Jerusalem: Thriving Trade, Scholars and Magnificant Architectural Works

Jerusalem prior to the crusades was a place filled with a thriving trade, scholars and magnificant architectural works. This is notably significant in any study of Muslims contribution to the advancement of Jerusalem.

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Figure 2. Inside of The Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem (Source)

At the battle of Ajnadayn in 634 CE, Khalid ibn Walid and ‘Amr ibn al ‘As, commanding the Muslim armies, crushed the Byzantine Roman army of Heraclius.[1] This was followed by the great Muslim victory at al Yarmuk, in the Summer of 636, which terminated Byzantine power.[2] There, the Muslim army led by Abu ‘Ubaydah, Khalid, ‘Amr ibn al ‘As, and Yazid ibn Abi Sufyan, although much inferior in size and equipment recorded one of the greatest victories in world history.[3] It led to the Muslim control over Syria and Palestine, and from there the advance into Egypt and North Africa.[4]

These victories were accomplished during the Caliphate of Omar (Caliph 634-644). The Byzantines agreed to cede Jerusalem but only to the person of the Caliph. Against the advice of some of the Companions (sensing treachery on the part of the Byzantines), the Caliph set off north for the surrender of the city.[5] Sometime in late 637-probably early 638, historians do not agree, on a red camel, which carried a bag of corn and one of dates, a wooden dish, and a leather water bottle, Caliph Omar came from Medina to take formal possession of Jerusalem. He entered the Holy City riding by the side of the Christian patriarch Sophronius.[6] These are Caliph Omar’s words:

In the name of Allah, the Benefactor and merciful! This is the surety granted to the inhabitants of Aelia (Jerusalem) by the servant of God, Omar, commander of the faithful. He gives them protection of their persons, their churches, their crosses, whether these are in good or bad state, and their cult in general. No constraint will be exerted upon them in the matter of faith, and none of them will be harmed. The inhabitants of Aelia will have to pay the Jizya in the same proportion as the inhabitants of other cities. It is up to them to expel from their city the Byzantines and thieves. Those amongst the latter who would like to stay will be allowed to do so on the condition that they should pay the same Jizya as the inhabitants of Aelia."[7]

Under the Emperors of Constantinople in Asia and Africa these subjects used to pay very onerous, excessive and complicated forms of taxes. Under the Muslims, a simple well defined tribute of far less amount, in places only half of what it used to be; the lower orders never made to feel the bitterness of conquest.[8]

The Jews, likewise, saw the difference Muslim rule could bring. Following Caliph Omar’s entry in the city, a grateful Jewish noble man said:

The temple remained with Byzantium for 500 or so years and Israel were unable to enter Jerusalem; whoever did so and was found out, suffered death. Then when the Romans left it, by the grace of the God of Israel, and the kingdom of Ishmael was victorious, Israel was given leave to enter and take up residence and the courtyards of the house of God were handed over to them and they were praying there of a time."[9]


Figure 3. Sicilian tomb marker with inscriptions in Hebrew, Latin, Greek, and Arabic. ~1150AD (Source)

Under the Muslims all, Christians, Jews and Muslims lived in shared peace and prosperity in the city. Ibn al-Arabi, commenting on Jerusalem remarks that the Christians cultivated its estates and kept its churches in good repair.[10] Ibn al-Arabi insists that Jerusalem was the meeting place for religious scholars of all three faiths-Islam, Christianity and Judaism.[11] The infamous destruction of the Church of the Resurrection in Jerusalem, which is often used as an example of Muslim desecration of Christian sites, was the act of the mad Fatimid ruler, Al-Hakem (b.985), whose persecution of the Muslims was much worse than that of the Christians, for whilst he persecuted Jews and Christians, he put to death many of the respectable Sunnis.[12] The paradox of this act, the destruction of the Church of the Resurrection, Finucane notes, is that the chief secretary, who drew up the document for the destruction of the said church, was a Christian, like his vizier who signed it.[13] This incident apart all faiths lived together in the city in relative peace and harmony until the crusades.

Jerusalem had been in Seljuk hands before the crusades (launched in 1095). But, as the Seljuks were fighting the crusaders pouring through the north, the Fatimids wrested Jerusalem from them in1097, which was a ‘real betrayal of Islam,’ according to Lamarque.[14] ‘The humour of history’, according to Durant, meant that when the Crusaders would arrive in front of Jerusalem in 1098, the Turks whom they had come to fight had been expelled from the city by the Fatimids a year before (1097).[15] The Fatimids had already allied themselves to the crusaders against the Seljuks.[16] But in July 1099, when the crusaders surrounded the city of Jerusalem held for the Fatimids by Iftikhar ad-Daula (The pride of the Nation,) Iftikhar, his entourage and his army were allowed to leave the city under safe Christian conduct.[17] The population, 70,000 people, on the other hand, was slain in cold blood.[18] Draper narrates:

The capture of Jerusalem, as might be expected under such circumstances, was attended by the perpetration of atrocities almost beyond belief. What a contrast to the conduct of the Arabs! When the Khalif Omar took Jerusalem, A.D. 637, he rode into the city by the side of the Patriarch Sophronius, conversing with him on its antiquities.  At the hour of prayer, he declined to perform his devotions in the Church of the Resurrection, in which he chanced to be, but prayed on the steps of the Church of Constantine; `for,' said he to the patriarch, `had I done so, the Musselmen in a future age would have infringed the treaty, under colour of imitating my example.' But, in the capture by the Crusaders, the brains of young children were dashed out against the walls; infants were thrown over the battlements; every woman that could be seized was violated; men were roasted at fires; some were ripped open, to see if they had swallowed gold; the Jews were driven into their synagogue, and there burnt; a massacre of nearly 70,000 persons took place; and the pope's legate was seen ‘partaking in the triumph."[19]

Figure 4. A map showing the Great Seljuk Empire at its height, upon the death of Malikshah in 1092
from Turkish Medical History of the Seljuk Era by Ali Haydar Bayat

A contemporary, Abbot Raymond of Agiles of the French town of Du Puy, present during the dramatic moments wrote with glee:

When our men took the main defences, we saw then some astonishing things amongst the Saracens. Some were beheaded, and that’s the least that could happen to them. Others were pierced through and so threw themselves from the heights of the walls; others after having suffered in length were thrown into the flames. We could see in the roads and in the places of Jerusalem bits and pieces of heads, hands, and feet. Everywhere we could only walk through cadavers. But all that was only little… [The abbot’s description moves onto the Mosque of Omar, where] there was so much blood in the old temple of Solomon that dead corpses swam in it. We could see hands floating and arms that went to glue themselves to bodies that were not theirs; we could not distinguish which arm belonged to which body. The men who were doing the killing could hardly bear the smoke from the corpses."[20]

The Christian chronicler, Humbert of Romans, delighted on ‘the splendid occasion when the blood of the Arabs came up to the horses' knees, at the capture of Jerusalem in 1099.’[21]

The carnage perpetrated by the crusaders when they took it, and their occupation of it for a century (until 1187) had its permanent destructive effects. The scholars and scholarship who thrived in the city before the crusades were gone for good. The city would witness a sort of revival in the late 12th century after it was retaken by the Muslims, but never again would it recover its former glory.

Figures 5-6. Views of the oldest Islamic epigraphy in the world located in Al-Masjid al-'Umari in Nuba, near Al-Khalil, in Palestine. The mosque was built on the remains of the old mosque which is said to have been built by Caliph 'Umar Ibn Al-Khatab after that the Muslims conquered Palestine in 636 H (Source).

Jerusalem: Its Sites, Scholars and Scholarship Before the Crusades


Figure 7. Dome of the Rock, the Jewel of Islam, Jerusalem
from Umayyad Mosques and Palaces

The thriving character of the city prior to the crusades is caught by the traveller Nasr Eddin Khusraw who visited it just decades earlier in 1047.  He noted how goods were cheap and plentiful in beautiful markets, and he was impressed by the high buildings. Jerusalem had a great number of craftsmen, and each craft had its own site. The city was large; the number of its inhabitants was at about a hundred thousand. Nasr Khusraw refers to a great hospital with rich waqfs dedicated to it, from which medicines for its numerous patients are dispensed and salaries for doctors are paid. Medicine was taught there. He also refers to hostels for the Sufis by the mosque where they live and pray.[22]  

Serious patronage of architecture had begun in Umayyad times (661-750). During their rule no single architectural style was used throughout the Islamic world, but monuments associated with the dynasty or its high officials were often well built and elaborately decorated, in structures such as the mosques of Medina and Damascus; the aim appearing to have been ‘to create monuments that would proclaim the power and ideals of the new Islamic state.’[23] Even richer and more complex was the decorative and epigraphic program of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, built by Caliph 'Abd al-Malik and completed in 691/692.[24] It was a central domed area over the rock proper and a double octagonal ambulatory around it.[25] Both the inner (circular) and outer (octagonal) zones are formed of piers alternating with columns. Internally the building is notable for its colourful decoration—marble panels on the piers and lower wall surfaces, and mosaic cubes on the arcades of both zones as well as on the drum of the central dome.[26]


Figure 8. Jerusalem on the Minster Map 1550. The line of the eastern and northern wall can be seen on the map (Source)

In the early eighth century the Aqsa Mosque (The Further Mosque) was erected adjacent to the south side of the Dome of the Rock. It was also embellished with marble and mosaics.[27] In their complex decorative and iconographic schemes the Umayyad religious buildings of Damascus, Medina, and Jerusalem are unique, but even more influential was the basic spatial organization of the mosques in those three cities, which was often imitated in later buildings.[28]

The Aqsa Mosque had been re-currently described by Muslim scholars. Al-Muqaddasi, whose origins are from the city, in 985, writes that:

The main building of the Aqsa Mosque has twenty six doors. The door opposite the Mihrab is called the Green Brazen Gate; it is plated with brass gilt, and is so heavy that only a man strong of shoulder and of arm can turn it on its hinges…. On the right hand side of the Court (that is along the West Wall of the Haram Area) are colonnades supported by marble pillars and plasters; and on the back (or north wall of the Haram Area) are colonnades vaulted in stone. The centre part of the main building is covered by a mighty roof, high pitched and gable wise, over which rises a magnificent dome."[29] 


Figure 9. Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock in Al-Quds (Source)

The mosques played a primary role in disseminating knowledge and culture. A brief glimpse on the scholarly institutions, which are described in great detail by the late medieval scholar, the Qadi Mudjir Eddin (d.1521), is very enlightening, indeed, on such link between faith and learning.[30] Although his outline also includes madrasas built after the crusades, the earliest ones which saw the best of Muslim scholarship in the city date from before. Inside the Aqsa Mosque, just near the women’s area is the madrasa Farisiya founded by Emir Fares Eddin Albky, there was also the madrasa Nahriye and the Nassiriya.  This latter was named after the Jerusalem scholar, Sheikh Nasr, before it became known as the Ghazaliya, after the famed scholar al-Ghazali who resided and worked there. And these are the madrasas in the Mosque itself. Around al-Aqsa were the Qataniya, the Fakriya, Baladiya and the Tankeziya.  The latter, Ibn Mudjir says, is an immense madrasa, situated on the Khatt road, and its founder, Emir Tankiz Nasri, vice ruler of Syria, is also responsible for building the aqueduct for the water supply of Jerusalem. A number of Turkish women were behind the construction of many such madrasas in and around the al-Aqsa. The madrasa Othmania was constituted in waqf in 1523 by a woman belonging to one of the greatest families of the country, her name Isfahan Shah Khatoun. Earlier, in 1354, another madrasa Khatouniya was constituted in waqf by Oghl Khatoun, daughter of Chams Eddin Mohammed Bin Sayf Eddin of Baghdad. The madrasa was financed by a local business.[31]

Setting aside the later edifices, the great number of early madrasas is a reflection of the thriving intellectual activity that marked Jerusalem during the Islamic era preceding the crusades.   Mudjir Eddin names some of the illustrious figures, who by their thoughts and writing marked the city’s history, such as Omm al-Khayr Rabeah, daughter of Ismail, of the Aqyl family, who lived in the 8th century.[32]  In the 11th century, under the Seljuks, on the eve of the crusades, the city witnessed many cultural activities.


Figure 10. Front cover of Handsat Ūqlīdis fī aydin ‘arabiya (Euclid's geometry in Arabian hands) by Ahmad Salīm Sa‘īdān (Source)

Renowned scholars from both east and west of the Muslim land made the city their destination, many to settle there. Both the city’s scholars and the visitors participated in a rich cultural life.[33] Ibn al-Arabi gives a vivid picture of this, Jerusalem a meeting place of scholars from Khurasan in the east to Al-Andalus in the west, impressed as he was by the circles of study and the majlis of disputations.[34] Amongst such scholars was the Sha’afiite Nasr b. Ibrahim al-Maqdisi (1096), who taught at the Nassriyya school; Ata al-Maqdisi (Abu’l Fadl) another, and so was al-Rumali.[35] Abu’l Farradj Abd Al-Waheed (d. ca. 1090s) also dwelt Jerusalem. Responsible for the spread of the Hanbalite thought of Islam in and around the city, he wrote on jurisprudence, and also completed Kitab al-Djawaher on the interpretation of the Qur’an.[36] Abu Fath Nasr (d. 1097) was the author of many works such as Zahd al-Abed, and taught Hadith in the same place that was to be Al-Ghazali’s abode. Abu’l Maaly Al-Mucharraf wrote Fadail al-Bayt Al-muqaddas wa Asakhra (The Merits of Jerusalem and the Rock) in which he dealt with all that relates to the city, its history, its sites, and its sanctuaries.[37] He is the contemporary of Abu Kassem Mekki al-Romarly, who also wrote on the history of Jerusalem gathering many facts on such history.[38] There was al-Ghazali (b. 1058), of course, who also settled in the city. The Andalusian Faqih, Abu al-Bakr al-Turtushi, also came in to Jerusalem in 1091, and stayed and taught in the Aqsa Mosque, whilst Abu Bakr Ibn al-Arabi, who left for the East, attended his lectures.[39]

The Aqsa Mosque had several book collections in the Nahawiya and Ashrafyia madrasas, and a library of even greater stature at the Farisiya Madrasa. The Mosque of Omar developed rapidly into an important academy for religious and secular studies included a large book collection which was scattered among the mosque's four madrasas. One of these was the Nassiryia Madrasa, also known as the Ghazzaliya in a tribute to the philosopher al-Ghazali (d. 505H/1111) who sequestered himself there until he completed the writing of the celebrated work Ihya al-Ulum Eddin (The Revival of Religious Sciences).[40]