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Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths (1996)

by Karen Armstrong

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1,0271017,209 (3.79)21
Jerusalem has been venerated for centuries as a Holy City by Jews, Christians, and Muslims. How this came to be and what it means both to the people of Jerusalem and to millions around the world is now richly told by the author of the best-selling and widely acclaimed A History of God. In every major religion, a "holy place" has helped men and women define their own place, indeed their own importance, in the world. Karen Armstrong shows how Jerusalem has become that defining place for adherents of the three religions of Abraham. She makes us see that the city has been not only a symbol of God but also a deeply rooted part of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim identity. She traces Jerusalem's physical history and spiritual meaning from its beginnings during the third millennium BC to its politically troubled and violent present. She explores the underlying currents that have played a part in Jerusalem's long and turbulent past, and she considers as well its archaeology and ever-changing topography. Throughout, Armstrong helps us understand the profound mythic sources of Jerusalem's holiness, its continuing power to arouse passions, and why the primal ideal of sacred space is once again a vital issue in Middle Eastern politics.… (more)
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Reprinted 1997. A comprehensive history of Jerusalem, the holy city venerated by the Christian, Jewish, and Muslim faiths, explains how the city became a defining site for the three religions, following its development from its earliest origins to the present.
  PAFM | Oct 19, 2019 |
When judging someone's ideas, I usually try my hardest to consider the circumstances from which they're writing. I'm usually biased towards vaguely socialist types, but I'm aware that a socialist-like idea will mean two very different things, depending on whether it's written by someone in Stalinist Russia, or by someone in Reagan's America. This approach is, I think, morally preferable, inasmuch as I'm less likely to jump to outrageous judgments on people (I'm otherwise very likely to do so). It's also intellectually preferable: for instance, if you read Hobbes without thinking about the people and situation to which he was responding, you'll probably end up thinking he was arguing for a kind of divine right theory of politics. In fact, he was arguing against it.

This long prologue is necessary because I have tried, and failed, to apply this principle to Armstrong's very detailed but wildly biased book about the history of Jerusalem. Her context is very clear: she wants to oppose the silliness of late 20th century Islamophobia and militant Zionism, as well as the 'conservative' (though they're not very into conserving things) appropriation of religion. In order to do this, she writes as if the great prophets (Jesus, Mohammed) and religious thinkers (early Rabbis) were more or less interested *only* in 'social justice,' and that their thought then got perverted by a bunch of, well, conservatives. Sadly none of that is true, and her repeated claims to the contrary make this book almost unreadable and often highly misleading: for instance, she concludes that "the Muslims got their city back because the Crusaders became trapped in a dream of hatred and intolerance." Actually, the 'Muslims' got 'their' city back because 'the Crusaders' split up into a bunch of squabbling little princedoms, and eventually their on and off treaties with a wide variety of Islamic neighbors (intolerance?) were a bad defense. Far from hatred and intolerance being 'the crusaders'' downfall, it was tolerance and friendliness. But that doesn't make for quite the same story.

The focus on 'social justice' also sits very uncomfortably with the general impression that if everyone was only mystical about their religious experience like the sufis, everything would be fine. It's only when you try to go out into the world and do something on the basis of your convictions that the problems start. How to reconcile that with the presumably activist principles of religious social justice is very unclear.

Also, the first few chapters are far, far, far, far too long and I can only assume just as misleading as the middle chapters.

This is a shame, because the idea for the book is a good one, and if you can filter out the nonsense, it's not particularly biased in any one direction. The bits on sacred place are nice, though obviously contribute, too, to much silliness (e.g., if only we all got back to worshiping places, religion would stop being the source of division... erm, no). ( )
  stillatim | Dec 29, 2013 |
What a fantastic history, focusing solely on the development of Jerusalem from ~2300 BCE to 1996 CE (when the book was published), Armstrong puts into context the physical, geographical, spiritual, religious and emotional reactions towards Jerusalem.

My overly simplistic view of history is that it's all about the land grab and the completely arrogant view that "I" am perfectly in the right and "you" are completely in the wrong and should be punished for that. The history of Jerusalem reads a lot like that.

It's interesting to me how all three religions have turned away from the founding compassionate tenets of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity and are bent on the others' destruction. I now have a better understanding of the issues (and the history), and also a better understanding of why finding peace in the Middle East is so fraught with peril. ( )
1 vote AuntieClio | Nov 10, 2013 |
The world needs more books like this one. Professional historians will be able to pick nits, but this remains an honest narrative of perhaps the world's most remarkable city, told in a spirit of humanity and respect for all three faiths, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The book provides invaluable historical perspective on the struggle in our own time over the State of Israel. However it is not a polemic, and only the most diehard partisans will take issue with Karen Armstrong's well founded perspective.
  Muscogulus | Jul 29, 2012 |
One city. Three faiths. Christians, Jews, and Muslims all lay claim to the Holy City. Armstrong’s treatment is impartial as usual, more interested in promoting understanding than any one belief system. She leads us through 4,000 years of history, as this turbulent landmark in the middle of nowhere grew from a tribal village into a cultural and religious phenomenon.

The book of Revelation, about Jerusalem: “The great city split into three parts, and the cities of the nations collapsed.” Is this a prophetic inevitability, or is there hope for peace? I’m one of the many with a placard hanging on my wall, requesting that we pray for the peace of Jerusalem. I read Armstrong’s book as research for my own book about Revelation, because Jerusalem, both the Old and the New, is the focal point of John’s Apocalypse.

Karen’s topic is extremely important for today’s world of religious unease, and it’s an absolutely fascinating topic. Unfortunately, I found the writing to be a bit more dry than usual for Armstrong. I think the book could have been condensed to about 2/3rd its size. But by the time you finish—if you’re able—you’ll have a better grasp of the bitterness and misunderstanding, and why all three religions claim Jerusalem as their own. ( )
  DubiousDisciple | Aug 18, 2011 |
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For my mother, Eileen Armstrong
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We know nothing about the people who first settled in the hills and valleys that would eventually become the city of Jerusalem.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Jerusalem has been venerated for centuries as a Holy City by Jews, Christians, and Muslims. How this came to be and what it means both to the people of Jerusalem and to millions around the world is now richly told by the author of the best-selling and widely acclaimed A History of God. In every major religion, a "holy place" has helped men and women define their own place, indeed their own importance, in the world. Karen Armstrong shows how Jerusalem has become that defining place for adherents of the three religions of Abraham. She makes us see that the city has been not only a symbol of God but also a deeply rooted part of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim identity. She traces Jerusalem's physical history and spiritual meaning from its beginnings during the third millennium BC to its politically troubled and violent present. She explores the underlying currents that have played a part in Jerusalem's long and turbulent past, and she considers as well its archaeology and ever-changing topography. Throughout, Armstrong helps us understand the profound mythic sources of Jerusalem's holiness, its continuing power to arouse passions, and why the primal ideal of sacred space is once again a vital issue in Middle Eastern politics.

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