Jerusalem: City of Longing by Simon Goldhill

[9 September 2008]

By Barry Lenser

Jerusalem: City of Longing contains several partially formed books within its modest length. It is, at once, a collection of historical narratives, an architectural survey, a quasi-travelogue, and an exploration of archaeology. Throughout, Simon Goldhill, the author and a professor of Greek Literature and Culture at Cambridge, displays a commanding knowledge of both religious and secular sites, like the Dome of the Rock, the Church of the Holy Trinity, and the Rockefeller Museum, that dot the landscape of Jerusalem. He finds the city to be fascinating and enjoys plumbing both commonplace and extraordinary locales for all their historical richness.

Yet the resulting deluge of details, especially in the jargon-heavy descriptions of architecture, grows tiresome. It creates an uneven feel and doesn’t allow Goldhill to give fuller expression to another book lurking inside Jerusalem, namely an irony-laced polemic. 

In the preface, Goldhill confesses that he would not be imparting a panacea for the ills of the Middle East. He’s far too clear-minded for such naiveté. Rather, he explains, when the opportunities arose, he would aim to be “equally insulting to all parties” whose religious and political fervor have so often debased legitimate disagreements and fostered stalemate. His disposition toward Jerusalem, then, is unavoidably ambivalent in light of its lesser inhabitants.

Goldhill has a talent for ironic juxtaposition and a keen grasp of the myth-making, sloganeering, and heedless self-interest that have polluted the debates over Jerusalem for many years. He writes, “This is a city that fabricates, forgets, and forges its past—in both senses of ‘forge’—through misrepresentation and politically motivated fictions”. It is this slice of Jerusalem, this humorous, cynical, and dispiriting take on how the crux of the Holy Land so powerfully ignites the rigidity and the stupidity of competing interests, that is most engaging and seems to be a preferred topic of Goldhill’s. But he doesn’t truly follow through with it. In favor of more historical and architectural specifics and, perhaps, a generally less caustic tenor, Goldhill curbs his polemical urges, leaving the criticisms just a sub-section of the scattered whole.

Goldhill fashions Jerusalem as a written tour of the city that passes through sacred places zealously claimed by each of the Abrahamic faiths and describes how the area has changed during various historical phases. Though the narrative tends to wander, Goldhill’s approach is thorough, utilizing anecdotes, ancient texts, old maps, and personality profiles to flesh out the hotspots and provide a window into their potent draw.

Simple but surprising bits of history continuously emerge, like how different Christian denominations own different areas within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre or how Herod the Great was actually the builder of the Western Wall. On such points, Goldhill can’t resist some snarky editorializing: “That a platform built by a self-aggrandizing tyrant could come to be seen as one of the holiest places of Judaism is a fine example of how Jerusalem works”. But again, highlighting irony and hypocrisy is not the focus of Goldhill’s agenda. It usually arrives as an afterthought that he seems interested in pursuing but then departs from without inciting more of a stir.

Goldhill also writes of wonderful human moments in the history of the Holy Land when, even if briefly, politics and religion were not sinisterly of the essence. The story of young Jacob Eliahu’s descent into Hezekiah’s Tunnel in the late 19th century is a romantic, flesh-and-blood adventure of bold discovery. Victorian-era Jerusalem seemed to attract spirited, though often feckless, types. Charles Warren was another prime example.

Even if derring-do, especially of the exaggerated and self-regarding kind, was widespread at this time, instances of deep compassion are harder to find in Goldhill’s rendering. This is why he relishes the harrowing and noble lives of Horatio and Anna Spafford, the founders of the American Colony in Jerusalem. While en route to Europe, Anna lost all four of the couple’s daughters to drowning deaths after their ship sank. She pressed on and, along with her husband, emigrated to Jerusalem where they eventually opened the Anna Spafford Baby Hospital which provided care to mothers and their newborns.

The series of clipped histories in Jerusalem is one of the finer elements of the book’s multi-headed function. The narrative momentum that results, however, often fizzles when it runs into another of the strands: Goldhill’s verbose depictions of the city’s architecture. A typical passage reads: “The edicule itself is a four-square dusky construction with a small turret on the top and a quotation from the Gospels in Greek inscribed around the top of the walls”. The full descriptions usually last several pages and annoyingly overload on labored technical-speak of this kind. It’s necessary, certainly, for Goldhill’s enterprise but is also far from rewarding.

Instead of bringing to life Jerusalem’s many venerated buildings and monuments, the clinical specificity of these sections reduces them to glorified blueprints that lack color and energy. In true form, though, Goldhill does mention some amusing architectural ironies, even if they remain peripheral to the central discussion. At one point, he remarks how, in 1994, King Hussein of Jordan hired an Irish company, a “Catholic Western firm” as the author emphasizes, to repair the leaking roof of the Dome of the Rock and make it “safely iconic again”. The anecdote speaks for itself.

Though this is an innocuous jab, Goldhill does strikes harder at other times. He proudly scorns the hatefully paranoid types among all the participating faiths and charges “there is no theory in Jerusalem so crazy that some people will not embrace it”. Where piety and myth intertwine, Goldhill rightly detects great mischief. Yet he never sounds off as aggressively as his many contained criticisms suggest he might want to. Perhaps Goldhill judges that longer-form, combative commentary on such a tangled subject would not mix comfortably with the less explosive (but not quite defused) details of archaeology, architecture, and straight history that comprise the bulk of Jerusalem.

Thus, he often contents himself with undercooked snippets of annoyance, eye rolls essentially, like “that Jerusalem thing about stone again” or “There was a dispute—as ever with building in Jerusalem…” that belie more pronounced views. Even in the final chapter, “The Modern City”, which encounters the Israelis’ and Palestinians’ hotly divergent accounts of the past, Goldhill doesn’t rhetorically unload. It all makes for a more temperate, if occasionally feisty, tone. But leaving righteous passions unfulfilled is a regrettable trade-off.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/jerusalem-city-of-longing-by-simon-goldhill/