Jerusalem's Three Unauthorized Portraits

New Books Take Divergent Approaches to Famed Holy City

Three Times Holy: Three books take very different approaches to the divisive history of Jerusalem.
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Three Times Holy: Three books take very different approaches to the divisive history of Jerusalem.

By Jo-Ann Mort

Published November 20, 2011, issue of November 25, 2011.
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Jerusalem: The Biography
By Simon Sebag Montefiore
Knopf, 688 pages, $35

Jerusalem, Jerusalem: How the Ancient City Ignited Our Modern World
By James Carroll
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 432 pages, $28

Columbus and the Quest for Jerusalem
By Carol Delaney
Free Press, 336 pages, $26

A Google search for Jerusalem brings more than 13,000 news hits in less than 0.17 seconds. But the city that many people think they know bears little resemblance to the place itself. Jerusalem lives in the past and present simultaneously, which makes figuring out its future so frustrating and difficult. Simon Sebag Montefiore states it like this in his excellent new book, “Jerusalem: The Biography”: “Jerusalem is the house of the one God, the capital of two peoples, the temple of three religions and she is the only city to exist twice — in heaven and on earth.” A British historian, Montefiore is also the great- great-nephew of Sir Moses Montefiore. The elder Montefiore founded Jerusalem’s Mishkenot Sha’ananim neighborhood around the iconic windmill, where Jews settled first in 1860.

These three recent books about Jerusalem are highly uneven, approaching Jerusalem from an array of disciplines, including religion, history, anthropology and literature.

The Montefiore book, written with an accessible narrative, is the most important among them, and it makes for a good addition to the many books about the city. James Carroll’s book includes intriguing arguments, but the reader must dig for them within a book that is frustratingly scattered. Cultural anthropologist Carol Delaney’s book about Christopher Columbus’s search for gold in order to fund a Christian recapture of Jerusalem is important for what it says about Jerusalem in the popular imagination, since the book is more supposition than fact.

From what began as a tiny walled village on a hill in 5000 B.C. where ritual sacrifice was once a noted practice, Jerusalem is both the most populous Palestinian city and a city that is at the heart of Jewish identity in history and in religion. This puts it at the core of the divide between Israelis and Palestinians in the ongoing struggle for two states. Christians, too, stake their claim to the city where Jesus lived and taught, and for centuries the city has been captured and recaptured by those who want to lay claim to it for each of the three religions. The problem, though, is daily life. “Jerusalem today lives in a state of schizophrenic anxiety,” Montefiore rightly states. His writing is clear and engaging as he makes the historic case for the claim to Jerusalem by Jews, Muslims and Christians alike.

Jerusalem has been conquered and re-conquered for 3,000 years, by the Romans, Saladin, the Ottomans, Napoleon — even the Albanians and Russians got into the act — all the way up to the British Mandate, leading to the eventual division of the city with rule on the East by Jordan and the West, after 1948, by Israel. 1967, which forms the coda of the Montefiore book, changed all that with Israel’s capture of East Jerusalem and what is known as the Holy Basin, the tiny plot of land that includes the remnants of the two Jewish Temples known as the Western Wall, the Temple Mount and the Al Aqsa Mosque along with the rest of the walled-in Old City. This cluster of holy real estate is what all the fighting is about; the rest of the city is practically postscript.

For 3,000 years, Jerusalem, in the midst of all the bloodletting, evolved into a metaphor for longing and perfection as much as into a real place. As Carroll, a former Catholic priest, chronicles in his book, the city has provided a gleaming future on a hill for everyone from the ancients to American pilgrims and British poets. Carroll’s documenting of Jerusalem in the literary and religious imagination is the most interesting argument in his book and would have made a terrific stand-alone essay or smaller book.

What would a book about Jerusalem in the imagination be without an evocation of William Blake’s poem about Jerusalem? “And did those feet in ancient time / Walk upon England’s mountains green….” Ironically, Blake placed Jerusalem “among the dark Satanic Mills” of England’s industrial era, in a poem that became an anthem of the British left, with Jerusalem as a metaphor for a just society: “I will not cease from Mental Fight, / Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand: / Till we have built Jerusalem, / In England’s green & pleasant Land.”


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