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O Jerusalem!

Published : Dec 25, 2000 00:00 IST



An exhibition in New Delhi presents evidence of dubious historicity to proclaim that Jerusalem was the City of David.

IT is unfortunate that the National Museum in New Delhi has been used as a venue for Zionist propaganda in the guise of an exhibition, largely of copies whose historicity one cannot vouch for. These proclaim that Jerusalem was essentially the 'City of Da vid'. David is said to have captured this Caananite fortress in 993 B.C.

This claim is merely based on biblical lore, and there is not a scrap of evidence to show that anyone called David ever ruled the area. All that is offered is the facsimile of a recently discovered inscription in Aramaic that speaks of "the House of Davi d" from Tel Dan over a hundred kilometres away and probably dating back to Hazael, King of Aram, around the 9th century B.C. The inscription is confidently interpreted as "probably indicating his royal dynasty or Kingdom". Other archaeologists read the n ame as "Dood".

This interpretation would amount to reading into the existence of a city called Ayodhya in Thailand, or the title of 'Rama' used by the Thai Chakri dynasty, that the kings of this dynasty were the descendants of Rama, the epic hero. Such historical misno mers are too many to be recounted. It is precisely this sort of "naming" that lies behind the description of foundations of the palace of the Achaemenid King Cyrus at Pasargadae, where his tomb and inscription exist even today, as the Throne of Solomon. Or, for that matter, the confusion of epic and archaeology that led to the destruction of the Babri mosque in a futile attempt to uncover the birthplace of Rama at a pre-existing site that was originally called Saket and which came to be called Ayodhya m uch later in the medieval period.

Such popular "history" is most misleading. I remember visiting a place called Noorichamb near the Pir Panjal Pass, where I saw the outline of a Mughal balcony etched on a rock above a spring. I asked the people what it was. They told me it was the gatewa y to heaven and that when people began telling lies the gateway was closed to them - an obvious variant of the myth of Adam and Eve in the Bible. A reading of a translation of the Tuzuk-I-Jehangiri told one a very different story. Noor Jehan used to bathe in the spring and the Emperor ordered a balcony to be carved above the spring so that he could look at her. But he died immediately afterwards at Chingas Sarai, where his innards were buried. The body was carried to Lahore in order to avoid a wa r of succession. So the balcony was never completed. His grave too has suffered the same mythical transformation. It was full of votive threads and the Emperor had become a nameless saint who helped childless couples bear children!

The reality of Jerusalem appears to be not quite in keeping with the David myth. It is related much more concretely to the presence of water - that is, the Gihon spring. It is here that we get the remains of two houses with "exceptionally thick walls", d ating back to 3500 B.C.-2500 B.C., very much the core of settlements that were to develop on either side of these over two millennia. If the city were to be called anything, it spurred "the city of the spring". Its fortifications too predate the building of the 'first Temple' and date back to 1800 B.C.-1700 B.C. Also, it would appear that Akkadian was the imperial language at the time, for the finds at El Amarna have letters on six clay tablets written by King Abdi-Hepa of Jerusalem to the Egyptian Phar aoh Amenhotep III and Akhenaten, whose monotheistic tendencies are well-known. Between 1400 B.C. and 1200 B.C. extensive building activity took place. This was followed by the construction of public buildings in the 10th century B.C. These buildings, one imagines from the box-like extensions around natural rock foundations built some 300 years earlier, must have predated the so-called City of David, whose proof of existence seems to be based entirely on literary imagination rather than archaeological fa cts.

AN interesting find of this period is the fragments of a cultic stand showing an individual, either with long hair or with a turban, being held by another. It possibly depicts human sacrifice, a practice whose end seems to have been implied by the biblic al story of Abraham not sacrificing Isaac, at the command of God, and replacing him with a ram. In India, there is the recent example of a movement led by Swami Manmathan to end animal sacrifice in the temples of the Garhwal hills.

It would also be interesting to see the legend in a tribal perspective. In the earliest period, male members of conquered tribes were sacrificed while the women were integrated into the conquering tribe. The story of Isaac, whose elder brother Ishmael is said to be the ancestor of the Arabs, may well represent the integration of a captive as a cadet in the tribal lineage. We have many examples of such integration in tribes with the segmentary lineage system. Obviously, the job of going forth and multipl ying had non-biological components too.

Jerusalem was not just the City of David, but of a host of other people: the Caananites (both Aramites and Jebusites) and Palestinian Jews, Christians and Muslims, Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Parthians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantine Christia ns, Turks, European crusaders, the British, and even settlers from post-War Europe. Would it be proper for serious archaeologists to call this mosaic The City of David when it is also the City of Christ and of the Dome of the Rock?

A far more interesting presentation would have been an analysis of the seals and the evolution of the written word. In that case, we would have been confronted with a cultural interface between all the ancient cultures, from Egypt to Mohenjo Daro, Harapp a and Lothal (an important source of Afghan Lapis Lazuli at the time). There is a resemblance of symbols - like the union of Upper and Lower Egypt being a variant of the universal image of male and female uniting; or the coupling of snakes, which has unf ortunately been described as a "coiled cord design"; or the "chakra" (as in the seal of Elishama, son of Yehoab, from the burnt room of altars) which recurs often with two elongated elements and probably reflects the exchange and circulation of commoditi es. This view strengthened, as it appears in this context, on a coin of Alexander Jannaeus who reigned from 103 B.C. to 76 B.C. All these could be a more valuable way of presenting this material.

Ultimately, one is forced to ask, as Professor R. J. Zwi Werblowsky does in the Charles Strong Memorial Lecture on Jerusalem, delivered in Melbourne in 1972: "Can we, should we, in the second half of the twentieth century, make use of religious and/or se cularised symbols that easily become catchwords drawing a dubious vitality from their mythological roots? Can we engage in constructive and morally responsible politics by making ourselves prisoners of symbolisms, however venerable and hallowed? Can we b ring holiness into our personal lives and into our collective living by a mythology of holiness which all too easily degenerates into partisan sloganeering?" Perhaps these are questions museums in both India and Israel should have asked before giving thi s exhibition its glib title.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Dec 25, 2000.)



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