Jerusalem

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Non-Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic


Jerusalem the biography by Simon Sebag Montefiore

 

 

The years 2020 and 2021 will forever be remembered for the pandemic that swept the planet. Like every country the UK suffered physical restrictions, isolation and the deprivation of social contact and discourse. It has been a time of enforced introspection and lockdown. Like everyone I felt my mind and spirit being atrophied; a feeling I might add, made much worse by my lack of patience! It was against this background that I received a gift that has rendered less bleak my sojourn in the pandemic wilderness. 

 

For Christmas 2020 I received a book with the mundane title “Jerusalem” the biography by Simon Sebag Montefiore. An epic story of the most blood stained inspirational and thought provoking city in history. It’s a scholarly tome of over 700 pages including 80 pages of bibliography, index, chronology and maps.  Not easy to read and one probably needs access to the internet whilst reading. For those interested in world history and religion this book is a must. What follows are my thoughts and interpretations but I hope they will encourage people to read the book. It points the reader in numerous directions and prompts exploration of religion, politics, human weakness, greed and heroism. Having read it I’m convinced that Jerusalem is a three thousand year old tragedy which is destined to run and run. The Middle East; particularly Palestine is an insoluble problem which no amount of diplomacy will solve. At the heart of the aforementioned tragedy is the paradox of religious doctrine and practice. This book illustrates the pious stupidity, intransigence and belligerence that in my view will always separate three monotheist religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam.  It also hints at the joy and inspiration these three creeds inspire in their adherence. For the layman it is difficult to understand how three religions; each agreeing there is only one God, disagree about how, when, why and in what buildings this deity should be worshiped. Jerusalem’s history suggests that at some point religion, power and politics become synonymous; engrained in language culture and emotion. Perhaps the most significant aspect of Jerusalem’s story is that the three religions already mentioned all covet absolute control and governance of the holy city. Each seems to believe that its own history and beliefs confer the rights of ownership. It has to be said that Judaism has probably suffered most over the centuries and its adherents most persecuted and slaughtered. However, claim on the holy city is not measured by blood but by military might and politics. Views on ownership and governance depend entirely on your espoused religion and nationality.

In addition to the distrust and contempt which seems to have existed during three thousand years between the three religions; there are also similar schisms within each creed. In Christendom the Greek orthodox vie with the Russian orthodox and the Catholics try to impose themselves on the other two. Strangely or perhaps perversely, each sect believes its own liturgy and ritual is the true path to God via the same Jesus Christ. Judaism has a number of sects Ashkenazi, and Hasidic to mention just two; but the faith also suffers from squabbles with the many secular Jews. Islam also has its problems with Sunnis, Shiites and Alawite. Like Judaism it’s also beset with secular Muslims who for many reasons pursue a political narrative laced with religious rhetoric.

Against this background the first thing to say is that “possession” of Jerusalem has only ever been gained by force or arms; the Citadel has never been relinquished without war or the threat of war. I find it difficult to abridge this “biography” but for the sake of brevity I will try. Jerusalem has little strategic value it’s on the road to “nowhere” and is surrounded by desert. On the face of it the city has little or no material worth. Nonetheless there has been a town or city of some type on the same spot for 3000 years. The real story of Jerusalem begins in 957 B.C when Solomon son of the Jewish king David built the first temple dedicated to a Jewish God. History records that the Temple took seven years to complete and was at the time an “ancient wonder”. In particular the “Holy of Holies” where the spirit of God dwelt was the centre piece of this undoubtedly magnificent structure. 3000 years later the author informs us; “the actual location of the “Holy of Holies” represents an explosive question and an intractable challenge for any Israeli Palestinian peace deal sharing Jerusalem”. Solomon’s Temple stood for about 370 years when it was destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon in 586 B.C. The second temple was built by Herod the Great in 37 B.C. and destroyed by the Roman Emperor Titus in AD 70. The destruction of these two temples wrought havoc with inhabitants and brought death subjugation or banishment of the Jewish population.

First century Jerusalem/Palestine then saw the birth and death of a Jewish teacher/rabbi by the name of Jesus; whose trial and subsequent crucifixion took place in the environs of the city of Jerusalem. When the Roman Emperor Constantine officially converted to Christianity in AD 325 the life, circumstances and environment inhabited by the “Saviour” became sacred. The narrative of Jesus’ life and times were later recorded in a book which is known the world over as the Bible. As a result Jerusalem became an inspiration that fired the imagination of generations of Christian thinkers and priests. The churches gardens and shrines mentioned in the Bible took on a sacred and holy context. Throughout the aforementioned 1400 or so years of history Jerusalem had been fought over in numerous bloody wars. Every time the city changed hands the Jewish population was disrupted banished or slaughtered. During this time different popes, emperors, kings, tsars’ caliphs’ potentates and dictators all sort to gain control of the now “Holy City”.

 

However, in first century Middle East the Arab world was fragmented. It comprised a disparate group of tribe’s territories and countries.  Egypt, Jordan Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia and a number of others had separate agendas and aspirations. In short the Arab world required a leader who could galvanise them under one banner. In April 570 A.D the Prophet Mohamed (P.B.U.H) was born. Like Constantine before him Mohamed became convinced that the best way to unite countries and territories is by the acceptance of a single religion.  Victory in war obviously expands territory enriches the victor and increases living space, but if you want to capture the hearts and minds of conquered populations without military occupation a single religion is essential. Islam began as an oral tradition based on God’s revelations to Mohamed. The Prophets “Night Journey” during which God’s revelations were imparted began in Jerusalem. Hence the city became the third most holy site in Islam. Some three decades after the prophets’ death in 632 A.D God’s revelations were written down and became what we know today as the “Quran”. Like the Christian Bible, Quran transcends national borders to unite the most disparate of groups and populations.

So to Sum up for the first 1000+ years Jerusalem was exclusively Jewish, for 400 years Christian and for 1300 years Islamic. But none of the three faiths has gained the Holy City without recourse to the sword, “mongonel catapult” or cannon. It is worth noting that the Islamic occupation of Jerusalem began some five years after the Prophets death in 637 A.D after a six month siege of the city by Abu Ubaidh. Later, in 691 A.D the Dome of the Rock an Islamic Shrine was built on the Temple Mount where the original Jewish Temple had once stood. The Dome of the Rock was constructed by Abd al Malik ibn Marwan as a shrine for pilgrims. In 705A.D the al Aqusa Mosque was erected close by. These two buildings have, ever since their inception prevented Jews from praying or even setting foot on the Temple Mount. Muslim control of the city was not again challenged until the first Christian Crusade in 1099. Whilst the crusaders desecrated or used for secular purposes the Muslim shrines and mosques they did not destroy the buildings. Muslim control of the city was regained some 88 years later in 1187 when Saladin, after a siege forced Christendom to surrender. To round off the story in 1967 after the “six days war” Jerusalem was retaken by the Jewish state of Israel and has been in Israeli hands ever since. In centuries past Christian and Muslim conquerors have made a habit of exiling persecuting or destroying the Jewish population.

 

At this point it’s perhaps worth illustrating how language reverberates in Jerusalem politics religion and culture. For Muslims any reference to the “Temple Mount” is at worst sacrilege or at best disrespect. For Islam, The Dome of the Rock and al Aqusa occupy the site known in Arabic as Al Haram Al Sharif, the Noble Sanctuary. Few places in the world invoke the discord generated by the aforementioned use of different names.

Israel, unlike conquerors of the past has at least accepted responsibility to administer the holy city on behalf of three religions. For the first time in 1300 years after 1967 Jews were allowed access to Al Haram Al Sharif the Temple Mount. Though even today Jews are prohibited from praying on the Temple Mount and are confined to the “Western Wall”.  Modern history records that after 1967 a number of rabbis were in favour of “dynamiting” the dome of the Rock and restoring a Jewish Temple. One can speculate that the feeling was; Islam had intentionally built a shrine on the site of the Jewish “Holy of Holies” in order to exclude Jews. Islam would no doubt rightly contend that a building which has stood for 1300 years is in its rightful place.  All of this may seem arcane and irrelevant to the secular world but it is more than enough reason to continue a bitter and enduring conflict. In the meantime of course, over the centuries Jerusalem has inspired the world. From “The Pilgrim Fathers” and Mayflower, to American evangelism, Crusades the Christian hope of building a “New Spiritual Jerusalem” here on earth and much else besides!

At least after 1967 all three religions were allowed to pray in accordance with their particular ritual and there is free access to all religions. However Israel has continued to expand its territory by building settlements on the West Bank and these incursions are seen as provocative and wrong by Arab States Islam and many other countries. Jerusalem is an intractable problem with a history like no other city. Only war confers “ownership” or governance and the religious dimension seems to preclude peaceful compromise. It is sad that devotion to God seems to have irrevocably damaged the peace process! Everyone should read this book in a very real way it mirrors the history of the world and of religious conflict.  Finally I should say that these reflections barley scratch the surface of this wonderful book and omit many details; in particular a flavour of the motives and diplomacy which underwrites action. There is also an interesting insight to the “Balfour Declaration” of 1917 and the “British Mandate”. My interpretation is that after three thousand years and the spilling of much blood we seemed to have learned very little; but I urge everyone to read the book!

 


Submitted: May 06, 2021

© Copyright 2021 Peter Piper. All rights reserved.

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