Names Jerusalem


The first settlement

The city of Jerusalem has a long history dating back to the copper age, more than 4000 years ago. This is the time in which the inhabitants of this land were using copper tools and then later bronze and iron tools that were found during excavations and that’s what the different periods are named after. There was a small settlement near to a spring, called the Gihon spring, which is in the area where today is the Palestinian neighborhood Silwan.

That is the first area in Jerusalem where we know that people lived.

Many different rulers

And since the beginning of its existence it has been besieged 23 times, it was attacked 52 times and captured and recaptured by different armies 44 times. And it had at least eleven different names that were recorded in documents, on coins and milestones.

Earliest mentions

The earliest mention of the name Jerusalem is in Middle Bronze age (19th 18th C BC) in the Egyptian execration texts. Now, what were these execration texts, that is already interesting on its own. The Egyptians used to put a curse on their enemies by producing figurines, jars, vases and statues made of pottery and then write the name of an enemy city on it and smash it during a ritual that should put a spell on the enemy city.

Egyptian execration texts

So they found smashed pottery with the name of a city called RUSALIM. Most scholars agree that this must refer to the city that we now know as Jerusalem.

Four hundred years later, in the 14th C BC the name appears as URSALIM in the Amarna letters. The Amarna letters are clay tablets written in cuneiform (wedge shaped marks) that were found in Amarna, the capital city at the time of pharaoh Akhenaten. The Amarna tablets can be considered diplomatic correspondence between the vasal kings of the Canaanite city states and the Pharaoh. The area that became later known as Palestine was called the land of Canaan in the middle bronze and iron age although the Egyptians called it Retjenu.

In Canaan there were independent city states that had trade connections with one another. And each city state had a number of smaller towns and villages that functioned as sort of satellite towns supplying the city with agricultural produce and receiving services and protection from the central city state.

The ruler of one of those city states, Abdi Heba. He sends clay tablets to the Pharaoh asking the Pharaoh for help because the Abiru people were attacking neighboring towns such as Beit Lahmu (which is considered by scholars to be Bethlehem). In his letters the name of Jerusalem appears as URUSALIM.

Amarna letters

This is a translation of part of the Amarna letters:

Say to the Pharaoh, my lord: Message of Abdi-Heba, your servant. I fall at the feet of my lord 7 times and 7 times. Consider the entire affair. May the king know (that) all the lands are at peace (with one another), but I am at war. May the king provide for his land. May the king provide for archers and send the archers against men that commit crimes against the king, my lord. If this year there are archers, then the lands and the hazzanu (client kings) will belong to the king, my lord. But if there are no archers, then the king will have neither lands nor hazzanu. Consider Urusalimu! That it will not fall in the hands of the Apiru people.

The city of Shalem

The name Jerusalem derives from two words, YERU and SHALEM. YERU is a Sumerian word and when I say Sumerian I am referring to the oldest known civilization in Mesopotamia, now southern Iraq. The word YERU means ‘to found’, ‘to lay a cornerstone’.

SHALEM is the name of a Canaanite god. Shalem was the god of the dusk, the evening star. He was created by El, the supreme god of the Canaanite religion. He was created together with the god of dawn, Shahar. It was common in those times to name a city after the god that they worshiped.

In the bible it is written as YRUSHLM of YRUSHLYM. It is mentioned the first time in the story of Abraham and Melchisedec, the king of SALEM. (Melchi means King and Sedec is from sadiq that means Righteousness in the Bible)

The story is about a battle between four Mesopotamian armies and five cities of the Jordan plain. The setting is the desert area to the south of the Dead Sea where Sodom and Gomorra were located.

The Elamite king Chedorlaomer had made a coalition with other kings to subdue King Bera of Sodom and four other cities of the Jordan plains. In this attack they take captives including Lot, the cousin of Abraham. When Abraham hears this he follows the army and at Dan he defeats the army and releases Lot.

On his way back he meets the priest king of SALEM, Melchisedec. Melchisedec brings out bread and wine and blesses Abraham and Abraham shares a tenth of the plunder with him. He also meets Bera, the king of Sodom, who offers him to keep the plunder but Abraham refuses, he doesn’t want anyway to say later that Bera made him rich.

Josephus, in his book Antiquities, states that Salem was renamed Jerusalem after Melchisedec’s time.

The city of Jebus

In the Bible books of Judges and Chronicles there is mention of JEBUS and the Jebusites in the period of the Israelite entrance into the land of Canaan. In the book of Samuel it says that David, during his reign from Hebron, went and conquered Jebus from the Jebusites.

A famous Jebusite is Araunah who offers David his threshing floor on the hilltop. King David refuses to accept it for free and buys is from him. The name Jebus comes from the word to trample down and literally means trodden underfoot or down tramplers. We read again about this threshing floor when the angel of the lord is striking down the Israelites to punish them and David for their sins during three days. When the angel reached Jerusalem and the threshing floor, God told him to stop. David then builds a temple at the threshing floor of Araunah.


In the book of Chronicles and Samuel we read about David capturing the stronghold of ZION in the city of David. The word Zion is likely to come from the Semitic word siyyon which means stronghold or fortress.

City of David

David took up residence in the fortress and called it the CITY OF DAVID (this is the area of current day Silwan) David’s city is also known as OPHEL meaning the fortified hill or the risen area. It is the area between current day Silwan and the Haram al Sharif.

The city of Jerusalem has been mentioned by prophets and writers as the beautiful city, the holy city, the city of peace, the city of justice, the faithful city and also just as THE CITY.

The Greeks

In Greek translations we see the name HIEROSOLYMA, HIEROUSALEM. Hieros is Greek for holy.


City of Peace

In the midrash Jewish scholars have made the connection between Salem and Shalom, explaining the name as the foundation of peace.

Aelia Capitolina, the Roman city of Hadrian

A completely new name was given to the city by Emperor Hadrian after he defeated the Bar Kokhba revolt in 135 AD. He named it AELIA CAPITOLINA. Aelia is the second name of Hadrian and Capitolina refers to the three patron gods on Capitol hill in Rome, Jupiter, Juno and Minerva. Today’s city planning is based on the Roman infrastructure put in place during the time of Aelia Capitolina.

During Byzantine time the city was known as Aelia and when the Muslim conquest started in 638 AD the Muslims still called it Aelia but in its Arabized form ‘ILIYA’. On 7th century coins that were found, we can see the word Falastin and Iliya engraved. They also found milestones that were used on the roads to indicate direction and distance, dating from the 7th century, with the name Iliya on it. They were erected in the time of Abd al Malik bin Marwan, the one who gave order to build the Aqsa mosque.

    Aelia Capitolina Roman coins
Coins in Arabic written Iliya Falastin

Bayt al Maqdis, the House of Holiness

The name BAYT AL MAQDIS is first used by the Arab poet Imru’ al Qays in 545 AD when he refers to a Christian priest as Maqdisi, from Bayt al Maqdis (the house of holiness)

The name Bayt al Maqdis is used in different texts and sometimes refers only to the Aqsa mosque, sometimes to the area around the mosque, the whole city and there is mention of Ard Al Maqdis, the holy land, by Abu Bakr, the caliph who asks for support from general Khalid ibn Walid, to come from Iraq to sent reinforcements to Ard al Maqdis.

The first inscription of the word Bayt al Maqdis was found in the town Nuba near Hebron where the stone was set up in 660 AD to clarify that the Omari mosque in the town was an endowment of Bayt al Maqdis. It refers to ‘sakhrat bayt al maqdis’ meaning the stone in the Al Aqsa mosque area.

Jerusalem Al Quds Dome of the Rock

Al Quds

So it was not until the Fatimid period that it changed to BAYT AL MAQDIS and then in the 9th century it had turned into a shorter form with the same root letters Q D S into AL QUDS.

In 822 AD the historian Al Waqidi mentions as one of the first Al Quds to describe Jerusalem when he writes about how Omar ibn al Khatab divided the land of al Sham after he conquered it. He gives the land of Palestine and the land of Al Quds to Yazid Ibn Abu Sufyan.

The first time that the name Al Quds is found on a coin is in 832 AD by Abassid caliph Al Ma’mun who spent a lot of time and money on restoring the city and especially the Aqsa mosque after it had been hit by an earthquake. These coins are the first ones that do not have iliya on them but al Quds instead. It is since this time that the name Al Quds becomes the most used name by the local people to refer to Jerusalem.

In 1047 AD the Persian traveler Nasir Khusrauw who wrote a book about his travels, reaches Jerusalem and he is surprised that the people there do not call it by the name Bayt al Muqdis, the way he knows it and the way it is called in Persia, but the people call it Al Quds.

So these are the names found in written accounts :