Jerusalem before the British Mandate and the Segregation of the Old and the New as a Modern Construct


The arrival of the British rule over Jerusalem and its subsequent urban planning principals imposed a significant change that is highly European and modern in the terminological, physical and functional definitions of this old walled city which influences and shapes its spatial composition till today.

Prior to the arrival of the Brits, the walls of the old city was no more than merely a physical existence that demarcates the technical boundary of Jerusalem. Urban development happened both inside and outside the city walls, with buildings constantly trying to obscure this physical boundary. Technically, the walled city is Jerusalem, yet in reality, Jerusalem is more than just the circumscribed city. Sites were demarcated as holy per se that belonged to different religions, rather than seen as a collective holy land that contains all of the sites. Jerusalem can be understood as the old city and its environs, a city of the inside and its outside.

As early as the mid 19th century British surveyors have already made comments on the state of the old city from the perspective of their biblical interest as a foreigner. Captain Charles Wilson’s report for the first British Ordinance Survery saw Jerusalem filled with ‘rubbish’ built over time during the Turk’s rule, later coined as ‘debris of centuries’, that obscured the holy sites, and called for the identification of the ‘original’ landscape. 25 years later he once again commented on Jerusalem, and this time expanded his concern to the old city as a whole, condemning developments of, for example, ‘ugly’ and ‘hedious’ suburb housing that rose on the northern side of the old city and obscured the wall of the city (Pullan, Sternberg, Kyriacou, Larkin & Dumper, 2013).

The Brits fundamentally changed the understanding of this spatial configuration in the attempt to establish an area of holy places for the sake of preservation and the creation of a holy landscape. This modern construct, which was not seen in premodern times, gradually evolved into designating the whole old city and its environs as the Holy City. At the same time, the idea of Jerusalem itself has expanded to include nearby villages and municipalities, where new roads and land uses of a completely new, highly colonial urban fabric was planned and built to accommodate the rising birth rate of Muslims and the increasing influx of Jews, and provide space for new urban development (Kark & Oren-Nordheim, 2001). Meanwhile, the old city, once that represented the city of Jerusalem and its complete functions, has now become a site of historic preservation, in which new developments were forbidden inside the walls, and the ring of land outside the wall would become a clear green belt (refer to Mclean’s 1918 plan). Since then, Jerusalem is to be understood spatially as a segregation between the Holy City (the old city and its environs, or the old definition of Jerusalem) and the new city, and a contradiction between the religious will to preserve and the economic and social need to develop.



PULLAN, W., STERNBERG, M., KYRIACOU, L., LARKIN, C and DUMPER, M. (2013) The Struggle for Jerusalem’s Holy Places. Abingdon: Routledge.

KARK, R. and OREN-NORDHEIM, M. (2001) Jerusalem and its Environs – Quarters, Neighborhoods, Villages 1800-1948. Jerusalem: The Hebrew University Magnes Press.

2 Comments on “Jerusalem before the British Mandate and the Segregation of the Old and the New as a Modern Construct

  1. Even though the British never realised any of their plans as a whole, what was the major event that triggered them to rethink the greater Jerusalem as a “city” than a Holy ground? What were the reasons that they needed to preserve and label the old city as the “Holy City”? What does the radical contrast between the city inside the walls and the new grid outside imply?

  2. I find the way Charles Wilson referred the “debris of centuries” as rubbish extremely interesting. Through forbidding anyone to build in the old city, the city was turned into a gigantic museum. The old city of Jerusalem could no longer be referred as a city as it is only a compilation of ruins from the day it stopped evolving.
    In the current age, it is stuck between being alive and being dead. The ruins are frequently visited, but the objects in the city could no longer relate to the contemporary age. They are artifacts of a different paradigm.
    The city is a zombie that is half-resurrected by the tourism and economy, with its meaning given by a religion that is much different from the one 2000 years ago.

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