Book Review: Jerusalem
Posted January 16, 2012on:
Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths by Karen Armstrong, Ballantine Books, 1996, 482 pp.
Karen Armstrong is always brilliant, always thorough, always helpful in her analysis of broad sweeps of history. I always feel smarter for reading her books—and yet I always find it such hard work. I suspect that the breadth of the material is what makes me feel so overwhelmed by it. I have another Armstrong book on my shelf (The Battle for God). Even though I had hoped to read it before my trip to the Holy Land, I don’t think I have the energy for another one yet.
Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths is exactly what it says it is—a history of this sacred city at the heart of three faith traditions and the center of so much violence and conflict. Armstrong starts with the earliest evidence of settlement in the area, some pottery shards from 5200 years ago. She then traces all the various rulers and peoples in the area that is now Jerusalem. Here is a brief list, which captures in short form a timeline of the various groups who controlled the land: the Canaanite people and the conquest of Joshua; the Jebusites who first settled on the Ophel hill that became Jerusalem; the kingdom of David and the building of Solomon’s Temple; the Assyrian and Babylonian exile and return; Greek and Roman rule; the destruction of the temple and city in 70 CE; the Roman city Aelia Capitolina built on the ruins; the Byzantine rule; Caliph Omar’s peace and tolerance; the mad Caliph al-Hakim and other Fatamid rulers; the Crusades; Saladin’s restoration and peace; the Mamluk conquest; the Ottoman empire; the British Mandate; Zionism and modern Israel. Each group destroyed some monuments and built others; displaced some residents and brought in others; honored some religion(s) and not others. Armstrong’s chronicle makes it clear that no one faith tradition can lay special claim to the city or its history—each have been responsible for building and cultivating Jerusalem, as well as destroying it.
One of the most interesting themes that winds through the book is the connection between Zion and social justice. From the pre-Yahwist Canaanite worshippers of Ba’al, Mount Zion was a symbol of a heavenly kingdom marked by peace and social justice. Many of the words we hear in Isaiah and the Psalms about the holy city of Jerusalem echo the vision of those Bronze Age Canaanite worshipers of Ba’al, who tied the sacredness of the city to the justice and peace it practiced. All who conquered the city—regardless of their faith—shared scriptures and religious beliefs that implored them to practice justice and peace, to care for the poor and respect their neighbors. Over the centuries, some rulers sought to build that kind of Holy City; others let their jealousy for the land itself override any sense of compassion or justice. The vision of the heavenly city of peace has persisted for thousands of years, yet it still feels very far away.
I felt like this book was excellent preparation for my journey to this city. I had little illusion that I would see the city of Jesus, or that the holy sites we visit will be original and untouched in any way. However, this book gave me a more profound sense of just how political Jerusalem’s holy sites are. Each attempt to build or destroy or even to clean and maintain a square of land is seen as an act of seizing control, usually at someone else’s expense. Every site currently open for tourists is the result of intense and frequently violent negotiations and claims.
I cannot predict how this will impact my experience of the city. It’s possible that knowing the history of battle and bloodshed will make it all seem pointless. It’s also possible that the same history will lend an import and weightiness to the places, no matter their inaccuracy as biblical places. I suspect it will be some mix of the two.