Christians, Muslims, Jews living in disharmony


February 25, 2000

Nine hundred years ago, in 1099, Jerusalem fell to the Crusaders and temporarily became part of Latin Christendom, only to be recaptured by Saladin a century later. The Muslims had conquered it, without bloodshed, in 638 from the Christian Byzantines. The history of Jewish Jerusalem began with King David about a thousand years before Christ. In the words of Samuel ii: "The king and his men set out for Jerusalem against the Jebusites who lived there... David captured the stronghold of Zion; it is now the city of David." After the conquest, David restored and rebuilt it, establishing it as his capital; he brought the Ark of the Lord up to Jerusalem where it was housed temporarily until an appropriately splendid temple could be built.

This volume, based on papers delivered at a conference held in Jerusalem, explores the history and significance of Jerusalem from its foundation until today, three millennia in which the city has aroused and witnessed phenomenal religious enthusiasm and unprecedented bloodshed. Thirty-three scholars attempt to locate the chosen city in the dogmatic belief and liturgical practice of Judaism and her two offspring. As with most conference proceedings, the material is often disjointed, and some issues are explored repetitively while others are completely overlooked.

Much linguistic competence is required, and one can only praise the scholars invited. Original literature on Jerusalem is in nine languages with a further six for major secondary sources. Moreover, we have inscriptions in Hebrew, Latin, Greek, Arabic, Syriac, Aramaic, fragments in Arabic but written in Hebrew characters, travel books by Jewish, Christian and Muslim pilgrims to Jerusalem, court documents in Arabic and Latin, and pious literature in praise of Jerusalem in several languages, not to mention the extensive archaeological data for the holy city. It is not in vain that Jerusalem is sacred to three religions.

The book is in six parts.The first two explore Jewish Jerusalem and contain nine pieces, two translated from the Hebrew. Surprisingly, Jerusalem's sanctity was established late in the day: the city is not mentioned in the Torah where places such as Shechem and Bethel, associated with the patriarchs Abraham and Jacob, were consecrated. It was David, the adulterous king of Israel, who single-handedly created the city's sanctity. He acquired the 20-acre Canaanite village from the Jebusites and fortified and expanded it. His son Solomon actually built the temple envisaged by his father, a man of war. But God had already signalled his pleasure at the choice of Jerusalem: David had built an altar there and placed on it burnt offerings and Yahweh answered him with fire from heaven.

It was under King Josiah (640-609 BC) that Jerusalem attained total cultic centrality as the place where the sanctuary stood and thus the only place where sacrifices were acceptable to God. Despite the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple by the Babylonians in 587 BC and the exile of the Jews, the city was constantly in the minds of Israel's prophets. Ezekiel, notwithstanding the destruction of the city, defiantly calls her the centre of the world and names her "the Lord is there". The temple was rebuilt by the returning exiles with the permission of King Cyrus of Persia when Judah had become part of the Persian empire.

Part three deals in great detail with the Christian Byzantine city of Jerusalem from 324 to 638, while part five contains eight articles about Jerusalem from a Jewish and Christian perspective during the medieval millennium, the 4th to the 15th centuries. This is a total of 17 papers, more than half the book. The city had been destroyed by the Romans in AD 70 when the new Christian movement was still struggling in its infancy. The Roman city, Aelia Capitolina, built on the ruins of Jewish Jerusalem in the early second century, was essentially a pagan city.

Christianity had become theologically the true Israel and as such Jerusalem no longer mattered. The city of David and Solomon, of the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah, the city of the first and second temples, was no more. For many Christians, it had been justly destroyed for rejecting Jesus, the risen saviour who had predicted its downfall.

After the conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantine, Christianity became an imperial power and, to mark Christ's victory over paganism, Constantine in the autumn of 335 built the Church of the Resurrection on the actual ruins of the Temple of Aphrodite. The city remained a Christian city, except for a brief lapse into idolatry under Julian the Apostate, until the Muslim conquest in the 7th century.

What emerges clearly from these papers is that while Judaism has always had a consistent attitude towards Jerusalem, the Christian attitude is confused and inconsistent. For example, Augustine follows St Paul in rejecting altogether the earthly and sinful Jerusalem in favour of the heavenly version of the city. The author of Revelation too has set his heart on the heavenly Jerusalem. But, equally, many other Christians, mindful of the city's spiritual centrality in the life and ministry of Jesus, hesitate to dismiss it. In Paul's day, Jerusalem was still the mother church whose approval was required for converting the Gentiles. Moreover, the Holy Spirit was initially received by Christians in Jerusalem.

One contributor quotes the 4th-century St Gregory of Nyssa as saying: "We believed in the resurrection before we saw the tomb." There is of course no New Testament authority for pilgrimage to Jerusalem; Jews however are required by law to visit its holy sites. After the loss of Jerusalem to the Muslims in 638, Christians increasingly attached more significance to the heavenly or mystical Jerusalem, an attitude for which there was ready scriptural support. A Christian contributor sums it up perceptively: "An indication of the permanence of this ambivalence of Jerusalem in Christian consciousness perhaps is reflected by the fact that although there are at least five Bethlehems in the United States, the only other Jerusalem I could find in the atlas is located in Olutaga, a small, remote island in the southern Philippines."

Part four explores Jerusalem in the early Middle Ages when the city was ruled by Muslim caliphs. There are no Muslim contributors. However, the material is objectively written. Israel produces some of the world's finest scholarship on Arab Islam, especially on themes unconnected with narrowly political anxieties about the survival of the Zionist state. There is an exceptionally learned piece on "Jerusalem and Mecca" by the late Hava Lazarus-Yafeh, to whom the volume is dedicated.

Two scholars note the destruction of the Church of the Resurrection, popularly known as the Holy Sepulchre, by order of the Caliph al-Hakim in 1009. To this bald claim, one contributor adds that there were expensive cultic objects in it.

This is misleading as it stands, implying that official Islam sanctioned this act of sacrilege. In fact, al-Hakim, a Fatimid Ismaili caliph, had started a general campaign against all Jews and Christians, the so-called "people of the book". His measures opposed the Koran, which acknowledged the partial truth of Judaism and Christianity and ordained the judicial principle of responsibility ( zimmah ).

Jews and Christians were granted formal protection under the political wing of Islam in exchange for a nominal tax. Since the caliphal action was against Islam's holy law, orthodox Muslim clerics condemned al-Hakim as an apostate. He also persecuted the Sunni Muslim population in neighbouring Egypt and disappeared mysteriously in 1021, probably assassinated by a Muslim. His followers, the Druze of Lebanon and Syria, to this day consider him to be an incarnation of God and to be alive and in hiding.

None of the contributors quotes the Koran's account of the temporary loss of Jerusalem to the Persian Sassanids in the early 7th century. In a rare notice of secular history, the Koranic chapter entitled "The Romans", revealed in 615, makes a brief comment on the hostility between Persia and the Christian Roman empire, at a time when the tide of pagan Persian conquest over the Christian Romans was running strong. Beginning in 603, these two powers fought to the death for 25 years, both already crucially enervated by their age-old conflict.

The Koran predicted a reversal of fortunes. By 629, the restoration of fragments of the true cross to Jerusalem was taken to confirm the prediction of Christian success against the pagan Zoroastrians of Persia.

The concluding part, "Jerusalem in the late middle ages and modern era", contains two occasional pieces of purely academic interest: "The Ethiopian community in Jerusalem until circa 1650" and "The Greek Orthodox community of Jerusalem in international politics". This is hardly an adequate discussion of a city whose modern era is as turbulent as its ancient past. There is nothing on the Ottoman conquest of Palestine in 1517, not to speak of Jerusalem's current uncertain future.

In the past decade alone, there have been four known attempts to demolish the Temple Mount area, known to Muslims as the Noble Enclosure (Haram al-Sharif) and sacred to Jews because of the adjoining Western (Wailing) Wall. General Moshe Dayan, Israel's military commander, after the Six-Day war in 1967, actually left the Temple Mount in Muslim hands despite Israel's capture of the Arab quarter.

This wise concession continues to enrage committed Zionists and Orthodox Jews and those Christian fundamentalists who believe in the imminent second coming of Jesus. This sincere but competitive piety must puzzle and fascinate the secular observer of the Jerusalem scene.

Shabbir Akhtar is writing a biography of St Paul.

Jerusalem: Its Sanctity and Centrality to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam

Editor - Lee Levine
ISBN - 0 8264 1024 3
Publisher - Continuum
Price - £50.00
Pages - 516

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