Religious History / Jerusalem Fever

In this history of the idea of Jerusalem, James Carroll captures the connection between the actual city and what he refers to as ‘the apocalyptic fantasy it inspires’.

Jerusalem, Jerusalem: How the Ancient City Ignited Our Modern World, by James Carroll
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 418 pages, $28

Some subjects regularly defeat writers, eluding the attempt to affix their mysteries between words, luring their chroniclers into hyperbole, or trapping even the nimblest beneath the weight of metaphors. Jerusalem is one such subject.

And yet the challenge and fascination of the place have proved irresistible, as many thousands of books, histories and poems attest. Jewish writers have classically solved the problem of Jerusalem by writing about the city obliquely, in the modes of prophetic vision (Zechariah: “Behold, I will make Jerusalem a cup of staggering unto all the peoples round about”), of lamentation (Isaiah: “How is the faithful city become a harlot!”), or of longing (“By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion,” says the Psalmist. “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?”). Others, succumbing to the city’s charms, have embraced a style of beautiful exaggeration. “Because of the fragrance of incense,” boasts the Talmud, “brides in Jerusalem did not have to perfume themselves.”

In his latest book, American Catholic writer James Carroll tells the story not of Jerusalem, but of the idea of Jerusalem. The author of “Constantine’s Sword: The Church and the Jews” (2001), Carroll aims to follow what he calls “the lethal feedback loop between the actual city of Jerusalem and the apocalyptic fantasy it inspires.” To do so, he proposes to chart “the fateful transformation of the earthly Jerusalem into a screen onto which overpowering millennial fantasies can be projected.”

The approach both depends on and deepens our understanding of Jerusalem’s unique duality (hence the doubleness of this book’s title). For this is a place both real and romanticized, a celestial city, but also blood-soaked and past-haunted (“the only place in the world,” Yehuda Amichai observed, “where even the dead have a right to vote”). It is car-congested, beset by urban blight, and often disappoints. Jerusalem will “dissipate romantic expectations,” Herman Melville said after his visit in 1857. It is also said to be a place touched by the divine, the very gate of heaven, the light of the world. It is a city of holiness and hatred, of splendor and suffering. “There are 10 portions of beauty in the world,” the Aggadah teaches. “Nine in Jerusalem, one in the rest of the world. There are 10 portions of suffering in the world, nine in Jerusalem, one in the rest of the world.”

In telling the story of Jerusalem as a potent symbol in the religious imagination, Carroll begins, naturally enough, with the Jews’ nomination of a strategically insignificant hilltop, sitting astride no trade route or port, as the dwelling place of the divine presence chosen city of a chosen people. From the day, in 1000 B.C.E. or so, when David made it his capital by dancing the Ark of the Covenant up its slopes, and as long as Solomon’s magnificent temple stood, Jerusalem served as a political and religious center.

After the catastrophic destruction of Solomon’s temple at the hands of the Babylonians in 587 B.C.E., and, with more lasting consequences, the razing in 70 C.E. of Herod’s temple by Roman legions under the command of Titus, the imagined Jerusalem outshone the ruined one. In exile from Jerusalem, Jews codified their laws and traditions, cultivated a spiritual interiority, and developed a genius for inhabiting memory. Even when Jews could not live in Jerusalem, Jerusalem lived in Jewish longing. They tore their garments and broke glasses at weddings to remember its desolation. “My heart is in the east,” Yehuda Halevi wrote, “and I languish on the margins of the west.”

The astonishing force of this longing bent the bitter trajectory of exile back toward Jerusalem. When the time came, it seemed inevitable that the modern political movement of return took the city’s name as its own, and that the Zionists took Jerusalem as the concluding note of Israel’s national anthem.

Coveting the coveted

Patricia Pingree

If in Carroll’s telling, the Jewish fantasy of Jerusalem gave it exilic coherence and inspired return, the Christian and Islamic fantasies brought armies to the city’s ramparts and bloodshed to its gates.

Already by the time of Jesus, the city had been fought over and pillaged by Babylonians, Israelites, Jebusites, Assyrians, Persians, Greeks, Macedonians, Maccabees and Romans. The story of Jesus, too, “drives inexorably toward Jerusalem,” Carroll writes, and fatefully added crucifixion and resurrection to the city’s fast-accumulating layers of religious meaning.

With the help of Constantine’s mother, Helena, starting in the fourth century Jerusalem began to attract large numbers of Christian pilgrims. Using the anthropologist Rene Girard’s idea of mimetic desire the coveting of a place because others covet it Carroll contends, however, that the Christian fantasy of Jerusalem only truly caught fire after Muslims had taken possession of the city.

At first, Mohammed and his followers faced Jerusalem in prayer, toward the town then known in Arabic as Madinat Bayt al-Maqdis, the city of the holy place. After he changed the direction of prayer, the qibla, they referred to the city as Ula al-Qiblatain, or the first of the two qiblas. More often, it was simply called al-Quds, “the holy.” In the Muslim imagination, this was the place where Abraham stood ready to sacrifice his son Ishmael, and it was here the angel Gabriel accompanied Mohammed from Mecca before ascending through the heavens. According to one hadith, or prophetic saying, at the end of days the Kaaba shrine will be transferred from Mecca to Jerusalem.

Under the caliph Umar, Muslims captured Jerusalem in 638, just six years after Mohammed’s death. They built a mosque at the southern end of the Temple Mount esplanade, from then on called Haram al-Sharif (the Noble Sanctuary). On the tiles of the inner arcade of the Dome of the Rock, completed in 691, they inscribed (in Arabic) a theological message to their predecessors: “Say not three! . . . God is one God. Far be it from His transcendental majesty that He should have a son.”

In 1009, the Shi’ite caliph al-Hakim had the Church of the Holy Sepulchre demolished, and Christian Europe began urgently to reckon with the Islamic occupation of Jerusalem. “Holy hysteria,” as Carroll calls it, ensued, and the transformation of the city into “the sanctuary of sacred violence” was well under way.

In 1095, outside the French town of Clermont, Pope Urban II launched the Crusades with a single rousing speech that tapped the reservoir of the Christian fantasy of the sacred city: “Jerusalem is the navel of the world; the land is fruitful above others, like another paradise of delights. This the Redeemer of the human race has made illustrious by His advent, has beautified by residence, has consecrated by suffering, has redeemed by death, has glorified by burial. This royal city, therefore, situated at the centre of the world, is now held captive by His enemies, and is in subjection to those who do not know God, to the worship of the heathens. She seeks therefore and desires to be liberated.”

Massacring not a few Jews along the way, the Crusaders reached Jerusalem in 1099, ready to die for Christ in the city in which he died for them. They slaughtered some 10,000 Muslims on Haram al-Sharif and burned alive hundreds of Jews who had taken refuge in their quarter’s largest synagogue. “Our men were wading up to their ankles in enemy blood,” one of the Christian “liberators” reported.

Saladin recaptured Jerusalem in 1187 and took down the cross from the Dome of the Rock, prompting a new Crusade, this one led by Richard the Lionheart, who failed to retake the city. Jerusalem would remain in Muslim hands until 1917. In the meantime,

Jerusalem would act for Christendom as “the goal and goad of European longing,” Carroll writes, a defining point of reference, and the intersection, in medieval Christian cartography, of Europe, Asia and Africa.
According to Carroll, Christians would place the Jewish relationship with Jerusalem at the center of their eschatology, and of their own ambivalent relationship to the Jews. In 1904, for instance, Pope Pius X explained to Theodor Herzl why he could not favor Zionism: “The ground of Jerusalem, if it were not always sacred, has been sanctified by the life of Jesus Christ. . . . The Jews have not recognized our Lord, therefore we cannot recognize the Jewish people.” With that, Herzl recalled, the pontiff took a pinch of snuff, sneezed, and concluded the audience.

Nineteenth-century Christian Restora-tionists, on the other hand, ardently wished to restore the Jews to Jerusalem. (“I really wish the Jews again in Judea, an independent nation,” U.S. Secretary of State John Quincy Adams said.) Their heirs, American Evangelicals, have taken to welcoming the Jewish return to Jerusalem as a harbinger of the Second Coming. (Greeting such support, the late Irving Kristol once said: “It is their theology, but it is our Israel.”)

On Columbus’ mind

Carroll’s considerable narrative powers crest in his chapters on Jerusalem’s enduring hold on the American imagination.

Christopher Columbus, who set sail the day after the last Jews were expelled from Spain, had Jerusalem on the mind. “I declared to Your Highnesses,” he wrote to his sponsors King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, “that all the gain of this my Enterprise should be spent in the conquest of Jerusalem.”

Even more preoccupied with the city than Columbus was, early Americans envisioned themselves as building a new Jerusalem “a city on a hill,” in the immortal words John Winthrop pronounced just before stepping ashore at Salem, Massachusetts, in 1630. The ideal of Jerusalem would prove fruitful, at least as a rhetorical flourish, right through to the Protestant Social Gospel movement, which peaked in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. “Here, if anywhere,” Washington Gladden, one of the movement’s early leaders, proclaimed in 1890, “is to rise that city of God, the New Jerusalem, whose glories are to fill the earth.”

In an ongoing gesture of self-definition, hundreds of towns across the new continent would be named Jerusalem, Salem or Zion, and a number of 19th-century American public figures (Ulysses S. Grant, William T. Sherman) and writers (Mark Twain, Herman Melville, Ralph Waldo Emerson) made the pilgrimage to the real thing. One among them who didn’t make it was Abraham Lincoln. On Good Friday, 1865, moments before he was shot, the president leaned in and whispered to his wife: “There is no place I should like to see so much as Jerusalem.”

It would be a stretch to ascribe the totalitarian violence of the last century to sacred causes, or to diagnose Hitler and Stalin with what Carroll repeatedly calls “Jerusalem fever,” and Carroll does not try, instead concluding his account with the ways Christian symbolism was used to sanctify the life and death of soldiers in the trenches of World War I.

Carroll points to the popular hymn adapted from William Blake’s poem “Jerusalem,” set to music by composer Hubert Parry, which urged British soldiers to keep fighting “Till we have built Jerusalem / In England’s green and pleasant land.” And he recounts how, in the summer of 1917, during the darkest days of the war, Prime Minister Lloyd George instructed Field Marshal Edmund Allenby, then head of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force, to capture Jerusalem “as a Christmas present for the British people.” On December 11, Allenby delivered, marching through Jaffa Gate and hoisting the Union Jack over David’s Citadel.

In this somewhat diffuse and digressive book, Carroll does not always deliver on his sweeping promise to show how sacred violence “found its way into the genetic core of Western civilization” or to prove that Jerusalem has done “more to create the modern world than any other city.”

But in tracking the subliminal currents of sacred violence as they move across the centuries, he does suggest intriguing avenues of thinking about the ways monotheisms both sublimate human violence and inspire it. As Girard remarked, “religion shelters us from violence just as violence seeks shelter in religion.”

If we are attuned to Jerusalem’s resonances ancient and modern we understand that nowhere is that more true than in this city of contention and consolation, this strange repository of millennial longings.

Benjamin Balint, a writer living in Jerusalem, is the author of “Running Commentary” (2010).