Sunday, February 6, 2011

City of gods

Jerusalem: The Biography by Simon Sebag Montefiore


Simon Sebag Montefiore is a British writer, born in 1965. His acclaimed books are world bestsellers, now published in over 35 languages.

Jerusalem is an epitome of the human condition: man at his best, and worst. Over three millennia people have believed the city to be the bridge between heaven and earth. But it has usually been a dangerous crossing. Jerusalem has inspired courage, sacrifice and chivalry; art, architecture, and music. It has also sunk into persecution, brutality, butchery, squalor and venereal disease. Just to its south lies the Valley of Hinnom, notorious for child sacrifices even in the early Jewish era. As a result, it came to be known as Gehenna: hell. Given Jerusalem’s history, it is appropriate that it should have its own branch of Hades.

Jerusalem is also a bloody testimony to the ambivalent nature of religion. The Christians who guard the Church of the Holy Sepulchre cannot live in peace. The monks and priests from the various denominations often assail each other, especially at Easter, as if they would re-crucify Christ. Jerusalem is a holy city, where the faithful often pray with a sword or a gun. Throughout its centuries—even in the high eras of grandeur—tragedy was always at hand.

That was especially true of the Jews. Archaeologists have established that David did exist. From the days of Royal David’s City, Jerusalem has been the capital of Jewry: the focal point for Jewish aspirations. This has helped the Jewish people to survive and to avoid the twin perils of extirpation and assimilation. Down the many centuries of exile and diaspora, millions of Jews have vowed “next year in Jerusalem,” even though they had no earthly prospect of visiting the city. The dream kept Judaism alive.

There was a problem. The Jews were the pioneers of monotheism, which enabled mankind to make a break with the superstitions of the pagan era. But Jewish monotheism created two daughter houses: Christianity and Islam. Both of them venerated Jerusalem and sought to rule it; both of them were prone to outbreaks of matricide. The Jews had already experienced terror. In AD 70, Titus conquered Jerusalem and destroyed the Jewish state. For the next 1,800-odd years, often oppressed, enslaved and massacred, Jews somehow clung to a presence in their city.

It is a moving story, and an endlessly troubled one. Many of the devout believe that the destiny of Jerusalem will be bound up with the end of the world. They may well be proved right.

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