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Better to dismount...

Updated: May 8, 2023

Handbook for conquerors of Jerusalem

General Allenby enters Jerusalem by foot in 1917.

There is something breathtaking about arriving to the walls of Jerusalem. Most people's heart skips a beat, even the atheists, entering the Holy City. As a (secular) guide, I always greet tourists with the words "Welcome to the Holy City" whether driving into Jerusalem as soon as it reveals itself after the Harel Tunnel, or at the gates of the Old City. It's a moment, an event.

The walls embrace the center of the world. The Rock of Foundation, the stone upon which God had founded the whole world and the world was built around it. There is an energy in the city.

All the nooks and crannies of the city are filled with notes, everywhere, inserted there by followers of all religions, not just at the Western Wall.

Some find this atmosphere irritating.

The Holy Spirit of God is neigh.

And before entering the walls, I mention historical moments concerning some of the city's conquerors, who were wise enough to show humility as they entered, due to its holiness. Those who did not, were derided.

King David

The first to establish Jerusalem's sanctity was King David, who conquered it from the Jebusites and made it the capital of his kingdom. He brought the Ark of the Covenant which was lost in foreign fields into the city, and sanctified it.

2 Samuel 6 5: (assumedly around 1000 BCE, "David and all Israel were celebrating with all their might before the Lord, with castanets, harps, lyres, timbrels, sistrums and cymbals".

Michal, David's princess wife, Saul's daughter, mocked him for “How the king of Israel has distinguished himself today, going around half-naked in a plain linen shirt in full view of the slave girls of his servants!”, He unhesitatingly retorted: "By these slave girls I will be held in honor.” The lesson of wearing a plain linen shirt and humbling oneself was studied well by some conquerors of the city.

In addition, the prophet Zechariah (Chapter I, verse 9) "Rejoice greatly, Daughter of Zion! Rejoice, Daughter Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey."

So, it was clearly shown in the Jewish sources that if anyone wanted to own the city, they should show humility and respect at its gates.

Here, the French painter James Tissot, chooses the imagery of Jesus's Palm Sunday to describe King David's entry to Jerusalem with the Ark of the Covenant. A late 19th century artist, and devout Catholic, visited the Holy Land quite a few times, renown for his Biblical illustrations.

Another conqueror whose entry was taken note of, historically, was the Roman general Pompey the Great, who was, in fact, invited into Jerusalem in 63 BCE, by the heirs of the late Queen Salomé Alexandra, Aristobulus and Hyrcanus II. After a three-month siege, the rebels surrendered and Pompey took over the Temple. But then he did the unthinkable, and entered the Holy of Holies, a sanctuary no human is allowed into, except for the high priest on the day of Atonement. This was a blatant desecration of the temple. The Jews just stood incredulous and helpless, facing this unspeakable act. Pompey did not touch anything nor did he take anything. He ordered the purification of the sanctuary and the resumption of rites and sacrifices. However, this act of brute force was remembered as a travesty throughout the centuries. French miniaturist Jean Fouquet features the incident in an artwork of 1475, titled "Pompey in the Temple of Jerusalem".


All four gospels quote the verse from Zachariah, when Jesus asks to bring him a white donkey. Jesus actually stage manages his entrance according to Zachariah. The Bible tells us that crowds stood by the side of the road from the Mount of Olives into the city, waving branches and palm leaves and receiving Jesus in cries of "Hosanna, the Messiah, son of David," upon his entry into Jerusalem, on Palm Sunday. (Matthew Chapter 21, Mark 11, Luke 19 and John 12) This procession takes place every year on Palm Sunday, from the Mount of Olives to the Monastery of Saint Anne. In Christian culture the riding into Jerusalem on donkey back, any entry on donkey or horseback, in fact, has become associated with Jesus.

Palm Sunday Pietro Lorenzetti, 1320.

A painting of the Triumphal Entrance to Jerusalem by Bernhardt Plockhorst, 1881. We associate Jesus's entrance with one of the Eastern entries: either into one which stood where the Lions' Gate stands today, or the Golden Gate which is blocked. We should remember that today's wall is Ottoman, and was built in 1538.

In this article, we will meet some of the conquerors of Jerusalem and how they dealt with the precedents of David and Jesus, and the ceremonies they performed, in locations that mark their entry.

Two not so respectful conquerors...

Two of the following conquerors were less reverential. The Roman Titus takes the city in 70 CE as in this painting by David Roberts, 1850, and burns down the Temple. Hadrian, in 132 CE levels the Jewish Jerusalem and builds a new pagan city: Aelia Capitolina.

Umar Ibn-al-Kattab

Etching from Ward and Lock's Illustrated History of the World, published c.1882.

The next conqueror already sets a precedent. He is Umar Ibn-al-Kattab, the Second Khalifa. The Arabs coming from the Arabian Peninsula, carried by the fervor of their new faith, Islam. Jerusalem was sanctified by the Prophet Mohamad (pbuh) and his Nocturnal Voyage (Israa and Ma'rej) where he was told of the duty of Muslims to recite Salat (ritual prayer) five times a day. The Christian patriarch of Jerusalem was ready to surrender the city to Umar personally, so he made his way from Medina to Jerusalem, where he encountered Sophronius possibly at what we recognize today as Jaffa Gate, or Al-Halil Gate. At the time it was called the Gate of Mihrab Dawood, alluding to the adjacent David's Citadel. From there he would go to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, and then to the Temple Mount/Al-Aqsa Mosque, purifying it from the refuse the Christians had desecrated it with. Then he set the historic Rules of Umar which have regulated relationships between Christians, Jews and Muslims ever since. He is remembered in history for having initiated the thousand five hundred years of Muslim rule in the city (with a brief break in crusader times) and for having allowed the Jews to return and live in Jerusalem. The plaza at the entrance of Jaffa Gate in the Old City is called after him to this day.

The Crusaders

The crusader takeover of Jerusalem happened in 1099, carrying out a brutal bloodbath in which thousands of Muslims and Jews were massacred. "Taking of Jerusalem by the Crusaders, 15th July 1099" by Émile Signol, 1847

Another leader to have made a magnanimous gesture which enhanced Jerusalem's sanctity was Godfrey of Bouillon, the Frankish knight. He was one of the chief Crusader leaders and known for his righteousness. His fellow Crusader knights presented him with the crown of the Holy Kingdom of Jerusalem. Godfrey refused the crown, saying: "I will not wear a crown of gold in the city where our Lord wore a crown of thorns." He accepted only the guardianship of the kingdom. The emotive gesture expresses the humbleness of the conqueror in relation to the sanctity of the City. Godfrey himself was killed that year, and his younger brother, Baldwin (Baudouin) of Boulogne accepted the crown. Location? Possibly in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

The gesture of rejecting the crown because of humility has become iconic. from the series Episodes in the history of Belgium up to the 13th century: Godfrey of Bouillon, (c1900). Godfrey of Bouillon (c1060-1100) declining the monarchy of Jerusalem in 1099 AD. French advertisement for Liebig's extract of meat. Godfrey's attribute remains the very crown of thorns for which he had rejected the golden crown of Jerusalem.

Kaiser Wilhelm

The next historic celebrity visitor was the German Kaiser Wilhelm II, king of Prussia and champion of disastrous PR. He came to inaugurate three great, new German churches in the city, demonstrating the alliance and friendship between the German and Ottoman Empires. Wilhelm, who was anything but humble, was bewildered when it seemed the Ottomans were demolishing part of the wall for his entry (apparently, they didn't), yet could not resist riding astride his white steed into the city. Although he dismounted quite quickly and made his way on foot, damage had been already done. He was criticized forthwith for his arrogance and lack of modesty, as is seen in the next photo.

A caricature in a French magazine hammering Wilhelm for presuming to be the Messiah. Kaiser Wilhelm II, entry into Jerusalem. Illustration for Le Rire, 26 November 1898.

The Brits

British general Allenby defeated the Ottomans towards the end of World War I and Jerusalem surrendered. The manner of Allenby’s entry into the Holy City on 11 December 1917 and exactly what he was to announce once inside had been considered at the highest levels of government, and he had been telegraphed precise instructions from London on 21 November, before the battle for the city began. William Robertson, the Chief of Imperial General Staff, had advised Allenby of the need to enter the city on foot and cited the example of Kaiser Wilhelm II, who had entered on horseback: ‘the saying went round “a better man than he walked.” The advantage of contrast in conduct will be obvious’ On the same day, telegrams from Robertson also reached Allenby providing him with the exact text, devised by the War Cabinet, of the proclamation that was to be read and posted in Jerusalem on his entry: 1. The manner in which you were received by the population. 2. That you entered Jerusalem on foot. 3. Precautions taken to guard Holy Places. Etc… And so it was. (WO 33/946).


The most recent conqueror: Israeli general Moshe Dayan, in the Six Day War, on June 7, 1967. Dayan enters through the Lions' Gate, from the East. He was well versed in history, and took care not to repeat Wilhelm's arrogance and learn from Allenby's courteousness. He dismounts his troop carrier, invites Uzi Narkis, head of Central Command to his right and Yitzhak Rabin, then Chief of Staff to his left and sends the photographer ahead for an historic shot, of him entering Lions' Gate on foot.

Follow my next 3 episodes of the Symbols and flags of Jerusalem.

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