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Faith, myth and history merge in Jerusalem

Author: Kanchan Gupta
Publication: The Pioneer
Date: September 14, 2014
URL: http://www.dailypioneer.com/columnists/coffee-break/faith-myth-and-history-merge-in-jerusalem.html

Politically correct history appeases a few but extracts a terrible toll of many. Jerusalem, more specifically Temple Mount, proves this point as nothing else does

 Faith can be a moving, living experience in the ancient walled city of Jerusalem where truth lies buried beneath and behind the gnarled stones that have been witness to history through the centuries. Much of that history is unhappy and blood-soaked; conquerors who smashed and grabbed the City of David to call it their own may have pretended piety but lacked mercy.

 This unique city of Byzantine lanes that straddles an antique land offers multiple views, depending on where you are standing at any given moment. Time comes to a halt within the awe-inspiring chambers of the Church of Holy Sepulchre. Here stands the rump of a pillar to which Jesus was tied and flogged; here is the spot where he was nailed to a cross, a crown of thorns on his head; here is the place where the cross was driven into barren limestone atop a hill and the son of god left to die a painful, excruciating death; here is the stone on which he was gently laid and his body washed of the sins committed by his tormentors; and, here is the sepulchre where he was buried on a Friday two millennia ago and was resurrected on Sunday.

 The vast, limitless landscape of Biblical history can confuse and confound both believer and non-believer. But the canvas appears less daunting when you are standing on the ground where history was made — and unmade — as flags of conquest were hoisted atop the ramparts of Jerusalem only to be taken down and replaced with the standard of yet another conqueror. The city expanded and shrunk; the tide of commerce ebbed and waxed; Abraham could have never imagined the claimed descendants of Isaac and Ishmael would one day be at perpetual war with each other.

 The Western Wall, in front of which mere mortals stand diminished, is all that remains of the magnificent temple that once stood atop Temple Mount. History records the construction and destruction of the temple where Jews prayed, not once or twice, but thrice. Yet history tells us only of the second temple, and its ultimate destruction along with all symbols of Judaism. Atop Temple Mount now stand the Dome of the Rock and Al Aqsa mosque where only Muslims can pray. From the Temple Mount you can look down at the Western Wall; from the Western Wall you can look up at the glistening Dome of the Rock and the dulled silver dome of Al Aqsa mosque. The two views cross each other, but they never meet.

 On Temple Mount, Muslims exult over their conquest, and their manipulation of exclusivist and exclusionist history. If you are lost in the winding lanes of Jerusalem and if you happen to be in the Arab quarter, you should avoid asking for directions to the Temple Mount. Happy, smiling faces will turn sour. Ask for Al Aqsa and many will eagerly step forward to guide you to what was and remains Temple Mount. In the Jewish quarter, you should ask for the way to the Western Wall.

 For Muslims, Al Aqsa, once a small prayer house built by the Rashidun caliph Umar (or Omar) and which means ‘The Farthest’ —denoting the farthest mosque from Mecca — is now the third holiest site, steeped more in politics than in faith. For Jews, all that remains of their holiest site is the battle scarred Western Wall, or the ‘Wailing Wall’, where they pray and grieve over all that they have lost —in the past and the present times.

 Politically correct history appeases a few but extracts a terrible toll of many. Jerusalem, more specifically Temple Mount, proves this point as nothing else does. The Dome of the Rock stands at the same place where once stood the sanctum sanctorum of the Temple of the Jews commemorating the rock where Abraham had offered his son Isaac in sacrifice — god stayed his hand. The caliph who built the small prayer house atop Temple Mount and which later grew into a mosque and came to be known as Al Aqsa would not have known he was sowing the seed of bitter discord and a seemingly intractable dispute. Like Mir Baqi who built Babri Masjid at Ayodhya, Omar may have meant to put on display the might of Islam; the consequences that were to follow would not have necessarily bothered either of them.

 The destruction at Ayodhya, Kashi and Mathura no doubt inflicted a terrible wound on Hindu faith and belief, a wound that continues to fester hundreds of years later, but it was by no means a fatal blow. For each holy site destroyed by marauding conquerors, Hindus were able to save another from being pillaged. But what about Jews whose only holy site was the Temple Mount and where they can no longer pray?

 The Bible, which predates the Quran, mentions Jerusalem, not once but several times. The Torah revolves around Jerusalem. There is no mention of the holy land, where two of the oldest faiths were born, in the Quran, which only refers to Al Aqsa, or ‘The Farthest’, in the context of Mohammed’s midnight flight on a flying horse. Did Mohammed journey through the night to the ‘farthest’ place from Mecca? Is the Temple Mount in Jerusalem that ‘farthest’ place? Or is Al Aqsa a latter day construct meant to legitimise the forcible acquisition of Temple Mount, to deprive the Jews of their holiest site, to delegitimise their claim to land that is theirs by right?

 Comparisons tend to be odious, but the manner in which Kashmir’s Hindu past continues to be erased does come to mind while looking up at Temple Mount from the lengthening shadow of the Western Wall. To lament and to grieve no longer appear exaggerated expressions of loss. The Wailing Wall is far more appropriate a name than the Western Wall: The first reflects the reality; the latter denotes a mere archaeological detail. It’s when we rob facts of their emotional appeal, when the truth transmogrifies into a hideous monster in the laboratories of politically correct historians, when one faith is accorded a special place far above all other faiths, that hate becomes a legitimate weapon in the hands of the perpetually aggrieved whose lust for conquest by any and all means remains as un-satiated as it was when Jerusalem was sacked, again and again, and the Israelis put to the conqueror’s sword, again and again. We in India are not alien to this experience.

(The writer is a Delhi-based senior journalist)
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