The book of the week: Jerusalem: City of Longing

Bernard Wasserstein on Royal David's Divided Dity

May 8, 2008

There are more books about its most famous inhabitant than about any other person in history; and there may well be more books about Jerusalem than about any other city. These two excesses are intimately connected: if the Christian saviour had not sojourned and been crucified there, it is doubtful that what Simon Goldhill calls "a small, rather dirty and unimposing city, now sprawling far beyond its historical boundaries and today often scarred by the worst styles of utilitarian or, worse still, bombastic, modern architecture" would arouse much interest from the rest of the world, at any rate the Gentile world.

Goldhill's latest addition to the mountain of works on Jerusalem (he has already contributed a little book on the Temple of Jerusalem) sorts out for the layman the findings of modern research. Archaeologists and scholar-adventurers have been at work in Jerusalem since the early 19th century. Many were concerned with finding "evidences" that would corroborate scriptural accounts and throw dust in the faces of those, such as Ernest Renan, who sought to rationalise biblical history.

Constantin von Tischendorf, for example, who in 1844 discovered the Codex Sinaiticus (until the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947 one of the oldest manuscripts, perhaps the oldest, of large parts of the Bible), declared that his aim was to contend against those who had "taken strange liberties with the Holy Land; and (to show) that the history of the early Church, as well as that of the sacred text, contains abundant arguments in reply to those who deny the credibility of the Gospel witness".

Goldhill takes the reader on a tour of recent digs in Jerusalem, visits important buildings, provides fresh readings of texts and discusses competing theories with consummate learning and expository skill. He joins a long line of writers, including A.W. Kinglake and Mark Twain, who poke fun at supposed religious relics such as the fragment of the True Cross, the right hand of St Mary Magdalene and the head of the Good Samaritan - all preserved in the reliquary of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Yet Goldhill is capable of expressing awe when reporting the discovery in the City of David of inscriptions that show identical words of a prayer being used for the past 28 centuries.

Jerusalem: City of Longing is chock-a-block with entertaining anecdotes - many, alas, tall tales - about this most solemn of cities. "Truth", as Goldhill notes, "rarely spoils a good story in Jerusalem." It is refreshing to have such an unpompous, often hilarious vade mecum to a place that generally takes itself with such unrelenting seriousness.

At times the determined lightheartedness becomes tiresome - as with Goldhill's fixation on bums. He points out, for instance, that when General Gordon (he of Khartoum) consulted a map of Jerusalem and discerned therein the outline of a skeleton (thus enabling him to identify, to his own satisfaction, a new site for Golgotha, the "hill of the skull"), the Dome of the Rock turned out to be "in the skeleton's arse". Then, during an account of monkish rivalries in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Goldhill records that "in 2003 a Syrian stabbed an Armenian in the bottom." Further in this vein, we learn that when Flaubert entered the city at the Jaffa Gate, he farted loudly, later recalling that he was "annoyed by this Voltaireanism of my anus".

Unfortunately this book falls between stools. It is not an academic work (there are no references) although it is generally reliable and up to date in its discussion of recent scholarly debates. It is not exactly a guidebook, although the reader may feel as if on a school trip, being dragged across ancient sites by an eccentric, irrepressible teacher. In the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Goldhill adjures: "As you go around the edicule toward the rear, do not miss a hole in the side of the wall, about five feet from the ground." Just occasionally, he commits the cardinal sin, in a book that must be aimed chiefly at travellers, of sounding condescending about tourists. Happily coming across an ancient lavatory seat, Goldhill comments that it "is not labeled as such at the site, and it is fun to hear visitors wonder uncertainly if that is what it really could be".

Some of Goldhill's quotations and aphorisms are delightfully apposite: the Israeli journalist Amos Elon's dubbing of messianic yeshiva students "cowboys of the apocalypse"; the remark, attributed (how accurately it is impossible, in the absence of citations, to judge) to the Muslim historian Mujir al-Din, that happiness "is eating a banana in the shade of the Dome of the Rock"; or Goldhill's comment on the Israeli Ministry of Education's decision to hack out majolica coats of arms of Italian cities adorning the former Italian hospital, on the ground that they include Christian crosses: "hooliganism in the name of religious 'sensitivities' comes from the top in Israeli society". A few of Goldhill's pronouncements, however, descend into bathos: "walls", we are reminded more than once, "are boundaries that divide".

Goldhill is at his most endearing as, talking non-stop, he leaps from stone to stone across Jerusalem hillsides like an agile Judean goat. His footing is much less sure when he turns to the modern city. There is far too much reliance on British Victorian travellers' accounts and on biased sources such as the flawed memoir of an Israeli representative on the Israeli-Jordanian mixed armistice commission.

He also has an irritating tendency to set up Aunt Sallies: the Western Wall, we are told repeatedly, is not the wall of Herod's Temple itself but merely of the Temple compound; the Crimean War was not caused by disputes over the placing of a small star in the Church of the Nativity; as for the origins of the Israeli-Arab conflict, Goldhill bangs the table (the tone slipping again towards the schoolmasterish), and insists that "the simple model of victor and victim just won't do".

In his discussion of contemporary politics, Goldhill often reflects tired Israeli propaganda lines - as when in discussing the issue of Palestinian refugees he draws attention to Jewish refugees from Arab lands. It is doubtful whether any neophyte reader would come away with a grasp of the most essential points about Jerusalem's current sociopolitical reality, namely that it is, by almost any reckoning, the most divided city in the world, more so than Johannesburg at the height of the apartheid era, scarred by a monstrous barrier erected right across its eastern half; and that its Palestinian population, probably now a majority in the metropolitan area, is subject to a deliberate policy of social strangulation, grossly discriminated against in municipal expenditures, forbidden almost any building permits within the city, and ever more cut off from the West Bank.

It would have been wiser for Goldhill to stick to the distant past about which he writes with judicious authority. The chief merits of this book, which should, nevertheless, attract a broad readership, are the zestful vivacity with which Goldhill explores Jerusalem's ancient ruins and texts and the mixture of scholarship and emotion that he, like a long line of writers on the city, from Josephus through Tischendorf, injects into his discussion of the unholy history of the holy city.

THE AUTHOR

Simon Goldhill is professor in Greek literature and culture and fellow and director of studies in Classics at King's College, Cambridge.

He is also arguably owner of academia's most impressive beard, grown as a result of his hatred of shaving. "I only ever shaved twice in my life," he claims. "I didn't like it either time."

Aside from beard-growing, he has become one of the foremost experts in the field of Greek tragedy, making this latest book on Jerusalem a step away from his usual comfort zone.

While his book was written without the intention of suggesting resolutions to the current tensions in the area, he nevertheless hopes that his work will provide context with which people can view the conflict, calling the book "a small gesture towards a big task".

Away from academia, he enjoys daily runs while discussing biblical apocrypha with his running partner - to the bemusement of passers-by.

Sarah Cunnane

Jerusalem: City of Longing

By Simon Goldhill
Harvard University Press
368pp
£18.95
ISBN 9780674028661
Published 18 May 2008

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