Only power keeps the fragile barrier of civilization in place between our faith and our primal urges.
In April 2016 I had the pleasure of visiting the old city of Jerusalem. As an Army officer I would have had great difficulty getting approval to go there due to security restrictions in place after a spate of incidents in the city left a number of American tourists dead or wounded. My colleagues in uniform were not allowed to travel there at all in mid-March. Even after the restriction was lifted, they had to leave by sundown and check in and out by phone with the US Consulate. I on the other hand, a private citizen for nearly a year and a half by then, wandered slowly and carelessly through the darkened streets of the ancient city until long after sundown. The visit felt like a great expression of my freedom.
My journey to Jerusalem was not without its perils. As I prepared to go to the airport in Brussels on the morning of 22 March, three suicide bombers affiliated with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) detonated suitcases full of explosives in the airport’s departure hall and at metro stops in the city. The explosion at the airport ripped the facade off the entire front of the massive building and completely gutted the check in counters, leaving 32 dead and 300 injured. My vacation was the other casualty. With flights cancelled for weeks, I missed the Holy Week celebrations in Jerusalem. When I finally made it to Israel on 17 April, the Israeli response had vigorously reduced the threat of attacks on tourists in Jerusalem and the religious pilgrims had –thankfully– all gone home. If there is a silver lining to the horrific events in Brussels, it is that I had a much more relaxing time in Jerusalem than I otherwise would have.
I knew next to nothing about Israel when I arrived there and I accept that I still know very little. But I am an experienced observer of cultures and I certainly learned a lot during my short visit. A sensation of the city’s permanence shaped a few half-formed thoughts that dominated my mind while walking through the old city. I found it simultaneously breathtaking and disappointing that a single hilltop, indeed a solitary stone somewhere under the Dome of the Rock, serves as the foundation for the entire history of civilization in the Middle East, Europe, and the “West”. Modern Man is supposed to be better than that. Our worship of specific geography in this manner is an atavistic throwback to our primal urges and reveals the intractability of conflict in this place that’s changed hands so often throughout history. Leadership and control here is notoriously short-lived.
Jewish smugness over their ownership of Jerusalem is contradicted by their obvious insecurity; as is Muslim arrogance that says only their imams can enter the Dome and see the stone. Both sentiments are backed by military or political power, not righteousness. This is hardly different from the occupation of the Temple by the Christian kings of Europe a thousand years ago and I reject all of it. If the stone is so important to the salvation of Man then a limitation on whose priests get to see it –or indeed that only priests can do so– is a decision that lies firmly in the domain of terrestrial power, not celestial decree.
Thus the Foundation Stone sits at the center of a terrestrial controversy that makes Israeli rule unique in all human history. As the Temple changed hands through the centuries it was the tradition of the conqueror to demolish it and rebuild it –or at least redecorate– as he saw fit. The fact that the Israelis do not is a testament to either their tolerance or their pragmatism. Given their unchallenged military superiority at the moment, it is probably pragmatism that guides Israel’s restraint; they certainly know they lack the political power to keep the Temple if they seize it.
As a concession, the Israeli state spends tremendous amounts of money and effort in an attempt to excavate 2200 years of Jewish religious history at the “Holy of Holies”. The tunnel they’re digging under the Muslim quarter of the old city angers everyone including religious Jews who surely realize –painfully– that the closest point on the Earth they can get to the center of their universe is marked by a tiny sign in a damp tunnel next to a wall designed to keep invaders out. The effort required to keep the religious impulses of the Israeli population in check on this matter must be as immense as it is fragile. For now, the government relies on the necessity of maintaining the status quo in the region but this is expensive and under constant pressure. Though Israel has carved out a very well-managed and seemingly secure country here against all odds and by force, nothing that depends upon military and political power lasts forever.
Geography of Jesus
Christians can attest to the temporary nature of power. The historical geography of Christianity revolves around the Temple Mount even though Christians do not revere the Foundation Stone like the Jews or the Muslims do –the latter believes the Stone was the point from which the Prophet Mohammed ascended to heaven. When Jesus was born, the Roman-appointed King Herod ruled Judea. With a Jewish king on the throne, Jesus and his followers were forced to conduct most of their business away from the Temple. This was particularly true later in his life when his teachings became blasphemous and heretical to those in power. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, nearly every event of theological significance in the life of Christ supposedly took place within sight of the Foundation Stone. He was born in Bethlehem; was crucified and died at Golgotha under the current Church of the Holy Sepulchre; was buried and rose from the dead in the grotto in the Anastasis; and ascended to heaven from the Mount of Olives. Powerful men at the time made certain only their religion could claim the sacred geography on the Temple Mount. If they hadn’t, the Crusades would have had an even more destructive impact on Judaism than they did when Godfrey of Bouillon captured the city in 1099.
As it was, the military and political power of the Christian Kingdom of Jerusalem crumbled after only 200 years. The Temple was replaced by the golden Dome of the Rock and the Christians went back to turning the other cheek, satisfied that the Muslims could have the Dome and the Jews their tunnel without impacting the geography of Jesus. This I believe, is the reason behind the amazing Christian tolerance for tourists at holy sites in the old city and in Bethlehem. With thousands of iPhone-wielding visitors stumbling around on surfaces made perilously uneven by centuries of pilgrimage, the tolerance of the faithful is as surprising as it is appreciated. Besides, as one colleague pointed out, it is pragmatic to be tolerant when no longer in control.
Permanence of Power
Despite this I find I have developed a bit of personal contempt for the religious. There is something primitive about faith that I find disquieting. Though faith and instinct are on opposite ends of a spectrum, they come together in extreme situations as we saw in 1099 when the victorious Crusaders killed until they were up to their ankles in blood. When we strip away all the sophistication of modern life, only our belief in the supernatural and our animal instincts remain. Embracing either one entirely feels like a failure.
The permanent collision of past and present history in Jerusalem made me realize the admirable compulsion that keeps ancient, dying men of God upright in wooden chairs while “guarding” religious sites in Jerusalem is the same impulse that drove their predecessors to rampage in murderous frenzy at the climax of the first Crusade. Only the fragile barrier of civilization keeps our faith from blending with our primal urges and only power keeps that barrier in place. Our troubles begin when we construct those civilizations and wield power on the basis of religion. What I fear is the specific geography of Jerusalem sets those troubles in stone.
Lino Miani is a retired US Army Special Forces officer, author of The Sulu Arms Market, and CEO of Navisio Global LLC