Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Jerusalem: City of Longing

By Simon Goldhill, 356 pages hardcover, Harvard University Press, $27.95, ISBN 978-0-674-02866-1.

Incomparably rich historically, religiously, and culturally, Jerusalem functions most importantly as the centre of myth-making. The celestial Jerusalem, the Jerusalem of Mohammed's flight, David's city, the centre of the Arab-Israeli conflict: all reflect the city's deepest nature. No one book can contain all these images.

Cambridge Professor of Greek Simon Goldhill offers us the Jerusalem of the Western and, more specifically, British imagination, which is to say that he tries to be all-inclusive but doesn't even come close. Jerusalem: City of Longing tells us as much about Goldhill and the Western cultural perspective out of which he writes as it does about the city itself. This isn't such a bad thing for understanding the Western imagination or for taking in bits and pieces of the city itself, which has played such a large role in Western culture.

The author, as a Western skeptic, refuses to fall for the romantic Jerusalem of countless religious legends, half-truths, and downright lies about the place: “This is a city that fabricates, forgets, and forges its past ... through misinterpretations and politically motivated fictions.”

Perhaps such sober words come from Goldhill's own great knowledge about Jerusalem's facts and fictions, especially the Christian sites and history, and its mythologies. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre carries within it wide-ranging Christian history, from the Ethiopians to the Greeks, the Franciscans to the Armenians. These centuries-old conflicts seems on the edge of vanishing because of the extreme age of the monks and priests who do the daily fighting for space. Yet, the level of distrust, inflexibility, and even hate over the church's turf represent Jerusalem's never-ending politics of conflict.

At his best discussing the architectural and political ins and outs of buildings such as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Goldhill describes how the various Christian communities have created different architectural styles. American Protestants could never understand or appreciate the resulting eccentric whole. He cites his own misgivings, noting “the clash between tawdriness and transcendence that each visitor has to negotiate” when in the church.

The Western Wall, also known as the Wailing Wall, likewise symbolizes war, disunity, and centuries-old misunderstandings. Goldhill explains in great detail how, despite not being the actual remaining wall of the Temple, it has become the single holiest site for world Judaism, the heart of Jewish “national identity” even: “Once again, we need a basic history to appreciate what we are looking at – though as with the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, we will find that bitter disputes have a way of overtaking the story.”

King David wanted the Temple to be the great centralizing force for his kingdom, and this was indeed carried out: “One Torah, one Temple ... were the defining elements of Jewish national culture and identity” from the time of the ancient Israelites. Goldhill sets a few things straight. There were not two Temples, as people are fond of saying, but actually three. Jews often see the third one, built by Herod the Great, as merely an extension of the second, but Herod had to totally demolish the existing one. He needed to redesign Jerusalem's entire geography, including constructing a gigantic platform on which the new Temple would stand. A remaining part of this platform, rather than a piece of the Temple itself, the Western Wall had no religious significance in ancient times.

The Wall became a centre for Jewish prayer in the Middle Ages, because “it was as close to the forbidden Temple Mount as possible, and conveniently close to where the small rabbinical Jewish community lived.” As with so much in Jerusalem, fiction eventually becomes fact. The myth and resulting religious practices surrounding a given place or object remade the object into the real thing.

Part of this myth-making stems from the rivalries of the city's various groups: “The more interest the Jews took in the wall, the more the Muslims responded.” The fact that “the essence of Jewish identity” is now located in the Wall has as much to do with these struggles as with anything else. The myth-making gives rival claimants something tangible with which to stake their claims.

Again, Goldhill is at his best in connecting historical fiction with current political fact: “That a wall of a platform built by a self-aggrandizing tyrant could come to be seen as one of the holiest places of Judaism is a fine demonstration of how Jerusalem works.”

As with Christian and Islamic religious sites in the city, the Temple brings out the best and worst in believers, as it has inspired poetry and “spiritual reflections,” but also violence and “political extremism baffling and painful to liberals and outsiders. Archaeology here is constantly sucked into the storm. The archaeological exploration of Jerusalem's underground past has repeatedly ground to a halt in the face of the bitter Realpolitik of the street.”

Just as much as the Christian and Jewish shrines, history has scarred the al-Aqsa mosque. In Jerusalem, this violent atmosphere has continued to the present day, where “tense, religiously committed groups circulate through carefully framed memorials of political conflict, psychotic aggression, and an imagined past of peace, now lost.”

The imagination of the past and the present makes for the reality itself. None of the city's major religious groups is particularly rational when it comes to their daily living, let alone when it comes to the application of their beliefs.

Jerusalem: City of Longing's great descriptions of the various buildings bring out the deep-seated religious roots to conflict, as with the Dome of the Rock: “When the worshiper processes around the building, reading the inscriptions, he is also performing a polemic against Christianity and a defense of the faith of Islam. It is fully religious architecture.”

Goldhill himself engages in some fanciful myth-making, supposing that one possibility why Hebrew writings never mention the rock lying under the Dome of the Rock is because it was in the Holy of Holies: the Dome of the Rock houses the holiest point of ancient Israelite religion.

In other words, even a sober academic like Goldhill cannot resist Jerusalem's spiritual, myth-making charms.

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