SOME places have too much history. The Holy Land is surely one of them. The focus of repeated invasions, the subject of successive empires, it is a place that has more past than it can handle.
And it’s got too much geography, too. Sitting at the crossroads of competing civilisations, it has been dominated — and sometimes tyrannised — by forces to the east and west, the south and north. This means, as we all know, that this is a place with too much — and much too complex — politics. Above all, of course, the Holy Land has too much religion. It is the cradle for two of the main world faiths; the object of interest of another; and the adopted home of a fourth.
As this consistently informative new book shows, such a superabundance of factors has led to further division and multiplication. Take the tombs of holy men and women that can be found throughout the Holy Land. In Yavne, for instance, Jewish pilgrims pray at the tomb of Rabbi Gamaliel. At exactly the same tomb, however, Muslims used to honour Abu Huraya, one of Muhammad’s closest friends. On the Mount of Olives, too, Christians can visit the cave that they believe to have housed the holy hermit Pelagia. The same cave is venerated in Islamic tradition as the burial place of the female mystic Rabi’a al-Adawiyya, and, in Jewish memory, as the home of the prophetess Huldah.
Even in a single religion, such duplication is not unknown: hence, for instance, the two rival tombs in Jerusalem — one at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the other outside the walls to the north — each of which claims to have been the last resting-place of Christ.
The Oxford Illustrated History of the Holy Land is full of such remarkable details. Thirteen fact-packed chapters, each by an expert in his or her field, take us on a tour from the earliest recorded history onwards. It is a remarkable, readable, and useful achievement — one that will illuminate a thousand sermons and provide much to think about for anyone interested in the subject. Covering all that history, geography, politics, and faith, it is consistently fair-minded and assured.
Sadly, there is a chapter missing. The Holy Land in the past century is studiously avoided. Wanting to avoid being dragged into the eternal battle over Israel and Palestine, the editors understandably preferred to look to the more ancient past.
The Revd Dr William Whyte is Fellow and Tutor of St John’s College, Oxford, and Professor of Social and Architectural History in the University of Oxford.
The Oxford Illustrated History of the Holy Land
Robert G. Hoyland and H. G. M. Williamson, editors
Church Times Bookshop £27