City's past, present and future tense

Jerusalem Besieged
July 22, 2005

Jerusalem's Temple Mount is the most contested piece of real estate on Earth. Possession is all about political ideology and, rarely for the Middle East, has nothing to do with oil or economics. In Jerusalem Besieged , Eric Cline, associate professor of ancient history and archaeology at George Washington University, plots the 118 separate conflicts, 20 revolts and innumerable riots that have centred on the Temple Mount over four millennia. Much of the bloodshed summarised in ten chapters, from Canaanite Jerusalem to the rise of the suicide bomber in 1996, will be a familiar tragedy. The detail and systematic presentation are perfect fodder for university undergraduates and the interested public.

This book is not a pleasant read. In fact, the endemic bloodshed, fanatical irrationality and prognosis for the future are downright depressing. Cline cares little for marketing sensationalism, and his disciplined text provides an important springboard for identifying infuriating historical patterns. It is often said of Jerusalem that there is no present or future, only the past happening over and over again.

Technically, neither Israelis nor Palestinians can lay claim to the oldest residency of Jerusalem. The earliest reliable evidence for a people called Israel within Canaan appears on a victory monument of Pharaoh Merneptah dated c. 1207BC, centuries after occupation by Canaanites and Jebusites, the original landlords of Jerusalem. And, in any case, significant elements of Ashkenazi Jews may really be descended from the royal Khazars of southern Russia, who converted to Judaism only in the 8th century AD.

The thread of Palestinian suzerainty is less justifiable. Yassir Arafat asserted direct ancestry from the Canaanites and Jebusites. However, modern Palestinians are most closely related to the Arabs of Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Jordan, who fought their way on to the map of Israel only during the Arab Conquest of the 630s. Similarly, the continuum of the term "Palestine" is a red herring, a Roman appellation derived from the Peleset and Philistines, those elusive sea peoples who settled in the land of Israel in the 12th century BC from some mysterious Mediterranean shore. By tying an origin myth to this thread, the Palestinians confirm their rootlessness.

Heavily massaged revisionist statements have pervaded the struggle for Jerusalem, even though unblinkered reading of the evidence offers more justifiable bullets. Amid the modern battle lines, Christianity wears the purest white cloak. Yet the ideology of possession at any cost is a Christian invention; Britain, Israel and the Palestinians have all justified bloodshed as a "crusade". Whereas Saladin the Great exercised restraint by escorting 15,000 Crusader prisoners to Christian-occupied safety after his successful siege of Jerusalem in 1187, some 88 years earlier the Crusaders mercilessly beheaded and slaughtered 20,000 Saracens on top of Solomon's Temple. Lest we forget, Cline also reminds us that while the Crusaders were self-styled soldiers of God blessed by Christian kings and bishops, Saladin was born in 1138 in a small village in what is now modern Iraq called Tikrit - the same Tikrit that spawned Saddam Hussein.

History need not always repeat itself. Cline delivers an important conclusion about the future of Jerusalem: "The conquerors of one era have been, in the past, and very likely will be, in the future, the hapless victims of the next generation of conquerors. Ownership at one point in time is not a valid argument for an inalienable right to ownership in either the present or the future. There's no such thing as a sovereignty over history."

Perhaps this book should be dished up as a sobering hors d'oeuvre at Arab-Israeli peace talks before ongoing battles for peace.

Sean Kingsley is managing editor, Minerva: The International Review of Ancient Art and Archaeology.

Jerusalem Besieged: From Ancient Canaan to Modern Israel

Author - Eric H. Cline
Publisher - University of Michigan Press
Pages - 410
Price - £16.70
ISBN - 0 472 11313 5

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