Jerusalem as the 'Omphalos' of the World: On the History of Geographical Concept

By Alexander, Philip S. | Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought, Spring 1997 | Go to article overview

Jerusalem as the 'Omphalos' of the World: On the History of Geographical Concept


Alexander, Philip S., Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought


Jerusalem has evoked many images but none is perhaps more vivid and abiding than that of the Holy City as the center and navel of the earth. A series of mediaeval Christian maps, of which the Hereford mappa mundi is perhaps the best known ([ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED], p. 148), has given this idea graphic form by depicting the world as a circular landmass surrounded by Ocean, with Jerusalem at its middle, the circle of its walls echoing the line of the earth's rim and hinting at the city's perfection and spiritual supremacy. Often reproduced, the symbolism of these charming artifacts has passed into popular consciousness. But where and when did this concept originate, and what message or messages has it been used to convey?

The first clear reference to Jerusalem as the navel of the earth occurs in the Book of Jubilees, a retelling of the Book of Genesis composed in Hebrew in Palestine in Second Temple times. The importance of Jerusalem, its favored location, even its centrality within its region, are certainly mentioned in earlier Jewish texts, but it is only in the second century B.C.E. in Jubilees that we find for the first time a clear cartographic image of the world as a whole, with Jerusalem placed at its center and called "the navel" of the earth. The relevant passage comes from Jubilees' treatment of the division of the world among the Sons of Noah after the Flood: "And he (Noah) knew that the Garden of Eden is the holy of holies and the Lord's dwelling place, and Mount Sinai the center of the desert, and Mount Zion the center of the navel of the earth: these three were created as holy places facing each other."(1)

There are problems with this text, and unfortunately neither the Greek nor the Hebrew survives to help us solve them. The phrase "the center of the navel of the earth" seems a curious tautology and we might suspect that "navel" has been added secondarily, perhaps in the Greek or the Ethiopic. Why not simply "center of the earth," matching "center of the desert"? Zion's designation as the "navel" does, I would suggest, have a point and was probably in the original text. It serves to rank Sinai and Zion. Both are "holy," both are "centers," but whereas Sinai is only the center of the desert, Zion is the center of the world and its omphalos. The resonant epithet omphalos establishes Zion's higher status.(2)

The geographical centrality of Jerusalem is presented by the author of Jubilees in a very concrete way. His treatment of the Table of the Nations in Genesis 10 projects a remarkably vivid imago mundi, one so coherent and cartographic that it probably once existed as a drawn map ([ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 2 OMITTED], p. 150). The world is visualized as a more or less circular land mass surrounded by the waters of ocean, its disc bisected east-west by a median running through the Garden of Eden and the Straits of Gibraltar, and north-south by a median running through Mount Zion and Mount Sinai. The medians intersect at Zion, which stands, consequently, at the center of the earth.(3)

What exactly does the author of Jubilees mean by asserting that Zion is the "navel" of the earth? We must be careful not to read too much into his use of the word. The concept of the center of the earth plays an important role in many religious world views and is associated with an impressive, and remarkably constant, set of mythological ideas. But it would be wrong to assume that every time the phrase "the navel of the earth" occurs, it invokes automatically this whole nexus of ideas. There may be distant echoes of mythology in Jubilees (note, for example, that the "navel" is a mountain), but fundamentally Jubilees is not expressing mythology. Indeed its sober geography is remarkable for its absence of mythology and stands in striking contrast to the fantastic geography of its contemporary, the First Book of Enoch. The Jubilees' reference to Zion as "the navel of the earth" must be set in the context of the message of the Jubilees world map as a whole, and in that setting it can be seen first and foremost as a political statement. …

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