Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths, by Karen Armstrong (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996, 471 pp., $30)

Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai once wrote that “Jerusalem is a place where everyone remembers that he has forgotten something.” Karen Armstrong's newest work, an encyclopedic romp through 4,000 years of the city's history, is an often poignant illustration of just how true that observation is.

The status of Jerusalem, holy city for Jews, Christians and Muslims, remains one of the most stubborn of the world's geopolitical dilemmas. Despite the efforts of some of the world's best minds, five Middle Eastern wars in the last 50 years that, to varying degrees, had wresting control of Jerusalem as a central aim.

Israeli sovereignty over the whole of Jerusalem—the Jewish western side and Palestinian dominated East Jerusalem—the result of the Six Day War of 1967, is merely the latest historical attempt to reconfigure a city that houses the holy sites of three monotheistic religions and the dreams of more than half the human race.

One of the virtues of Armstrong's historical overview of Jerusalem's many rulers is to demonstrate why today's total Israeli sovereignty (the eastern Arab portion, including the Old City, has been annexed since 1981) may not be the long-term solution for this most coveted city. International controversy over the Israeli-sponsored Jerusalem 3000 celebrations this year and the recent Palestinian uproar over the opening of an archaeological tunnel near the Dome of the Rock shows that, despite 30 years of Israeli control, ethnic and religious passions remain as volatile, and as destabilizing, as ever.

In thorough, workmanlike prose, Armstrong takes us on a fact-filled tour of a city with precious few natural assets—it is isolated, far from trade routes, its rocky terrain is inhospitable to agriculture. Nevertheless, the city has been loved as perhaps no other single site on earth—loved nearly to death as its record of being “the world's most destroyed city” suggests.

The Babylonians depopulated the city in the sixth century BC. The Romans leveled it entirely in 135 AD, and even renamed it in order to remove every trace of Jerusalem's Jewish heritage. Zoroastrian Persians swept through the Holy Land in 614 and wiped Byzantine Jerusalem off the map. Three hundred years later the Fatimid Caliph Hakim burned the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Christianity's holiest site, to the ground—an act that spurred the papacy to call for Crusades “to free Jerusalem from the infidel.” The Crusaders, in turn, after slaughtering most of the city's Jews and Muslims in 1099, spent a century reconverting every religious site to Christian use, only to lose the city to Muslim armies in 1187. Ottoman Turks let it sink into a Levantine backwater for 400 years until Europe “rediscovered” Jerusalem in the 19th century while competing Jewish and Arab claims to the city, set the stage for the Israeli-Arab conflict that has occupied so much of the 20th century.

Armstrong's account of this tortured history deserves good marks for her understanding of Jewish and Muslim historical sensibilities. She doesn't fare as well with her own tradition. The author is a former Religious and her writing on Byzantine and Crusader Jerusalem sometimes grates on the reader's nerves with its tendency to adopt a “superior” tone when chronicling the deeds of her own historical forebears. And, as in her other encyclopedic treatment AHistory of God, she does not always resist the generalist's temptation to oversimplify or to make sweeping assessments that do not do justice to the facts. However, she does have an eye for the arresting anecdote.

Among any reader's favorites would have to be her account of a 12th century Muslim diplomat who paid regular visits to the Crusader-period Knights Templar ensconced in what used to be the site of the ancient Jewish temple and what is today the El-Aksa mosque. “A cultured, affable man, Usamah was bemused by the Franks. He admired their physical courage but was appalled by their primitive medicine, their disrespectful treatment of women, and their religious intolerance…. He had made friends with the Templars in Jerusalem, and whenever he visited them in the Aqsa they put a little oratory at his disposal. One day when he was praying, facing Mecca, a Frank rushed into the room, lifted Usamah into the air and turned him forcibly toward the east: ‘This is the way to pray!' he exclaimed. The Templars hurried in and took the man away, [mortified], but as soon as their backs were turned, the same thing happened again.”

The tale is not only entertaining, but instructive as well. For as Armstrong relates, the city has fared best in those brief periods when it's rulers abandoned attempts to commandeer the city for their own purposes and, instead, focused on weaving into a workable human environment the three very different religious claims that, whatever the difficulties, determine the unalterable reality that is Jerusalem.

Each of the three communities—Jewish, Christian and Muslim—has seen its “Jerusalem” destroyed, its history apparently obliterated by one or more of its rivals, and “facts on the ground” created to prevent its return. And yet, against all odds, Muslims won back the city against the “invincible” Crusaders. Long-persecuted Christian communities have survived every attempt to marginalize them and Jews, repeatedly exiled from the city of David, have come back to Zion—never to he separated from it again.

As Armstrong writes: “… the long tragic history of Jerusalem shows [that] nothing is permanent or guaranteed. The societies that have lasted the longest in the holy city have been the ones that were prepared for some kind of tolerance and coexistence…. That, rather than a sterile and deadly struggle for sovereignty, must be the way to celebrate Jerusalem's sanctity today.”

There have been dozens of solutions proposed through the decades for governing the future city of peace: corpus separatum—some sort of special international status for the Old City and the other holy places; continued Israeli rule with autonomy for Palestinian districts; one city under joint Palestinian-Israeli supervision; two linked municipalities. But, as Armstrong emphasizes, what must undergird any potential settlement is a fundamental change in attitude toward the city itself—its history as well as its inhabitants—a change that moves beyond maximalist (and exclusionary) slogans like “Jerusalem is Arab,” and “One Jerusalem, the eternal capital of the Jewish people.”

Palestinian leader Faisal Husseini put it this way in a speech delivered in May, 1995: “I dream of the day when a Palestinian will say ‘Our Jerusalem'and will mean Palestinians and Israelis, and an Israeli will say ‘Our Jerusalem’ and will mean Israelis and Palestinians.”

Gabriel Meyer is based in Los Angeles.