MAXWELL:  Foundations of faith

5/19/1996 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


By Karen Armstrong

Reviewed by Bill Maxwell

Wearing a yarmulke, an Israeli soldier, with an automatic rifle slung over his shoulder, prays at the Western Wall. Next to him, a Jew, clad in traditional long-sleeved robe and girdle, kisses the Wall. Several yards away, dozens of Muslims march toward the Dome of the Rock and El Aqsa Mosque. A group of Christians, oblivious to persistent Arab boys selling souvenirs, gravitates toward the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

These scenes greeted me when I was in Jerusalem in February. How, I wondered, could people with such vastly different views of humankind’s origins lay claim to this one city? What makes Jerusalem special to such diverse humanity?

Needless to say, I, like millions of others who travel to Jerusalem as interested observers, have difficulty understanding the real meaning of the events unfolding before us. We are left outside, straining to peer inside this inscrutable place where the world’s three monotheistic religions were born, where Palestinians and Zionists coexist in measured political enmity, where doctrinal absolutism is an integral part of daily life.

Now, I and other travelers who love Jerusalem can find some answers in Karen Armstrong’s new book Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths. Armstrong, who teaches at Leo Baeck College for the Study of Judaism and the Training of Rabbis, outlines the events and various schools of thought that make Jerusalem a “holy place” for Jews, Muslims and Christians.

Employing the same accessible style and rigorous scholarship that made her History of God an international bestseller, Armstrong traces the religious, mythical and historical fault lines that underpin the beliefs of the three great religions of Jerusalem. Beneath the many doctrinal and political disputes as to which group can lay genuine claim to the Holy City is the unanswerable question: Who was first?

Christians do not claim to be the first inhabitants. The city is holy to them because Jesus was crucified and buried there. But to Palestinians and Jews, the issue of who were the first inhabitants of Jerusalem is crucial. It determines, for example, how each side justifies its actions during events such as the creation of the state of Israel, the Six-Day War and the most recent suicide bus bombings in Jerusalem’s Jewish sector. To Jews and Palestinians, moreover, Jerusalem is the sacred place of their respective patriarchs, and they reject all suggestions that the adversary has any legitimate claims to this ancient city.

“Palestinians claim that there is absolutely no archaeological evidence for the Jewish kingdom founded by King David and that no trace of Solomon’s Temple has been found,” Armstrong writes. “The Kingdom of Israel is not mentioned in any contemporary text but only in the Bible. It is quite likely, therefore, that it is merely a “myth.’ Israelis have also discounted the story of the Prophet Muhammad’s ascent to heaven from the Haram al-Sharif in Jerusalem _ a myth that lies at the heart of the Muslim devotion to al-Quds _ as demonstrably absurd.”

Armstrong argues that such mythology, manifest in Jerusalem’s architecture, archaeology, music, art, liturgy and various other rituals and symbolic representations, gives Jerusalemites their unique identity, lifts them beyond themselves and beyond the natural world and brings them into the presence of the sacred.

Jerusalem, then, is myth and symbol, thing and idea, a place that gives reality and significance to the elusive and the intangible. Even more important, perhaps, it validates the inner lives of true believers. Armstrong wisely does not “lay down the law about the future of Jerusalem.” Instead, she attempts to show what Jews, Christians and Muslims mean when they say that Jerusalem is “holy,” and she attempts to show how this place affects the sanctity and tradition of each faith.

“This seems just as important,” Armstrong writes, “as deciding who was in the city first and who, therefore, should own it, especially since the origins of Jerusalem are shrouded in such obscurity.”

The scholar and layperson alike will benefit from Armstrong’s well-researched study of Jerusalem. To her lasting credit, Armstrong has lifted, to a large extent, the shroud of obscurity surrounding the significance of this city of three faiths.

Bill Maxwell is a columnist and editorial writer for the Times.