Book Review: Nine Quarters of Jerusalem, a New Biography of the Old City by Matthew Teller

Profile Books. Hard cover. £16.99

Review by Menachem Klein

Watch recording of Matthew Teller’s ‘Nine Quarters of Jerusalem’ book launch live from Jerusalem. This event was jointly organised by the Bethlehem Cultural Festival, Educational Bookshop Jerusalem and Balfour Project.

..a wonderful book that unlike previous ones, ..for instance Jerusalem the Biography… which portrays the city as an eternal battlefield suffering from religiously and politically motivated external invaders, concentrates on everyday urban life: for instance where the bazaar flow of life intermingles with pilgrims praying at the Via Dolorosa stations, where Jesus walked bearing the Cross.

“Jerusalem is not my city and never will be”, writes Matthew Teller. However, he adds, “there has been hardly a year in my life in which it has not played a part” [371]. What brought him to be at once attracted to and rejected by Jerusalem?  “It is hard to understand Jerusalem. There is a gap between how a person might live their city each day, and how they might communicate that experience to peers and insiders, let alone to outsiders like me” ]2]. His book shows that he is not a typical outsider.

I live in the city and know first-hand this discrepancy. When I wrote my book, Lives in Common: Arabs and Jews in Jerusalem, Jaffa and Hebron, I found it also in historical texts dealing with the city in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Jerusalemites’ reports are very different from Western visitors’ writings. The latter compared it with their places of origin or imagined Jerusalem, whereas locals reported on urban reality and its transformation from the past. Teller took upon himself to build a bridge of words over this gap. It is not an easy mission since, according to him “Whatever you see here is not what’s really going on” [3]. Teller, a second generation of Eastern Europe Jewish migrants to Britain and renowned travel reporter, independent journalist and author, who has since childhood visited Jerusalem, succeeds in transmitting the local experience to the outsider.

The author travelled once with a friend who was blind. During the trip, Teller struggled with the challenge “how do you describe a city to a blind person?” [6]. His experience taught him “that the world we create through our eyes is only one world and there are others” [6]; that blind persons can see. Teller assumes that we all are blind in one way or the other when we visit Jerusalem or just read about it. Moreover, a blind man cannot only see the city but also govern it. The sightless Mamluk Governor Ala al-Din [arrived in Jerusalem in 1267, died there in 1294] managed and developed the city so well that people gave him the nickname al-Basir, which means clear-sighted. Indeed, the Mamluk era was one of Jerusalem’s rare golden ages and many of its structures and socio-religious institutions still exist.

Thus, from where did the quarter perspective arrive, and who created it? The British. Can it be otherwise?

Jerusalem is the subject of many historical and geographical studies, archaeological and tourist guides, policy and religious analyses, and memoires. What distinguishes Nine Quarters of Jerusalem from previous popular volumes are first the wide range of updated academic knowledge on which the author relies. They are listed in double-column [pages 343-370] right after the photographs list. Sources and a short explanation are attached to each caption. Secondly, his is an attractive, reader-friendly narrative. Both combined provide a wonderful book that unlike previous ones, for instance the popular volume by Simon Sebag Montefiore, Jerusalem the Biography , which portrays the city as an eternal battlefield suffering from religiously and politically motivated external invaders, concentrates on everyday urban life: for instance where the bazaar flow of life intermingles with pilgrims praying at the Via Dolorosa stations, where Jesus walked bearing the Cross.

The book contains 18 short chapters, each built around one of the old city gates and its sub-communities. Actually, the book is more a profile of the place than its biography, as the book title states. Skillfully, the author avoids lecturing chronologically. Especially interesting are the pages on a variety of Sufi orders (from Persia, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, India, the Balkans and North Africa) that established colleges and lodges in the city. He participated in one of their trance-like typical practices. No less interesting are the chapters on the poor Gypsy [Dom] community, originally from India, which lives in the northeast corner of the old city. These Gypsies came to Jerusalem through Central Asia, the Balkans and Turkey. They live next to a West African-origin community. Both communities are humiliated and discriminated against by their fellow Muslims. Despite the discouraging circumstances, these communities developed impressive agencies for socio-economic change. The author gives them voice and face. The Israeli occupation is present in the text as it is in the real life of Jerusalem Palestinians. However, other powerful institutions that shape the city’s life are missing: the rich Christian and Muslim religious institutions, heads of churches or the Mufti. He amplifies the voices Israel subordinates in favour of other dominant institutions shaping the everyday life of the less-heard Palestinians.  

I doubt how far the author is committed to the number nine in his book title. However, he makes it clear in the first chapter that the common division of the old city to four quarters is wrong. Maps offer different boundary lines between them. Moreover, the quarter framework leaves the Temple Mount unaffiliated, detached from the Jews or Muslims who claim ownership of the site. In addition, behind the quarter framework lies the assumption about ethno-religious exclusiveness. It is as wrong historically as it is regarding the present. Jerusalem has always had mixed neighbourhoods.  Arab historians and the Ottoman census used other divisions of the city. Thus, from where did the quarter perspective arrive, and who created it?

The British. Can it be otherwise?

In 1834, the British army helped the Ottoman Sultan to put down a popular uprising in Palestine. In 1841, two officers, Edward Aldrich and Julian Symonds, came to survey Jerusalem. They used the map that Frederick Catherwood had created six years earlier, based on his fieldwork in the city. In 1843 the Viennese lithographer, Hermann Engel, introduced the division into quarters on Catherwood’s map. Engel’s ‘quarters’ were actually five: Latin, Turkish, Greek, Armenian and Jewish. This was the first time that the term appeared on the Jerusalem map. The two British officers made it four. “No map had shown this before. Every map has shown it since” [33]. The quarters perspective expresses an external view. No Ottoman Muslim would have then confined the Muslims into a quarter. They owned the whole city.

The British map shaped minds. On the ground, the British changed Jerusalem during their rule, effectively from 1917 until 1948. Much of what the city planner Charles Ashbee and the governor Ronald Storrs ruled is maintained to this day. Almost all Jerusalem buildings are, externally, made of stones and no construction hides the old city walls.     

Prof. Menachem Klein is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Political Science at Bar-Ilan University, Israel. He studied Middle East and Islamic Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and was a fellow at St. Antony’s College, Oxford, MIT, the European University Institute, Florence, Leiden University and Kings College, London. In 2000 -2001, Prof. Klein was an adviser to Prime Minister Ehud Barak and the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Prof. S. Ben-Ami. 

His book Lives in Common – Arabs and Jews in Jerusalem, Jaffa and Hebron, Oxford University Press NY and C. Hurst London 2014,was acclaimed by the New Republic as one of best 2014 non-fiction books. Lives in Common is published also ins German and Hebrew editions. In 2019 he published Arafat and Abbas Portraits of Leadership in a State Postponed, Hurst, London and Oxford, New York.

Other book reviews by Menachem Klein

Book Review: A City in Fragments, Urban Text in Modern Jerusalem by Yair Wallach

Book Review: How the PLO dropped the ball during the Oslo process by by Jerome Segal

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