Middle Israel: What sort of Jerusalem?

The tower which that medieval traveler saw was even more imposing at the time than it is today.

amotz asa el 88 (photo credit: )
amotz asa el 88
(photo credit: )
"The tower of David still exists," wrote 12th-century traveler Petahia of Ratisbon matter-of-factly after visiting Jerusalem. A Franco-German Jew whose journeys took him to Palestine through Russia, Persia and Armenia among other countries, Petahia was referring to the Citadel, the fortified tower that would appear daily in our windows, immediately beyond the forbidden Valley of Hinnom, as soon as the No. 15 bus returning us from school passed the King David Hotel, where there always seemed to be some commotion, with black limousines gently slowing by the revolving glass door upon arrival and accelerating noisily upon departure, whisking away strangely dressed foreigners. The tower which that medieval traveler saw was even more imposing at the time than it is today, even without the trademark minaret that was forced on its superstructure by subsequent Muslim regimes, and which by the 20th century had become so famous that it starred in Absolut vodka advertisements. When Petahia stood here, the Leaning Tower of Pisa and Europe's first vertical windmills were only being built. The Citadel's sudden appearance ahead of travelers approaching Jerusalem from the Coastal Plain was stunning. To them it was only natural that the lean, tall, stout and heavy limestone structure served as the city's defensive linchpin, which it did for its contemporary Crusader rulers as it had for numerous others since the Hasmoneans. Located just where the city's fortifications were considered weakest, the Citadel was meant not only to thwart attacks, but also to exude power when there was no enemy at the city's gates. "It has many cannons projecting from the walls," reported 18th-century Franciscan monk Elzear Horn. "Whenever the Turks celebrate a great feast, or some of their principal men come from a distance, they shoot three, six, or nine cannons here." In sum, even without the phallic tower that crowns it today, the Citadel dominated not only the Valley of Hinnom, which literally emanates from it, but the entire walled city of Jerusalem, thus nurturing its association with human power. Medieval travelers, both Jewish and Christian, can therefore be forgiven for assuming the Citadel was built and inhabited by King David, whose Jerusalem actually never climbed this far, and instead nestled on the steep slope above the Gihon spring, where the Valley of Hinnom spills into the Kidron, the creek that proceeds from there all the way to the Dead Sea. It would be anachronistic to expect archeological expertise, or even just historical sensitivity, among medieval travelers whose interests lay less in scholarship and more in worship. Moreover, while its builder was not David, the Citadel was indeed all about power, and not just power, but tyranny, as its real builder was Herod, the Judean version of Stalin, who murdered thousands, including dozens of sages as well as his own children and his beloved wife. JEWISH PILGRIMS like Petahia of Ratisbon doubtfully even knew of Herod, and at any rate never confused power and sanctity. Even while they believed the Citadel was David's, they didn't pray by its imposing walls, opting instead for his perceived grave further down the valley. If anything, as 15th-century pilgrim Meshulam of Volterra testified, Jewish pilgrims flocked to the tomb of Samuel, the prophet who scorned political power, warning the Israelites who demanded of him "give us a king to govern us," that the strong human leadership they so much coveted would ultimately come to haunt them. The king, warned Samuel, would "take your daughters as perfumers, cooks and bakers. He will seize your choice fields, vineyards and olive groves, and give them to his courtiers. He will take a 10th part of your grain and vintage and give it to his eunuchs and courtiers. He will take your male and female slaves, your choice young men and your asses and put them to work for him. He will take a 10th part of your flocks and you shall become his slaves. The day will come and you will cry out because of the king whom you yourselves have chosen." Whether because of, despite or regardless of this anarchistic manifesto, Samuel was so revered that, according to Meshulam's account, Jews gathered at his graveside, coming even from Babylon, Aleppo, Gaza and Damascus, "so that the foreigners by themselves are more than 1,000 in number who come there every year." The day on which they came, the Italian Jewish banker reported meticulously - the day on which the prophet's soul "was bound up in the bond of life" - was the 28th of Iyar, coincidentally the same date on which we now commemorate our conquest of Jerusalem 40 years ago this week. AS ALWAYS at this time of year, but even more so on this round anniversary, there was much discussion this week of what has and hasn't been accomplished since Jerusalem's reunification. On the one hand, we counted the city's dramatic demographic growth, urban expansion and cultural development, and on the other we lamented its economic weakness, ethnic disharmony and religious frustration, and above all we derided our own failure to retain its secular elite and establish its status as our capital, even in the eyes of our most strategic and moral ally, the US. All this is true, but there may be a different way to look at the 28th of Iyar, a way that would pay a bit less attention to Jerusalem as a symbol of Jewish power and more to Samuel's warning that human power, even ours, is inherently corrupt. Seen this way, we may wonder whether the post-'67 Jerusalem we have been shaping wasn't a little too much Herod and too little Samuel, a little too much stone, cement and steel and too little heart, soul and vision, a little too much flagging, marching and trumpeting and too little humility, introspection and divinity. Surely, Middle Israelis have no illusions concerning this age of violence; the Jewish power that 40 years ago this week became for some an epiphany, for others a temptation and for yet others a scourge is for us a political necessity as well as a moral estate. Yet when it comes to Jerusalem, this power is for us but a bridge to a distant future, to an age of human harmony, that which Isaiah promised right here, by Jerusalem's walls and turrets, a time when "the mount of the Lord's House shall stand firm above the mountains and tower above the hills - and all the nations shall flow unto it." www.MiddleIsrael.com