The Chief Inhabitant

Diarmaid MacCulloch

  • Jerusalem: The Biography by Simon Sebag Montefiore
    Weidenfeld, 638 pp, £25.00, January 2011, ISBN 978 0 297 85265 0

Where might you seek Jerusalem? You could start in Bologna, which since at least the ninth century CE has boasted a Jerusalem theme park called Santo Stefano, a complex of churches and chapels around the octagon of San Sepolcro. At the centre of San Sepolcro’s columned Romanesque splendour is a full-size medieval reproduction of the superstructure of the Holy Sepulchre, which helps us understand what it looked like before its custodians accidentally set fire to it in 1808. Alternatively, you might travel to Moscow, to contemplate a similarly informative 17th-century replica of that ill-fated monument, housed of course in a monastery called New Jerusalem. Or, saving on air fares, you might go to Norfolk, to clamber round the intricate corridors of another octagon, the very strange Red Mount Chapel in King’s Lynn, which seems to be some 15th-century Norfolk pilgrim’s effort to reproduce either the tangled claustrophobia of Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre, or the outward appearance of the Dome of the Rock, which Christian tour-guides in Jerusalem then confidently pointed out to pilgrims as the Temple of Solomon.

In more Protestant mood, you could linger in Norwich, where 17th-century Congregationalists endowed the façade of their elegant Old Meeting House with echoes of the imaginary architecture of the Jerusalem Temple they had seen in a Dutch picture book. Or you might ignore the attractions of the Witch Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, in order to recall what other early Congregationalists wanted to signify by that place name: Salem was a city set on a hill for a newly founded Puritan Israel. Armchair travellers may prefer to turn to YouTube to revisit the recent royal wedding, and the communal singing of a peculiar poem by William Blake that has gained national anthem status. It was not much thought of until it acquired a splendid musical setting, an inspired piece of bombast by Sir Hubert Parry; ever since, the English have much enjoyed noisily pledging that they will not cease from mental fight until they have built Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land. So many Jerusalems.

It may well be better for your sanity to take one of these journeys than to make a pilgrimage to the place itself. The city of Jerusalem is notorious for inducing the Jerusalem Syndrome, which currently reduces around a hundred people a year to a state requiring urgent psychiatric attention, as the complicated and often unwelcoming reality of the place collides with their heightened religious expectations. One such deranged soul, Michael Rohan, an Australian Protestant trying to hasten the end of the world, set fire to the venerable Al-Aqsa Mosque in 1969, and smiled serenely throughout his subsequent trial; the horrified Israeli government was only too aware that his actions had done nothing to lessen the chances of the world ending. Indeed, if Rohan had lit his kerosene a few decades later, in the era of al-Qaida, he might have precipitated the massacre of thousands. As it was, he destroyed the beautiful 12th-century pulpit which the great Kurdish warrior-sultan Saladin had brought from Aleppo to celebrate the Muslim reconquest of the city from the Crusaders, which symbolism no doubt afforded the arsonist considerable satisfaction. I remember my own alarm when I overheard a South Korean Protestant pastor talking to his flock in the gift shop of Jerusalem’s Garden Tomb, a site originally sponsored by that opinionated and self-destructive Victorian Evangelical, General Gordon. The pastor was trying to encourage them to buy models of Herod’s Temple; ‘After all, we all want the Temple rebuilt, don’t we?’ he coaxed. ‘Oh yes!’ came the enthusiastic chorus.

You might say that the Jerusalem Syndrome began with King David. Once he had escorted Israel’s sacred Ark of the Covenant into the city, having conquered its Jebusite inhabitants and proclaimed it his capital, he danced in his exaltation ‘before the Lord with all his might … girded with a linen ephod’ – the sort of apron priests wore and so not appropriate for kings. This was a sure sign that he had got religion with a vengeance. Michal, one of his wives, ‘looked through a window, and saw King David leaping and dancing before the Lord, and she despised him in her heart.’ One can see her point, though the Lord God disagreed and made sure that she remained childless. A good thing too, is the implication in 2 Samuel 6.23.

In Jerusalem, the reasonable, the sensible, the moderates have rarely got a look-in. The British governors in the 1920s and 1930s, Sir Ronald Storrs, Edward Keith-Roach OBE and Sir Arthur Wauchope, had much the same experience as Queen Michal. Simon Sebag Montefiore in his biography of the city rather wistfully describes their rule as a golden age in Jerusalem’s history, when decorous gatherings of religious leaders from all faiths might pose for a group photo in the cool Oxford Gothic surroundings of St George’s Anglican Cathedral, benevolently flanking a moustachioed, plume-hatted and sashed British high commissioner, while the great Arab ‘Families’ of the city, who had gracefully accommodated themselves to many rulers over the centuries since the first Islamic conquest, could drive to jolly parties and soirées in their new Buicks. Then everyone began shooting and hurling hand grenades at each other, and in 1948 the British ignominiously quit a city which had once more gone mad. They bequeathed it partition, such a feature of the empire’s demise from Ireland to the Indian subcontinent to Cyprus – each partition the result of a hapless effort to do the right thing and play fair with each side.

And what is all the fuss about? The place is not on any major trade route, or on any regular marching road for armies. Old Jerusalem is readily comprehensible because its city walls have been preserved intact (minus a conspicuous gap, knocked through so that Kaiser Bill could make a more than usually pompous entry on behalf of imperial Lutheranism). Even considering the extensions to the wall made in the late Roman period, Jerusalem usually surprises those who visit it for the first time by how small it is. King David’s conquest, accompanied by some murderous sarcasm directed at the over-confident Jebusites, was its first recorded smiting, but smitings aplenty were on the way. The walls are difficult to defend, as is testified by Jerusalem’s depressingly frequent capitulation to invading armies (followed repeatedly in Montefiore’s narrative by the massacre or enslavement of those not already felled by hunger or eaten by their starving fellow-citizens).

Jerusalem has never manufactured anything much, apart from souvenirs for pilgrims: its industry has been sacredness ever since its first gnomic appearance in the pages of biblical history. Long before David’s capture of the city, a reasonably trustworthy historical event, there is a transcendent moment in the story of the Patriarch Abraham, which has the eerie quality of an unexpected and otherworldly intervention, distinctive even amid the wondrous (and ahistorical) narratives of Genesis. The King of Salem, Melchizedek, brings bread and wine to the patriarch in the triumphant afterglow of Abraham’s victory in battle, and intones a blessing. That is his prerogative; for this Melchizedek is Priest of the Most High God. The bread and wine, plus the grant of a tenth (or tithe) of all produce he received from a grateful Abraham, have resounded through the songs, liturgical practices and ambitions of clergy ever since.

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