Jerusalem in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam


With a history that dates back to 4th millennium BC, the ancient city of Jerusalem is one of the oldest continually occupied cities in the world.  Situated in the middle of the Levant, the city has always been a valuable stronghold for the control of the constantly contested Holy Lands. The metropolis held social, military, and most importantly, religious significance ever since King David declared it the capital of the Jewish nation in approximately 1000 BC, providing initial meaning to the first of the world’s three major monotheistic religions. Throughout the following millennium, monumental events taking place within the city provided increasing religious significance to both its initial Jewish inhabitants and later to Christians and Muslims.  As Jerusalem’s significance grew, the city became a mainstay of religious struggle between these three similar yet constantly opposing religions, ultimately becoming a symbol of power amidst a faith-based struggle that has raged from biblical times through today.


Jerusalem is deeply intertwined in the history of Judaism. Its past makes it the holiest of Jewish cities, its spirituality continues to attract Jewry, and even its name remains a symbol of hope for the unification of the Jewish people.

In 588 BC, the Babylonians raided the city, and the Jewish people were exiled from their holiest place for over a millennium. During this period of exile the mystic bond between Jews and Jerusalem was forged on the desire to return to the land of Zion [1]. The Jewish people still build synagogues facing Jerusalem and leave walls unfinished to represent the temporary nature of their homes until they return to Jerusalem. Continuing throughout their exile, the longing for renewal remained strong, as is seen in Jewish prayer and rabbinic writings. To this day, Jews pray towards Jerusalem, expressing the hope that God will deliver Jerusalem back to them. Psalms 137:1-6 exemplifies the Jewish longing for Jerusalem:

“By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, and we wept, when we remembered Zion. How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land? If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither. Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, if I remember thee not; if I set not Jerusalem above my chiefest joy”

Yet Jerusalem was not just the center of the religious world for Jews. It represents the intersection of the heavenly kingdom with the earthly domain. The city is often described in Hebrew literature as the center of the universe[2]. According to tradition, all great historical events either took place or will take place in Jerusalem, beginning with the creation of the world, continuing through the building of the great temples, and eventually the coming of the messiah and resurrection of the dead. It is for this reason that many Jews make pilgrimages to Jerusalem with the intent of being buried there. The Mount of Olives, believed to be where the resurrection will occur, is the most sought after burial site in Jerusalem.


Jerusalem was hugely significant to Christians and the practice of Christianity. For the Christians, Jerusalem was equal to God’s presence on earth through his son Jesus Christ. In the year 30 AD, the Romans, under the reign of Emperor Tiberius, tried and convicted Jesus of breaking Roman law[3]. Jesus’s crucifixion and suffering at the hands of the Romans was seen as the abandonment of mankind by God. While Jerusalem was seen as the city abandoned by God, it also became the location of God’s salvation and mercy on earth.

Three days after Jesus’s burial, in what was rebuilt to be the Holy Sepulcher, he rose from death as a human incarnation of God. Jesus died for the remission of mankind’s sins and as a result, through his death, humanity was purified. To Christians, this was the ultimate show of God’s salvation and mercy[4]. The death of Jesus in Jerusalem purified the city, transforming it into a place of sacred innocence, purity and spirituality and Jesus’s resurrection was the ultimate defeat of evil and the devil. The Holy Land, as Jerusalem would be called, was touched by God and where many Crusaders believed one could truly commune with Him.

In addition, Jerusalem was said to house one of the most sacred relics of all time, the Holy Lance. The Holy Lance is the spear that a Roman soldier used to pierce the side of Christ to prove to his comrades that Christ was in fact dead[5]. It was rumored that out of the wound poured blood and water which proved Christ’s divinity. The blood was of man, while the water was of God, consequently the lance was touched by God. For the First Crusader’s, relics were a direct method of communing with saints.  Since this relic was touched by God, however, it was a direct line to God making it the most sacred relic known to mankind.


In Islam, the significance of Jerusalem dates back nearly a century and a half to the nascent stages of the religion and is considered the third holiest site to Muslims.  Jerusalem was the first qilba or direction of prayer.  When the Prophet Muhammad and his followers first lived in Mecca and following his migration (hijra) to Medina in 622 AD, all Muslims prayed facing Jerusalem.  After two years in Medina, Muslims changed the direction in which they prayed, from facing Jerusalem to facing the ka’ba in Mecca, the holiest site in Islam[6]. 

Jerusalem also played a crucial role in Muhammad’s ascension to heaven (miraj) where he encountered God directly.  Muhammad was praying at the ka’ba when the archangel Gabriel visited him to journey together to Jerusalem.  The Qur’an states that this Night Journey (isra) occurred from Mecca to “the furthest place of prayer (masjid al-aqsa)” which most believe to be the al-Aqsa Mosque, next to the Dome of the Rock (Qur’an 17:1)[7].  In the hadith or sayings of Muhammad, Jerusalem is confirmed as the destination of Muhammad’s Night Journey.  On his journey to Jerusalem, Muhammad is said to have met other prophets such as Abraham, Moses, and Jesus.  It was from the Temple Mount that Muslims believe that Muhammad ascended to heaven.

As the religion expanded rapidly in the years after Muhammad’s death, so did the importance of Jerusalem.  The Dome of the Rock, situated next to the al-Aqsa Mosque was constructed in the late 7th century.  The Dome of the Rock contains the Foundation Stone, which holds religious importance for Judaism, Christianity and Islam.  These two significant structures are enclosed in an area known as the Haram al-Sharif, the “Noble Sanctuary.”  

Jerusalem holds vast significance in the traditions of each of the world’s three most influential monotheistic religions.  Because of this shared importance, the city has been seemingly constantly contested from each side, from classical times, to the Medieval Crusades, and even up to today’s Israeli-Palestinian conflicts.  During the Second Crusade in the early 12th century, for example, crusaders who would come to be known as the Knights Templar, used the al-Aqsa mosque as headquarters, calling it the Temple of Solomon[8].  Ironically, this ongoing struggle between religions who revere many of the city’s sites for the same reasons, showcases the similar underlying themes shared by the three faiths. The Temple of Solomon, for example, is thought to be the location where Abraham’s sacrifice of his son took place—a monumental event in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.  Additionally, the three sides often constructed their own holy worship sites on and over those of their adversaries, further demonstrating how the related religions value Jerusalem for parallel reasons.  Ultimately, the inability for the three sides to see these comparisons led to much struggle and strife, and until these similarities can be reasoned with, the capital of the Holy Land will remain a site for the grappling of religious power for years to come.

[1] Moshe  Pearlman , “1-3.” Jerusalem, By Teddy Kollek, N.p.: n.p., n.d. 11.

[2] Nitza Rosovsky . “3.” City of the Great King: Jerusalem from David to the Present. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1996. 60-73. 

[3] Christian Violatti , “Jesus Christ.” Ancient History Encyclopedia, N.p., 26 Nov. 2013. Web. 23 Apr. 2016.

[4] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version, Illinois: Crossway, 2001.

[5] Herbert Thurston, “The Holy Lance.” The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. 8, New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910. 23 Apr. 2016

[6] Michael Cook, Muhammad, Oxford: Oxford University Press,  1983, 23.

[7] Omid Safi,  Memories of Muhammad: Why the Prophet Matters,  New York: HarperOne, 2002, 169. 

[8] Thomas F Madden,  The Concise History of the Crusades, Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, 1999, 46.  




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