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Everybody’s Jerusalem

Jerusalem: The Holy City in the Eyes of Chroniclers, Visitors, Pilgrims, and Prophets from the Days of Abraham to the Beginnings of Modern Times

by F.E. Peters
Princeton University Press, 656 pp., $35.00

Jerusalem: Rebirth of a City

by Martin Gilbert
Viking/Elisabeth Sifton Books, 238 pp., $25.00

These two books have more in common than their subject. Both present Jerusalem through the medium of descriptions by residents, visitors, and pilgrims, and chronologically they complement each other. Professor Peters begins with Abraham and passages from Genesis. He ends with a quotation from Edward Robinson, who first came to Jerusalem in 1838, soon after his appointment to the chair of biblical literature at the Union Theological Seminary in New York. As a witness, he is the last to be called by Peters and the first by Martin Gilbert, whose survey thereafter covers the next six decades. On his last page he discusses the visit of the Kaiser to Jerusalem in 1898, and his meeting there with Theodor Herzl, who only the year before had presided over the first Zionist congress in Basel. The final quotation in the book is from Herzl’s diary.

Although the two works are linked in this way, there are also important differences between them. Gilbert covers sixty years, Peters more than thirty centuries. Both rely on similar material, but they handle it differently. Peters puts quotations from the works of “chroniclers, visitors, pilgrims, and prophets” in the foreground. Such passages are sometimes extensive. The longest covers nearly six pages, and they are so numerous that they fill rather more than half the book. Since they are printed in italics, the reader can easily distinguish them from Peters’s linking commentary and narrative. The learning and perceptiveness of the compiler enables him to provide evidence from an impressive group of witnesses, nearly two hundred in all. In the early part of his book Peters develops a theme of major importance in world history. Over a period of nearly two thousand years Jerusalem became a holy place for three of the world’s greatest religions, between which there are many links. In an earlier book Peters has written of Jews, Christians, and Moslems as “Children of Abraham.” All three faiths worship but one God, and revere a good number of the same patriarchs and prophets. The human Christ was born a Jew, and the Moslems number him among the prophets.

The presence of three faiths in Jerusalem, the long succession of centuries during which they struck roots there, its importance as a place of pilgrimage, supreme for Jews and Christians and second only to Mecca in the eyes of Moslems—such things are made visible in the unforgettable view of the Old City when seen across the valley of the brook Kidron from the slightly higher summit of the Mount of Olives. To the south, just outside the city, is the ridge on which King David established his new capital in about 1000 BC. The ridge rises to a northern summit, now within the city and enclosed within the southeastern angle of its walls. It must have been here that Araunah the Jebusite had his threshing floor, which David bought so that he might raise an altar to the Lord. The narrow site was artificially extended by his son Solomon into the broad platform it has ever since remained. There he built his temple, which housed the Ark of the Covenant and the Holy of Holies, so that the site, with or without a temple, will forever remain the spiritual center of the Jews.

Solomon’s temple was destroyed, after four hundred years, by Nebuchadnezzar; but another, less splendid, rose in its place after the return of the exiles from Babylon. After yet another five centuries, this second temple was embellished and enlarged by Herod the Great. It was here that Jesus taught daily during the last week of his life on earth. A generation later, in AD 70, the temple was destroyed by the Romans and has never since been replaced. All that survived was the stretch of giant Herodian masonry, the Wailing Wall, where ever since Jews have lamented the destruction of the temple and the kingdom, and pray for the coming of their Messiah who will restore both. Until that day rabbinical authority forbids them to set foot on the Temple Mount, a prohibition which the pious and observant still obey.

For Christians the temple area has a special meaning because Jesus taught there. So it has for Moslems, since they believe that the Prophet himself made a miraculous journey by night from Mecca to Jerusalem, astride his horse Buraq, and from the summit of Mount Moriah in the temple enclosure made an ascent into heaven. That rock was made the central point in the ground plan of a large octagonal mosque, surmounted by a dome. It was completed in 692, less than fifty years after the Moslems first conquered the city. Once again the temple esplanade, or Noble Sanctuary, as Moslems have named it, became the site of one of the world’s greatest buildings, as it had been in Solomon’s day, and as it still remains. Of all the man-made structures now visible from the Mount of Olives, the Dome of the Rock is the centerpiece, which ranks with the mosques in Mecca and Medina as one of the three holiest in Islam.

There are other rocks in and around Jerusalem which have been made the focal points of centrally planned buildings. One is a rock-cut tomb, venerated by most Christians since the third century, and probably earlier, as the place of Christ’s burial and resurrection. Constantine, the first Roman emperor to become a Christian, commissioned building plans in which the tomb became the central point of a large domed rotunda, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. It has been many times repaired and rebuilt, and little, if anything, remains of the first period of construction. Yet its existence as a shrine sought by pilgrims from all parts of the Christian world has been unbroken from Constantine’s day to this. During the Crusader occupation of the city in the twelfth century, important additions were made to the church at a time when some of the earliest features of Gothic were beginning to emerge from the Romanesque, and these additions still survive.

All this can be seen from the Mount of Olives. Professor Peters had the happy idea of conveying it, and much more, by means of the book reviewed here. Evidence from the writings of those who have known Jerusalem he illuminates by a narrative and commentary which are always clear and often absorbing. With the Moslem conquest of the city in AD 638, however, the author has difficulty in finding witnesses of equal weight. He is obliged to make use of some who wrote long after the events they describe. Their evidence is admitted on the grounds that it preserves traditions from the past. No doubt; but sometimes that past was far distant. Accounts of events and developments in the seventh century written in the fourteenth or fifteenth centuries must necessarily lack some degree of authority. In the book as a whole the evidence from Moslem sources takes third place, both in quality and quantity, to that supplied by Jews and Christians. This is not the fault of Peters, just as it is not Gilbert’s fault that he has almost nothing to say about the Moslem community in nineteenth-century Jerusalem. How much relevant evidence exists which is not available to Western readers because it has neither been put into print nor translated from the Arabic? In any case, a determined effort to reconstruct the Moslem life of the city should be made.

Peters’s narrative and commentary are written with such skill that the reader is assured of the smoothest of rides, but smoothness too long sustained can be soporific. Should it not be interrupted more frequently by a sharper emphasis on central features of the city’s history? We should have more consideration, for example, of the sheer number of Christian churches and monasteries in the Byzantine period, all in use and many newly built, when the city and its immediate surroundings were more visibly Christian than ever before or since. We should know more about the disastrous fire of 1808 in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the dire consequences of which grievously mar the building down to the present time. And more could be said about the white-hot intensity of feeling for Jerusalem among Jews, for whom it is not, as it is for adherents of other faiths, one of their holy places, but the holy place; in the days of their ancient political independence, the Jews made it their capital, as no other people have done, and did not allow it to decline into the neglected provincial town so graphically described by Martin Gilbert.

Many of the passages Peters chooses for quotation are vivid and informative. Others are not. There were many pilgrims during the Crusader period who were moved to write down what they saw or felt, but they did not always have anything very interesting to say. Some do not go far beyond giving the number and names of the gates, items of information often repeated in these pages; or they describe what they saw in terms so imprecise that even a reader familiar with Jerusalem cannot follow them; or they lament over the city in language which Peters himself can describe as “opaque” and in a style which is “oblique.”

The way can also be made hard when passages are not put into context. For example, Usamah ibn Munqidh was born into a family which, on either side of the year 1100, ruled in the Syrian city of Shaizar. When he was a boy, Europeans who had entered the country with the forces of the First Crusade took control in parts of Syria and Palestine, and Usamah’s first experience of warfare was in a campaign against the Franks established in Antioch. Through prolonged residence in Damascus and Cairo, he became well acquainted with many Franks, and especially with those who ruled in twelfth-century Jerusalem. Toward the end of his long life Usamah wrote an immensely entertaining set of memoirs, which have been published in an English translation, with a long introduction, by Philip Hitti. Peters neither uses nor mentions Hitti’s book. He quotes Usamah from an anthology of extracts from the work of Arab historians compiled by Francesco Gabrieli. This device of quoting extracts from extracts is much used throughout the book, and it inevitably lengthens the distance between the reader and the source.

Peters is not much interested in the writers whose work he quotes, although such knowledge might often help his readers to understand better the quality of the evidence provided. He refers to Usamah, for example, only as “a sophisticated Muslim traveller,” as if his knowledge of Syria, like that of Ibn Jubayr or Benjamin of Tudela, was acquired only from a journey through the region. But Usamah knew so much because he was born in the country and often resident there. Of a certain Benedict we are told only that he wrote in “about the year AD 1000”; Bernard and Robert are each designated simply as “the monk.” We learn no more about any of them. Such lack of interest can lead Peters into error. Within a few pages he refers to “the soldier Fulcher,” whom he places among the eyewitnesses of the storming of Jerusalem in July 1099, and who “returned” to the city at Christmas of that year. In fact, Fulcher was the most unwarlike of Catholic priests who, on the day when Jerusalem was taken, was four hundred miles away in Edessa, and whose visit to the city at the following Christmas was his first. Seen as part of the impressive edifice constructed by Professor Peters, these are minor flaws, but they were easily avoidable.

Martin Gilbert, as Winston Churchill’s biographer, is accustomed to a crowded canvas of men, women, and events, and this is what he provides in his book on Jerusalem. In the course of two hundred pages he mentions some three hundred visitors and immigrants to the city in the years 1838–1898, when the city was still under Ottoman rule. His account gains interest from the information he gives about them. Sometimes there is enough to enable the reader to build up a picture, as of James Finn, the British consul, or of Sir Moses Montefiore (1784–1885), alderman of the city of London, knighted by Queen Victoria, a prince of philanthropists to his fellow Jews, who made his first journey to Jerusalem in 1827, his sixth and last in 1866, and who established, across the valley from Mount Zion, the delightful model cottages officially named “Mishkenot Sha’ananim” which still stand in the shadow of his windmill. There, too, can still be seen the horse-drawn carriage in which he traveled on the often deplorable roads of the Ottoman Empire. No wonder Jews all over the world celebrated his hundredth birthday as a public holiday.

We are told enough about Sir Moses to make him one of the heroes of the book. Others are dealt with much more briefly, and sometimes the pieces of information Gilbert collects are so very small and so unconnected with anything else that the author seems to be compiling a scrap-book. We learn of Colonel Rose, who while in the city suffered from a bad bout of malaria. Nevertheless he paid formal calls on all the senior Turkish officials, played chess with the military commander, and the piano to the governor. He managed all this between his arrival in the city in the evening of March 10, 1851 and his departure on the following day. No wonder that so punctilious and versatile a soldier was to become commander in chief in India. Officers in the armed forces, so habitually derided by literary men, emerge well from these pages. Members of the Royal Engineers made a distinguished contribution to the earliest scientific surveys and archaeological investigations in Jerusalem, and it was a detachment of the US Navy which, in 1848, carried out the first waterborne exploration of the Dead Sea.

The few hours spent in Jerusalem by Colonel Rose look like a brief and isolated incident. So does the appearance in the city of Lucy Harding, a British Protestant who in 1847 set up a school for Jewish children and their parents. In 1851 she returned to England and that is all we hear of her. It is Gilbert’s object to show, however, “in a series of vignettes,” the transformation of the city within sixty years “from little more than a crumbling ruin into a bustling metropolis.” Its population increased threefold with the Jewish community always larger than the Muslim and the Christian and, at the end of the period, larger than the two together. Although he does not stress the point, Gilbert makes it clear that the Turkish officials were on the whole tolerant of efforts by Europeans to set up schools and make civic improvements. The item about Lucy Harding takes its place with other short passages in the book which illustrate the recurrent theme of establishing schools for Jews. There was opposition from religious zealots to education in secular and vocational subjects, as well as to the education of girls. They particularly resisted the attendance of Jewish pupils and the treatment of Jewish patients in schools or hospitals provided by Christian missionary and charitable bodies. This is one of the themes that runs through the book.

Since Gilbert’s main theme is the steady emergence of Jerusalem into the age of material progress and improvement, he stresses firsts: the first printing press, commercial hotel, European bank, post office, this last provided by the Austrian government. In 1863 the first metaled road was laid from Jaffa to Jerusalem. It soon broke up, and the job had to be done again a few years later. In 1892 the first railway was built over the same route. And so the long list of innovations, material, social, and religious, continues. William Young, who arrived as vice-consul in 1839, is described as “the first British ‘representative’ in Jerusalem since the Crusades.” At that time he was the only diplomatic representative there of any foreign power; but others soon followed and were part of that accumulation of foreign influences which helped to transform the city. There were also the first small signs of things to come. As early as 1840 Lord Palmerston was informing the sultan in Constantinople of the idea held by some European Jews that the time was coming when their nation should return to the Holy Land. Not long after, others were discussing the idea of a Hebrew university in Jerusalem.

Two final points can be made about both books. Together they demonstrate that some of the violent aspects of the city’s history were rooted in the distant past. During the last century, Jews could still be the victims of wild and preposterous allegations that they had ritually murdered Christian children. In 1858, Matilda Creasy, a British teacher and missionary, was stoned to death while walking near the Monastery of the Cross, well within the boundaries of modern Jerusalem. A contingent of locally recruited irregular troops, Turkish Bashi Bezuks, sent by the governor to arrest suspects, was cut to pieces by Bedouins within sight of the city walls.

Another ancient feature which has proceeded continuously through the centuries, and still draws the greatest concourse of the year to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, is the miracle on Easter Saturday, when many of the faithful believe that fire sent down from heaven lights the lamps in Christ’s tomb, whence it is passed to the candles which they have brought to receive it. The size of the crowd is so great in relation to the narrow means of exit, the general excitement so intense, the unguarded flames so uncountable, that even today, when an efficient civil power polices the proceedings, the possibility of disaster never seems far off.

Yet the tragedy of 1834 when, in the presence of Ibrahim Pasha, more than three hundred people were crushed to death, seems never to have been repeated. It forms the subject of Peters’s longest extract, and one of the most dramatic. All praise to him for putting it within the reach of modern readers who would not otherwise have seen it. It is taken from a book by Robert Curzon, typically described by Peters only as an “English traveller.” It is left to Gilbert to record that he was a member of Parliament, who went to the East in search of early Christian manuscripts and who did much to make Europeans aware of the disrepair into which the holy places had fallen.

Both books gain from the photographs with which they are illustrated. Those credited by Peters come from a single source, the Pictorial Archive in Jerusalem, and this is handsomely acknowledged. What is not said, however, is that most, if not all the pictures from this source are the work of Richard Cleave, who gave up careers in medicine and the Royal Navy to become a photographer based in Jerusalem. Even the tiny selection of his work used in Peters’s book is enough to show its brilliant quality.

Martin Gilbert more than once draws attention to the part played by earlier artists in making Jerusalem known to millions who had never been there. People formed their idea of the city not only from the Bible, but from countless prints and engravings, some of them originating in drawings made in Jerusalem by men like David Roberts, Holman Hunt, and Edward Lear. From 1854 the sketchbook was reinforced by the camera. The unlikely figure of King Edward VII appears on both sides of the divide. When as Prince of Wales he came to Jerusalem in 1862, living, like Sir Moses Montefiore, in a tented camp, he brought with him a photographer, Francis Bedford. He had already commissioned paintings from Lear. The work of early photographers like the Frenchman Felix Bonfils and son Adrian, the Italian Fiorillo, the Armenian Mardikian, and the American Alfred Underwood became easily available and were carried back by visitors to all parts of the world. Gilbert has been assiduous in his study of early photographs, and has used more than a hundred of them as illustrations. Nothing could so effectively recapture the city and its peoples as they existed in the nineteenth century.

These two admirable books show that through the millennia, four centuries stand out as periods of dramatic change in the Holy City: the tenth and the sixth BC, the first and the nineteenth AD. Our own century may well outdo them all, provided Jerusalem does not once again become engulfed by violence.

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