Sharing Sacred Space: Holy Places in Jerusalem Between Christianity, Judaism, and Islam

Sharing Sacred Space: Holy Places in Jerusalem Between Christianity, Judaism, and Islam

By Ora Limor

In Laudem Hierosolymitani: Studies in Crusades and Medieval Culture in Honour of Benjamin Z. Kedar, edited by Iris Shagrir, Ronnie Ellenblum and Jonathan Riley-Smith (Ashgate, 2007)

Introduction: One of the most intriguing phenomena in the study of sacred space and pilgrimage to holy places is how believers of different faiths may share sanctity. Scholars and historians of religion have not infrequently noticed that the nature of a holy place retains its sanctity when it changes hands. Once a site has been recognized as holy, the sanctity adheres to it, irrespective of political and religious vicissitudes. Nowhere else, perhaps, is this rule more applicable than in the Holy Land. Over the past two thousand years, the country has changed hands repeatedly, generally in major wars of conquest that brought new rulers into power. These wars have also changed the offi cial religion of the country. During the fi rst millennium CE, it passed from Jewish to pagan rule, then becoming Christian and Muslim; in the second millennium it was successively Muslim, Christian, again Muslim, and finally Jewish. The changing religion of the rulers did not necessarily affect the inhabitants’ faith; in fact, members of different religions were always living side by side, practicing different degrees of coexistence. While some of their holy places and the sacred traditions associated with them are exclusive to one religion, many others are shared by two of the three faiths or even by all three. Unfortunately, only rarely has the sharing of traditions become a foundation for dialogue and amity. For the most part, it has become a bone of contention; dialectically, in fact, the greater the similarity and the reciprocity, the greater the argument, rivalry, and competition, each group of believers straining to confirm its own exclusivity and prove its absolute right to the tradition and the holy place. Such tensions are particularly prominent in Jerusalem. The city as a whole is sacred to the three religions, and certain areas in it are venerated by all three, sometimes for very similar ideological reasons. The Temple Mount – the site of the Temple – and the Mount of Olives – the site of the resurrection and the Last Judgment – are obvious examples. In addition, several holy places in and around Jerusalem are venerated by members of more than one religion. Prominent examples are David’s Tomb on Mount Zion, Samuel’s Tomb north of Jerusalem, Rachel’s Tomb between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, and the Tomb of the Prophetess Huldah on the Mount of Olives. The phenomenon of sharing also exists outside Jerusalem, for example in Galilee, and outside Palestine in general, as in Syria, Iraq, Egypt, and Morocco. Apart from sites hallowed by members of all three religions, Jews, Christians, and Muslims, there were also some sacred to members of only two. The Tomb of the Virgin Mary in the Vale of Jehoshaphat and the Church of the Ascension on the Mount of Olives are examples of Christian holy places also venerated by Muslims. These different sites exemplify sharing to different degrees and in different ways. Furthermore, the more one examines the phenomenon, the more one realizes that the category of “sharing” obscures a considerable variety of interfaith relations. Sometimes the sharing is ideological, believers of different faiths agreeing on the content of the traditions associated with a certain place; sometimes it is the ritual that is shared. This article will be concerned with the different meanings of “sharing” and their significance in the history of religions.

Click here to read this article from the Open University of Israel

Sign up to get a Weekly Email from

* indicates required

medievalverse magazine