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Nine Quarters of Jerusalem, A New Biography of the Old City

February 23, 2023 at 1:26 pm

Nine Quarters of Jerusalem, A New Biography of the Old City
  • Book Author(s): Matthew Teller
  • Publisher: Profile Books; Main edition (17 March 2022)
  • Hardback: 400 pages
  • ISBN-13: 978-1788169189

Matthew Teller had to unlearn much of what he had learnt about Jerusalem before he could write his book Nine Quarters of Jerusalem – A New Biography of the Old City, of which a new softback version is now available. Teller’s journey, prompted by his visit to the Old City as a child and ongoing visits as an adult, serves the reader willing to challenge the assumptions typically held about this troubled and historic city and its supposed “four quarters”: Christian, Muslim, Jewish and Armenian.

In fact, according to Teller, the city is more of a nine-quarter place, as the title of his book makes clear. However, the Palestinian Jerusalemites would never refer to the four historic quarters in any case. They viewed the city as one entity with its neighbourhoods understood as communities defined by ties of history, family or trade, but not religious exclusivity.

It’s not only Christians who live in the Christian quarter or Armenians in the Armenian Quarter. And the Muslim quarter is not a no-go area reinforced by the dividing lines shown in guidebooks, tourist info packs and news items. Teller, therefore, has delved into where the divisive “four quarter” maps of Jerusalem came from.

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As you flick through the 347 pages of the text, black and white pictures provide teasing visual depictions of the great, gated and walled city. And through the prose, you’re transported into its confines. Teller weaves an enjoyable tapestry of the present-day stories of residents, their family past and local and global history. It is infused with a description of the city’s sounds, smells and images, making you feel that you’re actually there, smelling the zaatar and watching the modern-day pilgrims roll crucifixes down crowded streets.

The constant bustle and banter of the markets play through your mind as the city’s dynamics are relayed in seventeen chapters. Not all lengthy travel reads about Jerusalem put the Palestinian experience at their centre successfully; they perhaps try rather clunkily to ignore its reality in some pursuit of “balance”. Teller, though, has attempted to include the Palestinian voice as much as possible with known personalities, such as Mahmoud Muna, the notorious bookseller of Jerusalem, making cameo appearances as interviewees. However, the take on challenging how the city has been divided up and how its four quarters came into being is the most fascinating aspect of Teller’s book.

Any modern map of Jerusalem will demarcate four unequal quarters clearly. Each map, though, whether current or old, may present them slightly differently. For instance, the Muslim quarter may be condensed so that it doesn’t take up too much space. Or the map may start from another orientation, with the west and Jewish quarter at the bottom because that’s where most Jewish visitors enter. “Thus do maps shape our perceptions, deliberately concealing truth while perhaps unintentionally revealing motivation,” writes Teller.

Britain’s motivations when it controlled Palestine from the early to mid-20th century transformed the city’s maps from a much more complex depiction that included a Latin quarter and a Turkish quarter, among others. While the Ottomans built the city walls, settlements started growing outside its gates, yet these disappeared once the British arrived. Nevertheless, it somehow served them to ascertain crudely the names of streets and where so-called neighbourhoods should be. Most ironic is that there is a Muslim quarter at all — it was dreamt up in 1841 — given that most people living in the Old City are Muslims. Teller makes his telling observation — please excuse the pun — that the English use of “quarters” is to demarcate where “Others” live.

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Stories about those who have settled in and set up trade around the gates of the Old City and along its famous pilgrimage route fill the book. The insightful gems expose some of the hardships endured by Palestinian residents – such as Israel’s complicated permit requirements and checks that restrict Palestinian trade – or the development of Armenian ceramics and the differences in its intricate paintwork.

A charming chapter delves into the stories around the Damascus Gate, attributing to it an Arabic phrase “fil haraka baraka”, which means “in movement is blessing”. The phrase could allude to several interpretations, including that exercise is healthy; that working hard gets results; or that time waits for no one. It can also allude to the wonder of a busy street. All these meanings could be applied to the surroundings at the Damascus Gate, as Teller points out.

With the intense politics surrounding Palestine, Israel and Jerusalem, the status quo is often discussed, which is an understanding among the city’s religious communities concerning certain religious sites. A similar issue comes into play in Bethlehem as well. The status quo agreement about Al-Aqsa Mosque is probably the most well known of these, as the Noble Sanctuary including the mosque and the Dome of the Rock among other important places is often a flashpoint for conflicting interests.

However, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is a fascinating subject for the status quo to which Teller gives space in the book; he sheds light on the political power struggle between the Greek Orthodox, the Armenian Orthodox and the Roman Catholic Churches. Various other denominations also have a stake. None have the keys to the door of the church, as the jostling for power makes it too risky for such an important place of worship, within which nothing can change without the agreement of all denominations. The ongoing lack of consensus between the Christian denominations has been so great, the writer informs us, that a ladder has been left resting on an upper ledge of the church since the 18th century. Perhaps that’s why the responsibility for looking after the keys lies with a Muslim family.

As compiled and presented by Teller, these stories illustrate Jerusalem’s rich history, with wonderful tales of human idiosyncrasies, successes, emotions and distress, even while it is caught up in one of the longest conflicts in modern history. Of course, there are divisions, but they are much more nuanced than the “quarters” presented to us on the maps that we are all used to seeing.

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