The book concludes with a comprehensive glossary and a detailed index. The editor and translator, Bracha Slae, who has resided in the Old City for nearly 30 years and is herself a guide, portrays her deep love for the city in the way she has brought the book to life. The 40th anniversary of the reunification of Old and New Jerusalem makes this a most timely acquisition for everyone who cherishes Jerusalem and its history.
This year we are celebrating 40 years since the reunification of Jerusalem, so it is the perfect time for a documentation of the history of the Old City during the 19th and 20th centuries until the present time. Not only is this book a comprehensive textual record of how Jewish life developed there, but it contains historical photographs, many taken by the author, which have never before been published.
The book is based on the Hebrew writings of the late Aharon Bier. He was a writer, photographer, historian and tour guide who died in 1987 and who had actively participated in rebuilding the city for two decades. The book is a translation and an expansion of two Hebrew pamphlets he wrote for the Israeli Ministry of Education on the Jewish Quarter, the Old City walls and gates and the Moslem Quarter.
Additional material comes from a Hebrew article he wrote on “Torah and Prayer Institutions Within the Walls” that was edited by Mordechai Naor for the Company for the Restoration and Development of the Jewish Quarter, in 1987.
The book opens with a chronology of Jerusalem, which is an invaluable reference guide, giving both Hebrew and English dates of all the important milestones from 1350 B.C.E. when Joshua conquered the land and Jerusalem was a Jebusite city, until 2006 C.E. when excavations and construction of a new Jewish neighborhood begins near Herod’s Gate.
The typeface is easy to read and the photographs, many in color and adorning almost every page, are fascinating. From the beginning of the book, we can go back 100 years and discover who lived in the Old City, how they lived, what happened to the Jewish institutions they founded, what their lives were like under Ottoman and British rule, what occurred during the Jordanian occupation, culminating in 1967 with the return to Israeli sovereignty. It is a rich mosaic of a place that is, after all, only one mile square!
The book is divided into eight chapters: The Temple Mount and the Western Wall; the Old City; the Walls of Jerusalem; the Gates of Jerusalem; the Jewish Quarter; the Armenian Quarter; the Christian Quarter and the Moslem Quarter. There are many anecdotes including the one involving the Emperor Napoleon who, on passing a ghetto synagogue on Tisha B’Av, where Jews were mourning the destruction of the Temple 1,600 years earlier, is said to have remarked: “If these Jews can still cry over their Temple which was destroyed so long ago, I am certain that they will return to rebuild it.”
The book reminds us that until the 1860’s, the city of Jerusalem did not exist outside of the Old City walls and yet, in that small space lived Jews, Christians and Moslems of every possible denomination and ethnicity, co-existing for the most part in peace. At the beginning of the 19th century, the total population of Jerusalem was only 9,000 – 2,000 Jews, 4,000 Moslems and 3,000 Christians. It took only 40 years for Jews to become the majority, numbering 5,000. They were also the most vibrant community, managing 52% of the 875 shops in the market, and establishing the first hospitals, orphanages, schools for girls and trade schools, newspapers and printing presses, as well as flourishing yeshivot and synagogues.
The down-side was the lack of sanitation during World War I that caused deadly epidemics, and terrible poverty due to the disruption of European financial support. It was during the British Mandate period with its pro-Arab stance, that the horrific Arab riots of 1920, 1921, 1929, 1930 and 1936, took place, driving the Jews out of the city.
Among the many magnificent photos taken by the author is one of the ceiling mural, which no longer exists, at the Torat Chaim Yeshiva, and a touching one of the library that was protected from 1948-1967 by the Arab watchman, Mahmud Abdul Re’eni, in which you can also see the sefer Torah resting on a shelf.