Book review: ‘Jerusalem, Jerusalem: How the Ancient City Ignited Our Modern World,’ by James Carroll

Special to the Los Angeles Times

Jerusalem, Jerusalem

How the Ancient City Ignited Our Modern World

James Carroll

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: 418 pp., $28

James Carroll’s latest book is very ambitious. Invoking history, anthropology, social psychology, geography and theology, the author, a former Catholic priest, delves into the stories of the violence unleashed by the organized religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam throughout their existence. He anchors the book by describing how each has used the city of Jerusalem, holy to all three, as a symbol or metaphor or touchstone.

The book’s title and subtitle, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem: How the Ancient City Ignited Our Modern World,” suggest that Carroll intends to demonstrate that the tumultuous past of these religions is vital in understanding why Jerusalem and, of course, Israel and the Palestinian territories have become a hotbed of political, nationalist and religious conflict and violence. But Carroll, a newspaper columnist, prolific novelist and the author of the popular “Constantine’s Sword,” a history of 2,000 years of Christianity’s anti-Semitism, has something else in mind.

His stabs at making his study relevant to the Israeli-Palestinian impasse are few and tenuous. Instead, Carroll ends the book with his personal prescription for a new religion of tolerance and peace. This may satisfy his many loyal readers. But it may leave newer ones puzzled and disappointed.


Nevertheless, his descriptions of the religions and his interpretations, though sometimes complex, are provocative. Carroll highlights several vital turning points in the history of Jerusalem. The most important came in the year AD 70 when the Romans, in a bloody suppression of the Jews, destroyed the city and the temple that had become a venerated place of prayer and animal sacrifice. The temple, according to Carroll, “was the place where God lived … where the most sublime experience of their individual and communal lives occurred.”

For the Jews in exile, Carroll explains, the loss of the temple turned them toward a deepening contemplation of the teachings of the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament. Although Jews would say “Next Year in Jerusalem” in their rituals, the city became more and more distant. Jews believed they would return to Jerusalem “at the end of time” when God’s Messiah would come for them. In the meantime, they would find God in their study.

The early followers of Jesus had also worshiped in the temple. Its destruction, which came at about the same time that some of the Gospels were being written and Christianity was emerging as a religion, forced them as well to seek a substitute. Their solution was the deification of Jesus. In line with this, the Christians blamed the Jewish rabbis for the destruction. The Christians insisted, according to Carroll, “that it was precisely their [the rabbis’] refusal to acknowledge Jesus that caused God to wreak judgment on Jerusalem.”

This belief went a step further. “Defining itself as a religion of love, over… Judaism as a religion of law,” Carroll writes, “Christianity prepared for an ultimate betrayal of love.” The early Christians unjustly blamed the Jews rather than the Romans for the crucifixion of Jesus. This mischaracterization of recent history brought on two millenniums of anti-Semitism.

A second turning point came in AD 638, six years after the death of the prophet Muhammad, the founder of Islam. The caliph Umar ibn al-Khattab, the second successor to Muhammad, captured Jerusalem from the Christians that year. Although Muslims believed that Gabriel had led Muhammad to heaven from the stone on which the temple once stood, Jerusalem did not occupy the most exalted place in Islamic cosmology. Mecca, where Muhammad was born, was the holiest city of Islam, and Baghdad, Damascus and Cordoba soon became larger and more developed cities than Jerusalem.

Islamic rule of Jerusalem eventually led to a feverish desire among European Christians to rid the holy city of its infidels. This fever set off centuries of bloody crusades, and the crusaders marched into the Middle East with utter contempt for the Muslims, even though the Islamic cities there and in North Africa and southern Spain were far more populous, learned, artistic and sophisticated than any Christian city in Europe. Except for part of the 12th century when the Knights Templar held Jerusalem, the city remained in Muslim hands until 1917, another turning point.


Jerusalem, like most of the Middle East, was under the rule of the Ottoman Turkish empire when British forces occupied it in 1917 during World War I. Turkey, which had chosen the wrong side, lost its empire after the war, and Palestine became a British mandate of the League of Nations. This eventually led to the creation of the state of Israel after World War II.

Carroll provides some colorful description of the Zionist movement that arose at the turn of the 20th century. Theodor Herzl, the founder of Zionism, was less concerned about a sentimental return to the Holy Land than in finding a refuge for Jews from the pogroms of Russia and the anti-Semitism elsewhere in Europe. When the British offered Herzl land in Uganda in East Africa, he did not reject it at once but relayed the proposal to the Zionist Congress. Some Zionists liked the idea. After all, according to their religion, Jews had plenty of time to await the Messiah and return to Jerusalem then. “For now,” Carroll writes, “the homeland could be anywhere Torah was studied.”

In the end, sentiment prevailed, and the Zionist congress rejected Uganda in favor of a return to the biblical homeland. Yet, according to Carroll, the Zionists did not envision themselves just returning to their holy city of Jerusalem but, instead, saw themselves returning to the land of Israel as a whole. Jewish settlers did not flock to Jerusalem but, instead, made Tel Aviv on the Mediterranean coast their major metropolis.

The book brims with splendid insights. Carroll, for example, describes how the Puritans looked on America and the New World as their new Jerusalem, a fact that explains why so many towns in the United States are named Jerusalem, New Jerusalem, Zion or Salem (short for Jerusalem).

A former foreign correspondent for The Times, Meisler is the author of “When the World Calls: The Inside Story of the Peace Corps and Its First Fifty Years.”