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  • Writer's pictureAdrian J. Boas

On City Squares

Hanging and Burning of Savonarola in Piazza della Signoria, Florence [Museum of San Marco / Public domain]

If streets and lanes are the veins and arteries of cities, city squares are their beating hearts. Trafalgar Square, Place de la Concorde, Piazza Navona; these are places where citizens gather for important events: New Year at Times Square, the burning of Savonarola in Piazza della Signoria, the gathering of thousands at Potsdam Platz to celebrate the opening of a war, or at Tahrir Square get rid of a dictator. They are also places where people go for a variety of other reasons, or for no reason at all other than perhaps to observe and be observed.

Jerusalem, in this regard does a pretty poor show. In 1979 a large cinema at Zion Square was pulled down. Zion Square is really nothing more that the junction of two major streets - Jaffa Road and Ben Yehuda Street. It is not a large space, not of regular shape, it has no monument, no fountain. It is merely a junction, but one that has served as best it can for demonstrations and political rallies. But with the removal of the cinema, suddenly a broad rectangular space adjoining the junction was opened up. For a brief period of time it seemed that the city would at last have a square worthy of the name, not cramped, not sterile and cut off like the square outside the municipality building, not a shapeless and overly open space like that in front of Jaffa Gate, but a regular, broad square at the very heart of the city. But it was not to be. Commercial interests decided otherwise, and a large and uninteresting building replaced the cinema, dashing the hopes of those who realised what might otherwise have been achieved.

Frankish Jerusalem was not much better when it came to city squares. They were few in number and all fairly small, and their importance in city life seems to have been limited. The most important square must have been the parvis in front of the Holy Sepulchre, the Platea Sepulchri as it appears on the Cambrai Map, a place which served as the starting point for religious and perhaps secular processions, and where crowds gathered on such occasions as royal weddings and burials. But even it is not very large, not even large enough for its basic functions, as becomes abundantly clear when the annual Ceremony of the Holy Fire takes place. Of another square, the Campus of the Patriarch we know nothing but its approximate location, somewhere in the southwest of the Patriarch's Quarter, across a road from the Patriarchs Pool.* The Piazza of the Money Changers (Platea Nummulariorum) referred to in documents, was probably the best located. It stood at the very centre of the city at the junction of Davids Street and the former Cardo.** But was it indeed a square? If so, it seems to have been a very small one. Although on the medieval maps the "Cambium Monete" does appear in the form of a fairly prominent square, we cannot place too much reliance of the forms of twelfth century cartographic renderings. Sources also refer to a Square of the Merchants/Merchandises (Platea Merceniorum) in front of the Church of St Mary Latin.*** This name might point to commercial activities that took place here, or alternatively perhaps, it was a reference to the eleventh century Amalfitan merchants who built the church. There were other small squares, mainly in front of churches, and mainly, it seems, made use of for festive gatherings and occasional burials of important personages, as in the case of Philip d'Aubigne, tutor of prince Henry, later King Henry III of England, who was buried in the square before the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in 1236.

Squares in the Middle Ages were important places of gathering, perhaps even more so than today when one does not need to go to a public place to hear news or to be entertained. In the Middle Ages they were where information was passed around or announce by a crier, they were where less formal commercial transactions took place, where money could be exchanged, places where justice was sometimes meted out, where the poor went to beg, and where people went in order to find employment. In 1184 a philanthropist named Germain who was involved in carrying out works to improve Jerusalem's water supply went to one of the squares in Jerusalem in order to find workers to help him dig a well.**** But it seems that the civic needs of the population in twelfth century Jerusalem had to make do with comparatively minor and often cramped public spaces, not at all much different indeed from the public spaces that serve twenty-first century Jerusalem.

* Reinhold Röhricht, ed., Regesta Regni Hierosolymitani, Innsbruck, 1893, no. 170.

** Regesta, no. 130.

*** S. de Sandoli, ed., Descriptio locorum Itinera Hierosolymitana Crucesignatorum II, Studium Biblicum Franciscanum, Collectio maior., Jerusalem, 1941-, p. 104; Palestine Pilgrims Text Society vol. 5, p. 41.

**** Peter Edbury, The Conquest of Jerusalem and the Third Crusade, Aldershot and Burlington, 1996, p. 16.

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