“Nine Quarters of Jerusalem: A New Biography of the Old City” by Matthew Teller

Nine Quarters of Jerusalem: A New Biography of the Old City, Matthew Teller (Profile, March 2022; Other Press, September 2022) Nine Quarters of Jerusalem: A New Biography of the Old City, Matthew Teller (Profile, March 2022; Other Press, September 2022)

In Matthew Teller’s new travelogue, Nine Quarters of Jerusalem: A New Biography of the Old City, he explains that while Jerusalem’s Old City is known for its four quarters—Muslim, Christian, Armenian, and Jewish—this is a simplification that doesn’t recognize the many other ethnic and religious groups that make this city so unique. As the title suggests, Teller actually identifies nine quarters in the Old City, around which he structures his book. 

Teller has a few choice words for his British countrymen who divided the Old City into these four quarters after taking control of the city in 1917. They also cleared away shops along the wall of the Old City and replaced these businesses with a lawn, thereby taking away much of the flavor of the area.


Teller is a travel writer by background and it shows in his descriptions of Jerusalem:


All my life cumin has meant my first trip to Jerusalem. I can’t make an informed comparison—I was only a child, then—but I’d guess the city I saw in 1980 was very different from the city today. What I have in my mind’s eye from then is a scatter of impressions: flagstones worn smooth underfoot, gaudy colours and textures hung high over my head in narrow alleyways, my father doing something he wouldn’t dream of today: changing money at a Palestinian-owned booth inside Damascus Gate. And the smells. So many smells. Sweet things. Burnt things. Rotting things. Laundry soap. Hot bread. New leather. Smells I knew nothing about.


These seemingly little things are what makes this book stand out. For instance, in an early chapter Teller writes about the distinctive tile street signs on corner buildings in the Old City. The signs are in three languages—Hebrew, Arabic, and English—and have been created by an Armenian artisanal community: the ones who made the signs were descended from those who came to Jerusalem after fleeing genocide in Turkey around 1915. Hagop Karakashian is in his fifties and spoke fondly with Teller about his family’s tile business and how it came to exist in Jerusalem. The origin of the tile street signs occurred when King Hussein’s horse trainers—a Spanish and British couple—traveled to Jerusalem in the 1960s and met Hagop’s father, Stepan. They were impressed with his work and had an idea about how Stepan’s skills could be put to a very practical use.


Through personal connections at the Amman office of UNESCO, they proposed that the Jordanian government commission Stephan to make streetname tiles for the whole of the Old City. Tourism was a key plank of Jordan’s strategy for Jerusalem, but tourists were wandering the city with no idea where they were.


Hagop is grateful for his family’s prosperity in Jerusalem.


Jerusalem is like the vine tree and we were the ones eating from it. Our art flourished and became part of Jerusalem. We have been able to express our artistic identity here, even though we’ve gone through a hundred difficult years—the genocide, war in 1948, war in 1967, a couple of intifadas… It wasn’t easy to keep going.


Another chapter is devoted to Dom, or a people who originated in India and mostly live now in Jordan and Turkey. Related to the Rom (or Roma)—as Teller writes, “The English thought they had arrived from Egypt, hence the term ‘Gypsy’”— about twenty-thousand live in Gaza and the West Bank, and another thousand or so in Jerusalem. Most Dom are Muslim and face discrimination from both Israelis and Palestinians. Their unemployment rates are high, and those that do find work usually do so in sanitation jobs.

Teller also discusses Sufism and writes about Mazen Ahram, a seventy year-old imam and supervisor of all the mosques in Jerusalem. He can trace his lineage back thirty-nine generations to the Prophet Muhammad and figures his family has lived in Jerusalem for over twelve hundred years. Ahram’s outlook is one that is not projected on the nightly news in the west.


Words cannot really explain what I feel about Jerusalem—a warm feeling every day when I wake up. The holiness of Jerusalem doesn’t mean the stones. Jerusalem is from the breath of God. This is the place where people must sit together. I don’t consider myself Muslim if I don’t believe in the prophets of other religions—Jesus, Moses, Abraham. All the prophets are brothers, without differentiation, and we respect all human beings as a result of divine creation, including people who don’t believe.


Unfortunately, the book is not always as balanced as is Ahram’s outlook. Teller is not shy about his disdain for the Israeli government and writes about 1967 solely in the context of Israel’s occupation, omitting the nuance of how this came about. While it is probably impossible to write about Jerusalem entirely apolitically, simplifications such as this impede rather than aid in understanding and risk losing the audience the author most needs to convince.

Susan Blumberg-Kason is the author of Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair with China Gone Wrong.