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Four Quarters

I visited Israel in 1987 and it was the experience of a lifetime. In Jerusalem, I noticed that the walled Old City is divided into four quarters: Jewish, Muslim, Christian and Armenian. My question is: When were these divisions made, and why is there both a Christian and an Armenian quarter?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

To answer your question, let's review a quick history of Jerusalem. Dating back 3,000 years ago, Jerusalem had only one quarter – the Jewish Quarter. The simply reason is that when King David made it the capital of Israel, all of Jerusalem was Jewish!

In 70 C.E. the Roman emperor Vespasian and his legions destroyed the Holy Temple and Jerusalem. A series of revolts against Rome ensued. The revolt led by Bar Kochba and Rabbi Akiva nearly succeeded, but in the end the Emperor Hadrian prevailed. He wiped out over a million Jews and completely destroyed Jerusalem. He then rebuilt the city in its current design of four quarters, and renamed it Aelius Capitolinus. (Aelius from his name, Aelius Publius Hadrianus, and capitolinus as the surname of his god Jupiter.)

Throughout the millennia, Jews did not relinquish their dream of rebuilding the Temple and returning to Jerusalem, and they always retained a presence there. One hundred years ago, 60 percent of the residents of the Old City were Jews. The Jewish Quarter was too small to accommodate them, so Jews actually comprised a majority of the Muslim Quarter as well.

Arab riots in the 1920s forced the evacuation of all Jews from the Muslim Quarter. In the aftermath, over 300 Jewish properties were either burned, destroyed or abandoned. Today, numerous buildings in the Muslim Quarter are identified as historically Jewish by virtue of the niches carved in the doorways. These niches once held a Mezuzah, the parchment placed on the doorway of every Jewish house.

Recently, many Jews have begun to move back into the Muslim Quarter, prompting some bit of political controversy. One group is the Ateret Kohanim Yeshiva, where Jewish scholars study the laws pertaining to Jewish life during the times of the Holy Temple.

The Christian quarter is comprised mostly of Arab Christians, including Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, Copts, etc. Since the time of the Crusades 1,000 years ago, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in the Christian Quarter has been a site of pilgrimage for Christians the world over.

The Armenian quarter is comprised completely of Christian Armenians. Prior to WWI the entire area was a monastery. Only beginning in 1915, when fanatical Turkish Muslims massacred a million Armenian Christians, did some of the survivors take up residence in Jerusalem.

By the way, some would argue that there are actually five quarters in the Old City, the fifth being the Temple Mount, also called Mount Moriah, which has been a Jewish historical site for 4,000 years.

May Jerusalem soon fulfill its destiny as the City of Peace.

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