Jerusalem is a truly extraordinary city. On a three-week visit the fascination the city holds for the visitor on day one does not diminish as each day passes. It grows and grows all the way to day twenty-one. I know it is a dream but one sees and touches things in this city which makes you feel you could make your home here. In a sense that is not a dream. Jerusalem really is our home.
Simon Sebag Montefiore calls his moving account of Jerusalem, past and present, a biography. Now we generally write biographies of people, not places. But if any place in this world is imbued with the characteristics of a person, surely this great city is one of them. Indeed Christ himself did as much when he addressed her in those immortal and tragic words, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” (Matthew 23:37)
This great city, arguably – or maybe there is no argument – the greatest city in the world, in many ways presents a face, or multiple faces, to the world which are maddening in their complexity, contradictions and depths. So much of what one finds in these streets and across much of the Holy Land seem to deny the very essence of the holiness at its heart.
In that impressive book, Montifiore reminds us of a phenomenon which he calls “the Jerusalem syndrome”. Its provenance as a malady is not very secure, but it is identified by some as a group of mental phenomena involving the presence of religiously themed obsessive ideas, delusions, or other psychosis-like experiences that are triggered by a visit to the city of Jerusalem. I don’t think Simon takes it very seriously but as you trod the stones from the Jaffa Gate through the markets of the different ethnic and religious quarters of the old city down to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre you get some sense of how one might be seized by such a malady.
This city and its environs is the cradle of a great faith, and yet that faith and its adherents have to struggle with worldly forces which seem to threaten to drown it while at the same time make capital out of it. These forces seem to crush the beauty and the truth of which its very stones speak.
This is the city from which there emerged in history that vision of humanity which showed the way, the truth and the life, so that the race of humans could live a new life in this world, be born again, be content and be at peace with their fellows. This vision surpassed all other attempts of the great thinkers of antiquity to find answers to the questions, how should I live and why am I here?
It was this city that gave birth to all that we value in the City of Rome today. She is truly the daughter of Jerusalem.
But this city is also one which, like no other in human history, for thousands and thousands of years, has suffered death and destruction in a manner and with a persistence which defies credulity. It has been afflicted by monstrous and cruel men – and not a few women – for longer and more constantly across millenia than any other human settlement on God’s earth.
The Assyrians came down like a wolf on the fold, followed by the Babylonians, the Persians, the cruel Antiochus, a Greek successor of Alexander, Herod the Great, the Romans culminating with Hadrian. Then Constantine gave respite and all seemed well until the Sasinian Persians brought havoc from the east once more and in the space of a few years attempted to obliterate all that they found there.
Then came the Arabs out of the desert and the very soul of the city again became the object of contention and violent conflict as one dynasty after another embracing a new monotheism forced her to their will. The dreadful Fatimid, Al Hakim, tortured and bludgeoned her again at the turn of the first Christian millennium. Then, partly in response to the legacy of that Fatimid savagery, at the end of the new millennium’s first century came a Christian revival led by Crusading armies from Europe.
The crusaders were men of deep faith but also could not but be men of their time, sadly not averse to the shedding of blood. But in less than 100 years the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem rebuilt many of the churches and restored the memories of the holy places destroyed over the previous 400. The Christian Jerusalem of today would simply not exist without them.
The second Christian millennium, right down to the present time, may have been a little kinder to this city than the first – but not by much. Jerusalem today is a city in which troubled mankind continues to show the frightful capacity of man to treat his fellow man as something less than human.
Israel’s museums and historic sites bear witness to its glories and its tragedies over five millennia. Among these is the splendid and very informative new Saxum*multimedia centre just outside Jerusalem. Hours can be spent interacting with this display, connecting Israel’s history with world events and providing links down through the multiple layers which scripture, tradition and exhaustive archaeology reveal about this place which is like no other on earth.
But this city, in spite of the weight of all this history, still looks every inch the eternal and glorious mystery that it is, continuing to show in so many details, the vision which the incarnate Word of God manifested two thousand years ago.
Saxun Visitor Centre
Jerusalem is in many ways the embodiment of St. Augustine’s Earthly City. But it is also, in some ineffable and mysterious manner, an abiding reminder of the existence of the City of God. Furthermore, for each individual who comes here, its very flawed nature is a perpetual reminder of the conflicting worlds we bear within ourselves, threatening our destruction but filling us with hope in the promise of salvation.
The grandeur of Jerusalem might be represented by the paradoxes and the promises suggested to us by Gerard Manly Hopkins in his hope-filled and unearthly sonnet, God’s Grandeur.
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs –
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
Christ’s “Oh Jerusalem, Jerusalem,” was not a vain cry. Through his Spirit he does gather his children together under his wings. Pope Francis reminded us of the essence of this in an address in 2016 when he told us,
“The Holy Spirit, received for the first time on the day of our Baptism, opens our heart to the Truth, to all Truth. The Spirit impels our life on the challenging but joyful path of charity and solidarity toward our brothers and sisters. The Spirit gives us the tenderness of divine forgiveness and permeates us with the invincible power of the Father’s mercy”.
There will be, one day in time, a new Jerusalem, a day when all her suffering will be over and all the conflicts and contradictions of this glorious city of cities will end and all her children can live in the peace of Christ.
*Saxum: Road to Nataf, Abu Ghosh 9084500
P.O. Box 40205, Mevaseret Zion
Israel 9140101. +972 2 622 4100. email@example.com