Was Jerusalem multicultural?

Jerusalem has always been home to many different religions. It has been depicted in history as the very centre of the world, and has been the Holy city for all Christians, Muslims and Jews. But despite this, it has also been the home of conflict and war for centuries, even continuing to the present day. The history of this city is vast, but we can focus specifically on whether this city was truly multicultural under the Christian rule between 1099 and 1187.


Before the Christian conquest in 1099, Jerusalem was under Muslim rule, and recovering from the disastrous rule of the insane Caliph Hakim. His successor Caliph Zahir attempted to restore the relationships between the different cultures and religions living in Jerusalem. The scars made by Hakim were never fully healed, according to historian Simon Sebag. The Christian Church of the Holy Sepulchre had been destroyed, and Jews and Christians were forced to convert to Islam. However, Zahir tried desperately to restore the harmony which his ancestors once bought. Muslims and Christians lived together in peace, and the position of the Greek Christians were especially favourable. Some historians believed that while Jews were allowed to live within the walls of Jerusalem, they were segregated and isolated. While the Jews may have had ambivalent relationships with the Muslims and Christians, they had been promised protection by Zahir, showing the acceptance and toleration in Jerusalem whilst under Muslim rule.

After the brutal and bloody siege in 1099, Jerusalem was taken over by the western Christians. The crusaders entered a holy city filled with many different schools of Christianity, such as Armenians, Jacobites and Nestorians. There were different types of Sunni and Shia Muslims, as well as different sects of Judaism. The siege wiped out most of the population. There are many different accounts from both Muslims and Christians describing the massacre, as Muslims and Jews were slaughtered in the streets and churches. Those who weren’t killed were either forced into exile or forced to convert to Christianity. This treatment was not limited to Islam and Judaism however, as the indigenous Christians also received the same treatment, as they were considered too eastern, and too closely linked to their enemies. The citizens of Jerusalem who fled travelled to the neighbouring cities such as Tyre and Acre. This treatment continued through Godfrey, who was the first Christian ‘king’ of Jerusalem during this period (although he took the title ‘The Defender of the Holy Sepulchre’, 1099-1100). This was similar during the reign of Godfrey’s brother, Baldwin I (R.1100-1118). Although unlike Godfrey, Baldwin was aware that his new Kingdom needed allies desperately, and so eastern Christians were slowly welcomed back into the city. Armenians were especially favoured, as Baldwin’s second wife was Armenian.  However, Muslims and Jews were still banned from entering the city.

Baldwin II of Jerusalem ascended to the throne in 1118, and continued his predecessors work to improve the state of Jerusalem. These obviously had to be very gradual changes, but nevertheless, they increased the multiculturalism within the Holy city. Muslims and Jews were not allowed to settle in Jerusalem, but they were allowed to enter the city, and even trade within the walls. This not only increased the tolerance of the Christians, but also helped the economic status of the city. The mountain raid in 1124 by the Muslims clearly shows their presence in the city, but also tells us that the two religions did not live peacefully with one another. Many various castles and fortresses were built (such as the castle at Jacobs Ford) during the reign of Baldwin II, which would again suggest that Jerusalem was still desperate to keep the Muslim world out, and therefore was still struggling with the threat of opposing nations.

The reign of Queen Melisende (R. 1131-1153), Fulk (R. 1131-1143) and King Baldwin III (R. 1143-1163) was a complicated one and their weaknesses were exploited fully by the Muslims, who staged another attack, which was also unsuccessful. However, Fulk made an alliance with the King of Damascus in 1137, demonstrating that the Kingdom of Jerusalem was capable of supporting Muslim cities, as well as being able to accept help from them. Certain Islamic cities faced the same threat during this period, and therefore Damascus and Jerusalem were willing to pair up in order to escape the wrath of Islam’s new leader, Zengi. By the 1140s, Jerusalem had been transformed. Simon Sebag believed that Melisende’s Jerusalem was ‘very different from the empty, stinking city conquered by the Franks 40 years or so earlier in 1099’. The city was populated by many different types of Christians, both eastern and western, and the streets were now singing with different languages from all over the world. The Templars and Hospitallers were nursing different types of people from the city, which included Muslims and Jews. There was even a halal and kosher kitchen, demonstrating just how much the laws which banned Muslims and Jews had been relaxed. Both Muslim leaders and Muslim peasants visited the city each day, without fear of persecution. Whilst this paints a picture of a culturally rich city, restored to its former glory, it was not the case for long. Internal disputes occurred once again, but this time it was between the native Christian and the western Christian pilgrims. The natives were far more tolerant to Muslims and Jews, and could understand their viewpoint, whereas the European Christians struggled to accept this other religion. Jerusalem was once again in danger of losing its rich and diverse culture.

Leading up to the Battle of Hattin in 1187, Jerusalem maintained an incredibly multicultural status. In 1180, a truce was made with Saladin, which allowed Islamic merchants to travel through the city. By 1170, there was evidence that there were Jews living near the royal palace, providing us with evidence that different cultures and religions were finally being granted permission to live within Jerusalem’s walls. However in September 1187, the Christian rule of Jerusalem was finally over. Instead of a repeat of the bloodshed of 1099, Saladin wished to preserve the diverse cultures within Jerusalem, and the city was handed over peacefully, without a single drop of blood being shed. The Muslims had finally regained control of the city, and had apparently learnt a lot from the 88 years in which Christians ruled the Holy Land. Christians and Jews were allowed to settle within the city, and were presented with a tolerant new regime.

So this brief description displays the way that Jerusalem developed over the years 1099-1187 under Christian rule. Under the reign of Godfrey, the many different cultures that resided in the city were completely wiped out, but we can see that over the years, the Christian rulers attempted to introduce more cultures. This could have been for more allies for the holy city, as well as to gain God’s forgiveness. Either way, Jerusalem’s history of multiculturalism has never been a straight forward one, but we can ultimately conclude that the Holy city was a place of growing cultures during the Christian rule.


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