WHAT JERUSALEM MEANS TO ME: A CHRISTIAN ARCHAEOLOGIST’S PERSPECTIVE
By Cynthia Finlayson
*Excerpted from Saliba Sarsar, ed. What Jerusalem Means to Us: Christian Perspectives and Reflections. North Bethesda, MD: Holy Land Books/Noble Book Publishing Incorporated, 2018.
**Dr. Cynthia Finlayson is Associate Professor of Archaeology at Brigham Young University. She has extensive archaeological excavation and cultural heritage site development experience in Syria and Jordan since 1977. She is the current director of the Ad-Deir Monument and Plateau Project in Petra, Jordan and acting director of the Syro-American expeditions to both Palmyra and Apamea, Syria. At Apamea, she directed the excavation and restoration of the Great Roman Theater of Apamea, that vies with the Large Theater at Ephesus for the title of largest extant Roman theater in the world. At Palmyra, she directed excavations close to the Efqa Spring. Dr. Finlayson has also directed a U.S. State Department museum project at the Azem Palace in Damascus.
As a Near Eastern archaeologist and art historian it would be easy to discuss the importance and wonder of Jerusalem’s antiquities and cultural heritage sites. They continue to be excavated, researched, and published by modern scholars and give us insights into the lives of the many peoples and societies that have inhabited the regions of the ancient city since the Neolithic Era – historic time periods before, during, and after the establishment of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – the three great monotheistic faiths. However, as both a Christian and a person who has worked in the Near East for over thirty years, Jerusalem has come to mean so much more to me than just a scholarly research subject due to the Holy City’s spiritual and thus emotional significance to all Jews, Christians, and Muslims whose very souls and religious identities are interwoven with the existence and history of Jerusalem itself.
To me, the meaning of the name of the city, “The Place of Peace,” or, “The Abode of Peace,” reminds us all of our responsibilities as Jews, Christians, and Muslims to reclaim for this Holy City its original role as a sanctified sacred space, devoid of religious and/or political conflicts, where all those who worship Elohim/God/Allah (hereafter referred to as God) are welcome and to which all those searching for God may come. The role of the city as a sacred space was consecrated by the Prophet Abraham who was commanded to go to the land called ‘Moriah’ to demonstrate his love of God above all earthly attachments (Genesis 22: 1-2; 2 Samuel 24:18; 2 Chronicles 3:1). It was due to Abraham’s willingness to demonstrate his obedience to God (via God’s test of Abraham to sacrifice his cherished son) that this great prophet and servant of God became the father of the Covenant between the One Deity and all of Abraham’s physical and spiritual descendants. Abraham is thus the spiritual father of all monotheists, whether Jew, Christian, or Muslim, with Jerusalem/Mt. Moriah established by God as the shared sacred home for those who follow Abraham’s example in being willing to place the love of God above all earthly possessions, passions, political agendas, or polities. It is important for me to remember that the spiritual role of Mt. Moriah was established when it consisted of only a high, relatively flat rock outcropping, and that it existed as a ‘holy sacred space’ where man communed with God before the building of Jerusalem’s temples, churches, or mosques. These earthly buildings are thus superfluous with relation to the spiritual importance of the site, i.e., they did not exist and were not necessary for God’s Presence or the establishment of His Covenant with those who worship Him. So, we must ask ourselves as monotheists, is it God we venerate within the Holy City, or is it the blocks of stone organized by mere humans that are subject to earthly decay and destruction that we place on a higher throne of esteem and value than God Himself?
Significantly, before visiting Jerusalem for the first time, I had envisioned the geography of the city in a completely different way with Mt. Moriah towering over all. I was surprised to discover that the traditional site of Mt. Moriah was actually a tall bedrock rise (much like the acropolis in Athens) in the center of a ring of higher mountainous escarpments. The region of Jerusalem is thus shaped like a patera, an ancient offering dish used in both pagan and non-pagan rituals to pour libations of honey, milk, or wine to deity with the bowl having a high center surrounded by a round deep trough, and with its sides higher on the edges, much like a modern round jello-mold. Thus, at Jerusalem, from whichever direction one looks down from its higher surrounding hillsides, one can see what would become, over time, the spiritual center of the Old City, the Temple Mount, and under Islam, the Haram esh-Sharif including the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa Mosque. It was upon this sacred bedrock site, later a Canaanite/Jebusite threshing floor, that King Solomon built the first Hebrew Temple (2 Chronicles 3:1). It is significant that the site was being used as a threshing floor by the ancient Canaanites before King David’s conquest of the city. In antiquity, threshing floors often served dual purposes as ritual sites of veneration and for the pagan celebrations of fertility and rejuvenation – the planting of seeds, their harvest, and their processing symbolic of the cycle of death, life, and rejuvenation. Thus, even the pagan Canaanites may have used the site for winnowing their crops, but also venerating their deities. It was to this city that Jesus of Nazareth journeyed as both a child and adult to celebrate the Passover and teach in its streets, synagogues, and in the remodeled Hebrew Temple – an edifice that was undergoing major structural improvements under Herod the Great and his successors. Herod himself was not ethnically Jewish but was part Idumaean/Edomite on his father’s side with a Nabataean mother with links to Petra. The street stones of Roman-era Jerusalem absorbed the blood of Christ’s Passion, and its walls were the last vistas that Christ could see when raised by his Roman tormentors to die upon the cross. It was from one of Jerusalem’s cut bedrock tombs that He arose from the dead. Almost eight centuries later (after the Temple of Herod had been destroyed and the Jewish populations of the region decimated and dispersed throughout the Roman Empire and beyond by two revolts against Rome in 70 and 132 AD), the city had become a Christian pilgrimage site, but one whose many traditional holy places and relics reflected the divisions that had emerged among Christian groups concerning diverse doctrines over the nature of the Godhead. A new renewal of the Abrahamic faith in the One God emerged from Abraham’s descendants in Arabia. Significantly, it was to Jerusalem and Mt. Moriah that the Prophet Muhammad was carried by God in a night vision of the degrees of heaven that awaited the Muslim faithful. Therefore, at the advent of Islam, Muslims initially prayed facing Jerusalem before the direction of prayer was changed to Mecca and the Holy Ka‘aba, another ancient pilgrimage site also associated by Islam with the Prophets Adam and Abraham as an earlier place of worship to the One God and a sacred edifice that was cleansed of its pagan idols by the Prophet Muhammad and his cousin and son-in-law Ali ibn Abi Talib.
By the time of the conquest of Byzantine Jerusalem by Muslim forces under Abu Ubaidah ibn al-Jarrah and its surrender to Caliph Umar ibn al-Khattab in April of 637 AD, the site of the previous Hebrew Temple had become a sheep and goat pasture littered with the stones of the Temple’s previous destruction as well as animal dung. Christians in Jerusalem would not build on the ancient site due to Christ’s prophecy of the Hebrew Temple’s destruction, and instead, focused on the construction of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher as well as other traditional Christian sites in the city as well as Bethlehem and Nazareth. By this time, Jewish populations was so dispersed throughout the ancient Roman world that no Jewish Temple could be rebuilt upon this holy site and indeed, following the Jewish Revolts against Rome, Jews had been banned from living within sight of Jerusalem by provincial Roman law. It was Islam that now restored the sacredness of Mt. Moriah and re-invigorated the Abrahamic Covenant via the geometric symbolism and stunning beauty of the Dome of the Rock and the prayer halls of the al-Aqsa Mosque. Significantly, they utilized Christian Byzantine craftsmen to do so as well as recovering the remaining Hebrew-cut stones of the previous Jewish temples. Now, a new dome of religious piety shared the skies over Jerusalem with the towers of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, but the building of the Dome of the Rock also incorporated shared Byzantine Christian craftsmanship and ancient Hebrew and Phoenician finished stone ashlars within its very walls and decoration.
Ongoing pilgrimages by Jews, Christians, and Muslims to Jerusalem over the subsequent ages were not deterred by devastating wars, sieges, plagues, and famines, so strong was the spiritual magnetism of this Holy City to all three faiths. Significantly, this spiritual magnetism continues to increase and grow today. Thus, the reality of this ongoing phenomenon must be acknowledged, i.e., that the original role of the city as envisioned by God was seemingly that of a ‘sacred space’ for all the children of Abraham who wished to visit or reside within its walls. Thus, for me, the very meaning of the name of Jerusalem, begs us all to remember that Abraham was not yet a resident Jew, nor a Christian, nor a Muslim, but at the same time, he was the genesis of all three – the father of all three faiths and, more importantly, the servant and ‘Friend of God,’ and the epitome of hospitality, generosity, faith, and obedience. Jerusalem also reminds me of how far we often fall short of Abraham’s example, especially with relation to the potential of what Jerusalem’s very name calls to us strive to fulfill within her streets, i.e., ‘Peace,’ and, an ‘Abode of Peace.’
When I walk down the narrow streets and alleyways of the Old City, I am awash in the scents of the spice vendors, the leather craftsmen, the intoxicating bread odor of the small bakeries, as well as the calls of the street merchants, the diverse languages of pilgrims, and the conversations of the local residents in Arabic and Hebrew, Yiddish, Greek, Latin, Italian, Russian, Armenian, French, and English. Despite this babel of languages and cultural divisions, the city of Jerusalem symbolizes for me a home with many rooms for us all as a spiritually related family of brothers and sisters – as the spiritual descendants of Abraham. From a friend’s house in Wadi es-Sir in Jordan, I can see the lights of Jerusalem at night. Its bright lights beckon me back as the city beckons all of us back to our spiritual origins.
But, Jerusalem also challenges us. Will we make it a city of Light to be shared by all, or will it succumb to the Darkness of the Evil One who promotes selfishness, revenge, and thrives on political dissensions and chaos? This is our test today, just as Abraham was tested. Will we sacrifice the things that we worship within the Dark World on the altar to God, or will we cling to them rather than fulfill our spiritual potential as part of the covenant family of Abraham? Are we up to this test as Jews, Christians, and Muslims? The Holy City longs to fulfill its name, “The City and Abode of Peace.” How long will we make it wait, and what can I do on a daily basis to strive to be kind, hospitable, obedient to God, and lift my brothers and sisters who live within Jerusalem’s walls and in the Holy Land, whether Jewish, Christian, or Muslim, to a shared spiritual home of peace. How can I help in some small way to make Jerusalem a city of shining Light, an offering to God, a home where I can love and respect my Jewish, Christian, and Muslim brothers and sisters? This is the challenge, and this is what Jerusalem means to me.