James Carroll’s Jerusalem

Author James Carroll on his new book, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem,” and the ancient city that ignited the modern world.

The Dome of the Rock Mosque, known to Jews as the Temple Mount in the Old City, Jerusalem (AP /Karel Prinsloo)

The breath of the news has been enlivening the Middle East in this season.  (our coverage here here and here) Young people in the streets calling for freedom and democracy.  Soaring with hope on Twitter and Facebook. But the old is there, too.

For years before the Arab uprising, author James Carroll has been studying Jerusalem.  Not just the city today and its divisions and tensions.  But the city over thousands of years, as a symbol and locus of the sacred, the sublime, and the violent.  As a spark point for modernity, and a portal to antiquity.

This hour, On Point: James Carroll and Jerusalem.

-Tom Ashbrook


James Carroll, author of “Jerusalem, Jerusalem: How the Ancient City Ignited Our Modern World,” coming out tomorrow and New York Times bestseller “Constantine’s Sword: The Church and the Jews: A History,” now an acclaimed documentary.  He is also a columnist for the  Boston Globe


Excerpt: Jerusalem, Jerusalem: How the Ancient City Ignited Our Modern World
By James Carroll
Chapter One: Introduction: Two Jerusalems
1. Heat

This book is about the lethal feedback loop between the actual city of Jerusalem and the apocalyptic fantasy it inspires. It is a book, therefore, about two Jerusalems: the earthly and the 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. But all recognizably contemporary conflicts have their buried foundations in the deep past, and this book will excavate them. Always, the story will curve back to the real place: the story of how humans living on the ridge about a third of the way between the Dead Sea and the Mediterranean have constantly been undermined by the overheated dreams of pilgrims who, age in and age out, arrive at the legendary gates with love in their hearts, the end of the world in their minds, and weapons in their hands.

It is as if the two Jerusalems rub against each other like stone against flint, generating the spark that ignites fire. There is the literal fire of wars among peoples and nations, taken to be holy because ignited in the holy city, and that will be our subject. There is the fire of the God who first appeared as a burning bush, and then as flames hovering over the heads of chosen ones. That God will be our subject. But Jerusalem also ignites heat in the human breast, a viral fever of zealotry and true belief that lodged in the DNA of Western civilization. That fever lives — an infection but also, as happens with the mind on fire, an inspiration. And like all good metaphors, fever carries implications of its own opposite, for preoccupation with Jerusalem has been a religious and cultural boon, too. “Salvation is from Jerusalem,” the Psalms say, but the first meaning of the word “salvation” is health. That the image of fever suggests ecstasy, transcendence, and intoxication is also true to our meditation. “Look,” the Lord tells the prophet Zechariah, “I am going to make Jerusalem an intoxicating cup to all the surrounding peoples.”

Jerusalem fever consists in the conviction that the fulfillment of history depends on the fateful transformation of the earthly Jerusalem into a screen onto which overpowering millennial fantasies can be projected. This end of history is conceived variously as the arrival of the Messiah, or his return; as the climactic final battle at Armageddon, with the forces of angels vanquishing those of Satan (usually represented by Christians as Jews, Muslims, or other “infidels”). Later, the end of history sheds its religiosity, but Jerusalem remains at least implicitly the backdrop onto which millennial images are thrown by social utopias, whether founded by pilgrims in the New World, by communards in Europe, or by Communists. Ultimately, a continuous twentieth- and twenty-first-century war against evil turns out, surprisingly, to be centered on Jerusalem, a pivot point of both the Cold War and the War on Terror. Having begun as the ancient city of Apocalypse, it became the magnetic pole of Western history, doing more to create the modern world than any other city. Only Jerusalem — not Athens, Rome, or Paris; not Moscow or London; not Istanbul, Damascus, or Cairo; not El Dorado or the New York of immigrants’ dreams — only Jerusalem occupies such a transcendent place in the imagination. It is the earthly reflection of heaven — but heaven, it turns out, casts a shadow.

Thus, across the centuries, the fancied city creates the actual city, and vice versa. “The more exalted the metaphoric status of Jerusalem,” as the Jerusalem scholar Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi writes, “the more dwarfed its geopolitical dimensions; the more expansive the boundaries of the Holy City, the less negotiable its municipal borders.” Therefore, war. Over the past two millennia, the ruling establishment of Jerusalem has been overturned eleven times, almost always with brute violence, and always in the name of religion. This book will tell the story of those wars — how sacred geography creates battlefields. Even when wars had nothing literally to do with Jerusalem, the city inspired them with the promise of “the glory of the coming of the Lord . . . with his terrible swift sword,” as put by one battle hymn from far away. Metaphoric boundaries obliterate municipal borders, with disputes about the latter spawning expansions of the former, even to distant reaches of the earth.

Jerusalem fever infects religious groups, certainly the three monotheisms that claim the city. Although mainly a Christian epic, its verses rhyme with what Judeans once did, what Muslims took to, what a secular culture unknowingly pursues, and what parties to the city’s contemporary conflict embody. Yet if Jerusalem is the fever’s chosen niche, Jerusalem is also its antidote. Religion, likewise, is both a source of trouble and a way of vanquishing it. Religion, one sees in Jerusalem as nowhere else, is both the knife that cuts the vein and the force that keeps the knife from cutting. Each tradition enlivens the paradox uniquely, and that, too, is the story. For Jews, Jerusalem, after the destruction of the Temple by the Babylonians and then the Romans, means that absence is the mode of God’s presence. First, the Holy of Holies in the rebuilt Temple of biblical times was deliberately kept vacant — vacancy itself mythologized. Then, after the destruction by Rome, when the Temple was not rebuilt, the holy place was imagined in acts of Torah study and observance of the Law, with a return to Jerusalem constantly felt as coming “next year.” Throughout centuries of diaspora, the Jewish fantasy of Jerusalem kept communal cohesion intact, enabled survival of exile and oppression, and ultimately spawned Zionism. For Christians, the most compelling fact of the faith is that Jesus is gone, present only through the projections of sacramentalism. But in the ecstasies of evangelical fervor, Jesus can still be felt as kneeling in the garden of Gethsemane, sweating blood for “you.” So Jerusalem lives as the locus of piety, for “you” can kneel there, too. The ultimate Christian vision of the future — the Book of Revelation — is centered in the city of the Lord’s suffering, but now that anguish redeems the very cosmos. Even in the act of salvation, the return of Jesus to Jerusalem is catastrophic. Muslims came to Jerusalem as occupiers in 637, only five years after the death of Muhammad. That rapidity makes the point. The Prophet’s armies, sweeping up out of Arabia in an early manifestation of the cohesion generated by an Islamic feel for the Oneness of God, were also in hot pursuit of Jerusalem. Desert heat this time. The Muslims’ visceral grasp of the city’s transcendent significance defined their first longing — and their first true military campaign. Islam recognizes God’s nearness only in recitation, with chanted sounds of the Qur’an exquisite in their elusiveness and allusiveness both. Yet the Prophet left a footprint in Jerusalem’s stone that can be touched to this day — an approximate and singular sacrament. To Muslims, Jerusalem is simply Al Quds, “the Holy.”

The three monotheisms of Jerusalem are thus nested in a perennial present, a temporal zone in which the past is never quite the past and the future is always threatening to break in. The linear order of time keeps getting lost in Jerusalem, just as the spatial realm, by being spiritualized, keeps evaporating — except for those who actually live there. For the broader culture, interrupted time means that both psychological wounds and theological insights are transmitted here less by tradition than by a kind of repetition compulsion. These transcendent manifestations of hurt and suspicion and hostility — and ultimately fanaticism — can be overcome only by understanding their very human sources. But a procession of historical vignettes, beginning here and falling into place like pieces of a puzzle, can also make clear that Jerusalem is home to a spacious religious cosmopolitanism that no amount of overheated warping can ruin. Jerusalem, in its worldly history and its symbolic hovering, forces a large-spirited reckoning with religion and politics both — how they work, how they go wrong, how they can be cooled and calmed.

The cults of Jerusalem make plain that each tradition of the Book depends on a revelation of indirection, a knowing what is unknowable, which is why each tradition can miss the truth as well as hit it, sponsoring intolerance as much as neighborliness, discord as much as peace. This book is a pilgrimage through the ways of sacred violence, most of which lead, in the West, either from or to this same city. On medieval maps it marks the intersection of Europe, Asia, and Africa. Armies have swarmed out of all three continents to meet here — and now, in the twenty-first century, they arrive from a fourth continent, too. But Jerusalem’s geopolitical implications, however much ignited by religion, have been equally transformative of secular forces, for better and worse. Wars can be holy without invoking the name of God. That also gives us our theme. The point here is that for Europe, and for its legacy culture in America, the fever’s virus found a succession of hosts in ancient Roman assaults, medieval Crusades, Reformation wars, European colonialism, New World adventures, and the total wars of modernity — all fixed, if variously, upon Jerusalem. The place and the idea of the place mix like combustible chemicals to become a much too holy land, an explosive combination of madness and sanctity, violence and peace, the will of God and the will to power, fueling conflict up to the present day. Fuel indeed. The Holy Land has come to overlap the most contested geology on the planet: the oil fields of the Middle East. Oil now trumps every great power strategic concern. Its concentration there — the liquid crescent stretching from Iran and Iraq to the Arabian Peninsula — means the broad obsession with dead-centered Jerusalem is not merely mystical. Nor is the threat merely mystical. For the first time in human history, the apocalyptic fantasy of Armageddon could become actual, sparked in the very place where Armageddon began.

(Reprinted by arrangement with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Copyright © 2011 by James Carroll.)

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