14th August 1998
Our end will be in Jerusalem
You can’t say much in 150 words. Try it some time. Describe something, paint a verbal picture, give it beginning, middle and end, get to the point and include a brief digression, sign off with something witty or poignant – all in 150 words.
I found this out when British Airways asked me to contribute a series of 150-word travel articles to their in-flight magazine. “Anywhere weird,” they said. “Mysterious ruins, paranormal places – set our readers’ spines tingling.” And I thought, where’s weirder than Jerusalem? So I started there.
To read 150 words takes about a minute, and I spent two hours cramming what I felt about Jerusalem into that single minute. The most difficult part was censoring my feelings – there are limits to what you can say to a person sitting in a metal straw being blown through the air at 600mph. They’re probably scared enough already. And when I started to analyse my feelings about Jerusalem, I realised they were terrifying.
Because Jerusalem is the one place on Earth that can plunge us all into the pit of obliteration.
It seems to act as a focus of self-destruction, as if the blazing heat of mankind’s will to violence were shining through a magnifying glass and burning a hole in the map at the point marked Yerushalayim. Seeking an image to show the way religion and war complemented each other in the city, I wrote I had heard a man weeping for his sins at the Wailing Wall, and a woman crying out for her children after a suicide bomb ripped a bus apart. And the suicide bomb is an eternal symbol of this Eternal City. It’s the I’m-taking-you-all-with-me death.
Jerusalem is the holy city of Christians, who believe Jesus allowed himself to be put to death to wipe out sin – a kind of transcendental suicide bomb. It’s a holy Muslim city, where the Prophet Mohammed is supposed to have ascended into heaven from the Dome of the Rock. And it’s the fulcrum of Judaism – where Solomon built his Temple and the Romans tore it down. When the Emperor Julian attempted to have it rebuilt in AD 363, fireballs burst from the earth and scattered his workmen.
The Holy Crusades were fought for centuries over Jerusalem. The Six Day War was fought for it too, and paratrooper Uri Geller got himself shot in the arm. What had once been a United Nations dream, as an international community without frontiers, had degenerated into a UN nightmare, as bad as Berlin – Jerusalem was all frontiers, and everyone was drawing them in different places. So Israel settled the question, and the city became a UN sulk – even now, some countries insist Tel Aviv has to be the national capital, and accordingly send their ambassadors there.
So what if the Romans had possessed the H-bomb? Would the Jewish Revolt of AD70 have ended with the sacking of a temple? Or would Vespasian have turned the Golan Heights to dust and set the Dead Sea ablaze?
Would Richard the Lionheart, repulsed within sight of the Crusade’s holy goal, have accepted defeat if he’d had Scuds? With atomic warheads? Would he have wiped out what he could not possess – and died a holy death to achieve it?
If, if… Would King Hussein have defended his city borders with Pershing missiles? Would we have got our retaliation in first with nuclear Exocets? You know the answer, if you dare to face it.
History began in the Middle East, with the invention of writing. (Until we could write, we had no real history.) History records David captured Yerushalayim from the Canaanites around 1,000BC. It had probably been settled long before that. And it will continue – always, until the end of history, there will be a Jerusalem.
And if history is anything to go by, Jerusalem is where the end will come.
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