Jerusalem Besieged

From Ancient Canaan to Modern Israel

by Eric H. Cline

Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press, 2004, 410 pp.
$29.95 (softcover)

Reviewed by Jane M. Cahill

“… by far the most famous city of the ancient Orient.”
—Pliny the Elder
Natural History V:14

Open a newspaper in any city of the world on any day of the week and you are likely to be reminded that modern Jerusalem is a city surrounded by conflict. Read this book and you may (or, then again, may not) be surprised to learn that conflict has been a way of life in the City of Peace for more than 3,000 years! By Eric Cline’s count,

[t]here have been at least 118 separate conflicts in and for Jerusalem during the past four millennia—conflicts that ranged from local religious struggles to strategic military campaigns and that embraced everything in between. Jerusalem has been destroyed completely at least twice, besieged twenty-three times, attacked an additional fifty-two times, and captured and recaptured forty-four times. It has been the scene of twenty revolts and innumerable riots, has had at least five separate periods of violent terrorist attacks during the past century, and has only changed hands completely peacefully twice in the past four thousand years.

The book opens with a table that lists the dates, the combatants and the action or result for each of these 118 conflicts. The first conflict dates to “about 1350 B.C.E.” between Abdi-Heba, then the ruler of Jerusalem, and the Canaanites/Habiru in an action called a possible attack; the last dates to the year 2000 C.E. between the Palestinians and Israelis in an action labeled “terrorist attacks.”

The table listing the 118 conflicts is followed by ten chronological chapters, supplemented by 48 pages of notes, 34 pages of bibliography and a comprehensive index. Although “targeted for the general reader interested in the troubled history of Jerusalem,” Cline states that the book “may [also] be of interest and use to others who are more engaged and involved in the current conflicts roiling the Middle East.”

Most of Jerusalem Besieged‘s chapters are roughly equal in length, differing only in the number of years and conflicts covered. Each chapter begins with an example of how a modern leader has used—or misused—one or more of the 118 conflicts as propaganda to advance a political agenda, continues with a description of the period that places the conflict in its historical context and ends with an explanation of why the propagandistic use of that particular conflict is more myth than history. Chapter 1, for example, opens with accounts of Palestinian leaders asserting that the Palestinian population of Jerusalem traces its lineage back to the time before the city was conquered by King David; their purpose is to demonstrate that the Palestinian claim to Jerusalem predates the Israeli claim traced to King David. The chapter continues with the Bible’s account of David’s capture of Jerusalem, supplemented by a brief description of the controversy surrounding the archaeological evidence, and closes with the observation that due to the “massive waves of migration that have taken place during the past four thousand years … [and] assimilation, annihilation, and acculturation, it is highly unlikely that anyone living in the area today, whether Palestinian or Israeli, can provide a legitimate pedigree definitively extending back to any of the original inhabitants of the land.”

Cline examines numerous other examples of what he describes as “[t]he recent trend toward citing ancient conflicts and ancient history in support of modern propaganda.” These include an announcement by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein that he intended to form an army to destroy Jerusalem and exile its Jewish population just as the neo-Babylonian ruler Nebuchadnezzar II had done in 586 B.C.E., and that he intended to free Palestinian refugees to return to Jerusalem just as the Persian ruler Cyrus the Great had freed the Jewish Exiles to return to Jerusalem following Persia’s defeat of Babylonia in the late sixth century B.C.E. Cline also examines how the rebellion led by Judah the Maccabee against the Hellenistic successors of Alexander the Great in the second century B.C.E., which gave rise to the Hasmonean Kingdom, has been invoked by Zionist leaders of the late 19th and early 20th century C.E. (such as Theodor Herzl, Vladimir Jabotinsky, and Max Nordau) to show their followers that Jews could fight successfully against oppressive regimes and establish their own independent state. Next Cline explores how Arab leaders (among them, Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser, Syria’s Hafez Assad, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, Palestinian President Yasser Arafat and al-Qaeda’s Osama bin Laden) have portrayed the modern state of Israel as a new Crusader kingdom which, like the medieval Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem, is an island surrounded by hostile Arab forces that is destined to be short-lived and whose leader will soon surrender to one of them just as Balian of Ibelin surrendered the Crusader kingdom to Saladin in 1187 C.E.

If Jerusalem Besieged only introduced readers to primary sources on the major conflicts that shaped each period of the city’s history and placed Jerusalem’s conflicts in historical perspective, that alone would make it required reading for students of world history and readers of contemporary newspapers alike, because it would explain the “rest of the story” that is rarely, if ever, told by the media: Why the roots of conflict in the Middle East are not just decades, but millennia, deep. However, Cline’s goals are loftier.

Cline’s thesis is that the 118 conflicts he identifies show an ongoing religious struggle for control of Jerusalem’s holiest site, an outcropping of bedrock known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as the Haram al-Sherif (Noble Sanctuary). He aims “to put these four millennia of conflicts into context in order to begin to understand how past events may have contributed to the current political and religious strife in the region” and to present “[a] more discerning view of the past [that] might enable a clearer examination of the problems of the present and might perhaps help in the evaluation and determination of directions for the future.” Although Cline ably demonstrates that the struggle to control the site where Solomon is believed to have built a temple in the tenth century B.C.E. is a recurring theme in Jerusalem’s history, he fails to demonstrate that the struggle to control Jerusalem and its Temple Mount has always been motivated by religion, as opposed to politics and/or economics, or that it has always been the cause rather than a symptom of strife in the region. Nevertheless, Cline succeeds in demonstrating that Jerusalem’s past was as, if not more, violent than its present and that the struggle to control the interpretation of history constitutes a front line in the intellectual battle to “own” Jerusalem and its past.

Jerusalem Besieged is full of grisly descriptions of massacres, dismemberments, decapitations and hand-to-hand combat, with fighters wading knee-deep in blood, supplemented by grim accounts of starvation, thirst and possible cannibalism suffered by Jerusalem’s residents during times of siege. Despite all its graphic descriptions of mayhem and destruction, the book has surprisingly little archaeological content and its “discerning view of the past” could be, well, more discerning. Since Cline acknowledges that the number of conflicts is not precise, the (shock?) value achieved by identifying 118 separate conflicts seems to be outweighed by the burden of having to find room for each of these conflicts in the 310-page text, a burden that seems to clutter the narrative with a factual density that inevitably thwarts Cline’s ability to achieve his stated analytical aims. A similar emphasis on quantity is also evident in the notes, many of which cite multiple sources without distinguishing between authoritative and non-authoritative sources. Ultimately, however, factual density is what distinguishes this book from other works on the subject and commends it to readers.

Jerusalem Besieged is an action-packed history of western civilization told from the perspective of one of the few cities that has played a leading role in much of that history. Although, as in the movies, the narrative is just substantive enough to support the action and leave room for a sequel, it successfully demonstrates that Jerusalem has always been a crossroad between the cultures of Egypt and Africa to the south and Europe and Asia to the north. Jerusalem is where radically different cultures meet, coexist and often clash and has long been considered by many the center of the universe and is aptly commemorated in Psalm 122:6, which implores us all to “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: ‘May they who love you prosper.'”

Jane Cahill divides her time between working as an attorney for a federal judge in Houston, Texas, and serving as senior staff archaeologist for the Hebrew University’s City of David Archaeological Project.

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1 Responses

  1. Susan M. Hanson says:

    I would like to use the long quote Cahill referenced in this 01/13/2012 review. However, no page number is included. Could you give me the page number where this information was found? Thanks.

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1 Responses

  1. Susan M. Hanson says:

    I would like to use the long quote Cahill referenced in this 01/13/2012 review. However, no page number is included. Could you give me the page number where this information was found? Thanks.

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