Asserting Political Authority in a Sacred Landscape: A Comparison of Umayyad and Israeli Jerusalem

Asserting Political Authority in a Sacred Landscape:  A Comparison of Umayyad and Israeli Jerusalem

By Nathan Karp

Joukowsky Institute Prize Winning Paper – Undergraduate (2007)

The Dome of The Rock Mosque, in the temple mount. Photo by David Baum

Introduction: In The Political Landscape, Adam Smith argues that “The creation and preservation of political authority is a profoundly spatial problem”. To analyze a political landscape without placing it in the context of the physical environment is to ignore the fundamental ways in which political authority manifests itself—in space and place. The ways in which political powers make use of (or neglect) the physical landscape is perhaps the strongest indicator of their capacity to exercise political authority. This issue is particularly poignant when it comes to the initial stages of establishing political authority. Maintenance of authority is of course the end goal, but how does political leadership “build” political authority in the first place? In general, the process involves physical construction of government buildings as a means of establishing a political presence—but this in and of itself is not sufficient to sustain political power. This paper shall address the establishment of political authority over time in Jerusalem, where the notion of sacred topography adds another level of complexity to the politicization of space. The process of ‘constructing sanctity’, as pointed out by Josef Meri, is an active process that involves building and performing rituals, but also includes the processes of rediscovery, reclamation, and recreation of sacred space. As a corollary, the process of sanctification of space for political ends involves the re-appropriation of sacred space and the implementation of ritual practice as a means of solidifying political authority.

After coming to power in 685, the Umayyad caliph Abd al-Malik embarked on an impressive building plan on and around the Temple Mount, using the process of sanctification to imbue the site with a strong religious (Islamic) and nationalist (Umayyad) fervor. At this point, Jerusalem had been under Muslim control for just over forty years, and so the project must be understood as an attempt to establish both Muslim and Umayyad authority in an otherwise Christian landscape. More than fourteen centuries later, Jerusalem would fall under Israeli control — and like the Umayyads, the Israeli government would establish their authority via the spatial frontier. When East Jerusalem fell into Israeli hands during the June 1967 war, the Israeli government quickly embarked on an urban program of reunification to re-establish a Jewish presence in the Old City. This project, which had both archaeological and colonial urban planning elements, sought to recreate the Jewish quarter and reclaim Jewish holy sites, all in an effort to create a unified, Jewish/Israeli Jerusalem that would (and could) never again be divided. For both the Umayyad dynasty and the Israeli government, the Temple Mount and its environs would become a central locus for contesting/claiming national space and posturing for political power.

Click here to read this article from Brown University

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