"Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths," by Karen Armstrong. Alfred A. Knopf. 544 pages. $30.
Even if we have never seen it, we think we know Jerusalem. If we are Jews, Christians or Muslims, we believe the city to be rightfully ours. Karen Armstrong's "Jerusalem" is a sufficiently detailed, sobering history of the city's 4,000 years to taint every claim. It is a chronicle of the inspiring, often horrific deeds performed in the city's name.
In the best sense, this is a deeply disillusioning book. It is a history of "belligerent piety," for Jerusalem has inspired more devotion than tolerance. In 1099, the army of the First Crusade glimpsed the city and wept and screamed aloud. So moved were the soldiers, they proceeded to slaughter Jerusalem's 30,000 residents in three days. In 1218, the Muslim ruler Mu'azzam Isa chose to dismantle the city walls and thereby make it indefensible rather than have it besieged by another army of admirers.
Jerusalem is the new heaven promised by Isaiah, the source of all sweet water, source of fertility, the city where no one weeps, city of peace, a profound "home." For people assign an earthly home for their prophets or gods, the better to bring them closer. Or declare that after this life a better one will begin in that assigned place.
"Jerusalem" is encyclopedic but not always expert. It covers a lot of ground and maybe too much. In the chapters devoted to 1948 to the present, Ms. Armstrong, author of the well-received "A History of God," becomes tone deaf. There are unsettling phrases (Israel as "a foreign enclave"), errors of fact (the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibited at the Shrine of the Book were purchased, not "captured") and awkward attempts to weave recent events (the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin) into the story. The book is far stronger on Jesubites and Hasmoneans than Palestinians and Israelis.
Ms. Armstrong, a former Roman Catholic nun, is at her best with the history of ideas. Jerusalem becomes central to Judaism only after the Romans destroy the Temple in A.D. 70, because the city substitutes for the Temple as the symbol of God's presence. In Christianity, the city remains a theological backwater until Constantine in the 4th century authorizes the giant construction project that, after many destructions and rebuildings, becomes the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.
If only she could take us there. There is more on monotheism - a sort of "A History of God," Part Two - than on Jerusalem as a physical place; you never smell a spice vendor's wares, never hear a call to prayer. Every sound is muffled, every vista barricaded. "Jerusalem" - the best serious, accessible history of the most spiritually important city in the world - leaves you in awe and in terror of that place.
Robert Ruby, deputy foreign editor of The Sun, lived in Jerusalem five years as the paper's Middle East correspondent. He is author of "Jericho: Dreams, Ruins, Phantoms."
Pub date: 5/19/96