08 April 2010

What We Choose to Remember: Jerusalem in World History

What We Choose to Remember: Jerusalem in World History

As I prepare to participate in a conference called “What We Choose to Remember” at the University of Portland on the Holocaust and the Arab-Israel Conflict next week, I have been thinking more and more about the controversy over a parcel of land in the district in West Jerusalem called Mamilla.

Readers who recognize the place name, Mamilla, will know that this is the site that was chosen by the Jerusalem municipality to be the future home of the L.A.-based Simon Wiesenthal Center Museum of Tolerance. The Muslim community in Israel brought the case to the Israeli Supreme Court, which has ruled that although it had served as an important Muslim cemetery for centuries, because the Mufti had closed the cemetery and that it had been unused for many years, there were no legal grounds to prevent the construction of the museum.

The court did not consider the fact that the parcel remained a property of the Salahiyyah Waqf, evidently on logic that since the Muslim authorities themselves had decided to develop the land for commercial and educational purposes it was no longer a cemetery, and that the State, as the custodian of public land—which in Israel often had been endowed to the Muslim community for centuries—had the right to dispose of as it chose. Muslim descendants of those buried in the cemetery have taken their case to the U.N. in the hope that the international community will intervene. Clearly this case has enormous consequences for deciding land tenure disputes between Palestinians and Israelis, especially in light of Hamas’ claim that all land in Palestine is Waqf endowed in perpetuity to the Muslim community—including all Jewish and Christian properties in Israel and Palestine.

There has been scarce mention of the horrific massacre of Byzantine Christian residents by Jews in the extensive coverage of the museum controversy. Although the incident is well-attested in the historical record, despite the discovery and analysis of the physical evidence over almost twenty years and the fact that it is the subject of an important scholarly article on the way that the massacre has been treated by Christian, Jewish and Israeli historians, its significance has been ignored in the public controversy over the museum.

History is stranger than fiction, and the kaleidoscope of alliances and conflicts in the Middle East is strange indeed. One of the darkest chapters of the history of Jerusalem occurred during a great superpower conflict in the seventh century A.D. between the Christian heirs of the Roman Empire, the Byzantine Christians, and their inveterate enemies in Persia, the Sasanian Zoroastrians. This chapter was unearthed in 1992, as the ground was being prepared for the construction of a municipal parking lot in West Jerusalem, not far from the King David Hotel and the YMCA in the Mamilla commercial district of Jerusalem, not far from the Old City. The construction crew uncovered a cave bearing the Greek inscription, “Only God Knows Their Names” and filled with thousands upon thousands of bone fragments.

Israeli archeologist Ronny Reich excavated the cave, verifying that it was a mass burial site for the victims of a well-known massacre committed during the epic Byzantine-Sasanian War. Jews and Persians joined forces in the Galilee, and together destroyed Byzantine churches and other Christian buildings up and down the coast from Antioch to Gaza in 614 A.D. All of the churches and Christian buildings in Palestine, including the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem were destroyed, and the remnants of the True Cross was taken triumphantly to Persia. The Persians ransomed their hostages to the Jewish fighters, who then marched them to the Mamilla Pool and slaughtered them. The only church that remained untouched at this time was the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, because the Persians, recognizing the Magi depicted in a mosaic as Persian sages, decided to leave it unharmed. The war permanently shaped the Christian built environment in Jerusalem and its rural hinterlands, the Galilee, and along the Lebanese coast. Christian chroniclers preserved the memory of the massacre. Ultimately, the Persians withdrew in 617 A.D. and the Byzantines began to rebuild. All of this occurred before the beginning of Islamic history

The Biblical Archeology Review published Reich’s discoveries in 1996. In 2000, physical anthropologist Yossi Nagar reported the results of studies conducted on the forensic evidence and published on the Israel Antiquities Authority website. That evidence shows that the Greek-speaking Christian population of the city was neither Jewish nor Arab. Of the estimated 24,000-90,000 victims reported by chroniclers at the time of the massacre, only 526 individuals could be identified, although the large number of fragments suggested that thousands of victims were interred in the cave. The ratio of 38 males to 100 females indicates that those slain in the massacre were primarily Christian women, aged 30-35 years old. The archeologists speculate that this was because most of the city’s male inhabitants were fighting at the front, and the women stayed behind. Many of these were nuns. Apparently there were few children or elderly inhabitants.

When Umar took the city from the Byzantines in 636 he agreed to the surrendering Greek patriarch’s request that Jews not be allowed back into the city, although ultimately the Muslims did permit them to return; the first time during the Umayyad Period, and the second when Saladin conquered the city in 1187 A.D. Umar is famed in Jerusalem for his humility in resanctifying the site of the Temple and for leaving the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Christian hands. Among the Muslim tombs, there are Christian sepulchres dating from the Crusader Period in the small remaining area of the cemetery. When Saladin defeated the Crusaders in 1187, he endowed the Mamilla district, where he had established his headquarters, as a trust in his charitable foundation, called the Salahiyah Waqf. This trust, logically, also administered the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and other Christian and Muslim institutions established before 1187 and during the Ayyubid period. The Waqf Administration continued to administer these even under British, Jordanian and Israeli rule. During the British Mandate, the Grand Mufti Hajj Amin al-Husseini, co-founder, with Hassan al-Banna, of the Muslim Brotherhood, closed the cemetery and rededicated the parcel, still part of the Salahiyyah Waqf, for the purpose of building an Arab university on the site. The Palace Hotel, a beautiful example of late-Ottoman architecture recently demolished and currently being rebuilt as luxury condominiums and boutiques, was built to provide income for the development of the future university. The Muslim authorities envisioned the university as a centerpiece of the new commercial district, which had been developed primarily by non-Jews during the Mandate Period.

The Palace Hotel was taken over for use by the Israeli government at the time of the ceasefire. The cemetery at Mamilla became an overgrown corner of Independence Park, covered by trash and weeds an unsafe place for anyone to go. The Muslim community, however, remembered it and the notables who were buried there, but few others were even aware of it. Retired Muslim judge Shaykh Muhammad As’ad al-Imam al-Husseini gave me a guided tour of the cemetery in 1986, pointeing out some of the graves of dignitaries, including former mayors of Jerusalem and other notables I was writing about in my doctoral dissertation.

Theological differences between the three Abrahamic religions have become more and more pronounced as secular nationalism has failed to solve political and social conflicts in the Middle East, allowing fundamentalist religious ideologies to fill in the gap. The legacy of Christianity and Islam in Jerusalem is slowly being effaced through the neglect of the city’s non-Jewish architectural legacy and the emigration of the city’s secular Jewish and Palestinian Muslim and Christian inhabitants. While the significance of the Holy City to Jews and Muslims threatens to ignite apocalyptic warfare, the significance of the city to Christians nearly has been buried in the ashes of the Holocaust.

The idea believers in the God of Abraham, Jews, Muslims and Christians together should hallow the blood-soaked ground of Mamilla may not be the strangest of all the options for this blood-drenched parcel of land.

Jerusalem, in the words of an Islamic court document written in the 19th century, is “desired by all the nations.” Each generation has left its own imprint. The Israeli Supreme Court, in a decision about the excavation of King David’s Palace in the tiny village of Silwan just outside the walls of the Old City in East Jerusalem, ruled in favor of the dig, explaining that,

"the rich historical past of the country… is folded layer upon layer in its earth. The chronicles of the country and the land, the nations who dwelt there, have been relegated to the pages of history books, buried over the course of years under the earth and have turned into its hidden treasures. …Though Israel is a young country, it has deep roots in the history of mankind and throughout the length and breadth of the country, the earth is saturated with the remnants of ancient civilizations that lived in and created on this land for thousands of years, both before and after the common era.”

Like the City of David, Mamilla

has both national and international importance, and is not only important to the Jewish people, rather it has importance to anyone who wishes to investigate the history of the area which is the cradle of the monotheistic religions. The importance of the archaeological research isn't only to understand the history of the land and to verify the truth of the facts we know from our sources, but … sheds light on the development of human culture. Therefore, its importance overrides nations and borders.

The Mamilla Massacre is a dark chapter in the annals of the Jewish people, a sobering and necessary reminder of what hatred and the desire for revenge can breed in the human heart. If Jews, Christians, and Muslims can come together to find a way together to create a hallowed space for confession, repentance, and reconciliation, perhaps Mamilla can serve not only as a place of commemoration and warning, but also as a place of sanctification, where we can stand in awe and terror before God, pleading for mercy and forgiveness for what has been done in His name and praying for those whose names only He remembers.

Mamilla offers two lessons. The first lesson, that Jews have committed outrages against their enemies, is one that the Jewish people must remember and acknowledge. At a time when Jewish-Muslim relations have never been worse, and Jewish-Christian relations are continually strained, the second lesson, that Jerusalem is a city of world historical importance to non-Jews, is of no less consequence.