This map is part of a series of 12 animated maps showing .

View series: Jerusalem: The History of a Global City

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The site of Jerusalem

This map is part of a series of 12 animated maps showing the history of Jerusalem: The History of a Global City.

Jerusalem sits at the heart of the Judaean mountain which lies along a north-south axis, as the result of intense tectonic activity.

The city is located 800 meters above the Mediterranean Sea and towers 1200 meters over the Jordan Valley, which is the lowest point on Earth and the farthest end of the Great Rift Valley where the tectonic plaques of Africa, Arabia and Eurasia converge. This explains the frequent earthquakes in the area, some of which have caused great damage to the city’s walls and buildings. According to French writer Julien Gracq, the “epilepsy” of sacred history and voluntary destructions in Jerusalem reflects the frequent tremors below the city.  

Caught between two climatic zones – Mediterranean to the west, and arid to the east – rainstorms in this mountainous region are relatively heavy, but highly irregular, which causes serious problems for the city’s water supply.

Two hills loom over the future site of Jerusalem: the Mount of Olives to the east and Mount Zion to the south-west. In the centre, the first settlements were located on top of a rocky outcrop on the southern slopes of Mount Ophel. 

These ‘hills’ are carved out of the limestone plateau, in a process similar to that which created Golgotha. The uneven land has been used as quarries since very ancient times and provided a haven for tombs as well as opportunities for numerous cisterns, some of which are natural. 

On the summit of Mount Ophel stands a rock which gives its name and its raison d’être to the city’s principal sanctuary: the “Dome of the Rock”.

The original city centre overlooked three gorges: the Valley of Kidron, where the waters flow eastwards to the Dead Sea, the Valley of Hinnom to the west and the Valley of Tyropoeon, sometimes known as the Valley of the Cheesemakers, which divides the Old City in two from north to south. These three valleys meet to the south of the city at Job’s Well. 

To the north, torrents of water travel down the small valley of Beth Zeta in winter and flow into numerous catchments built to ensure the city’s water supply.

The transversal valley is the only valley oriented east to west and for a long time defined the city’s northern limits.

Below the rocky outcrop lies the Gihon Spring which probably explains the presence of a human settlement on this site during the Bronze Age.

For centuries, these valleys defined the spatial development of Jerusalem. Over time, some were filled in and are now barely visible. The city’s current layout has obliterated its original site. Its vague perimeter encloses an area of more than 120 square kilometers, within which the Old City covers a mere square kilometer.