Jerusalem’s archives: a tantalising glimpse of a lost world

The Dead Sea Scrolls: Jerusalem’s foremost bibliographic treasure (Getty)

Jerusalem: City of the Book
By Merav Mack and Benjamin Balint
Yale, 272pp, £20/$30

Is there anything new that can be said about Jerusalem, the most contested city on earth, where three religions coincide and, indeed, collide? And yet this book, by a pair of Israeli writers, does precisely that: it creates for the reader a new landscape of the mind, and it reminds us why, even though we may feel we have heard enough of the Holy City, it remains a place of marvels.

The trick, and it is certainly a clever one, is to approach Jerusalem through its archives and libraries. The results of this approach are astonishing – after all, manuscripts, scrolls and ancient codices in obscure languages are not immediately interesting. But, using material that might be as dry as dust in the hands of others, the two authors produce what is at once a cultural history, a guidebook and in many ways an elegy for a past that lives on only in archives.

Every book preserves the past of those who treasure it – this is the lesson; and that means, of course, we should all be most concerned about the parlous situation of many of Jerusalem’s libraries. So much memory is in danger of being lost, so much history teetering on the brink of extinction.

As books mean so much, and because books in Jerusalem carry in them not just communal and religious memories, but are sometimes all that remains of the people who once wrote them, they have been the objects of desire more or less since time immemorial.

Take the most famous example – the Dead Sea Scrolls. As it turns out, their content is not so very astonishing. What is remarkable is the way, thanks to their antiquity, that they prove a negative – namely that the Scriptures are not forgeries. They may be the remains of the library of the Temple; but because they were discovered in what was once Jordan, their ownership is claimed by the Palestinian Authority, despite the fact that they are clearly Hebrew texts. In addition, numerous scoundrels have tried to pass off forgeries as fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls. For even a sliver of them is somehow a title deed to a disputed past and a contested present.

The Scrolls were originally in the hands of the Syriac Patriarch, who sold them for what now seems like a song. There is a fear that if they leave their current home in Jerusalem for exhibition abroad, they may be impounded thanks to some legal challenge – or, as manuscript lovers tend to say, “kidnapped”. They remain the most precious and culturally significant manuscripts on earth. Their presence in Jerusalem is of the very greatest importance. To Israelis, Jerusalem is their one and only home.

But if Jerusalem is home to the greatest exemplars of Hebrew writing, it is host to many others as well. The authors pay great attention to texts and inscriptions in Georgian and Armenian, as well as the many types of Jewish expression, not just Ladino and Yiddish, which are mentioned more or less in passing, but also the variants of Hebrew that emerged in the Persian Empire, and in Arab lands as well.

This shows us the way so many have made Jerusalem their home, and put down roots that have truly made them Jerusalemites, while at the same time preserving the differences between the various communities. There is cultural meeting without cultural blurring. In some ways, the many libraries of Jerusalem are a sign of a possible happy future for the Holy Land.

The archives of Jerusalem also contain numerous photographs, some on glass, such as the collection of Kollel Galicia. This institution is the representative body in Jerusalem of the Jews of Galicia, a community that no longer exits. It is, in a sense, all that remains of a once flourishing culture. The photographs, dating from the 1920s and 1930s, some of which are reproduced in this book, are haunting. Truly these faces are ghosts from the past.

This tantalising glimpse of a lost world contrasts with the comically awful vision of a world that was never to be – namely the Italian plan of knocking down the earthquake-damaged Holy Sepulchre and replacing it with a hideous fascist monstrosity, the blueprints of which still exist.

The Italians, luckily, never got the chance to fulfil their dream, as they lost the War. As it was, the only Italian contribution to the fabric of the city in the late 1930s, and perhaps a marker for future benefactions, were the Carrara marble columns donated to the Al-Aqsa Mosque by Mussolini. Who knew?

This is just one of the amazing facts contained in this wonderful book, which combines the excitement of a detective quest with the joys of rummaging through a chest of jewels.