Karen Armstrong, Jerusalem. New York: Ballantine Books, 1997. xx + 474 pp. including index. Paperback.

Reviewed by Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad

[Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad is president of the Minaret of Freedom Institute, an Islamic think tank in Bethesda, MD. He is editor and annotator of the recently published Islam and the Discovery of Freedom.]

Karen Armstrong is a deeply spiritual woman who shows no bias towards any organized religion. This gives her the necessary impartiality to tackle the controversial and bloody history of the city of Jerusalem. That is her strong point. Yet, she seems to share the secularist assumption that religions are more the product of a human evolution than direct, literal revelation. In the very earliest chapters of this book, which cover periods for which few clear historical facts are available, she indulges in speculation and conjecture based on this premise. For example, "Before Solomonís temple was built in Jerusalem," she writes, "there was, as far as we know, little or no interest in Yahweh as a creator-god."

This weakness becomes increasingly irrelevant as she advances closer to the modern era. The better documented the era, the more explosive Ms. Armstrongís analysis becomes, for she does not flinch from the historical facts where they are available. Jerusalem a subject which most scholars approach gingerly for fear of offending someone or other. Ms. Armstrong fearlessly rates the various conquerors of Jerusalem by the criterion of how justly they treated the previous inhabitants. She does not hesitate to rank the Christian Crusaders as the worst, notwithstanding her seven years experience as a Catholic nun in earlier life.

Apart from her remarkable objectivity, Ms. Armstrong offers another original contribution in this summary of Jerusalemís history from its veiled beginnings in the thirty-second century B.C. to its video-taped and broadcast-daily position at the center of world events today. The framework for her analysis is her thesis that the degree to which people treat the significance of their religious mythology as spiritual rather than literal plays an important role in the degree to which they respect the sacred space of others.

For the prophet David (peace be upon him), who first conquered Jerusalem for the Jews, Jerusalem had no pre-existing sacred mythological significance. He would, like all ancient kings, build a house for his god in the city, but he saw no need to expel the existing Jebusite population. Because his understanding of the cityís religious significance is spiritual rather than physical, Davidís record of tolerance is a good one.

Control of the city fell to the Christians in the fourth century, when the Roman Empire turned Christian. Armstrong argues that their attitude towards the city changed when Emperor Constantine, "a pagan at heart [who] did not share" other Christiansí "lofty disdain for holy places" approved an archeological dig that unearthed the Tomb of Christ. Until then the Christians were concerned with the "New Jerusalem," rather than the old one. Now, writes Armstrong, "Pilgrims were developing a very tactile spirituality. They wanted to touch, kiss, and lick the stones that had once made contact with Jesus." Thus the groundwork was laid for the much later developments like the "stations of the cross," the bitter fighting among Christian denominations over their access to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, and the atrocities of the Crusades. Unlike David, the Crusaders considered the city to have a mythic significance to which they gave literal meaning.

When Umar ibn Khattab conquered Jerusalem, the city had a mythological significance for the Muslims, not only as the site of the night journey and ascent of the Prophet Muhammad, but as the site of the earlier Muslim prophets from David through Jesus (peace be upon them all). Yet, Umar allowed the existing Christian population to stay, to keep their churches, and to freely worship despite his profound disagreements with their theology. He valued observance of shari`ah requirement of just treatment of the People of the Book more highly than establishing a façade of "Islamization" on the newly conquered city, notwithstanding his belief that it was the Muslims who were the true heirs of legacy of David. Accordingly, the only request the Christians asked of Umar that he did not fulfill was their demand that Jews not be allowed back into the city.

Armstrong rejects alternative explanations of the differences in the degrees of tolerance by various conquerors. The idea that the more a people have suffered the more sensitive they are to the suffering of others is dismissed. The Christians had been persecuted by the Roman Empire, but once the Empire embraced the religion they showed no mercy towards the Jews or, later, towards the Muslims. The Muslims of Saladinís time had suffered at the hands of the Christians, unlike the Muslims of Umarís time, yet Saladin followed the Crusadersí lead by engaging in a massive building program to impose a Muslim stamp upon the city. The Muslims of Umarís era had not built to compete with the Christians. The mosque of Umar was an unassuming structure until long after his time. Still, despite the massive building that followed the reconquest, Saladin treated of the indigenous Christians fairly and invited the Jews into the city again. The argument that suffering breeds compassion is finally refuted by the history of Zionism itself. Vicious persecution suffered at the hands of the Nazis seems to have bred no Zionist sensitivity to Palestinian suffering.

The bookís final three chapters survey developments in Jerusalem over the last two centuries to make the case that once again religious literalism is generating violent intolerance. Armstrong places all the high points within the framework of her analysis: how the Christian denominations ended the violence to one another in their rivalry to over access to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher by giving the keys to a prominent Muslim family; strife between Ashkenazim and Sephardim, between Hasidim and Mitnaggeddim, and among antagonistic kahils; the sudden increase in the Jewish population from 40% of Jerusalem to 64% in 1910 and the role of European anti-Semitism in the birth of modern Zionism; the alienation of the Palestinian Arabs from the Turkish Empire; European use of modernization as a tool to take possession of Palestine away from the indigenous people; the secular nature of political Zionism; the literalism among the religious proponents of Zionism; the appropriation of religious symbolism by secularists; Yusuf al-Khalidiís letter to Herzlís friend Rabbi Zadok Khan "begging him to leave Palestine alone" because "for centuries, Jews, Christians and Muslims had managed to live together in Jerusalem and this Zionist project would end such coexistence"; the rise of Arab nationalism; Allenbyís completion of the work of the Crusaders; the superior strategies of the Zionists and the pathetic strategies of the Arabs; Britainís conflicting promises to both sides and the exploitation of the deliberate ambiguity of the Balfour declaration; extremist plots against the Haram-ash-Sharif, and the rise of "political archeology"; terrorism begetting terrorism; Zionist gradualism and the unfairness of the U.N. Partition Plan; Jordanian occupation policies and the resentment it bred in the Palestinians; Nasserís saber-rattling; a concise and accurate account of the Arab-Israeli wars; U.N. resolutions and those who ignore them; how Israeli annexations violate the Hague and Geneva Conventions; Teddy Kollackís machinations; land confiscation and the militaristic terminology of Zionist urban planners; the JDL and the PLO; the intifâdah; Oslo; the assassination of Rabin (by a "religious" Jew); Netanyahu and the tunnel.

That all this bloodshed should result from the opening of an archeological site seemed bizarre to many bewildered observersÖ. Archeology has never been experienced as an entirely neutral activity in Jerusalem. Ever since Constantine had given Bishop Makarios permission to dig up the tomb of Christ in 325 CE (thereby destroying the pagan Temple of Aphrodite), archeology has often been used to make a claim to the sacred territory of the city [p. 428]. Karen Armstrong is a skilled writer who is both sensitive and objective at the same time. This is a book for anyone who wants to a get feel for Jerusalem.


Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad
Minaret of Freedom Institute