It was the Church Council in Clermont (France) in November 1095 which launched the First Crusade. The Council had been summoned by Pope Urban II, the prime mover in the Crusade, and there he had preached the merit and glory of the deliverance of the Holy Land. What he and the princes planned, and what they eventually carried out, was a carefully directed invasion by picked men. But what immediately followed the Clermont decision was the undisciplined march across Europe of hundreds of thousands of “thoughtless and needy plebeians,” as Gibbon records in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, spreading ruin and massacring Jews en route. They were roused by such mob orators as Peter the Hermit (Peter of Picardy), a volatile pilgrim who had been maltreated by the Moslems in Jerusalem and who had returned to the west to stir Christendom against the infidel. Flocking behind Peter and others including “another fanatic, the monk Godescal,” went 300,000, according to Gibbon’s estimate, “the most stupid and savage refuse of the people, who mingled with their devotion a brutal license of rapine, prostitution, and drunkenness.

As they moved through Europe, says Gibbon, this huge rabble undertook “the first and most easy warfare…against the Jews…in the trading cities of the Moselle and the Rhine… At Verdun, Treves, Metz, Worms, many thousands of that unhappy people were pillaged and massacred, nor had they felt a more bloody stroke since the persecution of Hadrian.”

With the Crusader kingdom, Jerusalem again became the capital—for the first time since the Jews were sovereign in the land. For the thousand years that followed its destruction by Titus, Jerusalem had been relegated by its rulers to the status of a provincial town. It was now, under the Crusaders, again the center, again a fount of international interest.


The shape of the city was much as it was in Roman times, with Mount Zion again outside the walls. Inside, there was a feverish drive to erect ecclesiastical buildings of every kind, churches and hospices, convents and monasteries, and residences for the clergy. The Church of the Holy Sepulcre received prime attention. It was completely rebuilt and given the outline that exists in large part today. The rectangular shape of Constantine’s’ edifice was changed into the form of a cross and the four shrines were united under a single roof, the rotunda of the sepulcher alone following Constantine’s design and rising on the original foundations. Further chapels and cloisters were added.

Christian structures sprang up all over the city, crowding in upon each other, but mainly in the “Patriarch’s quarter”—today’s “Christian quarter”—in the northwest and the “Armenian quarter,” as it is still called, in the southwest. Crusader establishments were also erected in what is today known as the “Jewish quarter,” in the southeast. The northeast section, today’s “Moslem quarter,” was then called, as we learn from pilgrim records, “Jewry” or the “Syrian quarter.” Several churches were built there, the most notable being the Church of St. Anne, perhaps the best preserved Crusader church in Jerusalem. In this quarter dwelt the Syrian Christians brought in by King Baldwin to populate Jerusalem, and to them were added other Christian groups who had come from neighboring Moslem countries.


In the early decades of Crusader rule, the ban on the entry into Jerusalem of a Jew was strictly enforced. By the middle of the twelfth century, there seems to have been a very slight relaxation, a few prominent overseas Jews, like the great Maimonides, being allowed to pay a visit, and a small number of families being permitted to settle—possibly for their needed skill in dyeing. They were seen by Benjamin of Tudela, one of the greatest travelers of the Middle Ages, who visited Jerusalem shortly after the year 1167. This Spanish Jew, usually referred to as Rabbi Benjamin, found Jerusalem “a small city strongly fortified with three walls. The dyeing house is rented by the year, and the exclusive privilege of dyeing is purchased from the king by the Jews of Jerusalem, two hundred of whom dwell in one corner of the city, under the Tower of David.”


The Crusaders lost Jerusalem in 1187, after the decisive defeat of their armies at the celebrated battle of the Horns of Hattin, near the Sea of Galilee, by the brilliant military and political leader Salah ad-Din, known to the western world as Saladin.

Saladin (1138-93), an Armenian Kurd by race and a Moslem by faith, founder of the Ayyubid dynasty, was brought up in Damascus, where his father, Ayyub, was Governor. He was thus educated in what was then the principal center of Moslem learning, and absorbed the best traditions of Moslem culture. As a young man, he served as aide to his uncle, who had made himself vizier of Egypt. Saladin succeeded him, and within a few years extended his rule over Syria. By the year 1186, he was in control, either by conquest or negation, of all the territory which enclosed the Crusader kingdom.

A few months later, an undisciplined Crusader, Reynald of Chatillon, broke a four years’ truce which provoked a Moslem reaction. The whole military strength of the Crusaders was then flung into action in Galilee on the foolish order of the inexperienced Crusader king, Guy de Lusignan, and on July 4, 1187 was virtually annihilated. The cities and castles of the kingdom lay open to Saladin. On September 20, his forces appeared before the walls of Jerusalem. The city surrendered twelve days later.

Saladin behaved with the utmost chivalry and generosity, granting clemency to the Christian inhabitants and sparing the churches—in stark contrast to the actions of the Crusaders upon their capture of the city eighty-eight years earlier. He did, however, resume possession of the Temple Mount—the Haram esh-Sharif with its Dome of the Rock and Mosque of El-Aksa, which he purified with rose-water and restored to their former state.


With Saladin’s conquest, the Jews were once more officially allowed to settle in Jerusalem, and this policy was continued by his successors. Within a short time, there was again a Jewish community in the Holy City, though we have no record of their numbers in the early period. It must have been very small, and as impoverished as the other inhabitants of Jerusalem at the time. There is a brief reference to them in the “Itinerary” of a certain Rabbi Samuel ben Samson who made the pilgrimage some twenty years later, in 1210. “We arrived at Jerusalem by the western end of the city, rending our garments on beholding it, as it has been ordained we should do”—as a sign of morning for the destruction of the Temple. Near the Temple Mount, “we said our prayers twice with a minyan [a religious quorum of at least ten Jews]…”

A year later saw the arrival of three hundred rabbis and scholars from France and England who came to settle in the country and greatly enriched Jewish cultural life. The records are thin for the next fifty years, but in 1267 there arrived in Jerusalem one of the most important scholars of his age, a Jew from Spain named Rabbi Moshe ben Nahman, better known as Nachmanides. He it was who revived the Jewish congregation of Jerusalem, established a center of Jewish learning, and reconstructed a synagogue which bore his name ever after.

In the decades before his arrival, however, there had been several changes in the status of Jerusalem. Forty-two years after the Crusaders had lost the city to Saladin, they recovered it—not by conquest but by gift. Saladin’s empire had been divided among his sons, none of whom had inherited his genius, and friction led to frequent conflict between the Syrian and Egyptian branches of the dynasty. Neither was above soliciting Crusader help against the other, and in 1229 the Egyptian sultan al-Kamil, then at war with his nephew al-Nasir of Damascus, offered to the emperor Frederick II of Germany, in return for an alliance, what was a bauble to himself but a glittering prize to the emperor—Jerusalem.

The Crusader leaders who remained behind were not as wise as he. They quarreled among themselves and often took opposing sides in the perennial disputes between Cairo and Damascus. In 1244, following one such intervention, an army of nomad Khwarizmian Turks from central Asia, in the pay of Sultan Ayyub (al-Salih) of Egypt captured Jerusalem, pillaged and massacred, and sacked the city. Not for almost seven centuries was it to be governed again by Christians.