JERUSALEM is the hottest piece of geography in the world. It is claimed exclusively as theirs by Christians, Jews and the Muslims. For all three, it is a sacred land, they see the presence of their gods there. Because of which, ironically it is one of the most blood-soaked lands. Can there ever be a solution to the Jerusalem issue?
James Carroll, a former catholic priest explores the holy city in his book Jerusalem, Jerusalem: How the Ancient City Ignited Our Modern World. The use of the name twice in the title, he says, is because it is about the earthly and heavenly, the mundane and the imagined. “That doubleness shows up in the tension between Christian Jerusalem and Jewish Jerusalem, between European Jerusalem and Islamic Jerusalem, between Israeli Jerusalem and Palestinian Jerusalem, and between the City on a Hill and the Messiah nation that, beginning with John Winthrop, understands itself in its terms.”
Carroll begins at the beginning, telling the chronological history of the city, linking it to the pre-Christian era, the biblical times and then the medieval period when the Muslims came to claim the land. The focus of the book is contemporary Jerusalem. But to arrive here, one must travel through the centuries. The centuries that witnessed unrepentant blood-shedding from all sides, when the human lives had no value, when men killed and got killed in the name of God. That it continues till date is the tragedy of this holy city.
Muslims were the last entrants into this triangle. In the late 7th century, only a few years after the death of Prophet Mohammad, Caliph al-Malik ordered the construction of a shrine over the rock of sacrifice. Soon it was revered by the Muslims as “the spot from where Gabriel, in the culmination of the “night journey,” elevated Muhammad to the heights of heaven.” Carroll says that al-Malik’s intention in creating this holy place might have been to downplay the significance of centre of the caliphate in Mecca, which he had discarded for the “empire-worthy Damascus.”
Initial harmonious living gave way to fierce battles, especially as the Muslim forces gained victory after victory. The Christians gave it back nearly as good as they got. The Church and the religious leaders were backing the Christian forces. While initially the priests accompanied the fighting men to baptise those enemies who were dying, later they were there to bless and send the soldiers into the battle field. It was a ‘holy war’ for all. The book gives bone chilling descriptions of the massacres, times when marching soldiers waded through knee-deep blood, the destruction and the mayhem unleashed by the victors on the vanquished. The Jews were banished from Jerusalem by Christians who in turn were driven out by Muslims. The cross current between Jews and Christians can be gauged by the fact that Vatican recognised Israel, formed in 1948, only in 1994.
“Religious madness” has been plaguing Jerusalem right from the beginning. Now, a potent mix of religion and power has taken over. And hence, Carroll says the solution cannot be on mere religious lines. “Politics is the exercise of power within and by communities, and what modern secularity calls religion, imagining it as a realm apart, is one aspect of the community’s life…The idea that politics and religion are distinct tapestries, hung on different walls, or even in different rooms, is a contemporary illusion…”
So, is there no redemption for Jerusalem? The city continues to be hostage to “ferocious irrationalities of religion.” Says the author “An especially brutal Muslim religion, which is roundly indicted for its blatant refusal to separate politics and religion, confronts the irredentist ultra-orthodoxy of fanatical Jewish settlers, who have fallen back into a fundamentalism that has no other purpose but to reject the enlightenment. Jihad against holy war.”
Carroll concludes in optimism. He suggests removing violence from religions. “Beliefs that lead to transgressions of the primal law of love must change. Religion that leads to violence must be reformed. Which is to say, every religion is forever in need of reformation.” Easier said than done?
Carroll brings into his narration images that powerfully highlight the plight of the city. He talks about the two most dominating modern structures – the suspended superstructure bridge and the thirty-foot concrete wall that snakes through the city, dividing the Arab and Jewish areas. The wall is the ugly reminder of the divide that runs all along between two communities. Jerusalem, for the author has been an intensely personal spiritual experience. And it is this spiritual angst he conveys in the book. Everybody wants a solution but none is willing to budge an inch. Absorbing, poignant, the book is a cry for help on behalf of Jerusalem. Carroll, author of several books is a distinguished scholar.
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