Jerusalem: All that glitters may not be gold

David Poe FLICKR

There’s no worry that Israel – and specifically Jerusalem – will ever disappear from the news. So let’s talk about how Jerusalem has appeared through the ages.

Amos Elon’s older, but certainly not outdated, book Jerusalem: City of Mirrors (1989) gives us a variety of lenses through which to see this glowing, blood-stained city. As the late Barbara Tuchman writes, “With religion’s peculiar capacity to stimulate enmity,” Jerusalem has had more than its share of enmity, yet with the ability to inspire love as well as hatred.

Elon begins by discussing Jerusalem as a holy city, one venerated and greedily possessed over the centuries. That stone under the Dome of the Rock was probably an ancient sacred site long before David’s soldiers crawled through the water tunnel and took the city by surprise. Thus the city began its centuries of Jewish veneration. Elon says, “No matter where in the world the Jews found themselves [after the exile], they invoked the memory of Jerusalem,” whether eating, praying, marrying or dying.


Christians and Muslims also took the city to heart and made its sanctuaries of vital sacred need.

The first time Jerusalem fell in blood and fire, it was the Babylonians who destroyed it, for purely political reasons. Then came Rome, for the same reasons. Then came the Crusaders, bloody and cruel, who sealed the fate of the city’s Jews and Muslims by butchering the lot. Holy war can be most cruel, even more so than cool political intrigue.

“Hatred is also a form of prayer, as is fear,” argues Elon. Thus the Holy City became a cruel one.

Once the Jews were dispersed, the site became a major focus of Christian pilgrimage. The Crusader city is still evident in the charming, if austere, Church of St. Anne.

So, too, for Muslim pilgrims, as Elon writes: “During the Crusades, the city came to be linked in Islam with the idea of holy war… Praying at the holy shrines of Jerusalem was recommended as an especially efficacious way to absolve Moslem pilgrims of sin.”

Jewish pilgrims were of course few, being impeded for a number of reasons. A few adventurous travellers did make it there, such as Benjamin of Tudela.

As the city decayed under Ottoman indifference, it became more dangerous and desolate. One pilgrim, however, found it not so.

“I saw before me apparently a gorgeous city… except Athens, I never saw anything more essentially striking. Athens and Jerusalem in their glory must have been the finest representation of the beautiful and sublime… Nothing can be conceived more wild and terrible than the surrounding scenery,” said Benjamin Disraeli, who described himself as “the blank page between the Old and the New Testaments.”

Those of us who have been there know the truth of Elon’s description of the urban space in the Old City, where “moving from one Old City quarter to the next is like crossing into an alien land.” That’s also true of the new city now marching up and down the hills. Jewish settlements expand at a pace Arab citizens try to match in their villages and houses, each vying for space across the Green Line.

How many Jerusalems are there? There’s the Jerusalem above, of course, the ideal city that will replace the earthly one when the messiah comes. There’s the Jerusalem where Jesus will appear at the end of days, a Jerusalem of judgment and terror. There’s the Jerusalem where once the Prophet Mohammed rose on his trip to heaven. There’s the Jerusalem of the secular, and the heavenly Jerusalem of some Orthodox sects that refuse to recognize the actual, Israeli Jerusalem. For others, that’s all there is and will be.

Finally, there’s the Jerusalem of Yehuda Amichai: “What does Jerusalem need?/ It doesn’t need a mayor/ it needs a ring master/whip in hand, who can tame prophecies.”