Imagining Jerusalem – reflections on our first workshop

Our first meeting as a network took place last month in York. We were really pleased to see our early hopes of making cross-period and interdisciplinary connections realised in some fascinating and thought-provoking conversations during the two days of the workshop, and hugely grateful to all the members who were able to make it, especially those who travelled long distances to join us.

I’ve tried to condense some themes from the workshop in the following post, but if you were at the workshop, please do comment with any further recurrent topics that you noticed. If you weren’t, we’d love to hear the ideas that you think we could explore in future.

We began the first day with 5-minute presentations from members on their interest in Jerusalem – an exercise that worked surprisingly well, with everyone keeping to time and offering some thought-provoking questions and ideas! This quick-fire conversation uncovered some interesting points of connection between different periods, geographical contexts and disciplines, and highlighted exciting new areas of research.

Kristin B. Aavitsland described her work on Scandinavian and Islamic representations of Jerusalem in the medieval and early modern periods, areas which have so far been largely neglected by scholars and on which Kristin is developing new research projects.

Kristin’s work illustrated a major theme which was to surface repeatedly. The process of imagining Jerusalem, she noted, has been implicated in the construction of group identities through the different meanings attached to the city, while competing narratives of Jerusalem have served legitimating and exclusionary purposes for both marginalised and powerful groups.

This theme of identities in conflict was evident in a number of presentations, from Kristin’s work on the 12th and 13th centuries, to the contemporary Israel-Palestine conflict. This latter topic resonated through talks by Anna Bernard, Sophia Brown, Isabelle Hesse, David Landy, and myself.

The continuity of this idea across such a broad time period was a useful reminder that the archetype of Jerusalem as the “divided city” is not a recent construction, but has a long history.

Other speakers discussed the ways in which Jerusalem is imagined, remembered or desired from a distance, and the diverse, ambivalent and occasionally contradictory ends to which these representations have been put.

Andrew Crome, Beatrice Groves, Vanita Neelakanta, Michele Campopiano and Lucy Underwood explored the meanings for Christians at different points in history of imagining Jerusalem. A common theme emerging from these talks was the ways in which “reconstructing” Jerusalem abroad can function as an affirming promise of a glorious future, or as an eschatological (apocalyptic) threat of catastrophic destruction.

For a number of speakers, these images of promise or chaos intersected with particular national hopes or perceived dangers to the integrity of the nation. Andrew, for instance, described the significance of the restoration of the Jewish people to Palestine for English Christians of the 17th to early 19th centuries, who saw this task as closely connected to the affirmation of English national identity, in spite of the fact that it was projected to lead to a millennium of Jewish rule over gentiles.

The meaning of Jerusalem as a threat was highlighted by Eivor Oftestad in the context of Danish images of Jerusalem’s destruction, and by Diego Saglia, who discussed the recurrent trope of the siege of Jerusalem in British literature of the 18th and 19th centuries. British literature of this period, Diego pointed out, has a lot more to say about Jerusalem than is encompassed in William Blake’s famous poem!

Some of our speakers discussed more unusual forms through which Jerusalem has been imagined, beyond the most obvious mediums of literature and art. Laura Slater described the many “reproductions” of Jerusalem in medieval European architecture, and Hanna Vorholt explained her research on “translations” of Jerusalem in monuments of the British Isles and the Netherlands.

The memory of Jerusalem, as Michele and Kristin highlighted, is also reaffirmed in religious rituals such as liturgical practices in which participants act out a performative connection to the city. Meanwhile, Helen Smith’s example of women’s embroideries of the holy city reminded us that religious engagements with Jerusalem span a range of scales, from the monumental to the domestic.

In many of the texts and objects discussed, the actual city of Jerusalem seemed surprisingly absent. The many symbolic uses of the city described above seem, as David Landy noted, dependent on the existence of a material place called Jerusalem, yet at the same time, the “messiness” of the real city appears to threaten the purity of Jerusalem as an ahistorical symbol and archetype.

In presentations such as David’s, the material city came to the fore in all of its messiness and complication. David described his research on tourist narratives of modern-day Jerusalem, and contrasted Jewish tours to the archaeological site of the City of David with Palestinian and activist visits to the neighbouring town of Silwan in occupied East Jerusalem. These tours and their vastly different itineraries, David noted, involve highly-loaded political contestations over the notion of authenticity, with both tour operators claiming to offer an “authentic experience” of the city.

David’s foregrounding of the question of authenticity sparked discussions about the similarities between these modern tours and much earlier visits to Jerusalem by religious pilgrims and other travellers, in which foreign visitors sought to affirm religious belief or acquire Orientalist knowledge through a material encounter with the city.

Claire Gallien described 17th and 18th century travel narratives of Jerusalem, which we explored in a longer session devoted to this topic, while Ragnhild Zorgati highlighted some underexplored and very interesting comparisons between Christian and Muslim accounts of pilgrimages to Jerusalem.

One contrast, as Ragnhild noted, was the difference between a typical Christian perspective of Jerusalem as the goal of the pilgrimage journey, and a more frequent Muslim view of Jerusalem as one point on a longer tour of holy sites.

The topic of souvenirs also sparked cross-period comparisons between the types of objects taken home by pilgrims, tourists and modern-day activists. The souvenirs themselves – whether a relic, a wood carving purporting to be from the Mount of Olives, or a keffiyeh – form part of a process of imagining the self, and it might be that the clearest sense of what Jerusalem means to visitors to the city comes from the things they take away.

One theme which seemed to haunt many papers exploring this tension between the imagined and real city was that of Jerusalem’s local inhabitants, and how they are represented in accounts of the city, if, in some cases, at all. Edward Said’s Orientalism was an inevitable touchstone here, in its now-familiar argument that the construction of knowledge about “Eastern” peoples and cultures operated as a necessary adjunct to European colonial enterprises.

Shelley Harten raised a more recent version of this issue, exploring the ways in which Israeli visual artists perceived “the Orient” and “the Arab” in Israel/Palestine over a period spanning from the early 20th century settlement of Palestine to the 1967 war. Contemporary Israel, Shelley noted, is reluctant to acknowledge the existence of Palestinians, yet at this time there was a surprising profusion of images of Arabs in Israeli art. More surprising still is that the Arab figures are depicted in everyday circumstances and certainly not stereotyped as “the enemy”.

Following on from this, we explored the equivocal role of Jerusalem in the early Zionist imagination. Was it a city too overloaded with history and ambiguous significations to be the capital of a new Jewish state? In what ways might the bold, new, modernist city of Tel Aviv, “born from the sands”, have represented a more accurate vision of a “new Jerusalem” for these early settlers?

The workshop presented so many possible points of connection and topics for future exploration that it is hard to do justice to them in a blog post. Very happily, we have a number of opportunities to meet together this year and next in order to think further about our shared interests in imagining Jerusalem. Our next meeting will be at King’s College London on 6-7 November and the Call for Papers will be available soon.

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