The geography of Tisha Be'av

The land of the Bible was always a wedge between larger powers.

second temple model 88 (photo credit: )
second temple model 88
(photo credit: )
The location of Jerusalem is sacred, but how did that come about? According to tradition, it may well be that Mount Moriah is where Abraham was told to sacrifice his son Isaac, but why there? Jerusalem existed before that event, and its early name Rushalimum suggests that it was the foundation of the Ugaritic (Syrian) lady Shalem, goddess of the twilight, the completion of the day, sister to lady Shahar, goddess of the morning, twin daughters of the chief god El. But why was it a place sacred to her or any other deity? Israel's geographical features run north to south. To the west is the Great Sea, the Mediterranean and the Coastal Plain, then further east the Shephela, the higher ground, and a range of mountains, the Judean Hills that run north into the Carmel, and then a steep drop eastward down to the Jordan Valley. Travelers from the coast to the Jordan and beyond had to cross these mountains that rise up to a thousand meters above sea level. There were two convenient crossing points between the sea and the Jordan, "saddles" in the mountain range that offered access at the lower level. One was Shechem (later called Nablus) and the other was Jerusalem, and both had ample supplies of water. These two locations became the crossroads for trade and travel, where the donkey caravans could easily meet the "Derech Hamelech," the Royal Road that ran along the mountain tops, on the watershed between east and west. The two crossing points, Shechem and Jerusalem, grew into cities that supplied the caravans with food and shelter as well as providing them with a shrine to the local god of travelers. As Shechem was in a valley and not suited for defense, the kings of Israel later moved their capital to Samaria, but Jerusalem grew up on a defensible hillock surrounded by three valleys and remained the capital of Judah. The shrine of Shechem later arose on Mount Gerizim, while that of Jerusalem was built on Mount Moriah, next to the town. For King David, who founded a dynasty, a simple tented shrine was enough. He was a nomad who had led a life of hide and seek in times of danger. For his son Solomon, a tent was not sufficient, and he built a grandiose temple of stone and cedar wood, the two most permanent of local materials. AS TIME went by, the Temple, built to the glory of God, became the focus of much idol worship. Solomon's grandson Abijam introduced idols, as did the later kings Jehoram, Ahaziah and his mother Athaliah. A hundred years later Ahaz built an altar to foreign gods, as did his grandson Manasseh and his son Amon. After the pious reign of Josiah, the next (and last) four kings all served idols in the Temple. All that was bad enough, but the Temple also became a national treasury, holding deposits of gold that attracted the envy of foreign rulers, always short of cash. Worse, the Temple of Jerusalem was located in the most vulnerable area of the Middle East, for the land of Israel was the meat in the Mesopotamian-Egyptian sandwich. When Pharaoh Rameses II went to confront the Hittites at Kadesh in Syria, he had to race through Israel to get there. His predecessor Thutmose III also came north through Israel to fight his enemies and defeat them at Megiddo. It was one of the first of many battles fought there, for Megiddo was also at a break in the hills, the Carmel range, and it also became a city of shelter and shrine. Just this season an Early Bronze Age temple has been excavated there. The most fatal battle at Megiddo was in 609 BCE between Pharaoh Necho and our king Josiah, who foolishly tried to stop him from reaching the Euphrates at Carchemish. Josiah was mortally wounded, Necho partly annexed Israel-Judah, setting off the slippery slope to the Babylonian Exile. The Babylonians, like the Assyrians before them, tried to neutralize Egypt in their quest to dominate the Middle East. Israel stood between the two, so the Babylonian need to conquer it was overriding. Jerusalem was based in the hinterland and had not fallen to the Assyrians, who did not really need it, but the Babylonians were more obsessive and conquered Jerusalem in 597 BCE, as recorded in their annals. For them it was a matter of geography, to protect their rear when en route to Egypt. For us it was a matter of pride and, as we rebelled against them, the Babylonians came back, destroyed the city and the Temple, and took our best people into exile, 11 years after their first conquest. The rebellion was ours, but it was the geography that was against us in the first place. FIFTY YEARS later, the Persians, having conquered Babylon, allowed the return of the exiles to an area around Jerusalem, called Yehud, and left the city and the new Second Temple alone. Jerusalem was not in their way: The Persians ruled the whole known world, and their passage to Egypt, which revolted occasionally, was clear through the Coastal Plain, controlled by their allies, the post-Philistines. Alexander the Great, who defeated the Persians, also managed to conquer Egypt without disturbing Jerusalem, which stood inland. Jewish tradition suggests that he visited the city and was too impressed by the high priest to attack it. In any case he had no need to do so, his lines of communication with Egypt being clear. Later, however, under the Seleucids and the Hasmoneans, Jerusalem became a powerhouse of nationalism and revolt against any colonial power. But our own Hasmoneans squabbled among themselves, and to restore order the Roman general Pompey seized Jerusalem in 63 BCE. Soon after the Romans appointed their client-king Herod, who civilized the city by massive building projects. His oversize Temple Mount, the largest cultic podium in the empire, was obviously a symbol of pride and splendor in the tradition of Solomon. It attracted foreign admiration but also envy and greed, and the Roman emperors sought to gain a foothold by sending their own daily sacrifice to the Temple. The Romans did not need Jerusalem to gain access to Egypt but, after they set their sights on Nabatea in Transjordan, they needed it to control the road to Jericho and the southern fords of the Jordan. The Romans also needed law and order in all their colonies, which they failed to get in Palestine, due to their own misrule and policy of suppression - unlike the more sensible and laid-back rule of their Persian predecessors. The Jewish Revolt of 66 CE in the Galilee, that spread to Jerusalem, was anathema to the Romans, a blot on their beloved Pax Romana. Jerusalem, the capital of resistance, had to be neutralized, and then our own rebelliousness, together with the lack of unity among the different factions, brought on the terrible end. Jerusalem's location made it impossible for the Romans to isolate, and its treasures had made it too tempting to ignore. We now know that the Colosseum, the symbol of bread and circuses that enabled Titus to continue the rule of his father Vespasian, was financed by the treasures stolen from Jerusalem. For Titus, the Temple had been in the wrong place at the right time. The land of Israel, the land of the Bible, has always been a wedge between larger powers. In the ancient past, the successful capital of Judah, Jerusalem, often demonstrated what could be achieved in difficult times and on difficult terrain. At many times that attracted the envy of the larger nations, who coveted the very terrain on which that success had been achieved. Some accepted the situation and allowed Jerusalem to flourish as before. Others, like Babylon and Rome, who needed the soil of Jerusalem to achieve their imperial aims, did not, and so they destroyed it and its Temple. The writer is a fellow of the W.F. Albright Institute of Archeological Research in Jerusalem.