Jerusalem in History

By Martikke, Susanne | Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, March 2001 | Go to article overview

Jerusalem in History


Martikke, Susanne, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs


Jerusalem In History

By K.J. Asali (ed.), Olive Branch Press, 2000, 303 pp. List: $18.95; AET: $14.

Reviewed by Susanne Martikke

Susanne Martikke holds an MA in American Studies, German Literature and Ethnology from Frankfurt University. She has worked as a journalist, editor and translator.

There could have been no better time to publish a slightly updated edition of Jerusalem In History than the year 2000, marked as it was by the apparent failure of the peace process and a resurgence of violence. Ten years after the original publication of this volume on Jerusalem's history, the failure of the Camp David talks made it clear once again that the Holy City remains a contentious subject and that postponing the issue until final status talks was just another instance of what has been dubbed "ostrich politics."

Jerusalem In History is welcome reading for anyone who wants to form one's own opinion about the claims that are being made to Jerusalem. As Rashid Khalidi points out in his introduction, it is the goal of the book to "provide a sober, scholarly contribution to these debates, and...[to] provide readers with the information and analysis necessary to assess them."

Providing a balanced view, the book features nine essays from different scholars representing several disciplines, ranging from philosophy to Islamic economic history.

The historical journey starts in the Bronze Age, with an essay by the Dutch Old Testament expert H.J. Franken. One virtue this essay shares with many of the others contained in this volume is that it asks questions rather than gives answers. Reading Franken's examination of the literary and archeological evidence pointing toward "a settlement in the Bronze Age which was given the status of predecessor to the Holy City at a much later date" is like embarking on an adventure. In addition to dealing with the city's earliest historical period, Franken sets a stage for the rest of the book by leaving the reader with the sense that, with regard to Jerusalem, there simply are no straightforward answers.

George E. Mendenhall of the University of Michigan emphasizes archeological and biblical sources in his essay on Jerusalem in the period from 1000-63 BC. Describing the settlement King David conquered and his motives for doing so, Mendenhall concludes that David needed a new capital in order to unify the rival northern and southern tribes, and Jerusalem was perfectly located to achieve this goal. Despite the common assumption that Jerusalem's role in history virtually began with David's conquest, we learn that he "conquered a large, highly developed urban agglomeration." The idea of the city as a unifying factor which David had in mind might be of particular interest in the current context.

Jerusalem's political importance, of overarching significance today, was largely overshadowed by its religious significance throughout history. For the Umayyads the city combined both aspects as one of the main religious centers and a place of political importance, a fact to which the existence of a number of Umayyad representative buildings attests.

Bait al-Maqdis, al-Quds, Jerusalem--the different names reflect the various aspirations to this city. Jerusalem In History provides an entirely different perspective to the contemporary conflict. It becomes the latest catastrophic development in a succession of events which have lasted for millennia, and during which many different armies gained and lost control of the city. What William of Tyre concluded at the end of the 12th century seems to hold true more than ever: "the Holy City...often changed masters, and, according to the character of each prince, it experienced both bright and cloudy intervals. Its condition, like that of a sick man, grew better or worse in accordance with the exigencies of the times, yet full recovery was impossible."

Due to its symbolic significance for three religions, the historical account seems to suggest that times of prosperity became possible only when an atmosphere of religious tolerance prevailed.

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