For better or worse, British religious writer Karen Armstrong is rapidly becoming a publishing phenomenon. Partly because of the demographics of an aging baby boom, religious books are becoming a very hot item on the best-seller charts, ranging from reports of cuddly angels who allegedly guard our steps, through the pour épater les bourgeois efforts of the Jesus Seminar and the like, to valuable popularizations of complex religious thought and history. In recent years, this last category has included best-sellers and prize winners like jack Miles’ God: A Biography and Armstrong’s A History of God. The History was a distinctly mixed project, evincing as it did conspicuous learning about abstruse byways of Islamic philosophy and mysticism, above all from the Sufi tradition she clearly loves. However, this sensitive treatment was constantly juxtaposed with malicious digs at every aspect of Western intellectual tradition. The Greeks achieved this . . . the Muslims discovered that . . . the Hindus began their golden age of intellect . . . meanwhile Western European peasants like Thomas Aquinas shambled out of their caves long enough to write simplistic trash gratuitously perverting the cultural treasures they had stolen from their neighbors. . . . Not a direct quotation, to be fair, but a reasonably accurate rendering of a pervasive sentiment in that odd and wrongheaded oeuvre.
We therefore approach Armstrong’s successor volume with some trepidation: surely she has by now worked out of her system all the bile against Catholic and Western traditions that she seems to have acquired during several years of convent life? The answer is mixed. Armstrong depicts the city as flourishing according to its own terms and traditions, except at such times as its life is violated by disgusting barbarian killers from the West. Now this characterization may well be justified on occasion; certainly the assault by Crusaders on the city in 1099 would find few modern defenders. But if the whole Crusading movement was really “a travesty of religion,” why does Armstrong not condemn likewise Muslim military atrocities? She displays a marked tonal difference in passages describing the annexation or destruction of Christian holy places (presumably part of the onward march of history) and those of other religions (brutal persecution by Christian bigots). As in A History of God, which is extensively rehashed throughout this volume, she is open to any Muslim account implying tolerance or reasonableness by partisans of that faith. Accepting the accounts most favorable to the one side and those least flattering to the other, she falls considerably short of the ideal of historical balance. Armstrong even contrives to blame Franciscan Catholic clergy for the first anti-Semitic pogroms in the Muslim world, which is stretching fact to breaking point and beyond. Her distaste is palpable when she dismisses the Ugly Westerners who come to Jerusalem to pursue “Biblical archaeology . . . an expression of the rationalized religion of the West based on facts and reason rather than on imaginative mythology.” Scientific method has wrought such harm on the world! Paradoxically, it is denounced by authors like Armstrong who work with word processors rather than with quills.
Fortunately, there is a positive side to Armstrong’s book, making it well worth reading for anyone interested in the nature of Jewish and Christian cultural traditions. She is, for example, extremely sympathetic to the Eastern Orthodox tradition; once again, her account of life under Islam is very well informed. Numerous scholars are comfortable with either the Jewish or the Christian side of the story, and some specialists are qualified to recount the Muslim one. Very few, however, have either the ability or the nerve to attempt a synthesis of this kind, which relates the story of Jerusalem and its environs from archaic Rushalimum to the modern city ruled by the State of Israel. (Her story is sufficiently current to embrace the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995.) Armstrong’s book is especially valuable for the accounts of what are, for most Western readers, the “dark centuries” in the city’s life: the early Middle Ages, for example, and the early modern period.
Armstrong highlights the city’s attraction for successive waves of mystics and fanatics—Sufis, Karaites, and Hasidim—who found Jerusalem to be the only environment in which they could practice a religion as rooted in the next world as in this. For all three faiths, moreover, there was always the recurrent belief that the Holy City would be the geographical setting for the events of the End Times, however these are conceived. Another and curious element of the story is the city’s success in civilizing its successive waves of residents and visitors, including such apparently hopeless eases as the Franks and the Turks. No matter how uncompromising their initial rejection of culture or cosmopolitanism, these people came, they saw—and Jerusalem conquered.
Also perennial has been the city’s attraction for religious reformers who, affecting at first to deny that one place was more holy than another—God being omnipresent—ended by taking root themselves and venerating Jerusalem’s holiness as sincerely as their pagan ancestors had done. Truly, as Armstrong remarks, the concept of sacred geography strikes deep into the human psyche. Intentionally or not, she leaves the reader with a strong feeling that a depoliticized and unified Jerusalem would indeed make an ideal world capital of sorts: certainly we can understand why for two millennia cartographers persisted in depicting the city as the center of the known world.
Armstrong strives for balance in her account of the modern Arab-Israeli conflict, offering a sympathetic history of the Zionist movement and its aspirations and confirming the Zionist claim that the Jewish presence never vanished altogether from the city over two millennia of exile, while remaining critically important to the life of the region. Nevertheless, she emphasizes the role of Jewish forces in atrocities like the Deir Yassin massacre of 1948, and describes the terrorist campaigns by Zionist Ultras in the last two decades. She shows little sympathy for the more bizarre Zionist claims to every square inch of Eretz Israel, and is appropriately horrified by the lunatic schemes of extremists who fantasize about the destruction of the Muslim holy places and their replacement by synagogues—even, perhaps, by a restored Temple. As she rightly remarks, such a policy would be a high road to World War III. On such contemporary matters, Armstrong’s opinions fit well enough with those of irenic Jews or Arabs who yearn to see the city as a genuine “City of Peace.”
Armstrong ably communicates the powerful sense of continuity associated with the Holy City, in which it seems that virtually every decade brings some new find or reinterpretation which is hailed by believers as a major contribution to religious truth. She also makes painfully clear that this process of constructing and reconstructing religious memory is very much alive. Ironically, it was only a very few months after her book appeared that a dispute over a tunnel connecting holy sites near the al-Aqsa Mosque erupted into a shooting war between Israelis and the new Palestinian authority. People are still prepared to kill to defend the secrets of the city of life.
[Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths, by Karen Armstrong (New York: Alfred A. Knopf) 471 pp., $30.00]