In “The Eternal City,” the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai observes that his native city has rebuffed most of those who would project onto her their own ambitions, imperial or religious or otherwise. Neither Jerusalem’s conquerors nor its miracle-seeking glorifiers, he wrote, stopped to wonder why / She hid herself behind a wall within a wall. / The eternal city like a brown fist / Clenched in stone.
Among those who have tried to unclench this stubborn fist, Jerusalem’s archaeologists figure as the most persistent and most successful. In their erudite new book, Katharina Galor, a professor at Brown, and Hanswulf Bloedhorn, a German expert on Hellenistic, Roman, and Byzantine architecture, note that more than 1,700 excavations have been conducted in Jerusalem in the last century-and-a-half. The excavators have ranged from pioneers like the American biblical scholar Edward Robinson and the Royal Engineers’ Captain Charles Warren, to European explorers who sought to discover the treasures of Solomon’s Temple, to the more scientific efforts of Israeli archaeologists since 1967.
Their discoveries, comprehensively surveyed here, have brought to light nearly 4,000 years of human settlement and building. The Archaeology of Jerusalem, amply illustrated with photographs and drawings, details the distinctive finds for each period and uses them to illuminate the historical context: fortifications from biblical times (the Bronze and Iron Ages); silver amulets from the seventh century b.c. inscribed with biblical verses; Hellenistic tombs and ossuaries inscribed in both Greek and Hebrew; Roman statuary and civic architecture; Byzantine churches and mosaics; illuminated Crusader manuscripts from the scriptorium of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher; Mamluk minarets still standing after more than seven centuries; and elaborate Ottoman public fountains.
Galor and Bloedhorn show that, taken together, these physical remnants tell the story of Jerusalem from prehistoric times through the end of the Ottoman period in 1917. The authors begin their story with a Canaanite town encircled by limestone hills and ravines and sustained by a single perennial spring, the Gihon. King David made the hill above the Gihon the political and religious capital of the Jews in about 1000 b.c. The city, where heaven and earth were said to meet, is mentioned nearly 2,000 times in the Hebrew Bible.
As the city expanded uphill, the colonization of the region by the Greeks and Romans (who renamed the city Aelia Capitolina) inaugurated an era of monumental building projects. None surpassed those of Herod (a megalomaniac often said to have suffered from an edifice complex), including the magnificent Second Temple and the esplanade on which it stood, the largest of its kind in antiquity. Two millennia later, Herod’s platform, now graced by the Dome of the Rock and the Al Aksa Mosque, remains intact. Its Western Wall is today venerated by Jewish worshippers.
But little else from that time remains. In the year 70 a.d., the Roman 10th Legion besieged and then sacked Jerusalem, a place Pliny the Elder had only recently called “by far the most famous city of the East.” Prosperity was followed by desolation.
A thousand years after David, a new faith emerged from Jerusalem, a city now hallowed by the crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus. In the fourth century, Constantine identified and enshrined sites associated with the life of Jesus, places that were soon woven into Christian liturgy and pilgrimage. (Although nowhere does the New Testament require such pilgrimage—John Calvin went so far as to call it “counterfeit worship”—the practice flourished.) Under Byzantine rule, Jerusalem, where Jewish residence would be banned for 500 years, became a major Christian city, one of the most celebrated in the empire. In the year 451, Jerusalem became one of the five patriarchates, beside Alexandria, Antioch, Constantinople, and Rome.
Following the path of Muhammad’s Night Journey, Islam arrived with the Caliph Omar in the seventh century, and al-Quds (The Holy), as the city became known in Arabic, became increasingly prominent. The great medieval Arab geographer (and Jerusalem native) al-Muqaddasi wrote: “The hearts of men of intelligence yearn towards her.” From now on, the Dome of the Rock, a perfectly proportioned octagonal masterpiece of Umayyad architecture, would dominate the skyline. And although Jerusalem would never serve as a Muslim capital, neither between 638 and 1099, nor between 1187 and 1917, Islam left an indelible mark on the city’s increasingly multifaceted appearance.
So did the Crusaders, who, driven to “liberate Jerusalem from the Mohammadan yoke,” conquered the city in 1099 and made it the capital of the independent Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem. And so, in a more muted way, did Saladin, who conquered the city in 1187. Mosques that had become churches became mosques again. Until they were replaced by the Ottomans, the Mamluks from Egypt—whom F. E. Peters calls “veritable Carnegies and Rockefellers of piety”—enriched and embellished Jerusalem. Finally, the Ottoman conquest in the 16th century gave Jerusalem the distinctive wall built by Suleiman the Magnificent, which surrounds the turrets and domes and enclosed courtyards of the Old City to this day.
The story of Jerusalem, a city so long convulsed by ancient angers and competing pieties, is excessively well worn. The dates are already familiar. In another of his poems, Amichai writes that, here, numbers designate not bus routes but dates: 70 after, 1917, 500 b.c., ’48. These are the lines you really travel on.
This book, too, is thick with dates. Its style is necessarily dry. Yet, in transposing the story of Jerusalem into a different key, in telling it for the first time not as history but as a loving examination of the detritus of history, Galor and Bloedhorn shed light on how tactile things can act as batteries and conductors of memory. Archaeology at its best is the study of how excavated objects and buildings carry the currents of memory between then and now.
But the more basic originality of this book lies in the way Galor and Bloedhorn persuasively demonstrate the virtues of reading Jerusalem as a kind of archaeological palimpsest of material culture. Much as the three Abrahamic faiths inscribed themselves on earlier faiths, erasing some features and embellishing others, so too can Jerusalem be seen as layer upon layer of sacred topography, a physical record of longings for a redemptive future and of mourning destructions past.
Benjamin Balint, author of Running Commentary, teaches at the Bard College liberal arts program in Jerusalem.