In praise of Jerusalem

To understand Jerusalem, you must look at it with eyes of love.

MUNICIPALITY WORKERS place a lion statue by artist Mark Greiner, donated by a group of evangelical leaders to the city of Jerusalem, at the capital’s Bloomfield Park on May 5. (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH 90)
MUNICIPALITY WORKERS place a lion statue by artist Mark Greiner, donated by a group of evangelical leaders to the city of Jerusalem, at the capital’s Bloomfield Park on May 5.
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH 90)
Jerusalem is unique; it is like no other city in the world.
It has dominated history for thousands of years, out of all proportion to its size and importance. The city has been coveted and subjugated by one conqueror after another, only to rise again, proud and unbroken. Yet it was not Jerusalem’s wealth they fought for; in material terms, it has none. But it has mystery – ethereal beauty and spirituality that takes hold of the imagination and has inspired artists, writers and musicians for thousands of years.
Artists have painted Jerusalem through the ages in four different ways: realistically, imaginatively, idealistically and symbolically. Each generation, influenced by contemporary thinking, painted its own concept of Jerusalem, always finding new secrets to uncover, new magic in the quality of light that is so haunting and captivating.
The oldest known representation of Jerusalem was symbolical. The façade of the Temple was depicted on the tetradrachm, the silver coin struck by Simeon bar Kochba in 133 CE as a way of remembering the Temple’s destruction in 70 CE. On the coin, he inscribed the word “Jerusalem” and showed a star, and the Ark of the Covenant between the four columns of the façade. Later, artists used the seven-branched menorah, the Ark, the lulav and etrog and the shofar (ram’s horn) as symbols of the city.
“Heavenly Jerusalem” was adopted in mishnaic and talmudic times, an ideal city governed by God. According to Christian tradition, this would take place at “the end of days.” Medieval Christian artists depicted it as a walled city with a lamb (symbolizing their messiah) in the center. Jewish art also depicted it as heavenly, as in the Birds’ Head Haggadah (Germany circa 1300). Within an arch of the walled city stands a man, and below the structure, four other men lift their hands in adoration. In Jewish folk art of the 16th century, the Dome of the Rock dominates many pictures. Many artists of different faiths and nationalities have depicted Jerusalem, including Hartmann Schedel (1492); Sebastian Muenste of Basle (1544); Jan van Scorel of Utrecht (1520); Hieronymus Bosch of Madrid (1450); Edward Lear (1858) and countless others, up to the present day where you can find renderings of Jerusalem by dozens of contemporary artists in every tourist gift shop. A favorite view is from the Mount of Olives, showing the Old City blending with the new. Most people are also familiar with the gentle Anna Ticho landscapes that transmit the city’s softness and dreamy quality.
In music, there is a vast body of works inspired by Jerusalem. Hundreds of musical settings have been arranged based on Biblical verses, prayers, hymns and poems that mention Jerusalem or Zion, both in Hebrew and Christian culture. Until late 19th century, many oratorios, operas, choral works and symphonies dealt with the two destructions of Jerusalem (by Nebuchadnezzer and Titus). The “heavenly city” was also a popular theme, particularly Ewing’s Jerusalem the Golden, Vaughn Williams’s Sancta Civitas and works by Jewish composers Lazare Saminsky and Darius Milhaud. After the Six Day War, composers were commissioned to write works on Jerusalem that were played at special performances. Universally loved is Naomi Shemer’s “Jerusalem of Gold,” written for the 1967 Israel Song Festival.
Also in literature, an immensely rich and varied treasury has been devoted to Jerusalem by Jews and gentiles from medieval times onward. Some deal with specific events such as the return from Babylonian captivity, and the Roman siege and destruction of Jerusalem. Many descriptions were written by Crusader chroniclers, Arab historians and travelers and pilgrims of various periods. As a result of the political and religious ferment of the 19th century, “New Jerusalem” became a symbol of yearning for a better life and a nobler form of society. English poet William Blake wrote a poem that was later to become the anthem of the British Labour Party:
    “I will not cease from mental fight,
     Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,
     Till we have built Jerusalem
     In England’s green and pleasant land.”
Literary interest in Jerusalem increased even more in 20th century as a result of Zionist settlement. Much popular English and American fiction dealt with the city and its life during the British Mandate period and during the division between Israel and Jordan 1948 to 1967. Two examples are John Brophy’s Julian’s Way and Muriel Sparks’s The Mandelbaum Gate. The Jewish people’s historic return to the Western Wall forms the climax of Elie Wiesel’s novel: A Beggar in Jerusalem.
Poets, musicians, novelists and artists continue to be inspired by Jerusalem. It is a city that somehow touches the soul. Casual visitors are often puzzled by this, because it does not possess the breathtaking views of many celebrated European resorts.
To understand Jerusalem, you must look at it with eyes of love. Then you perceive the strange quality of light that bathes the city at dawn and sunset, changing the masses of grey stone to soft rose and gentle gold. You mourn with the sighing of the pine trees. Your feet walk on history; and you are overwhelmed both by your heritage and your future.
There will always be artists to praise Jerusalem, for truly it is the Eternal City. Its soul can be reached by the dreamer, the lover and the pure in heart.
The writer, who has lived in Jerusalem for 49 years, is the author of 14 books. dwaysman@gmail.com