Sacred Origins of Jerusalem

Sacred Origins of Jerusalem

Long before there was a Temple, and before Jerusalem,there was the Ophel hill. Tombs dating to 3200 BC have been found on the Ophel hill, which was to become David’s city, but no traces of habitations have been discovered, no signs of urban life. To the west the land of Canaan fell away to the Mediterranean coastal plain, an avenue of trade, and to  the east was the Jordan river valley, where even then stood Jericho, one of the oldest cities in the world. But few people lived in these highlands of Judah in the region of the  Ophel hill. Jerusalem, which was to assume such significance for the Jewish, Christian and Muslim worlds, began as a remote mountain site off the beaten track.

Nevertheless, some settlers were attracted to the Ophel hill for the natural protection that it offered and because of the Gihon Spring, which flowed from its eastern flank, so that by the end of the nineteenth century BC the hill was encircled by a defensive wall, a fortress was constructed at its northern end, and houses built on artificial terraces climbing up the slopes of the citadel. By now the Egyptians knew of its existence; among the names of nineteen Canaanite cities which have been found inscribed on Twelfth Dynasty potsherds is one called Rushalimum, meaning ‘founded byShalem’. Hills and mountains in the ancient Middle East were associated with the divine because they reached into the sky, and Shalem, who was a Syrian god identified with the setting sun or with the evening star, had chosen to manifest himself on the Ophel hill. From the moment of its foundation, Jerusalem was a sacred place.

Six hundred years later, in about 1200 BC, Jerusalem was in the hands of the Jebusites, a people who had recently settled in Canaan. These were turbulent times, marked by dramatic climate change and the vast migration of the Sea Peoples who originated somewhere beyond the Black Sea and irrupted southwards through Asia Minor, the Middle East, the Mediterranean and even as far as the shores of Libya and Egypt. In the course of the Sea People’s disruptive wanderings entire civilisations were overthrown, including the Mycenaeans of Greece and the Hittites, whose empire had extended over Asia Minor and most of Syria. The Jebusites were probably remnants of the Hittite empire who sought refuge in the highlands of Judah, even as the Philistines, who were probably Sea Peoples beaten back from Egypt, settled along the coastal lowlands of Canaan. But at the same time another people were establishing themselves in the highlands of Canaan: the Israelites, whose tribes soon encircled Jebusite Jerusalem.

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