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Islamic Jerusalem – An Introduction


I have a feeling that the posts dealing with this subject, Islamic Jerusalem, are bound to provoke some people out there, both people who are afraid of a “Judaization of Jerusalem,” as well as people having troubles with the notion of an “Islamic Jerusalem.” Nevertheless, that is going to be the subject for a number of posts, I’m not sure how many, where I’m going to deal with my studies on the subject.

We had our first class yesterday, after two weeks of cancellations caused by strikes. Finally. From what I could see it mostly consists of students from the ME/Islamic program, but we were two from the Comparative Religions program.

Anyway, the class consisted mostly by an introduction to Archaeology and archaeological findings related to the Islamic conquest of greater Syria, and especially Jerusalem, as well as a definition of various terms and names. These names and terms seem to need an explanation before I continue, since I most likely will take use of them in other posts connected to the subject.

When it comes to the places and cities I will use the Arabic names, since – after all – it is in an Arabic context we’re studying them. What is interesting about the Arabic naming of the places and cities, they are mostly based on earlier names, which – I believe – would be obvious, but it is a mix of Greek and Hebrew names.

The area

The wider area of focus here is what is termed in English as “Greater Syria.” In Arabic that part is known as ash-Sham (al-Sham), which covers what today is Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Palestinian territories, and Jordan (more or less). This area was original divided in four counties, “ajnad” in plural, “jund” in singular, which were Jund al-Dimashq, Jund al-Hims, Jund al-Urdun, and Jund al-Filastin, where we also find Jerusalem. Later a fifth jund was added, or created out of Jund al-Hims, namely Jund al-Qinnasrin.

The capitals of the ajnad are as follows: Damascus, which is called Dimashq in Arabic, for Jund al-Dimashq (obvious), Tiberias (Tabariyyah in Arabic) in Jund al-Urdunn, Homs (Hims in Arabic) for Jund al-Hims. When it comes to Jund al-Filastin the capital changed during the times. The original capital was Lod (Ludd in Arabic), but later the son of ‘Abd al-Malik, Suleyman ibn ‘Abd al-Malik, founded the city Ramla (yes, hevrey, Ramla is an Arab city founded by Muslims) and moved the capital of the Jund there. Only later, under the Fatimids, did Jerusalem become the capital of the Jund.

The cities

When the Muslims conquered ash-Sham it was a Byzantine-Greek area, which had taken Hellenistic names for the cities, having a more Greek than a Middle Eastern culture. As such it isn’t weird to find that many Arabic names are based on Greek names, as we will see is the case. First of a little background. As many of you probably are aware, the Middle East, as well as regions east of it, was conquered by the Macedonian king, Alexander (known as the Great), who had a vision of creating one “super-culture”, where people would be united from the far ends of the worlds. He didn’t succeed in this, but he did certainly leave his imprints on the wider ME, creating the basis for a culture which would be a mix of Greek and Oriental culture, known as Hellenism. He did establish various cities, still existing today, such as Alexandria in Egypt, bearing his name, as well as we can see his name being mirrored in many languages, such as Iskander in Turkish, Xander in Spanish, and so on. 

Later on some cities, already existing before Alexander, would be given Greek names, such as Beyt Shean, which would be known as Scythiopolis, though this would mostly be done in later time, as reaction against revolts or other things. One of the – I hope – best known examples is Jerusalem, which – after the revolt of Bar Kochba in 132-135 – was renamed Aelia Capitolina, or rather, Jerusalem was so destroyed that Hadrian, the then emperor, had to rebuild a city, which was to be known as Aelia Capitolina, a city dedicated to the Roman god Jupiter. Another city having its name changed was Sh’chem, the city were the sister of the twelve Israelite brothers (who would give names to the twelve Israelite tribes), Dinah, was raped and later revenged. Sh’chem was to be called Neapolis and stay under that name for many years, and only today is it again known as Sh’chem, though only in Hebrew.

As will be shown, some of these cities would keep their Greek names in Arabic form, while others would return to their original Hebrew (or other Semitic) names, though also in Arabic form. The city of Beyt Shean/Scythiopolis would return to its original name, but as Beysân. Sh’chem/Neapolis would keep its Greek name, but as Nablus, since the ‘p’ doesn’t exist in Arabic. Jerusalem would be known as Ilya from the first part of the Latin name, Aelia, though it today is most known as “al-Quds”, the Holy. This name though is derived from the Jewish/Hebrew description of the Temple, “Beyt HaQodesh,” “The Holy House,” and as such focus on the Temple Mount more than the city. As has already been told, the first capitals were Ludd and Ramla respectively, the first keeping its original name even in Greek (Lydda) and then Arabic, the other being a pure Arabic/Muslim city, both in name and creation.

I found this map showing the area of focus:

I did think about adding more to the post, some thoughts I have had about the first archaeological findings we were introduced for, coinage, weights and other things, which made me think about the role of Iliya, but I think I’ll keep that for the next post on the subject. An introduction should be enough for this time.

Take care.

1 Comment

  1. hamoo911 says:

    Great Post, Peter . keep up the good work . :o)
    Mohamed Salih.

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