A traveler making his or her way up the old Roman road to Jerusalem through the stone hills of the Judean desert views a strange land -- barren, yellowish and gray. All around in the great dust bowl, the ground is monotonous, gutted and austere. The leaden soil is shallow and washed out. Wild ravines run down from the near mountaintops and rip it apart. Above the vast expanse of dessicated soil, the sky is ablaze in a blinding glare.
The silence is eerie. Away in the wastes stand a few grizzled trees, ashen from the dust. Huge boulders lie about in the gravel, dull and inert. Birds of prey circle above. As you leave your car, you step out onto dry thorns and blistered rocks.
Behind you, in the deeps, the barren coasts and bitter waters of the Dead Sea are visible through the haze. The Dead Sea is only twenty miles distant, but deep down -- four thousand feet below, in the Syrian-African Rift Valley, the lowest spot on earth. The heat soars out from there and sears the skin. As the road climbs through the wilds, it passes below a new Israeli settlement surrounded, like most Israeli outposts of this area (under military occupation since 1967), by grim watchtowers and barbed-wire fences. The harsh, foreboding sight of rust and bare reinforced concrete seems part of the mute, melancholy landscape. It suggests a battlefield. The view is still mostly wild, diaphanous, like a vision on the surface of the moon. Then there is a turnoff from the main desert road and you enter a parched plateau. Instantly, the perspective changes. Ahead, on the high mountain wall, you see the outskirts of a city. A church tower protrudes from clusters of stone houses and green cypress trees. The road is steep. It cuts through the haggard rock in a great, sweeping curve. The air is dry. The stone is still brittle. The wind is less hot now. Lizards flicker on the stones. A faint smell of burning is in the air and here and there smoke rises from unseen brush fires. The face of the mountain nears. There is the muffled roar of car traffic, and, occasionally, the sound of ringing bells.
Presently, the scene quickens. Gaunt little stone houses lie about, lapped in dust and gravel. Still higher, the soil darkens. There are little orchards and vegetable plots. The air is cooler. Up north on the far horizon, a little village is set into the bare hill like teeth into a jaw: Anathot, where Jeremiah was born of a family of priests -- today an Arab village, called Anatha by its inhabitants. Though Anatha has been changing in recent years and has become a suburb of Jerusalem, barely four miles away, it still nestles within the distinctive rural setting the prophet so often reflected in his oracles: the same hart-to-till stony fields, the same great triad of olive, barley, and figs, the same dusty vines, the same small flocks of sheep, the same barren heights and depths. Abrupt drops into endless space lurk in the rough terrain. The wilderness is immediately behind. The scale of this wilderness is grand and awesome; it must have suggested to the ancients their vulnerability, their insignificance, their dependence on the whim of a cruel God.
The steep road narrows. Crossing the borderline between the desert and the area that is sown, it climbs in twists and turns the backside of Scopus and Olivet, the two adjoining mountains that overlook Jerusalem from the east. The massive new campus of the Hebrew University comes into view, looking rather like a fortress on the flattened summit of the mountain. Despite more traffic and noise, the scene is largely rural. There are children on the road now, and women with shopping bags. Men glance up disinterestedly from their work. Dogs bark behind rusty gates. The church tower, nearer now, reaches high above the green. Next to it rises the great hulk of a monastery. The road is even steeper than before. It climbs the last hump and crosses into a hollow between the two mountains, Scopus and Olivet. Then it drops sharply: the hills part to a sudden view of swelling domes and towering minarets.
A walled city heaves below in the dazzling light. The atmosphere is at once thrilling and unique. Jerusalem is set amid higher mountains on the bank of a deep ravine. Her full strength bursts on you as soon as you cross the hollow between the two mountains: long synagogues, and mosques. Dominating all is the vast stone platform, half as old as time, of the ancient Jewish Temple Mount -- now a Moslem sanctuary -- worn out with the worship of too many warring gods.
The main business of this platform, for at least three millennia, has been the traffic in beliefs. Too much holy zeal has been poured out here, for too long, into too narrow a space. Under the gilded dome at the center of the stone platform, a flat rock protrudes from the ground, where successive religions have claimed that the creation of the world began. Here, the first capital crime is said to have been committed when Cain killed Abel. Here, Abraham bound Isaac to offer him up as a burnt sacrifice to God. (According to Moslem lore, the intended victim was Ishmael, not Isaac, and the place was not Jerusalem but Mecca. It is not the only point of disagreement among the creeds.)
Today, the great Mosque of Omar, or Dome of the Rock -- lustrous with gold, pale greens, and blues, like a peacock against the translucent sky -- covers this flat rock. The great stone platform glistens in the light. Touching it in the west -- only a stone's throw away -- is the Western Wall, also known as Wailing Wall, where Jews have come for centuries to pray and lament the destruction of their temple. Close by, the rounded cupola of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre rises over the stone rooftops; here, Christianns since the fourth century have worshiped the site of the cricifixion, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. Within this narrow triangle formed by the Dome, Wall, and Sepulchre, extremes of creed and race and habit intersect but rarely meet. Sanctities overlap, while all around them the city is austere and gray, grave, even grim, and yet of a perfect distinction within her crenellated walls. The walls survey the ravines. They follow the sunken lines of other walls -- walls two thousand, perhaps three thousand years old -- that the Romans stormed in AD 70 and that the Jebusites, over a thousand years earlier, vainly defended against the invading Hebrews. Below the walls, a vast city of the dead encircles the city of the living. Clusters of rickety tombstones crowd the silted banks, tombs of all ages and faiths. No matter where you tread, there are graves. It is that kind of place. The earth falls off below to a ravine that is planted with more tombs and olive trees. The olive tree, Pliny observed, never dies.
Viewed from the summits of Scopus and Olivet, the skyline is elaborate with medieval ramparts and towers and gilded domes and crenellations and tottering Roman and Arab ruins. Pigeons turn above in clouds of silver and amethyst. It is an impression that no amount of familiarity can blunt. Whether you pray or curse, it is a gripping view. If Jerusalem had no peculiar historic association, she would still evoke strong emotions by her extraordinary physical aspect. Under a brilliant morning sky the city gleams in a light of almost crystalline clarity. Until quite recently, the two overriding features of the landscape were harsh light and stone -- stone fields, stone mountains, and stone valleys; stone roofs; stone towers; stone walls of immense thickness; lines of stones across terraced fields (stones less likely put there to mark crude boundaries than simply to get them out of the way). The stone is limestone and chalk -- the gray, rough-grained kind that local masons call mizi yahudi, the red-spotted mini ahmar, or the bright mini hilou. The blind, Jorge Luis Borges, groping his way along a Jerusalem street in 1969, claimed he could tell the stones were pink by their peculiar "touch." Since time immemorial, visitors and residents of Jerusalem have been fascinated -- or frightened -- by her stones. In the nineteenth century, with its romantic passion for rocks, some visitors were perfectly obsessed by them. Herman Melville spent eight days in Jerusalem in 1857 and was so overwhelmed by the stony landscape he came back to it in his diary time and again. "Stones to right and stones to left . . . stony tombs; stony hills & stony hearts." Melville thought it was no wonder that stones figured so importantly in the Bible. The Old Testament was filled with stones, both figurative and real. Men were stoned to death. The proverbial seed fell in stony places. Job laid out on "stones of darkness." Jacob took a stone and put it up "for his pillows." Josua set up one as a witness "by the sanctuary of the Lord." Lot's wife became a stonelike "pillar of salt."
In the alter Jewish legends stones rained from he sky. God threw a stone into the waters of the abyss and from this stone the whole world grew, with Jerusalem at its center. There was a magic link between water and stone; the contrast between the two inspired Jerusalem's religions. Water was thrown on the stone altar to abjure drought. God himself came from stone: "the Rock that begat thee."
In Melville's time, the mountains around Jerusalem were especially grim and bare -- as though chosen with an unerring eye, many observers thought, to house the temple of the cruel deity of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. "The city looks at you like a cold grey eye in a cold grey man," Melville wrote. He was the quintessential traveler in that landscape-conscious century. The Jews of Jerusalem, he observed, were "like flies who have taken up their abode inside a skull." There was too little to see and altogether too much dust. "No grace of decay . . . no ivy [in] the unleavened nakedness of desolation."
A century later, the city had more than quadrupled in size, but the immediate environs of the old historic core, within the medieval walls, were still more or less unchanged. Yehuda Amichai, the modern Hebrew poet and a lifelong resident of the city, moan over "All these stones, all this sadness, all this light." In Jerusalem, he wrote, people lived "inside prophecies" that had come true "as inside a thick cloud after an explosion." Edmund Wilson saw Jerusalem in the early 1950s, some years before the well-watered parks with their great expanses of green lawns were planted in the valleys and on the slopes -- new gardens that have thoroughly changed the colors of the landscape and even the quality of light. in Wilson's time, the harsh light of summer still drained the landscape of all color. The stony folds below his window in the King David Hotel -- today they are a lovely green park -- were still a mined no-man's-land between the Arab and the Jewish parts of the city. Wilson thought it strange that from such harsh contours had come the legends that inspired the chiaroscuro of the Renaissance and the blazing colors of the baroque period -- that teeming of pink flesh and gorgeous silks and velvet, beautiful blond Madonnas and blue-eyed shepherds in lush green surroundings of near-Arcadian bliss. The religious imagination always intervened -- still invents -- its own particular geography and climate to match.
A traveler with a historical bent might be forgiven if he or she insisted on approaching Jerusalem from the desert in the east. The early Hebrews came in this way -- from the desert to the sown -- after their crossing of the Jordan; and the Romans and Arabs after them. It is the most spectacular route. The stage is set. The color switched on. The hills suddenly part like curtains. The drama of the scene, like a trumpet blast in Fidelio, is enhanced by its suddenness. Historically, the city's cultural and political orientation was toward that desert in the east, she refused to look west, to the prosperous Greek colonies on the nearby Mediterranean coast, with their thriving literary and material -- but pagan -- culture. Her fugitives usually ran off toward the east. Visually, too, the single gap in the hills surrounding her historic core was to the east. The city faced the desert, not the sea. All other directions were blocked by higher mountains. Historians have read much into this fact. Josephus Flavius, the first-century historian, wanted Jerusalem to be more oriented toward the lush, Mediterranean, Hellenic west. He observed ruefully that the single full prospect from Jerusalem's highest tower was "toward Arabia." George Adam Smith, the nineteenth century geographer and historian, speculated that her facing toward the east might explain why the Greeks never struck roots in Jerusalem, and why Hellenism, though firmly entrenched on the Mediterranean coast not forty miles away, never made her its own; why even Christianity failed to hold Jerusalem, and the Moslems, as they look down "her one long vista toward Mecca," feel themselves "securely planted on her site."
Mount Scopus was so named, Josephus wrote, because as you come up from the desert in the east, it permitted a first "sight of the city and the grand pile of the temple gleaming afar." It still does. Here the generals, from Nebuchadnezzar to Dayan, habitually paused for a covetous first look, or a last, before the final assault. Here, over the centuries, countless pilgrims knelt to give thanks in prayer on reaching the famous city of their quest; the Jews among them rent their garments in mourning for her ruins. Here, at nearly 2700 feet above sea level, the air is fresh and cool. Directly behind, over the other side of the saddle, the desert mountaintops swelter in the heat.
Few capital cities stand so high or are so splendid and at the same time so terrifying as Jerusalem viewed from the dry, lunar backdrop of the eastern desert. The name Zion -- which comes from the Hebrew ziya, meaning "parched desert" -- denotes her dryness, housing and even some industry in recent years. They are still marked by a brooding, bleak, not easily definable beauty.
The beauty seems to derive from a rare combination of luminosity and bareness. There is a merciless clarity in the sunlit air. Everything is open to the sky. On a fine day, the Old City is sharply carved out within the hills as in an etching. In the early morning, light and shade sweep over the rooftops and hills -- stony and steep -- bringing successively into strong relief every point of interest. At noon, the sky burns like a heated opal. With the sun directly above, there are -- as in the mind of a fanatic -- only blacks and whites below, no muted colors in between. This is Jerusalem's most distinctive moment.
The afternoon softens the harsher edges. The setting sun lights the stone walls with an exquisite glow, as of pure fire. The low sun shortens the perspective. If the atmospheric conditions happen to be right, they will conjure up in the dry mountain air a wonderful optical illusion. The far mountains of Moab. pink and rosy, will loom in the east above the frozen undulations of the desert, across the deep hollow of the Dead Sea. They are more than fifty miles away in Jordan, but in the evening light they will appear as though on the outsikits of the city. There is something uncanny in this. The city never seems more part of the desert world than on evenings such as these. Then, the sky darkens, rather abruptly. The pinks dissolve into grays and blacks.
Nights, especially during the long summer months, are splendid. Enormous stars hang in the dry darkness like great chandeliers. Winter nights are bleak. But under a foot of snow the surrounding hills gleam in the dark with their own hidden light, like a transfiguration by El Greco. When it snows, it usually snows day and night until the city is sealed up like a village in Norway and authorities declare a state of siege. Nineteenth century travelers were often overwhelmed by the Jerusalem nights. They preferred Jerusalem by night to Jerusalem by day. Darkness hid the decay and reawakened the ancient spell. In the harsh daylight, the spell vanished. "I had stood alone within the awful circle of the Coliseum, when faintly touched by the light of the rising moon," W. H. Bartlett, the famous English engraver wrote in 1843, "but this nocturnal approach to the ancient capital of Judea, across her bleak and desolate hills, awoke a more sublime and thrilling emotion."
A person standing on Scopus or Olivet four thousand years ago and looking west across the ravine would have seen a small, fortified city limbing up to a rocky peak. Where the great temple platform is today, with its mosques and minarets, there was in ancient times a small plateau, an acropolis. The large, flat rock, still visible today under the great golden Dome, served as an alter to Baal, or some other pagan god. By the curious economy governing sacred sites, the same rock would play a major role in a succession of mutually hostile creeds.
Jews called it Stone of Foundation, the spot where they claimed the creation of the universe began and Adam was born of dust. The legend of Abraham making ready to sacrifice his son on this rock was later interpreted as a parable intended to dramatize a higher form of religion -- one in which faith was enough and the deity no longer needed to be placated by gifts. But this was a relatively late interpretation of the legend. What its deeper origins might have been in the Oedipal psyche of primitive fathers and sons is still the subject of extensive conjecture. The same rock is said to have been the Jebusite Araunah's threshing floor, which David bought for fifty shekels but found barely large enough for his little shrine "the ground around it being precipitous and steep." David's son, Solomon, walled up the eastern side toward the ravine to make more ground available for the first Hebrew temple. The rock may have served as the temple's altar. The perforations and holes in it suggest lines of drainage for water or blood. Or it may have been the temple's "Holy of Holies." The Holy of Holies was the innermost part of the sanctuary, a dark chamber that only the high priest entered, once a year, on the highest holiday. In the days of Solomon, the tablets of the law, which Moss was said to have brought down from Mount Sinai, were kept there. A thousand years after Soloon, the second temple, that of Herod the Great, rose up over the same rock high above the ravine, "the grandest ver heard of by man," wrote Josephus. Perhaps Josephus exaggerated. Judging from what is left of the Herodian walls and in the vast stone platform that has remained almost intact on its artificially raised base, the exaggeration cannot have been very great.
Here nurtured the religions of half of today's world. Their nerves still quiver in the dry and stony soil. Here, even the nonbeliever must confront and come to terms with the phenomenon of faith and its concomitant, sacredness. It has to do with power and the imagination -- God, in Paul Tillich's words, being the name for that which concerns man ultimately. Here, time and again, the curious observer is struck by the uniqueness of the religious experience, for in the eyes of the true believer, God is not necessarily an abstraction or a moral allegory but a terrible power, manifested by His wrath. The nonbeliever sees this, perhaps, with a keener eye than the believer, since the nonbeliever is more likely to assume from the very outset that the religious experience has little to do with rationality.
Here was born the rumor of a single invisible God, a father figure, authoritarian -- at once petulant and magnanimous, vindictive and merciful; and the sadomasochism of "in my wrath I smote thee, but in my favor I had mercy" was first articulated in religious terms.
But why here? Why of all places in Jerusalem? There is a temptation to read much, perhaps too much, into the majestic landscape. The grandiose view over the bare mountaintops out into the open desert is conducive to meditation and thought and wonder at the meaning of life. But so are many other landscapes. Ernest Renan recommended "reading" this landscape as the "fifth gospel," a key to the understanding of the canonical four. The desert was monotheiste, Renan argued. The monotonous landscape, under the dazzling sky, cleansed the mind of earthly distractions, and allowed it to concentrate on the heavenly and the divine. And yet no one is more conscious of earthly things than the desert dweller, more aware than the Beduin of every line in the sand, changing with the wind, every speck of dust, every lizard and every fly.
Was it the climate, then? The ancient Hebrews were a peasant people. Meteorology plays an important part int he Old Testament. The sky over Jerusalem is clear at night for eight months of the year and invites the worship of heavenly objects. "The heavens declare the glory of God," sang the psalmist. The simple rhythms of nature, of night and day, winter and summer, cold and heat, are more dramatic here than in northern climes. The elements may have lent wings to the cosmology of a divinely ordered world. (Voltaire surmised that Mohammed, who forbade wine in Arabia, would have been stoned to death had he done so on the banks of the Dwina or "in Switzerland, especially before going to battle.")
Similar ideas of a divinely ordered universe circulated elsewhere in the ancient world. Everywhere, however, religion was not necessarily linked to ethics. In Jerusalem, it was. Greek philosophers toyed with the idea among speculations of an entirely different character; they deduced their morals from man, rather than from God. Indeed, most ancient religions had no ethical content at all. The closest parallel, the monotheism of Amenhotep IV, or Akhenaton -- perhaps a contemporary of Moses -- who worshiped the sun-disk, was equally devoid of it. Akhenaton's religion was contemplative rather than practical. In Jerusalem, apparently for the first time, religion became both.
Here was waged the first battle in the long war between the invisible God of the austere desert mountains and the graven sensual gods of the green plains. Other ancient religions postulated a sky-god or a single deity. Here, perhaps for the first time, God was conceived as a righteous and transcendent, completely outside nature, unbounded by any form of physical existence, the sole creator of the universe. Religion, until then best defined as a form of extreme fear, was made moral. The idea of a righteous god was first broached sometime between 900 and 800 BC when the Jewish prophets, for some reason, took to exalting the savage tribal god of their ancestors as one who loved justice and hated iniquity. Their message was vivid, deeply emotional, and intolerant. Not the democratic "Let us see," as in Plato, but the authoritarian "Thus saith the Lord," as in Isaiah.
Here, the Jews began to live morally -- as the Japanese have done literally -- in a house of paper: the Bible. Here, they first became, however reluctantly, people of the Book. Here, probably long before the Greeks, they achieved the intellectual feat of composing a connected narrative of history -- their own and that of the world -- enmeshed in the five books of Moses. Here, a national identity was defined, perhaps for the first time, by articulating a philosophy of history. And here, the idea of progress was first broached. In its time, it was an absolutely sensational idea. Thucydides still thought it was worth writing the history of the Pleoponnesian war because its inevitably would be repeated. The scribes and prophets of Jerusalem challenged the prevailing notion that history necessarily moved in circles, repeating itself again and again. They invented utopia, the possibility of a better world. They enunciated hope on a grand scale. They postulated the possibility of a linear progression toward a better, more worthwhile life.
Versions of the Pentateuch and the books of Joshua, Samuel, and Kings circulated in Jerusalem, as oral traditions, early in the eighth or ninth century BC. In Greece, Homer was at work on his great epic. As in the Homeric epics and other great books from before the age of literary record, the poetic form ensured the relatively correct transmission of these fragments from generation to generation. The poetic form served another purpose that the ancient Greeks had ignored: it endowed ideas, especially ethical ideas, with such emotional force they became laws.
Some of the factual details in these biblical fragments were remarkably accurate. Archaeological and epigraphical evidence has repeatedly shown this to be so. There is still no archeological evidence of Joshua or David or Isaiah and perhaps there never will be. But there is ample evidence of Sennacherib's and Nebuchadnezzar's military exploits in the neighborhood of Jerusalem. Proper names mentioned in the Book of Kings turn up in epigraphic finds. Judging from the average quality of composition in the Bible, literary works must have been extremely good in ancient Jerusalem; better, perhaps, than anywhere we know in the ancient world outside of Greece. Even more extraordinary is the fact that the Bible, as it was written in Jerusalem, unlike the books of other ancient peoples, was not the literature of a major or regional power nor even of a ruling elite, but the literature of a minor, remote people -- and not the literature of its rulers, but of its critics. The scribes and the prophets of Jerusalem refused to accept the world as it was. They invented the literature of political dissent and, with it, the literature of hope.
Here, according to the biblical account of David -- itself a small literary masterpiece, always human, dramatic, and under the stress of great passions -- the king "danced before the Lord with all his might" and carried into the city, behind a curtain, the ark of the God nobody had ever seen and most outsiders mocked, and placed it on Araunah's rock. The pagans were at a loss to understand what anyone could possibly worship in a temple destitute of pictures and effigies. When, in the autumn of 63 BC, Pompey arrived in Jerusalem to inspect Rome's latest conquest, he entered the inner sanctum forbidden to all except the high priest, Tacitus reports, and found there to his stupefaction "null intus Deum effigie, vacuam sedem et inana arcana [not a single image of a god, but an empty place and a deserted sanctuary]." In Rome, Cicero was consul, and Jerusalem was in Roman hands, but for most Romans, Jewish Jerusalem remained an absurdity or a mysterious threat. Juvenal mocked that Jews will sell you whatever dreams you like, for a small copper. Tacitus hinted at the legend, often repeated by the ancients, that the void in the temple of Jerusalem was a fraud, the Jews actually worshipped an ass's head in there. His only conclusion from all this was that Jewish Jerusalem was intent on living in a state of perpetual hostility with the rest of mankind.
Here, Isaiah cried in the wilderness and Jesus bore the crown of thorns and was killed with the thieves. A small band of Jewish sectarians -- known as Christians -- believed in Jesus. They gathered in this city after his death, furtively, and -- believed in Jesus. They gathered in this city after his death, furtively, and -- in the name of hope -- eventually took over the Roman Empire and the Mediterranean world. Here also, the eschatology -- that is to say, the body of teachings about last or final things -- of the Apocalypse and the millennium, of death and resurrection, seized human minds, never to let go again. Here, according to Moslem lore, Mohammed came on his night journey astride a winged white steed and climbed to heaven on a stair of light. From at least the twelfth century, Jews have come here to pray at the Western Wall three times daily, that they might "return in mercy to Your city Jerusalem and dwell in it as You have promised."
Here, in 1099, the Crusaders, contrite and knee-deep in blood, marched up the hill of Calvary. The weird combination (not for the first or the last time in the history of Jerusalem) of the vilest and most tender passions in man has been variously judged by philosophers and historians: by David Hume aas easy and natural, by Voltaire as absurd and incredible. Perhaps, as Gibbon suggested, halfheartedly, the combination of godliness and bloodiness was too rigorously applied to the same persons and the same hour.
Four thousand years of history, innumerable wars, and earthquakes of the utmost severity -- some involving the total destruction of buildings and walls -- have left their imprint upon the topography of the city: twenty ruinous sieges, two intervals of total deflation, eighteen reconstructions, and at least eleven transitions from one religion to another.
The accumulation of historic rabble is enormous. Over the centuries, so many ruins have fallen down the steep slopes that the ravines around the Old City are quite clogged up with them. Within and without the old walls, every hollow, every nook and cranny, is choked with up to fifty feet of accumulated rubbish. If the huge mass of debris could be cleared away, the skeleton of the original city would come into view. The true shape of the site would, first and foremost, expose its natural disadvantage as an urban center, and the difficulty of defending it.
The ramparts did not protect. It is no wonder they were so often breached. The city walls were quite formidable in parts of the lower city, where Jerusalem first began, perhaps in the fourth millennium BC. But the impression of impenetrable strength is an illusion, especially in the north. The relatively low ramparts in the north were scaled in most of the city's famous sieges; hence Jeremiah's cry, "Out of the north an evil shall break forth." The city had political and religious significance, but little if any strategic value. Alexander and Napoleon, two great generals on their way to conquer the world, spurned Jerusalem; each marched past her in the near vicinity but did not consider her worth a detour.
It is not easy to see why this improbable site was picked as a stronghold, rather than one of several more natural hilltop rock fortresses nearby. Perhaps it was the proximity of water: a symbol of life and greenery on the edge of a dry desert. A natural spring stirred on the bottom of the deep eastern ravine. But water was available -- more plentiful or secure -- elsewhere too. Jerusalem may have been chosen because of the lure of some long-established magic rite. Sanctity is always contagious and is passed on from one creed to the next. New creeds invariably take over the holy places of the old. Even at that, Jerusalem was only one of several holy mountains in the area. Among the others, to mention only the nearest, was Beth-el -- where, we are told, Jacob met God in his dream and, upon waking, articulated the religious experience by describing one of its main attributes -- dread. "How dreadful is this place! this is none other but the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven." The primitive mind pictured all force as personal and panicked in its presence. The earliest forms of religion were ritualized attempts to appease these dreadful forces.
Perhaps Jerusalem was chosen for reasons of tribal politics; perhaps because of a tradition passed on from pagan times that she stood on a holy mountain. Holy mountains were thought to be meeting places of heaven and earth. (In the flatlands of Egypt, people built artificial mountains -- pyramids -- to attain the same purpose.) Perhaps she was picked because of a tradition that the Stone of Foundation, the sacred rock under the temple platform, separated the world above from the primeval world below -- chaos from creation. So powerful was this tradition that it has survived three thousand years from the Hebrews of the tenth century BC to the Moslem guardians of the rock in our own days. The cult of the world's "navel" is known in other holy cities as well. Ancient "navels" have been found in France, Iran, Ireland, and Greece (Delphi). In Mecca, as in Jerusalem, it survived the demise of one religion and passed on to the next.
The spring theory is not very convincing in any case. It is visible today, was outside the city walls. In any event, it was sufficient for a limited population, of perhaps only two thousand or three thousand souls. As the city grew, water was channeled in from afar. The old aqueducts can still be made out on the sculpted slopes that flow one into the other in ever-expanding curves.
The site of Jerusalem was man-made, artificial an contrived. Jerusalem was the child of magic, a holy city already in pagan times. Far from existence conditioning consciousness, as in Marx's famous dictum, consciousness has conditioned existence in Jerusalem over the centuries. Unlike other great urban centers, Jerusalem had no easy access to the sea. The city was neither on a riverbank, nor on a crossroad, nor was it even easily defended. The Beth-el of Jacob's dream, a short distance north of Jerusalem and an old pagan sanctuary, would have made a better site on all counts, with its command of strategic roads along a trade route. Bethlehem, a few miles south, was in a district considerably more fertile. The improbable site on which Jerusalem grew afforded little pasture and only very limited wood for burning. The ground was too steep or broken up to allow the use of wheels; hence, in the ancient sources there is hardly ever a mention of chariots here. The site afforded no natural command of traffic or of trade. The nearest main trade routes lay forty miles away in one direction and fifteen in the other.
Jerusalem was the product of human effort and design, not of geographical configuration. Culturally too, she was always marginal to the great centers of the ancient world, in Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece or in Rome. Judaism and Christianity successively proclaimed her the navel of the earth. But at most times, people in Jerusalem must have felt themselves not at the world's center but at its end.
She has been holy -- often at great human cost -- to more than one religion, and has generated in perfectly interchangeable phrases the fear and the hope of the Apocalypse, not just once but three times, by adherents of several faiths, each equally hostile to the other. Judaism held reign until AD 70; Islam from 638 to 1099 and from 1187 to 1917. Christianity held the city from 300 to 638 and again from 1099 to 1187. Today, in almost equally interchangeable phrases, the raw, intense attachments of two mutually hostile nationalisms, the Israeli and the Palestinian, continue where the religions leave off. In Jerusalem, even the jackals at night are said to howl articles of faith and historical quotations at one another. In this respect, she hardly has a paragon. There is east, there is west, and there is Jerusalem, a world apart.
Amos Elon - Jerusalem: City of Mirrors