The Thistle Volume 13, Number 4: June/July, 2001.

Inscribing Space: The Old City of Jerusalem

Window display for the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture – at 10-390 - created by Bianca Maria Nardella (SMArchS graduate, 2001) and Michelle Woodward (Comparative Media Studies graduate student)

Wandering through the Old City of Jerusalem (the ancient walled area of the city that consists of four quarters: Christian, Muslim, Jewish, and Armenian) a visitor will be struck by the quantity and diversity of writings on walls. Appearing in various guises - as spray-painted graffiti, celebratory religious decorations, and plaques announcing ownership of buildings - the writings often seem to comment on and contest each other.

The stenciled stars and crescent moons on whitewashed walls or a painted mosque flanked by palm trees celebrate the completion of the pilgrimage to Mecca. Layered on top is often the Star of David stenciled there by Jewish settlers asserting Israeli control over the area. Political graffiti by Palestinians sometimes includes images (cleverly drawn as extensions of the letters in the words) such as a map of Palestine, the outlawed Palestinian flag, or the minaret of a mosque and the spire of a church. Spray painting graffiti is a dangerous activity for Palestinians. Being caught could mean dodging Israeli bullets and risking prison sentences. More recent Palestinian graffiti in the Christian Quarter includes images of Christmas trees, crosses, and wishes for a happy new year.

The photographs collected in this display document a thin slice of the active contestation and debate over the city’s meaning and future. Marking space in the Old City is highly political. While Palestinians assert claims over space with graffiti, Israelis have been finding ways to actually confiscate houses and other buildings from Palestinians. When I took my photographs in 1993 there were frequent battles (both in legal courts and on the ground) between local residents and Jewish settler groups who wished to expand their holdings in the Muslim Quarter. One of the photos here shows a plaque that appeared on a building on my street in the Muslim Quarter proclaiming its status as a new dormitory for a nearby Yeshiva (Jewish religious school).

- By Michelle Woodward

"Fatah," the name of a Palestinian political organization, with a map of Palestine as the central letter and the Palestinian flag, Muslim Quarter.

Palestinian stencil patterns on the outer walls of a residence celebrating the completion of the pilgrimage to Mecca, with Star of David on top, Muslim Quarter.

Decorations celebrating the completion of the pilgrimage to Mecca.

Selling easter eggs with Palestinian political graffiti and flag in background, Christian Quarter.

"Merry Christmas", Christian quarter.

Christian quarter

Palestinian house decoration of a mosque flanked by palm trees overwritten by the Israeli flag, Muslim Quarter.

"Happy New Year", Christian quarter.

Palestinian home decoration celebrating the completion of the pilgrimage to Mecca. Muslim quarter.

“We do indeed live by symbols, whether they are tangible pieces of colored cloth or marble depictions of those the culture whishes to honor, or the more intangible messages generated by days of commemoration and celebration. […] It should not surprise us that these symbols have become, in the language of contemporary philosophy, “essentially contested”, with significant political energy put into achieving one or another resolution of such contests. We must, of course, try to clarify our own responses to these symbols, but it is naive in the extreme to believe that we can achieve any genuine consensus as to their place in the public realm. That would require the existence of a singular public, whereas the reality of our society is its composition by various publics who are constituted at least in part by their relation to conflicting symbologies. And, needless to say, all of these publics seek the particular validation that comes from their symbols occupying some places of respect within the general public realm. It is therefore no small matter whether these publics can indeed agree on some common civil rites and symbols or whether we are indeed doomed to an even-more-fractioned discourse about the most basic use of public space and the construction of a public narrative (and ultimately a public psyche) that pays due heed to the complexities of the past that we share, with whatever unease.”

Levinson Sanford, “Written in Stone | Public Monuments in Changing Societies”


The Thistle Volume 13, Number 4: June/July, 2001.