Remaking the City, Remaking Religion: The Old City of Jerusalem in British Urban Planning

By Nicholas E. Roberts
Submitted to Session P2256 (Architecture and Urban Space, 2009 Annual Meeting
19th-21st Centuries;
This paper looks at the power of colonial urban planning to reframe religious space. Looking at town planning initiatives and preservation policies in British Palestine during the 1920s, it traces how a new reading of religious space was imposed on Jerusalem through colonial urban "reform". Through the use of official papers of the Palestine Town Planning Commission and the British-run Pro-Jerusalem Society, I identify the manner in which the present division between the Old City and new city of Jerusalem was solidified and made lasting by colonial policy. Arguing that this division was designed to turn the Old City into a purely religious space, both physically and mentally distinct from the political and economic realm of the secular city beyond its walls, I suggest that British planning must be seen as one of the ways in which a modern Western reading of religion as private, apolitical, and "traditional" was introduced to Palestine. Although I find evidence that this new discourse was picked up by local actors, I conclude that it was deployed according to their own agendas and in ways that challenged the hegemony of the colonial project.