Wednesday, November 29, 2006

The Story of Jerusalem

Jerusalem is a magic bubble. A submersible. Down deep below the surface of time encased in Plexiglas as the myriad wonders floated by, sometimes curiously poking their noses in your face.

Time defies physics in Jerusalem, or seemes to, anyway. One could live an entire lifetime in Jerusalem and never realize it until one’s life was nearly over. Then a forehead slap and an exclamation: “Where did the time go?”

Jerusalem is hypnotic. Maybe it’s the rolling hills, the colored pinkish yellow stone, the gazelle leaping in the forest; maybe it’s the layers of history going down thirty meters; maybe it‘s the souls that once belonged to all those bodies that turn up seemingly every time someone pokes the ground with a shovel.

Famous bodies, too, we’re told. King David, who ruled Jerusalem 3,000 years ago; the prophet Samuel who anointed him, and Jesus, who died in Jerusalem 2,000 years ago. All along the way other bodies gave up their meat to the elements. Bodies of Assyrians, Egyptians, Hittites, and other nations with strange names we find hard to place; the Romans, and the Greeks, the Byzantine era Turks and the Crusaders, the British and the Arabs, and of course, the Jews.

Always the Jews. Except back in David’s time they weren’t called Jews. Then they were simple Hebrews.

You see, you start thinking about the history tied up in Jerusalem and you get dizzy. Sidetracked. Hypnotized. Keep staring and it becomes like three-dimensional chess. “Now who did you say did that? When was it? That long ago? That piece of wall is from when? Com’on, you’re kidding.”

Who started the bad blood is another thought that spins out of control. Before you know it two or three decades have passed and nothing has been solved, or changed, and then you realize in another forehead slapping moment that nothing much has ever changed. Someone always wants to take over Jerusalem from someone else. Always has. Probably always will.

The Temple of Solomon gave way to the Temple of Nehemiah and Ezra. Who can keep them straight? Temples that were up 1,000 years, sacked, looted, destroyed, rebuilt, sacked, looted, destroyed. Always people looking for the gold in the Temple, gold that long ago had been carted away by the previous invaders, the last conquerors. The mysterious Ark of the Covenant with all the high-powered magic gone too, except in Spielberg’s fantasy “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”

Sitting in the bubble, looking out at the swirl of history, it’s like one of those Star Trek sequences, when the Enterprise goes into ‘warp speed”, everything becomes a blur, and then all at once it bounces into its new location, settles down like a helium balloon tethered to the ground.

Jerusalem also puts the pompous in their place. Two thousand years ago, if you can imagine two thousand years, Pompey raided Jerusalem and carried off the treasures. Frescos attest to the sacking of the city and the removal of the famed golden Menorah.
Pompey was a powerful leader. Nothing stood in his path. Rome was master of the world.

Look out through that bubble: do you see Pompey? Nah, he’s long gone. Do you see Rome? Sort of, only now it’s crumbled glory is overrun by tourists. Jerusalem is not a beauty either, any more. The Temples don’t exist. The one Solomon built 3,000 years ago was constructed over the rock where Abraham was to have sacrificed Isaac. According to the Bible Sol’s son David was told to make that the site of the Temple, God’s home.

Fast forward 1,800 years to the 8th Century. The Temple has been covered over. Above it the Sharif of Jerusalem has built a monumental dome over the rock upon which Abraham was to have sacrificed Isaac. The same rock over which Solomon built his temple. How that rock is visible is anybody’s guess, but let’s not argue about legends.

Back then Jerusalem was so far off the beaten track between Syria and Egypt that no one came there easily. It was up in the mountains, a hard, hot, dry, dusty trek. The Jerusalem Sharif, Omar, was jealous of the Sharif who built a magnificent monument in Mecca. Not to be outdone, and keep up his reputation in court, the Sharif of Jerusalem built his on the Temple Mount.

Except no one came to see it. No one cared. Oh, sure, Jerusalem had a bit of history with Islam. When Mohammed leapt from Mecca up to heaven on the back of his trusty steed Barak, the horse touched a hoof down on the rock of Abraham as if to get some final oomph on the ascent to his last resting place. Otherwise, forget it. And it was forgotten, too, until the Jews came back at the end of the 19th Century. But that’s another issue.

We are speaking of a simple truth, that when confronted with so much history, the glory of one man, like Pompey, or David, or Solomon, like Suleiman, is just one more dot in the chronicle of the life of the city. Israeli Prime Ministers not withstanding. Jesus is another subject all together.

Maybe it’s something in the air.

The Bible tells us that God told the patriarchs to settle in Jerusalem, and the Holy Land. Maybe it’s true. Maybe he did. Maybe His “presence” is still around? Maybe that accounts for how quickly time flies in Jerusalem, since everyone is just one more dot on the map of history, one more flicker on the edge of the universe.

In Jerusalem you get to thinking, sooner or later, if there is a divine plan for mankind after all, and then you get to thinking what that plan is, and next thing you know another two or three decades have raced past.

Mystics, poets, artists have long pondered Jerusalem. No one has really captured it. Venetians swell with pride over their 500-year old palacios, Jerusalemites can’t match that splendor. The city has been destroyed too many times. But vestiges remain that remind the residents and visitors of past glories. Pomp and circumstance still exists when the rich and famous are honored. The Old City still stands as a memorial of what things were as much as 2,000 years ago. No one lives in these old buildings, really. Not like they do in Venice. But then, no one ever said God chose Venice as his home, as the Bible says of Jerusalem.

Mark Twain visited Jerusalem and hated it. And for good reason. He saw the squalor, the pestilence, the disease. He didn’t have air-conditioning, electricity, and the Internet. For him one stone was just like another. In Jerusalem, just like any other city you adore, once you start to think that cement is just cement you’re getting ready to leave.

Twain wasn’t caught up in the flavor of the place, in the rhythm of the underground rivers running through the porous stone. He came with high expectations, and was disappointed. That’s because he was outside the bubble, not inside it. He was just one of the fish swimming past. He should have stayed awhile.

When S.Y Agnon wrote his masterpiece “Only Yesterday” he was talking about time as well as place. If there is no God then there is no importance to Jerusalem.

But if there is?

See what I mean.

There goes another few centuries of discussion.