourcefulness, originality, persistence, and accomplishments against the odds, as well as by the author’s depth of historical knowledge, his mastery of linguistics and choice of subjects. 

Teller is quick to warn that things are not as they seem, comparing the city to an iceberg where only a fraction appears above the surface. It soon becomes apparent that he is out to dispel certain myths that are cherished by parties that benefit from them. The most important premise that he contests is the idea that the Old City of Jerusalem can be neatly divided into four quarters with a single religious community inhabiting each one.

In recent times, this myth has been contested by a few serious scholars, but it is still reflected in popular travel literature and Israeli-issued information. Teller’s insistence on demolishing this myth is politically motivated, because if the Old City can be so divided, it feeds into the false perception that the conflict over Palestine is all about religion rather than being about colonialism and occupation. 

According to Teller’s research, no ancient map depicted religiously-defined quarters. He makes a side trip to Jordan to view the Madaba map, considered the oldest in the world, which showed one unified city. As he also points out, all during the 20th century and up until today, most quarters had a mixed population. So, how did a map, dated 1837, which divided Jerusalem into four religiously-defined quarters, evolve? Though unable to find out much about the European cartographer who drew it, Teller did not give up but continued to examine the beginnings of British colonialism in Palestine, and the maps made in the following decade.

He learned that when the British sent troops against Mohammad Ali’s incursion into Ottoman-controlled Palestine, they assigned two military engineers and a missionary to make a map to guide their efforts. Influenced by Protestantism, these men were only interested in Jews and Christians, used archaic terms from Crusader times, and introduced the concept of a Muslim quarter--all in the service of divide-and-rule. (Teller notes how Israeli urban policy built on that of Britain.)

The book is a delight to read because Teller has a way with words reflected in clever chapter titles and a keen sense of irony, poking fun at illogical assumptions. In this case, he terms it bizarre to designate a particular quarter as Muslim, since the city as a whole was majority Muslim; it is equivalent to defining a part of Rome as the Catholic quarter. 

Having dismissed the veracity of the Muslim, Christian, Jewish and Armenian Quarters, Teller proceeds to lead readers through the Old City guided by other landmarks, usually the city gates, but also Khan Al Zeit (the main Jerusalem market), the Stations of the Cross in Via Dolorosa, and the Al Aqsa compound. For each, there is a brief history of the surrounding area, then on to the real target—Jerusalemites who have something to share. There is a visit to Stork Tower (Bab Az-Zahra), the Old City’s poorest and most underdeveloped area; to a Sufi lodge, hospices established by various countries, private library collections, etc.

At the Lions Gate (Bab Al Asbat), an articulate young woman relates the marginalised status of the Dom community, Arabic-speaking, mainly Muslims, and wrongly called gypsies, and how she put herself through college and now works to improve their situation. At Aladdin Street, we learn about the origins of the story of the same name, and how this area is populated by African Muslim pilgrims who came to the city as early as the 15th century and stayed at the gates of Al Aqsa. 

A whole chapter is devoted to the stories of remarkable women from ancient times until today, and another to the Moroccan Quarter (Bab Al Magharba) and how it was bulldozed in the immediate aftermath of the June 1967 war, so that now only one zawiya remains. In contrast, the Jewish Quarter is clearly delineated and almost all new. Teller also interviews an Armenian musician whose playing ranges from rock to folksongs, and the owner of the only art gallery in the Old City. He also visits the Syriac community that still speaks Aramaic, and the café founded by Khalil Sakakini near Jaffa Gate (Bab Al Khalil). 

Matthew Teller is a well-known journalist who writes for a variety of respected international media. He has published several travel guides, including “The Rough Guide to Jordan”. In this new book, he combines architecture with social history and current reality to shake up common presuppositions about Jerusalem. He interviews famous people as well as little known ones, deliberately eschewing false notions of balance to focus on those whose stories are usually excluded, especially the Palestinians.




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