Jerusalem: City of Longing, by Simon Goldhill

A tour guide, not a road map
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The Independent Culture

Simon Goldhill's book on Jerusalem sets out to explore how this "small, rather dirty and unimposing city, now sprawling far beyond its historical boundaries" can "fire the imagination like no other". Believing "we can understand the history through the buildings and... the buildings through the history", he calls the outcome an exercise in "historical urban geography" or a "tour guide for the thinking visitor".

Because he mainly avoids, other than in passing, the most contemporary manifestations of the anciently rooted but still all too dynamic interplay of build- ings, religion and ideology in Jerusalem the determined encroachment by Jewish settler groups on Arab quarters inside and outside the Old City, to cite only one example the book is a less complete fulfilment of his first description than his second.

Amiable as it is, it conveys a sense of what Arthur Koestler called the "continuous waves of killing, rape and unholy misery over the centuries in the Holy City". There is much less of the consciously present tense in Koestler's next sentence: "For those... who are inside it, matters appear much simpler; constantly exposed to its radiations, they live in holy blindness".

But the "thinking visitor" who wants to be steeped in the colourful history of what he is seeing, while keeping it at a safe distance, could do much worse than use this as a gently irreverent guide. Goldhill has a sharp eye for the historical anecdote: like Pompey marching straight into the Holy of Holies inside the Temple in 63BC , eager to find a cult statue to take back to Rome, and being baffled by the emptiness of that sacred place. He shrewdly warns that "it is very hard to be an archaeologist in Jerusalem without becoming embroiled in what... feels like a fight between playground bullies."

Interested in both the 19th-century growth of Jerusalem and in the British mandate's contribution to its architectural heritage, he is stimulating on the more modern buildings: St Andrew's, the Scottish church completed in 1930, Austen St Barbe Harrison's Rockefeller Museum, finished eight years later, and Moshe Safdie's tubular 21st-century masterpiece, the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum which he surprisingly worries may speak "too strident a political language".

But he is at his best explaining the three great centres of monotheistic faith: the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which compared with the cathedrals of Notre Dame or Chartres first seems as "small, brown, and undistinguished as a duck"; the Western Wall and the now-vanished first, second and Herodian Jewish Temples; and Al-Aqsa and the Dome of the Rock, at once "the most beautiful building in Jerusalem" and an aggressive double architectural message. First, to Jews, that Islam, in the words of Father Jerome Murphy O'Connor's excellent archaeological guide to The Holy Land, had now "appropriated" the rock on which their temple had stood; but also to the Christians who had worshipped in the Byzantine churches whose style the Dome resembled, that their faith, too, had been superseded.

The Western Wall plaza and the "spacious and wonderful garden" on the Temple Mount/ Haram al Sharif, where Al Aqsa and the Dome stand and the Temple stood, are part of the core of Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Goldhill reflects that together they pose key questions, such as: "Amid all this political clamour, how can the beauty and awe of the religious combine with an understanding that comes through generous critical history?" He provides few answers beyond displaying a desire for a just and peaceful solution, explaining that he has made no attempt "to solve the Middle East crisis".

On more recent politics, he seems least comfortable, and at times inaccurate. The Arab massacre of Jews in Hebron took place in 1929, not 1936. Golda Meir did not "famously and scandalously" call Palestine a "land without a people for a people without a land", but said in 1969: "There were no such thing as Palestinians." I know of no modern historian of Israel who puts the number of Arabs massacred at Deir Yassin in April 1948 lower than 245, rather than the "more than a hundred" cited. And the expert who guided Goldhill around the Armenian quarter is George Hintlian, not Hinklian. This can be all corrected if the book comes out in paperback, which would make it an even more convenient and worthwhile guide for visitors.