Matthew Teller: The Nine Quarters of Jerusalem, A New Biography of the Old City
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Matthew Teller: The Nine Quarters of Jerusalem, A New Biography of the Old City

Matthew Teller
Matthew Teller

Matthew Teller, in his talk about his new book, the Nine Quarters of Jerusalem, A New Biography of the Old City, traced the origins and development of Jerusalem’s cartography. He began, however, by talking about his travels to Jerusalem from the age of 11 years and how he had lived and worked in a variety of places, including inside the old city itself. Matthew told us that Jerusalem ‘is not his city’ and that it never would be, but during the past 150 – 200 years, people like himself - white, English, well-spoken, well-educated, and men in particular – have claimed Jerusalem, or sometimes the whole of Palestine, for themselves, for Britain, for Christianity, and have then proceeded to tell everyone at length their opinion and why it matters so very much. He said that he wanted to present something quite different to his audience and that he had written his book because he could see an imbalance in the narratives about Jerusalem in the English-speaking culture of the west, where Palestinian lives and their voices have been excluded far too much and far too often. His wish is to redress that imbalance.

Matthew explained that balance is a ‘tricky’ word in the context of Jerusalem as it implies that there are two sides. But Jerusalem has many more sides and many more quarters than the nine mentioned on his book cover, and so many more than the four we have become accustomed to on maps of the city.

When tracing the development of Jerusalem’s cartography for his book, Matthew recognised how the reality of the old city doesn’t match with the maps that tourists and pilgrims use. Visitors use maps that show a sharp division of the old city into four quarters: the Christian quarter on the top left, the Muslim quarter on the top right, the Armenian quarter on the bottom left, and the Jewish quarter on the bottom right. In reality, however, there are no dividing lines between the Christian quarter and the Muslim quarter - there is just a street, a couple of metres wide, that can be easily walked across. These maps strike Matthew as being very ‘western’. They look to him like a school atlas, like a political map of Europe where nation states lock together very neatly with no fuzzy spaces in between. In a similar way in the Jerusalem context, the four quarters and how they’ve been divided leaves no room for fuzziness, so that the organic messiness of everyday urban life is completely erased.

Matthew, when carrying out his research, looked back to the Middle Ages and explained that maps from this period were ‘an idealised representation of place’ and often drawn after travel. A crusader map which dates to the 12th century depicts Jerusalem as circular, (a reference to the bible originating from the Greek word ‘Omphalos’ meaning navel). Jerusalem was seen as the navel of the world. In comparison, however, there were Arabic sources which speak of Jerusalem as a mixed cluster of neighbourhoods - one historian tells of 39 quarters during the 13th and 14th centuries, while another describes 18 quarters.

The first mention of an ethno-religious settlement in Jerusalem – Judenstadt (the Jewish quarter) – came in 1818. It appeared again in 1835 but this time was accompanied by the identification of the Armenian convent, the Greek convent and the Latin convent. Matthew explained that their presence here reflects the concerns of Europeans who were starting to look at who lived in Jerusalem, what they were doing there, where they lived and why they lived there - and cartographers began to identify them on maps.

Additional quarters were identified shortly afterwards in 1837, when Hermann Engel labelled not only a Jewish quarter but also Turkish, Greek, Armenian and Latin quarters. As far as Matthew is aware, this is the first time that these names appear on any maps of Jerusalem. Further refinements occurred in 1841, when lieutenants Edward Aldrich and Julian Simons (Royal Engineers of the British military) surveyed Jerusalem and produced what was the most accurate street plan up to that point. This was eventually published in 1845. In 1849 a young chaplain named George Williams published a new edition of his book, ‘The Holy City’, that included a map drawn from the Royal Engineers’ survey but also included a plan of the town and its environs.

As far as Matthew can tell, George Williams was the instigator of the four quarters of Jerusalem - the Christian Quarter, the Armenian Quarter, the Jewish Quarter and the Muslim Quarter. Maps before his didn’t show these quarters and just about every single map ever since has, so there is a direct line from George Williams in 1849 to the maps that we see and use today; these are reinforced in the media, in literature, in academia and in guidebooks.

The four quarters are, therefore, an invention created by a 19th century, old-Etonian missionary. Matthew told us they always were false, but that it has suited the colonisers and rulers of Jerusalem to divide the city’s populations against each other. He said Williams himself was aware that he was deliberately marginalising the lived experience of Jerusalem’s own people; they were there but somehow not important enough to be identified on the city’s maps.

Before concluding his presentation, Matthew briefly touched on another issue - how we use the word ‘quarter’ in English – its military origins, its nuances of power, class and status that are nowadays all enmeshed in municipal gentrification schemes trying to entice us to buy into social division, and specifically how that has coloured the way we think of Jerusalem when we only ever see it divided into four quarters. This is a topic which Matthew discusses further in his book.

Matthew’s presentation was followed by a lively Q & A session chaired by CAABU and then by a vote of thanks from the MBI Al Jaber Foundation.

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