The Jewish capital of Jerusalem was (and still is) a prominent city in the Middle East, but it has a tumultuous history of repeated conquest, glory, rebellion, war, destruction, and restoration. Unlike other ancient capitals that were well-positioned around natural resources and trade routes, Jerusalem was located far inland, between the Mediterranean Sea and the Dead Sea, away from major trade routes and waterways. It also lacked an adequate water supply, until an underground spring was diverted within its walls. The city sat on the southern spur of a plateau in the Judean mountains. Two steep valleys flanked Jerusalem east and west, while another shallow one ran through it. The Hinnom Valley, also called the Gehenna Valley, lay south and west of Jerusalem’s walls, wrapping around the base of the city’s highest point, Mount Zion, where Herod’s palace was built; the Kidron Valley was east of the city, separating the Mount of Olives from Jerusalem’s temple mount, also called Mount Moriah; and through the middle of the city, the shallow Tyropoeon Valley ran southward to join with the Kidron and Hinnom outside the walls. But despite its apparent geographic impracticality, Jerusalem’s hostile location made it a strong fortress, easily defended against attack. However, Jerusalem’s walls and gates have been built, destroyed, rebuilt, and expanded so many times that little of what stood in the first century remains to this day.
The name Jerusalem has various proposed meanings: the first half of the word can mean “foundation,” “cornerstone,” “house,” or “instruction,” while the second half can mean “peace,” “safety” or refer to Shalim, the Canaanite god of the setting sun. Similarly, Jerusalem has various pseudonyms. The city is first mentioned in the Bible as Salem (1), which was ruled by a Canaanite priest named Melchizedek during the time of Abraham. Hundreds of years later, Jerusalem is again mentioned in the Bible during Joshua’s campaign to conquer Canaan. The city was then inhabited by the Jebusites, and was therefore called Jebus (2). Although Israel attacked and invaded the city, they couldn’t drive the Jebusites out until the reign of King David. Despite the city’s strong defense atop steep slopes, David’s army conquered the city around 1003 BC through a secret underground water tunnel. David then expanded the city walls and made Jerusalem his capital. Jerusalem helped to unite Israel because it sat, ideally, near the border of Judah (southern kingdom) and Benjamin (northern kingdom). Thus Jerusalem was also known as the City of David (3). Finally, David’s son Solomon built the first Temple in Jerusalem on the second-highest point in the city, Mount Moriah, which may be the same location as where Abraham tied up and nearly sacrificed his son Isaac in an act of faith centuries earlier. However, the Temple mount (and Jerusalem itself) was thereafter called Zion (4), after Mount Zion, the highest point within the city, located across the Tyropoeon Valley just west of Mount Moriah.
After construction of the Jewish Temple, Jerusalem became the center of religion and culture for Israel. It was during Solomon’s reign that Jerusalem reached the pinnacle of its splendor, with envoys from all over the world visiting to admire and pay tribute to Israel. However, civil strife and widespread immorality soon led to its downfall. Twenty years after the northern kingdom of Israel fell to Assyria, Jerusalem (the capital of the southern kingdom of Judah) miraculously survived a siege in 701 BC by the Assyrians after a plague supposedly decimated their army. However, Babylon succeeded where Assyria could not, capturing Jerusalem in 597 and again in 587 BC, and taking exiles back east on both occasions. Seventy years later, Jewish exiles were allowed to return to their homeland under the Persians to rebuild the Temple, which was completed in 516 BC, but paled in comparison to the original Temple. Judah existed as a vassal state in the Persian Empire, and as a territory in the Greek Empire after Alexander the Great conquered Persia. But Jerusalem revolted against the Greeks in 167 BC and established an independent Hebrew nation. However, the city was recaptured in 37 BC, this time by Herod the Great, who ruled Judea and the surrounding nations as a client-king under Rome. During Herod’s rule, Jerusalem’s Temple and walls were renovated and expanded. The Jews again rebelled in 66 AD, leading to a Roman-Jewish war and the subsequent destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD under the Roman commander Titus.