God's Chosen Place

        Jerusalem          by Simon Goldhill

City of Longing                              

ix + 356 pp, Harvard University Press 2008,  ....   reviewed by David P. Stern


      Jerusalem has its unique place as focus of religion, history, wars in God's name and ethnic traditions. Its identity consists of layers upon layers--truth, myth and hearsay, archeology, historical records and unsolved mystery. Simon Goldhill, professor at Cambridge, tries to peel them away one by one and bring them all to light, a difficult and uncertain task. Yet his book may be your best guide to making sense of it all.

    He certainly knows his subject and has studied it in depth. The book consists of seven large chapters, the first three concerned with the holy sites of Christians, Jews and Moslems. He makes a commendable effort of trying to separate myth from fact, but guesswork abounds--not least because archeological excavation is all but impossible at such sites. Miracles are said to have occurred around them, but the author neatly sidesteps the issue by saying the truth makes little difference now (e.g., the true location of where Christ was crucified), the more interesting story is that of the people who believed those stories, fought over them and to this day strongly defend different accounts. We know very little, for instance, about the original second Jewish temple (and nothing about Solomon's, the first), because its magnificent reconstruction under king Herod obliterated and buried older traces. The older rubble is still there, but the site has been paved over for centuries, and trying to dig it up now would unleash enormous violence.

    The fourth chapter is about what is now called the Old City, the area within the city walls. Those walls date to the Turkish Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, who built them in 1538, over much older foundations. Incidentally, the site of the crucifixion, now inside that wall, was indeed outside the walls of Roman Jerusalem, which archeologists also have found. Here and there archeologists have excavated small parts of he Old City, just enough to provide a tantalizing idea of what may still be buried. For old Jerusalem is largely built on rubble, from wars and also from earthquakes--from the biblical one under king Uziah (Amos ch.1, Zecharia ch. 14) to the most recent one of 1926.

    Today's tourist can stroll the Cardo, excavated main street of Byzantine Jerusalem (also portrayed on an ancient mosaic map), and realize it lies up to 20' below the recent ground level The tourist can also wonder at the "Western Wall" ("wailing wall") of the Temple compound, actually part of a huge retaining wall enclosing the flat platform where Herod's temple stood and now the Moslem Dome of the Rock and the El Aksah Mosque. The seven lower courses, giant stones with sculptured edges, are from Herod's time, while higher up is Moslem reconstruction of a wall which may once have towered even higher. What the visitor does not see, however, are 17 lower layers of the Herodian wall, now buried beneath the plaza in front of the wall. One can only wonder what else lies buried there.

    The fifth chapter is titled "Older Jerusalem" and points our that originally the city was not where the Old City now stands, but on a mountain-spur to the south-east. Jews name this "The city of David," probably with justification. The Old City is on a mountain ridge, high and easier to defend, but devoid of water sources, apart from rainwater stored in cisterns (nowadays, of course, pumps can supply water anywhere). The City of David was less defensible, but it had a strong perennial spring, the Shiloah. Located at the edge of the city, where it faces the Temple Mountain, it was vulnerable to attack, and as mentioned in the bible, King Hezekiah built a water-tunnel from it into the city, and in the late 1800s a memorial to its excavation was also uncovered. It was dug from both ends (even though its course is quite winding), has been cleared of its debris and the modern visitor can wade its length, as I have done. Towers defending the spring are only now being uncovered, and seals mentioning biblical names were also found in this area of Jerusalem. So where did Solomon's Temple stand? Was it connected by walls to the city of David?

    The 6th chapter deals with Victorian Jerusalem, a backwater town attracting pilgrims and curious visitors (see Mark Twain's "The Innocents Abroad"), missionaries, pious Jews and representatives of practically all Christian sects. The end of the book deals with modern Jerusalem, for many years a city divided and even now resisting reunification. Wisely, the book avoids politics.

    All in all, this is a rich story, well illustrated, and will reward readers whether they plan to visit Jerusalem or just study its history from the comfort of an armchair. In either case, it may well whet their appetite for more--and there is much, much more, indeed.

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Author and Curator:   Dr. David P. Stern
     Mail to Dr.Stern:   david("at" symbol)phy6.org .

Last updated 25 July 2008