The Magazine

City of Faiths

What Jerusalem means to the world.

Oct 24, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 06 • By BENJAMIN BALINT
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Given the city’s significance as the metropolis of monotheisms, it comes as no surprise that the jealous desire to possess Jerusalem has, from time immemorial, displayed a religious sheen. Montefiore informs us that the very word “theocracy” was coined by Josephus to describe the Jerusalem of the Second Temple period. In charting the paroxysms of violence that have seized the Chosen City, Montefiore’s book (much like James Carroll’s recent Jerusalem, Jerusalem) serves as an atlas that maps its central place in the geography of apocalypse. One illustration of stubborn and religiously inspired possessiveness may stand in for the rest. Montefiore quotes an exchange of letters between two warriors who battled each other for the city at the close of the 12th century: “Jerusalem is for us an object of worship that we could not give up even if there were only one of us left,” Richard the Lionheart wrote to Saladin. “Jerusalem is ours as much as yours,” the sultan replied, “indeed it’s even more sacred to us.”

Montefiore’s narrative becomes particularly vigorous when it threshes out the ways Jerusalem, as a place terrestrial and celestial both, fixed itself in the Western imagination. The fixation did not cease with the Crusades. On leaving Spain for his great expedition, Christopher Columbus wrote to his royal benefactors, “I propose to Your Majesties that all the profit derived from this enterprise be used for the recovery of Jerusalem.” Montefiore also helpfully tells us that Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem in Nottingham, which claims to be the oldest pub in Great Britain, dates from Richard the Lionheart’s Third Crusade in 1189. Most far-reaching of all has been the American fixation on a city that has always seemed filigreed by a sense of its own exceptionalism. After they crossed the Atlantic, Puritans wished to build a new Zion—“a city on a hill,” to use John Winthrop’s celebrated phrase. William Bradford stepped off the Mayflower and said, “Come let us declare in Zion the word of God.”

Each era had its own style of possessiveness. Beginning in the 19th century, Jerusalem became once more not only a magnet for pilgrims in search of salvation or penance, but also the object of intense imperial ambition. The major European powers each sought a foothold, and Montefiore gives us a litany of royal visitors, many of whom left a building or two behind in the cityscape. Crown Prince Frederick of Prussia and Franz Joseph of Austria both came in 1869. (Hapsburg emperors would use the title King of Jerusalem until 1918.) From the Romanovs, the city hosted Grand Duke Konstantin Nikolaevich (who came in 1859) and Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich (1888). Rasputin, adviser to czars, came in 1903 and again in 1911. Not to be outdone, Britain sent the Prince of Wales and future Edward VII (1862) as well as the future George V (1882).

On rare occasions, meanwhile, the city’s possessors attempted to share their prize, but the failed attempts only magnified Jerusalem’s essential un-shareability. Richard’s offer of a partition to Saladin was rebuffed. In 1799, Napoleon issued a remarkable “Proclamation to the Jews” from his headquarters, a couple of dozen miles west of Jerusalem:

Bonaparte, Commander in Chief of the armies of the French Republic in Africa and Asia, to the rightful heirs of Palestine—the unique nation of Jews who have been deprived of the land of your fathers by thousands of years of lust for conquest and tyranny. Arise then with gladness, ye exiled, and take unto yourself Israel’s patrimony.

Turned back by the Ottoman warlord Ahmet Jazzar Pasha, Napoleon beat a retreat to Egypt before he could deliver any such gladness.