August 23, 2014 By KS Shameer

The Meaning of Jerusalem

Karen Armstrong

Jerusalem: One City, Three FaithsPaperback:
Ballantine Books; Reprint edition (4/97)
ISBN: 0345391683

Karen Armstrong’s Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths is always contemporary, or for that matter till the Israeli aggression and Palestinian resistance cease. There is nothing in a book of history to make it contemporary; except that it becomes a mirror held out against the present (I don’t read history in other cases). Since it is West Asia-a cauldron of simmering, never-ending political violence-that it deals with, the book embraces the destiny of all historical titles that have points of reference to history-making cycles of outbreaks, violence, occupations and revolutions. The reason why I took up the book for reading is that it is implicated in the present: the ongoing aggression of Israel against the uprooted, homeless and shattered Palestinians. And the crux of Karen’s arguments is simply this: the current political condition of the region can be traced back to an equally tumultuous 12th century-its Crusades, conquests and reconquests.

The history of Jerusalem is what that word encapsulates: a rocky, craggy wilderness metamorphosed into the house of God (‘Jeru’ meaning home and Shalom is the name of Syrian God). Wilderness is the shared, collective icon of the Abrahamic faith. Karen brilliantly sketches how a shared myth is developed in the wilderness of Jersalem-(the images of King David, Garden of Gethsemane and Prophet Muhammad’s nocturnal journey). Jerusalem thus becomes the locus of three faiths’ attempts to search for and relocate their ideation of divinity.


Karen says: “In our scientifically-oriented society, we no longer think naturally in terms of images and symbols. We have developed a more logical and discursive mode of thought. Instead of looking at physical phenomena imaginatively, we strip an object of all its emotive associations and concentrate on the thing itself. This has changed the religious experience of for many people in the west, a process that we shall see, begin in the sixteenth century…This was not so in the premodern world. A symbol was seen as partaking in the reality to which it pointed.” The scientific outlook of objectivity developed simultaneously with the zest for nation (state) formation. But unlike science, nationalism did not exclude myths altogether. It really relegated the spiritual and communal significations of myths to the background, and exploited the materialistic potential for nation from people’s unfettered association and submission to symbols. Jerusalem-the house of God and holy land-thus becomes a tool for massacres during the Crusades, for an imaginary Arab nation state in Palestine and for the ongoing Zionist colonialism of Israel.

The attempts to resituate spiritual mythology in the form of nationalism and state can be traced back to Crusades, when Muslims and Jews were massacred en masse by the Crusading Army. Karen sheds a sharp contrasting light on the violent event of Crusades by pitting it against the larger-than-life image of Saladin, who proved that, following the example of Prophets such as Jesus and Muhammad, political conquests need not be violent always. Karen says: ‘Saladin did not intend to exclude Christians and Jews from the city entirely: the old ideal integration and coexistence persisted.’ In a brilliant tour de force, she presents Saladin as epitomizing the Christian values that the Crusaders failed to adopt: ‘Christians in the West were uneasily aware that this Muslim ruler had behaved in a far more “Christian” manner than had their own Crusaders when they conquered Jerusalem. They evolved legends that made Saladin a sort of honorary Christian; some of these tales even asserted that the sultan had been secretly baptized. Surely there is the western imperial notion of appropriating values and virtues behind this reinvention of Saladin as an icon (as if it is said that all values must necessarily be Christain). Beyond that one should not miss the fact that people everywhere need a Saladin for attempting to achieve the political ethics that mirrors the spiritual meanings implicit in the images and myths scattered all around in Jerusalem.

_Dome, clouds 2

Of all devastating mobilizations around religious images and myths, the one of Zionism is the most immediate. Like all political mobilizations, what Zionism too needed were the images and myths as merely icons to concretize its project of nation state. So it spurned deeper mystical associations and meaning these images really stood for. This is borne out by Karen’s account of Theodor Herzl’s, founder of the Zionist movement, unfixed imagination of the nation state: ‘Herzl was not an original thinker, though his book The Jewish State (1896) would become a Zionist classic. Nor was he a religious man; he had been committed to the ideal of assimilation and had even toyed with the possibility of converting to Christianity…Herzl did not believe that the new Jewish state needed to be Palestine, and he was shocked in the Second Zionist Conference by the depth of opposition to his proposal to establish a state in Uganda. To retain the leadership, Herzl was forced to abandon the idea….When Herzl actually visited Jerusalem in 1898, he was not favorably impressed.”


It is important to understand that the current policies of the Israeli state are a continuation of such a political imagination midwifed by the British colonial state which had portioned the land with the French. That political imagination got a prominent role in the colonial script being drafted at that time, which came to be christened as Sykes–Picot Agreement (which Britain and France was giving shape under the shadow of the McMahon Treaty to beguile the Arabs). What guided the machinations at that time was not merely the desire for creating a homeland for the Jews, persecuted by Hitler’s Germany, but the British desire for ‘restituting’ Jews to Palestine as part of its strategic  considerations for countering the French ambitions in the region by a British protectorate of grateful Jews.’ These machinations coincided with the appeasement and cold-shouldering of the needs of Arab monarchies by the British.

What we witness in Palestine is the terrible consequence of recapturing the religious iconography by the imperial power ambitions. Zionism and its concrete form of Israel may not last for long and can’t help succumbing to the call for justice. That might be the time when the deeper mystical significations of icons and myth shared by the three faiths will be properly understood and when the three faiths will achieve the triad of peace, co-existence and justice. There is nothing wrong in expectations rooted as they are in the Messianic hope. Jerusalem (House of God) is a locus for reinvigorating this hope.

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