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Hub of Ages : JERUSALEM: City of Mirrors by Amos Elon (Little, Brown: $19.95; 304 pp.)

October 01, 1989|Roger Friedland and Richard Hecht | Friedland and Hecht are completing a book, "To Rule Jerusalem," on the contemporary politics and religions of Jerusalem

Sultans and kings have repeatedly conquered and reconstructed Jerusalem. They all left their markings amid the city's jumbled stones. But the most enduring monuments they left behind, Amos Elon shows us, are the memories built on top of them. Elon tours Jerusalem with an acute architectural and topographical eye, but his travelogue is really about those multiple memories and the ways in which they mirror and magnify each other.

These memories may be manufactured, with a dubious relationship to the monuments that memorialize them. Zionism's first emblem, the Tower of David, was in fact a 17th-Century Turkish mosque's minaret. The Via Dolorosa marks the death march of the man who was either wonder-working sage, proto-nationalist rebel or the son of God. But Christ's condemnation took place on the other side of the city. The Muslims claim the cleared platform of Solomon's Temple as the launching pad for Mohammed's night journey to heaven. In fact, the Koran does not mention Jerusalem by name and the city was probably identified with the sacred text's "far distant mosque" only a century later by Damascus-based Umayyad sultans to whom Mecca was denied.

The memories draw millions. Pilgrimage has always been Jerusalem's largest product. Jerusalem lived off its capacity to export dreams and confirm categories. Christians returned with tons of the "true" cross, gallons of the Virgin's milk, and more than a dozen of the Savior's foreskins. In the 19th Century, the city attracted more skeptical visitors like Disraeli, who proclaimed that Arabs were just "Jews on horseback"; Gogol, who came to break his writer's block; King George, who had himself tattooed on the nose in the Old City.

Its most persistent pilgrims have always been Jews. Memory of this metropole has sustained Jewish identity over the millennia. Other peoples lost their sacred centers and then lost their way. The Jews' uniqueness, Elon suggests, lies in the tenacity with which they retained mental citizenship in this city. It is there in the timing and content of Jewish prayer, in the architecture of the synagogue, in the cycle of holidays, intimately etched in each passage through life. Return to Jerusalem became the culmination of Jewish history.

Elon, the biographer of Theodor Herzl, the organizational father of Zionism, has written a literary, and often lyrical, biography of the images of Jerusalem, of Zion, the city after which Herzl's national movement took its name. The label is ironic because Zionism was largely built outside Zion. The Zionists built the nation in the countryside and along the coast, not in this city filled with pious Jews who denounced them as heretics and free-thinkers. Labor Zionists distrusted cities, and, as he demonstrates, none more than Jerusalem. Herzl wanted to build the capital on Mount Carmel, not within Jerusalem, filled, he wrote, with "deposits of two thousand years of inhumanity, intolerance and uncleanliness." Ben-Gurion avoided the city. Only in 1949, after voices were raised in the United Nations to internationalize the city, did Israel move its capital to Jerusalem.

Zionism, its proponents proclaimed, would bring Jews back into history, make them into a normal people. Elon's earlier portrait of his people, "The Israelis: Founders and Sons," documented the rise and fall of this muscular nationalism that cultivated soil and a new kind of Jew. Jerusalem's rise as the nation's sacred center is related to that decline. With the Temple's destruction in the year 70 of the 1st Century, God was thought to have gone into exile. By taking and reunifying the city in 1967, Israel had provided the prooftext that God was on their side, that he had not reneged on his territorial promise so many millennia before. Religious nationalists now rebuilt the cultural foundations of the nation around the city's ancient Temple. It was a fateful choice. The state became a divine instrument.

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