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Books in Brief: Jerusalem: Rebirth of a City, Neil Asher Silberman, BAR 12:04, Jul-Aug 1986.

Jerusalem Rebirth of a CityJerusalem- Rebirth of a City

Martin Gilbert

(Jerusalem- Domino Press, 1985) 238 pp., $25.00

Nineteenth-century Jerusalem was, in many ways, both a reflection of the past and a prophecy of the future. Beneath its narrow streets and among its ancient quarters lay the remains of the city’s 5,000-year-long history. In the hearts and minds of its resident communities were the national and religious aspirations that would transform the city in the 20th century. With Jerusalem- Rebirth of a City, Martin Gilbert, historian and lover of Jerusalem, has provided his readers with some fascinating glimpses of life in Jerusalem during a period of dramatic change. His book skillfully combines firsthand travelers’ reports, anecdotes and historical commentary with a wide-ranging collection of 19th century and more recent photographs to recreate the atmosphere of Jerusalem during the last century.

Jerusalem- Rebirth of a City is in no sense a connected history. Those who seek a more analytical treatment of Jerusalem’s modern transformation can consult such works as A. L. Tibawi’s British Interests in Palestine, 1800–1901 or Yehoshua Ben-Arieh’s Jerusalem in the 19th Century. What Gilbert has attempted here is a more impressionistic rendering of Jerusalem’s people and places. And he has succeeded in drawing a sensitive portrait of the city that will not disappoint either those who seek an introduction to Jerusalem’s modern history or those who already are familiar with the course of Jerusalem’s 19th-century awakening.

Gilbert begins his story in 1838, a year in which, at least superficially, Jerusalem still retained its pre-modern character. Although the city was temporarily under the rule of the pasha of Egypt, Mehmet Ali, its administration remained more or less as it had been established with the Ottoman conquest of 1517. Under the watchful eyes of a small military garrison, Jerusalem’s Jewish, Moslem and Christian communities lived in close, if not always harmonious, coexistence. The difficulties of travel to the Holy Land made pilgrimage inaccessible to all but a few outsiders, yet as Gilbert points out, a new type of pilgrim began to appear in Jerusalem in this period. The establishment of the British consulate in the city in 1838 and the arrival, in the same year, of the American Biblical scholar Edward Robinson and the Scottish painter David Roberts were signs of a renewed western interest in Jerusalem that would have far-reaching significance for the city’s future.

With the return of the city to Ottoman rule in the 1840s, the foreign presence and activity in Jerusalem began to intensify. By the end of the decade, not only Great Britain, but also France, Prussia, Austria, Spain and Russia had permanent consuls in the city, and their conflicting national interests injected into the Jerusalem scene the contemporary politics of the Western world. Of the foreign residents, the British continued to be the most active, and Gilbert describes the controversial missionary activities of the London Jews Society among the members of Jerusalem’s Jewish population. Despite the society’s limited success in gaining converts, the British influence was profound. James Finn, who arrived as British consul in 1846, was a tireless advocate of the city’s modernization, and it was he who first encouraged the development of the city beyond its confining walls.

The Crimean War of 1854–1856 brought renewed religious strife to Jerusalem’s Christian communities. France, the official protector of the city’s Catholics, vied with Russia, the patron of the Orthodox, to lay claim to the city’s most important pilgrimage sites and to establish new institutions as well. At the same time, the reaction of the Jewish community to the early British missionary efforts encouraged the founding of the first Jewish hospital in the city and the construction of the new Tiferet Israel synagogue in the Jewish Quarter. It also prompted Sir Moses Montefiore, one of the leaders of British Jewry, to contribute funds to construct two of modern Jerusalem’s most famous landmarks- a windmill and the long, low cottages opposite the city walls called Mishkenot Sha’ananim, “dwellings of delight.” All this activity did not go unrecorded, for as Gilbert observes, the first photographs of the city’s landmarks were taken at this time.

Distinguished visitors soon began to make Jerusalem one of the most important stops on their grand tours of the Near East. Gilbert quotes extensively from the 1862 travel diary of one such visitor, Edward Albert, Prince of Wales, showing how Jerusalem appeared to the refined sensibilities of the future king. Archaeology also became a permanent feature of the Jerusalem scene in this period. Charles Wilson’s survey of the city (1864), the establishment of the Palestine Exploration Fund (1865) and Charles Warren’s pioneering excavations around the Temple Mount (1867–1810) are all described in colorful detail.

By the time of the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 and the beginning of regular steamship service to the Middle East, a visit to Jerusalem became practicable for ever greater numbers of Western tourists. The leveling of a carriage road from Jaffa to Jerusalem was just a first step; the increasing flow of western visitors to Jerusalem encouraged the establishment of the first modern hotels in the city and the development of a booming tourist trade. Among the most popular souvenirs brought back from a trip to Jerusalem in this period were the mass-produced landscapes and character studies taken by such prolific photographers as the members of the Beirut-based Bonfils family.a These views of Jerusalem in the 1870s and 1880s remain one of the most important sources for reconstructing the state of Jerusalem’s monuments in the pre-modern period, and Gilbert includes some of the most famous examples of the work of these Victorian photographers.

With the expansion of all of Jerusalem’s ethnic and religious communities, the ancient city walls could no longer contain all the activity. As a result, suburbs began to ring the Old City- new Jewish residential neighborhoods on the west and northwest, the American Colony and Sheikh Jarrah on the north and various Christian establishments on the slope of the Mount of Olives to the east. The religious conflicts were far from over. Disputes over the precise site of Jesus’ crucifixion, burial and resurrection gained new intensity in the 1880s. The Protestant position was championed by General Charles Gordon, who rejected the authenticity of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in favor of the “Garden Tomb” to the north of the city walls. There were also some signs of the conflict that would dominate Jerusalem’s life in the 20th century. The birth of the Zionist movement and the arrival of Jewish refugees from the pogroms in Russia led the Ottoman authorities to impose restrictions on Jewish immigration to Palestine.

Near the end of the century, the government of Sultan Abdul Hamid began to recognize the strategic and political importance of Jerusalem, and this recognition brought still more changes to the life of the city. In 1892, a railroad line between Jaffa and Jerusalem was officially inaugurated, bringing the city closer to the outside world. In the surrounding countryside, sporadic outbreaks of Bedouin raids and warfare were forcefully subdued by the Ottoman government. And within Jerusalem itself, development went hand in hand with exploration as the antiquities of the developing city were intensively examined by a new Palestine Exploration Fund expedition headed by Frederick Bliss and Archibald Dickie. The changes that Jerusalem had undergone were now too advanced to turn back, and Gilbert concludes his survey in 1898, precisely six decades after his story began.

In 1898, Jerusalem became a focus of international politics on the highest level with the official visit of Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany, the recently proclaimed ally of Sultan Abdul Hamid. The officials and people of Jerusalem made every effort to accommodate the arrival of the guest of honor; among the preparations was a breach in the city wall near the Jaffa Gate to accommodate the entry of the imperial carriage. Yet as Gilbert points out, there was another distinguished visitor in the city at the same time- Theodore Herzl, the founder of the modern Zionist movement. Herzl’s private meeting with the Kaiser in Jerusalem did not result in German support for a Jewish return to Palestine, but it clearly marked the direction of Jerusalem’s future as it entered the 20th century. The city was no longer a small, neglected backwater of the Ottoman empire. It had become a bustling commercial and religious center, a focus of great-power conflict and nationalistic claims.

Since Jerusalem- Rebirth of a City is such an enjoyable reading experience, the few errors that have crept into the text are of little concern. It might be noted, however, in the interest of accuracy, that the Egyptian occupation of Palestine lasted from 1831 to 1840, not just 1836; that the proper name of the founder of modern archaeological excavation in Palestine was William Matthew Flinders Petrie, not W. M. Flinders-Petrie; and that Frederick J. Bliss was not a British archaeologist, but an American pioneer in this field. But these are minor points in an otherwise well-conceived and well-executed book. Jerusalem- Rebirth of a City is recommended both for readers with a previous background in Jerusalem’s 19th-century history and for those seeking an introduction to the events and personalities that helped determine the character of the Holy City as it exists to the present.

a. See Books in Brief, BAR 11-01, for a review of The Image of the East- Nineteenth-Century Near Eastern Photographs by Bonfils by Carney E. S. Gavin.

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