If the United States Embassy in Israel, as it has been reported, relocates from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, this action could be a transition with potentially serious consequences. Disruption of the spatial status quo in Jerusalem—and its Old City—a place whose importance cannot be exaggerated, is a vital aspect in the regional geography of conflict.
[Individuals or groups always seek to grow in power by trying to establish control over more space than before.]
Attachment to a place is among the most important cultural traits people of the same ethnicity or religion can share. Any action that would attempt to modify their perception of living environment usually receives an immediate reaction. Important to underline is that such a change is welcomed only for “our” territorial expansion, while strongly contested against “their” actions of similar nature.
People-perceived boundaries of “ours” versus “theirs” territory, however, are never fixed. They continuously fluctuate, never align with those perceived by opposing sides and, as a result, contribute to geography of conflict in the form of contested spaces. Construction of a new building, an embassy, a place of worship, or a shopping center can have an immense impact in this process.
The Walls of Desire
Like much of Israel, Jerusalem’s Old City, too, is a contested space. It is also a very small area. Its outward expansion is physically limited by the city walls. As an UNESCO World Heritage Site it remains unchanged. Any spatial changes are closely monitored in order to preserve the status quo of a living museum for the admirers of archeology and history worldwide and, for the security forces, to prevent conflicts. In plain words, security control over space must be adequate enough to prevent conflicts. This is a considerable challenge considering several different yet spatially intertwined aspects that warrant constant attention.
Old City is a destination for visits of religious nature and for secular tourism, a place of local trade and commerce, and a conglomerate of evolving neighborhoods settled with permanent residents. Making changes here requires walking on margins but remaining in the mainstream; i.e., whatever is done must remain subtle enough to not enflame passions over “ours” versus “theirs” space and territory.
I present here a few examples of how landscape records cultural geography of this small area, divided in four quarters: Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Armenian. [Note that in this part of the world the term “divided” is in much more frequent use than “united” when referring to human geography. It can be said that the people here are united in their divisions.]
Figure 1. A map of Old Town with four quarters, connected with the outside world via a number of gates in different areas of the city wall. The Quarters need their separate entrance and exit. (All photographs were taken by the author.)
Figure 2. For the Christian pilgrims or ordinary tourists, an opportunity to visit their quarter and to look straight up in the Church of Holy Sepulchre and see the light, is an experience that can offer an unforgettable feeling of peace and harmony.
Figure 3. As they gather in front of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to take photographs or listen to their tour guide’s narrative, visitors align themselves along the walls of the Mosque of Omar whose minaret overshadows the yard.
Figure 4. Within the grounds of Mosque of Omar a billboard with a message about gods and prophets greets the visitors of the Old City’s Christian Quarter.
Figure 5. The Muslim Quarter covers the largest area within the Old City’s walls and in terms of interaction is by far the most dynamic. Bazaars, various shops, and restaurants all combine to illustrate that this is a continuously evolving—in socioeconomic terms—residential area that not just caters to the tourists, but has an entire life on its own.
Figure 6. To further illustrate the statement from the Figure 5, all that one need do is to look toward the ceiling in one of the bazaars; tradition and innovation are combined here to foster successful residential life and trade and commerce within a confined space.
Figure 7. Landscape of the Jewish Quarter, which has been rebuilt after the Six-Day War in 1967. Note how the space is organized and utilized in this corner of the Old City (the synagogue is just to the left, not visible in the photo). Sense of a place is much different here than in the locations depicted in the previous two figures.
Figure 8. No photograph better illustrates an importance of space—and the resulting geography of conflict—than the view of the Western Wall and the Dome of the Rock next to each other. Both areas have controlled access, a method of prevention from crossing over into unintended consequences.
Encounters of the Third Kind
When geographers study conflicts they employ the concepts of geographic scale and distance. Think of them as a series of concentric circles with space in between. As circles grow, they show spread and a degree of impact of studied phenomena; i.e., we can see how something that occurs in a small geographic area (large scale) may eventually expand to have a significant social and cultural impact across a large geographical area (e.g., someone blows a hole in the Western Wall). On the other hand, if something occurs across a large geographic area (smaller scale) an impact can be immediately felt at most isolated locations within the boundaries of that area (e.g., an uprising across the West Bank affecting the Old City’s conditions).
Each group in the Old City would prefer all four quarters for itself, rather than sharing the space, but they know that is unrealistic. Their proximity in enclosed space dictates to all of them that the fine line of coexistence and cooperation must remain in place. If anything new is built or introduced that can appear as a major (territorial) favor to one of the sides, the equilibrium of spatial and cultural interaction immediately changes. What the residents of the Old City cannot control is what happens outside the walls; i.e., when something is built or introduced that will affect them and perhaps disrupt the existing equilibrium, thereby adding to the geography of conflict. Like the construction of an embassy building.