Chronicaling Jericho: ancient, poetic, alive

April 09, 1995|By Arnold Blumberg | Arnold Blumberg,Special to The Sun

"Jericho: Dreams, Ruins, Phantoms," by Robert Ruby. 340 pages. New York: Henry Holt and Company. $25 Anyone interested in the history of Palestine/Israel will find this book gripping. It has the tone of a mystery story, making frequent reference to a mound of earth in Jericho, which hides the origins of that ancient city. However, if you await a dramatic denouement to the story, you will be disappointed.

The author was The Baltimore Sun's bureau chief in Jerusalem, l987-1992. His residence in Jericho made him choose that town as his subject. Long before the walls of Jericho fell to the biblical Joshua, the origins of the city were already shrouded in the mists of time. What Mr. Ruby does so well in this book is to explain very complicated geological, archeological, and anthropological phenomena in a way readily comprehensible to lay readers.

The author rises, at his very best, to poetic beauty. Describing the desert near Jericho after a rainy winter, he remarks, "For several Technicolor weeks the plain bloomed into red poppies growing in fields of green felt, a Pissaro desert." Diagramming the arrangement of the office of the mayor of Jericho, he says, "The chairs were plush and uncomfortable. . . . The princeling at his desk had a view of smiling faces craning in his direction even as the bodies struggled to stay afloat."

The common denominator of the book is the reference to notables who have visited Jericho. Because most of the stories are interesting, the book is enjoyable. However, the reader will find it disturbing that the lives of Charles Warren and Claude Conder, both 19th century British explorers, are introduced, but then dropped, only to have the narrative resumed many pages later. The roles of those great British explorers of Palestine might have been more dramatically presented if each of them had a solid bloc of the book all to himself.

The author tends to drag in major historical events, such as Ibrahim Pasha's invasion of Palestine and Syria in 1840 and dismiss the crisis as unimportant. The Crimean War is similarly oversimplified. He describes Haj Amin al-Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, but does not mention that al-Husseini was a racist and inciter of anti-Jewish violence.

The author tries to avoid taking sides in the Arab-Israeli conflict, though he sometimes slips into the use of language an experienced newsman ought to avoid. Thus, instead of referring to the Arab residents of East Jerusalem, Israel's capital city, simply as "Arabs," he calls them "Palestinians." I object to him calling these Arabs Palestinians, because Israel considers East Jerusalem part of its united capital. So, what would be perfectly acceptable in describing his Arab neighbors in Jericho, is decidedly unacceptable when discussing Jerusalemites.

This book is very worth reading. It contains a good bibliography and some notes of interest in the back pages. It could have used better organization, because nothing is gained by fragmenting the biographies of notable historic figures. You must, though, take the book on its own terms, as a collection of anecdotes associated with antique and modern Jericho.

The book closes at the moment when Yassir Arafat's PLO took possession of Jericho as the Israeli army withdrew. The mood of those last pages is decidedly skeptical and low-key. He quotes a tourist guide saying, "There was one people after another. Voila, that is the story."

Arnold Blumberg is the author of five books, two of which concern the history of Palestine/Israel: They are "A View From Jerusalem: 1849-1858" (Fairleigh Dickinson University) and "Zion Before Zionism: 1838-1880" (Syracuse University). He is currently preparing "An Annotated Bibliography of the History of Zionism."

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