A City Refit for a King: Sultan Suleiman and the Rebuilding of Jerusalem

by Mitchell Stein
20/10/2021

After the fall of Crusader control in 1517, Ottoman Turks conquered Jerusalem and would go on to control the region for four-hundred years, until their fall in 1917 to the British. During the reign of Ottoman ruler Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent (1520 - 1566), Jerusalem underwent a series of changes that significantly changed the city’s character and history, including changes to the Tower of David citadel. In fact, the achievements of Sultan Suleiman were honored more than 400 years later when, in 1981, Jerusalem's Old City and Old City Walls were recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Today, we’ll be taking a look at some of the historic changes from the reign of Sultan Suleiman, including the historic gate that welcomes guests into the modern museum hosted on its site.

gate
The imposing gate built by Sultan Suleiman

 The Entrance Courtyard

Sultan Suleiman’s additions to the Tower of David citadel can be seen immediately upon entering the complex through its current museum entrance. When guests visit the Tower of David Museum, they are welcomed through a gate on the east side of the citadel, located beyond the Jaffa Gate and inside the city walls. After climbing a short set of stairs, they enter through a gate that bears an inscription praising the Sultan for issuing the decree to rebuild and improve the ancient citadel. Suleiman recognized the significance of the space, and sought to improve the entrance to the complex and added a magnificent gate and open courtyard to welcome visitors to the Tower of David.

Inside the barbican stood an open mosque built by Suleiman, as recorded by an inscription above the mosque entrance. In the 18th century, the space was renovated and details of its renovation were added to the original inscription.   

citadel
The inscription above the entrance to the outdoor mosque

Improvements to the Mosque  

Deep inside the citadel, another inscription was found over the minbar (pulpit) of the mosque in the south-west tower, praising the improvements made by the Sultan to the ancient Mamluk-era mosque. Later, this mosque would see other improvements, including renovations by the Ottoman ruler Abdul Hamid II (1876-1909), which are also recorded by inscription.

mosque
The minbar in the Ottoman era mosque

The Addition of the “Tower of David” 

Perhaps the most significant change to the Tower of David citadel came in 1635 with the addition of a minaret that overlooked the courtyard. Over the next three hundred years, this minaret would slowly come to represent the citadel entirely, and would soon become known as the “Tower of David”, taking its name from the original tower attributed to King Herod’s ancient palace.

When Theodor Herzl, the founder of the modern Zionist movement, visited Jerusalem in 1898, he wrote of the beauty of the ‘David’s Tower’. As he said in his writings, “Jerusalem wrapped in a thin veil of moonlight, with its wonderful skyline, made a tremendous impression on me. The silhouette of the fortress of Zion, David's Tower, is splendid." However, he was not writing about Herod’s palace, which had been named ‘The Tower of David’, but rather the recent minaret built by the Ottomans.

tower of david

In 1906, Bezalel School of Arts founder Boris Schatz used the minaret on Jewish art to represent the city of Jerusalem, making an Islamic symbol only a couple of hundred years old into a Jewish symbol, representing thousands of years of Jewish history in Jerusalem. Over the next several decades, the minaret would appear in Jewish and Zionist art, Jewish prayer books, and on official State of Israel emblems. Despite being a fairly new-addition to the citadel, it quickly became a new symbol of “King David’s Tower” and a symbol of the city of Jerusalem.

During the four-hundred years reign of the Ottoman Empire, a series of changes forever influenced the Tower of David complex and the city of Jerusalem. It’s additions to the ancient city forever changed its character, nature, and architecture, which can still be felt throughout the city today. On your visit to the Tower of David Museum, be sure to look up at this fascinating minaret, and a four-hundred-year symbol that soon came to represent thousands of years of history.

TOD