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Jerusalem: City of the Book, by Merav Mack and Benjamin Balint

24 January 2020

Charles Middleburgh on a Jerusalem book for the bibliophiles

THE city of Jerusalem exerts a powerful hold on adherents to the three Abrahamic faiths: for Jews, it is the city of David and Solomon, and of the Temple; for Christians, it is the city were Jesus walked, taught, and died; for Muslims, it is the place where Muhammad ascended to heaven, and the site of two of the most important mosques in Islam.

Conventional histories of Jerusalem may focus on one of these three strands, or all of them; they will consider epic events and people who bestrode the holy stage. Jerusalem: City of the Book cuts a very different track, and a welcome one for bibliophiles and bibliomaniacs.

Bookended by a prologue and epilogue, the text is divided into seven chapters with an Introduction, “The Hidden”: “Creating a Canon: Antiquity”; “The Arabic Era: 637 to 1099”; “Medieval Mingling: 1099 to 1244”; “From Mamluk Patronage to Ottoman Occupation: The Thirteenth to the Nineteenth Century”; “Dragoman and Thieves: The Nineteenth Century”; and “Dreamers and Visionaries: Between Two Centuries”.

Each chapter’s period relates to a library or libraries, their custodians, and others who guard access to them with the zeal of an attack dog. As many manuscripts and books are associated with individual collectors, librarians, and guardians, this is also a story of the men (mostly men) who have linked their lives to these texts. Some are saints, some are scholars, and some are very shady indeed — not least in this category, one of Jerusalem’s most notorious forgers, Wilhelm Moses Shapira, who was born in Ukraine in 1830 and, after his baptism at the age of 25, travelled to Jerusalem. His life is rich in incident and anecdote, as he played fast and loose with museums and collectors, ultimately taking his own life in Rotterdam in 1884.

Mack and Balint deserve credit for their fresh approach to telling a story of Jerusalem, and it is with some regret that I must note some factual errors in the earlier parts of the book, in areas of my own expertise. They all occur on page 19, where Ezra and Nehemiah are incorrectly named prophets, a title that neither of them receives in the book that bears his name, the former being described therein as the Scribe, and the latter as Governor.

In addition, referring to the reference in 2 Maccabees to Nehemiah’s establishing a library in Jerusalem, they describe the Hasmonean Judas Maccabeus as a king. Neither in first or second Maccabees is there any suggestion that Judah was so titled. The problem with errors of this kind is that they make a reviewer wonder what other errors there may be in chapters outside his expertise. It is a great shame.

Rabbi Dr Charles Middleburgh is Dean and Director of Jewish Studies at Leo Baeck College, in London.

Jerusalem: City of the Book
Merav Mack and Benjamin Balint
Yale £20
Church Times Bookshop £18

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