Nine Quarters of Jerusalem is not a tourist guide but an attempt to see the city – and Teller really does mean the Old City, the walled city – beyond what is sometimes seen as a binary, Israeli Jews versus Palestinians. Of course there’s the added spice of Jerusalem also being one of the holiest sites in Christianity with the Church of the Holy Sepulchre built on the site of Christ’s crucifixion as well as the Jewish Western Wall and the Al-Aqsa mosque, all within 300 yards of each other.
That there are four quarters in the city suggests the situation is already more complicated. But who drew up the lines deliniating the them – the Christian, the Muslim, the Jewish and the Armenian quarters? Teller tracks this back to one George Williams who pitched up in Jerusalem in 1842. He was (well, I never!) an Old Etonian, probably did not speak Arabic and was Chaplain to the first Protestant Bishop of Jerusalem, a Chritian evangelist who was a convert from Judaism. Teller points out that these quarters were fabricated divisions, with churches, synagogues and mosques scattered outside their religious boundaries. But henceforth these quarters had power – they were on the map, every map. Yet 90% of those who live in the Old City are Arab.
90% of only 35,000 people. There might be a few people on the planet who have not heard of Jerusalem, but the Old City, the site of some of the holiest places of the three Abrahamic religions, has a population just a bit more than the St Anns estate in Nottingham in the 1960s. But two thirds of them are under 30… which means population growth will become unsustainable. In conversation at the online launch of this book (on our YouTube channel soon) Teller said that many young people leave – for Ramallah, the commercial capital of Palestine, or abroad – probably never to return.
But back to the book – and the nine quarters. Teller explores the minorities within the major communities and outside those communities. So we hear from the Karaites, a Jewish religion whose synagogue is the oldest in the city. It’s been going since the eighth century though the number of Karaites now in Jerusalem is tiny. The eighth century and still in use! Though they follow the Jewish Torah, many of their practices are similar to Islam – a religion predated by the Karaites. And within Islam there is the Sufi minority, and the ethnic minority of African Muslims – Afro-Palestinians if you prefer. And the Indian Muslim hospice.
Huge areas of Jerusalem are owned by the Greek Orthodox church, but everyone is represented – Copts, Catholics, Ethiopian Orthodox, Syriac, Armenian Orthodox… And these are only the ones who have a stake in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Famously the Status Quo agreement of 1757 means that each of the groups control a bit of the Church and in 2022 they control only the part they controlled in 1757. But to ensure nothing goes wrong one Muslim family (the same once since 1757) holds the keys, another Muslim family (the same one since… yup) unlocks and locks up the Church. And then there’s the ladder that serves no purpose but nobody has been able to move it since the eighteenth century as the Status Quo rules.
Perhaps the group least known group within the Old City are the Domari, the thousand or so Gypsies (the description they prefer if English is used). The Dom are outside all the communities, though most are Muslim by religion. They are the poorest, the least educated and are subject to racism by the others. The Arab word to describe them is “Nawar” – black, but not in a good way. Teller interviews Amoun Sleem who set up the Domari Society to educate and train Domari people. But Teller makes it clear that this unmarried woman (a rarity among the Dom) has her problems within her own community. The Dom, by the way, are scattered across the Middle East and are the equivalent of the European Roma, with a shared ancestry in India.
There is one missing quarter – the Moroccan quarter that was destroyed in 1967 to create a plaza in front of the Western Wall when Israel took Jerusalem in the Six Day War, its residents dispersed, in some cases back to Morocco. Teller interviews one of the few remaining in the Old City.
You will have noticed from the review that the author, a journalist, does not talk much about the Jews in the Old City, though they are represented and he does remind us that the period of Jordanian control was not exactly a period of religious tolerance. Teller is Jewish, his Bar Mitzvah was in Jerusalem, when he was taken to the Western Wall, and he has been back most years over the last forty years. He loves the city, but does not love the modern settlers who are buying property expressly to Judaise the city, or who are using dubious legal means to take over homes in suburbs like Silwan and Sheikh Jarrah. Their views are not represented in this book. He ends his book by envisaging a New Jerusalem, freed from “the nationalist fever-dream of partition” where Jerusalemites, and their compatriots in the wider hinterland, can “live without polarisation, under protection of the law, their rights assured, their aspirations respected, in dignity…” You can see why he does not wish to include the voices of the settlers.
Every story he tells has a backstory, often stretching back hundreds of years. The book is well-written. It will tell you things you didn’t know about Jerusalem and remind you of what you might have forgotten if you do know the place.
Matthew Teller’s book is available here: fiveleavesbookshop.co.uk/product/nine-quarters-of-jerusalem-a-new-biography-of-the-old-city/