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THE BEST BOOKS OF 1996 | NONFICTION

JERUSALEM One City, Three Faiths By Karen Armstrong Alfred A. Knopf: 471 pp., $30 : TO RULE JERUSALEM By Roger Friedland and Richard Hecht Cambridge University Press: 554 pp., $39.95

December 29, 1996|JONATHAN KIRSCH

As Karen Armstrong emphasizes in "Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths," Jerusalem was founded by an obscure people called the Jebusites at some unknowable date in the distant past. The 3,000th anniversary now being celebrated is roughly based on the supposed date of the conquest of Jerusalem by King David, an event that is reported only in the Bible and, even according to the Bible, took place long after Jerusalem first came into existence. Armstrong, a former nun and distinguished historian of religion, uses Jerusalem as a focal point for a work of impressive sweep and grandeur.

By contrast, Roger Friedland and Richard Hecht, both professors of religious studies at UC Santa Barbara, approach Jerusalem in the here-and-now in "To Rule Jerusalem," bringing a kind of urgent first-person journalism to bear in their scholarly study of the politics of Jerusalem and the contemporary Middle East.

The point is made in both books: The alchemy of politics and true belief is precisely what makes Jerusalem a shimmering symbol of humankind's loftiest spiritual aspirations and, at the same time, the front line of a bitter struggle for sovereignty over a few square miles of stony earth.

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