City of the Book

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Merav Mack, Benjamin Balint
  • New Haven, CT: 
    Yale University Press
    , March
     272 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In their book Jerusalem: City of the Book, the authors Merav Mack and Benjamin Balint attempt to tell the history of Jerusalem through its libraries. By exploring the numerous libraries and archives of the city´s various communities and their contents, such as manuscripts, books, artifacts, or photography, the authors provide an account of the city´s textual traditions from antiquity until today. Mack and Balint aim to show how, through history, Jerusalem was shaped by those texts and how, in turn, the city and the fantasies and imagination associated with it, shaped the texts. Thus, rather than providing a systematic history of Jerusalem or cataloguing the manuscripts of its libraries, they want to show “how Jerusalem has been imagined, made legible, and shelved in libraries” (2).

In the introduction, the authors reflect upon their observation that many of Jerusalem´s libraries are not very inviting towards visitors, but hide and conceal their books. They trace this back to an esoteric understanding of knowledge which is opposed to today´s quest to make everything intelligible. Based on that, they differentiate between the concept of modern libraries, which are designed as a democratic space encouraging cultural exchange, and Jerusalem´s libraries, many of whom they would describe as “riddled with secrets and concealments” (8).

In the first chapter, the authors start their history of Jerusalem with antiquity. Taking as a point of departure the numerous manuscripts of the Psalms in various languages, which they describe as the city´s most defining and most widely shared texts, they continue with the history of the Dead Sea Scrolls and how this history was entangled with political interests. They end the chapter with an account of Roman rule and the effects it had on Jerusalem´s libraries.  

Chapter 2 deals with the Arabic Era (637-1099) and explains how the Islamic conquest “not only introduced a new corpus of books to Jerusalem [e.g. the Qur´an, the hadith, or poetry], but also shaped existing collections” (52). Starting at Mar Saba monastery, which became the center of Christian manuscript production in Arabic after its adaption as literary and religious language, they turn to the inscriptions of the Dome of the Rock and explain how the Umayyad caliphs combined text and architecture to express the supersession of Islam over Christianity. Moreover, an overview of Sufi literature written in or inspired by Jerusalem is provided in this chapter, as well as an account of the Judeo-Arabic literature of the Karaites.

In the third chapter, the authors address cultural exchange in Jerusalem in the Middle Ages and how the city served as a nexus between Middle Eastern and European cultures during this period. They describe how, in the course of the Crusades, a great variety of people speaking different languages came to Jerusalem and dealt with the influences of Frankish rule.

Chapter 4 focuses on the collections of minority religious groups which were brought to Jerusalem or produced there during the Mamluk Period, for example from Jews expelled from Spain in 1492, or the Serbian and Ethiopian Orthodox communities, and how collections in their respective languages were added to Jerusalem´s archives.

In chapter 5, the authors deal with the arrival of the colonial powers in the mid-19th century and how they brought their literature (e.g. Prussian or British literature) to Jerusalem. The authors write about the so-called Dragomans, who served as translators and interpreters between the many cultures during that time, but also describe the 19th century as the “golden age” of book plunder in Jerusalem. In chapter 6, the authors describe the arrival of people from Europe and America with their imaginations of Jerusalem profoundly shaped by Christian traditions. In this context, different communities and their archives are explored, such as the American colony and the Dominican library.

Chapter 7’s focus is on the motive of a “return” to Jerusalem in Jewish tradition. Mack and Balint describe how “[t]he Zionist project involved not only the return of exiled Jews to their ancestral homeland and language but also the ingathering of Jewish books and cultural heritage to the land of Israel” (166). The authors then turn to manuscripts labeled “Abandoned Property,” which were left behind in “abandoned” Palestinian homes and were confiscated by the State of Israel after 1948 and again after 1967. The authors describe how, in the eyes of the Palestinians, this was a politically motivated looting, aimed at the erasure of Palestinian history.

In the epilogue, the authors return to the secrecy and sacredness of Jerusalem´s libraries, as well as to the concept of esoteric knowledge mentioned in the introduction.  They end with the picture of Jerusalem as a palimpsest, which, rather than eradicating memory, appropriates and recycles earlier memories. Thus, according to the authors, Jerusalem can be understood as a conversation between writers of many centuries, which inscribed into the city layer upon layer of words.

The book offers a detailed history of Jerusalem from a new and refreshing perspective. By providing many examples of the city´s different libraries, their contents, owners, and communities with their respective histories, the authors manage to convey to the reader an impression of the huge variety of texts and artifacts which shaped Jerusalem´s history and make very clear the picture of Jerusalem as a polyglot palimpsest—a picture they want to present. However, the many examples also make it difficult, at some points, to follow the thread of the book, all the more since the authors hardly provide any “frame” to the examples, such as reasons for the choice of examples or interpretations. The huge amount of material is presented with too few commentaries, which can be traced back to the book´s very broad plan and the lack of a specific focus. Additionally, apart from some considerations in the prologue, there is not really a formulated theoretical approach and thus, also not the possibility of further interpretation. Although announced in the introduction, the authors do not really provide an answer to how the city of Jerusalem interacted with the texts and how they shaped each other. Thus, the reader has to draw the last consequence by himself.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Hannah Griese is a doctoral student in the study of Religion at the University of Munich (LMU).

Date of Review: 
February 26, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Merav Mack is Reserach Fellow in Contemporary Christianity in Jordan at the German Protestant Institute for Archaeology at Augusta Victoria. Her current research focuses on Christian minorities in the Middle East.

Benjamin Balint is Library Fellow at the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem. His previous books include Running Commentary and Kafka’s Last Trial.


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