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Interview

New ‘biography’ of Jerusalem Old City focuses on holy flashpoint’s diverse residents

In ‘Nine Quarters of Jerusalem,’ Matthew Teller challenges conventional theories of how the one-square kilometer is divided, and introduces readers to little-known communities

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

  • A view of Jerusalem Old City with the Dome of the Rock shrine, center, Tuesday, June 21, 2022. (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean)
    A view of Jerusalem Old City with the Dome of the Rock shrine, center, Tuesday, June 21, 2022. (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean)
  • Maysoon al-Maslohi at the supposed tomb of Abu Madyan in the Zawiya al-Magharba near Bab al-Silsila in Jerusalem's Old City. (Matthew Teller)
    Maysoon al-Maslohi at the supposed tomb of Abu Madyan in the Zawiya al-Magharba near Bab al-Silsila in Jerusalem's Old City. (Matthew Teller)
  • Sami Barsoum, mukhtar of the Syriac Orthodox community, in Jerusalem's Old City. (Matthew Teller)
    Sami Barsoum, mukhtar of the Syriac Orthodox community, in Jerusalem's Old City. (Matthew Teller)
  • Nazer Ansari at the retreat inside the Indian Hospice in Jerusalem's Old City, where Sufi master Baba Farid is reputed to have prayed 800 years ago. (Matthew Teller)
    Nazer Ansari at the retreat inside the Indian Hospice in Jerusalem's Old City, where Sufi master Baba Farid is reputed to have prayed 800 years ago. (Matthew Teller)
  • Musa Qous of the African Community Society, in the Bab al-Majlis neighborhood of Jerusalem's Old City. (Matthew Teller)
    Musa Qous of the African Community Society, in the Bab al-Majlis neighborhood of Jerusalem's Old City. (Matthew Teller)

On an afternoon this past May, author Matthew Teller pulled a small wheeled suitcase behind him as he walked around Jerusalem.

The bag was packed with copies of his latest book, “Nine Quarters of Jerusalem: A New Biography of the Old City.”

“They’re gifts for the people I interviewed for the book. I’m not a hit-and-run journalist. I don’t just take people’s stories and disappear,” Teller said in explaining why he personally schlepped the books from his home in the United Kingdom, instead of sending them by mail.

As Teller sat down for an interview with The Times of Israel at a café outside the Jaffa Gate, he said he wrote his book primarily for the people who live and work in the Old City whom he has had the privilege to meet and get to know over the years. He wanted to amplify their voices, which he believes are drowned out by all the screaming news headlines about the Israel-Palestine conflict.

Teller, a veteran Middle East reporter and travel writer, uses the present-day interviews as a springboard into the history of how Jerusalem came to be home to many and various religious and ethnic communities from around the world. However, today’s residents are always front and center.

“The conception, research and writing of this book was driven by the people I met and their voices. The book is rooted in the people living there. The history in the book is there for a reason. It sheds light on what is happening in Jerusalem today,” he said.

‘Nine Quarters of Jerusalem: A New Biography of the Old City,’ by Matthew Teller. (Profile Books)

The book is not easily categorized. It’s a melange of several different genres, and can be best described as a travel guide, a history, and a narrative nonfiction all rolled into one. It should be warned that it is laced with Teller’s personal political perspectives, and should thus not be taken as totally objective reportage.

“Nine Quarters of Jerusalem” will be eye-opening for even repeat visitors to Jerusalem, as it diverges from the beaten path of typical pilgrimage sites and takes readers into lesser-known and unfrequented corners of the Old City.

Among these are the Haret al-Nawar (the Gypsy Quarter) just inside the Lions Gate, where the Dom live. The Dom, descendants of a low caste in India like all other “Gypsies,” have lived in Jerusalem for two centuries and are on the lowest socio-economic rung. Teller introduces readers to Amoun Sleem, a Dom woman who, bucking her community’s conventions, got an education and remains unmarried. Sleem founded a non-profit and community center to help pull her community out of poverty.

Another fascinating stop on Teller’s tour are the Ribat al-Mansuri and Ribat al-Basiri, Mamluk-era compounds in the Bab al-Majlis neighborhood just outside the gate of the Al Aqsa mosque, where the 450 members of the Jaliyya al-Ifriqiyya, or African community, live.

African Muslims began visiting Jerusalem after making the hajj to Mecca in the 15th century, with some pilgrims deciding to settle. They worked as policemen or security guards, protecting Islamic colleges and ensuring that only Muslims entered the mosques on the Temple Mount. Jerusalem’s mufti during the British Mandate period, Amin al-Husseini, employed members of the Jaliyya al-Ifriqiyya as bodyguards. He gifted the two compounds to the community as thanks for one of the bodyguards taking a bullet for him when the British pursued him for fomenting riots in 1920.

Musa Qous of the African Community Society, in the Bab al-Majlis neighborhood of Jerusalem’s Old City. (Matthew Teller)

Teller quotes journalist Mousa Qous as saying, “We consider ourselves Afro-Palestinians. We are Palestinians but we have African roots. We have built here in order to keep our residency rights in Jerusalem.”

Qous emphasized that although there may be Africans in and around Jerusalem who were once enslaved, his Bab al-Majlis community was always free.

Teller, 53, also puts a new twist on the well-trodden Via Dolorosa. Instead of focusing on the Stations of the Cross themselves, he shifts his lens to the local businesses and institutions just next to or across from them. These include the Omariyya boys’ school, Ayman Qaisi’s fresh fruit juice stand, the Austrian Hospice (with its fancy café and well-loved apple strudel), and Abu Shukri’s famous hummus joint.

“The way would be perpetually busy even without the pilgrims: the Via Dolorosa follows some of Jerusalem’s busiest shopping streets,” he writes.

Modern tourist map of the Old City of Jerusalem. (Obendorf, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

The Times of Israel asked Teller about his book’s title, which is either incorrect or indicates that the author knows something the rest of us don’t. Wikipedia and any tourist map will tell you that Jerusalem’s Old City is comprised of the Temple Mount and four quarters: The Jewish, the Armenian, the Christian, and the Muslim.

“The title is designed to intrigue, to make people question. It’s a piece of poetry,” Teller said.

Teller’s main argument is that the Old City is and has always consisted of many small, often overlapping, and non-exclusive neighborhoods. In Arabic, such a neighborhood is called a hara or haret, and Teller found sources from the Middle Ages referring to 40 or more of them at one point. For example: Haret al-Mawarneh (named for Maronite Christians), Haret al-Magharbeh (named for the Muslims who arrived from North Africa), and Haret al-Wad (named for the area spreading out from the main al-Wad shopping street).

Maysoon al-Maslohi at the supposed tomb of Abu Madyan in the Zawiya al-Magharba near Bab al-Silsila in Jerusalem’s Old City. (Matthew Teller)

But what about the number “Nine” in the book’s title? It turns out it is random. It could have been any number — just not four.

Teller devotes a chapter to explaining that it was the British colonial powers who divided the city into four quarters along religious lines (although the Armenians are Christian). He located the first map labeling Jerusalem with the quarters as we know them today. It was created by Royal Engineers Lt. Edward Aldrich and Julian Symonds in 1841.

“No map has shown this before. Every map has shown it since,” Teller writes.

Teller said he believes he is the first person to identify this exact history of how the four quarters concept came about.

“I think it is a significant find. Prior to this, people just spoke in generalized terms that the Europeans divided the city into four quarters. But I did the research and discovered that maps from the 1810s, 1820s and 1830s showed no quarters. It was only with Aldrich and Symonds’s map and later that we see the quarters. Maybe I have got it wrong. I’m not a historian. But that is ok. At least I have opened the door on this,” Teller said.

Matthew Teller. (Andrew Shaylor)

Dividing Jerusalem into four quarters is not the only thing the British got wrong, according to Teller. In his eyes, the British did nothing right in the Holy City.

“I did intend a message in this book to be that British colonialism irreparably damaged Jerusalem socially, politically, architecturally — in fact in every way,” he said.

Teller, who in recent decades came to question his strong pro-Zionist upbringing, is also critical of Israel’s control of east Jerusalem and the Old City. Although he does include the voices of a few Israeli Jews in his book, he devotes most of its 336 pages to representatives of the approximately 35,000 Palestinians living in the extremely crowded Old City. And he doesn’t hold back on criticizing Israel’s policies and practices.

“What has Israel done right in the Old City or Jerusalem in general in the last 55 years? I couldn’t put my finger on one positive outcome,” Teller said.

Teller said he hopes to see Palestinians gain full rights, and more justice and compassion all around. In the meantime, he is pleased to be giving readers glimpses of the lives of everyday people who dwell today within the world-famous walls built in the 16th century by Suleiman the Magnificent.

“Writing this book has been a liberation for me, because at last I have been able to do justice to the stories I have carried for a long time and put them out there,” he said.

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