Jerusalem Falls: Sev­en Cen­turies of War and Peace

  • Review
By – January 2, 2023

Jerusalem is cer­tain­ly a com­mon answer to the oft-asked hypo­thet­i­cal ques­tion, If you could time-trav­el to any place, where would you go?” But Jerusalem, a city that main­tains reli­gious sig­nif­i­cance for bil­lions of peo­ple, has endured numer­ous polit­i­cal regimes across thou­sands of years. One would like­ly pre­fer to vis­it Jerusalem when it boast­ed a flour­ish­ing tem­ple or dur­ing the time of Jesus. Medieval Jerusalem, a peri­od that wit­nessed the ear­ly Islam­ic con­quests and bloody Chris­t­ian Cru­sades, would not be a pre­ferred des­ti­na­tion for most people.

John D. Hosler’s Jerusalem Falls: Sev­en Cen­turies of War and Peace is meant to serve as a cor­rec­tive to the notion that, between the sev­enth and the thir­teenth cen­turies, Jerusalem was home to pugilis­tic fanat­ics, hos­tile to reli­gious minori­ties who dwelled there­in. Vio­lence, Hosler claims, was the excep­tion rather than the rule. Jerusalem was a pre­dom­i­nant­ly plu­ral­is­tic envi­ron­ment in which reli­gious tol­er­ance among Jews, Chris­tians, and Mus­lims was the norm. He argues that medieval Jerusalem’s inter- and intra-reli­gious con­flicts are best under­stood not as the result of inter­minable reli­gious strife that moti­vat­ed repeat­ed con­quests of the city, but as the con­se­quence of local con­flicts that occurred in an envi­ron­ment of gen­er­al reli­gious harmony.

Jerusalem Falls sit­u­ates medieval Jerusalem in its his­tor­i­cal con­text, show­ing how broad­er polit­i­cal and reli­gious changes influ­enced the Holy City. As a mil­i­tary his­to­ri­an with sev­er­al works of medieval his­to­ry to his name, Hosler attends to the sub­tle diplo­mat­ic fac­tors that shaped Jerusalem. He care­ful­ly exam­ines extant his­tor­i­cal sources, attend­ing to their bias­es to deter­mine what we can rea­son­ably pre­sume to know about the past. These dis­cus­sions, some of the most engag­ing in the book, invite the read­er to exam­ine tex­tu­al evi­dence like a trained historian.

Although Hosler argues that the per­cep­tion of medieval Jerusalem as a state of per­pet­u­al war­fare is a car­i­ca­ture, his chap­ters focus on moments of polit­i­cal and mil­i­tary tran­si­tion, rather than on peri­ods of peace. This has the effect of impress­ing upon the read­er the vio­lent nature of Jerusalem’s his­to­ry, even if one accepts his the­sis that vio­lence is excep­tion­al. One occa­sion­al­ly learns about the dai­ly lives of some Jerusalemites, but these dis­cus­sions are sub­or­di­nate to the polit­i­cal and mil­i­tary narrative.

Chap­ter two, Sun­ni and Shia: The 970s and 1070s,” is rep­re­sen­ta­tive of Hosler’s approach. This chap­ter exam­ines Jerusalem dur­ing the reign of the Shia Fatimid caliphate. It dis­cuss­es attacks against the Church of the Holy Sepul­chre, Chris­t­ian bish­ops burned at the stake, and internecine Islam­ic strife — although Hosler empha­sizes that Jerusalem remained a cos­mopoli­tan city that even received pil­grims of sev­er­al faiths dur­ing this peri­od. In addi­tion to the peri­od of Fatimid rule, Jerusalem Falls recounts the dra­mat­ic his­to­ry of Jerusalem dur­ing a peri­od that includ­ed pre-Islam­ic Per­sian con­quests, Byzan­tine rule, Chris­t­ian cru­sades, and the reigns of the Mus­lim sul­tan Sal­adin and the Holy Roman Emper­or Fred­er­ick II.

Hosler sug­gests that the his­to­ry of medieval Jerusalem can instruct us today. The rough tol­er­a­tion” of reli­gious minori­ties may serve as a mod­el for nego­ti­at­ing the myr­i­ad attach­ments that adher­ents of many faiths have to the Holy City. Even though one may dis­agree with Hosler’s main the­sis, his lucid study sheds light on an oft-mis­un­der­stood peri­od in the his­to­ry of Jerusalem.

Bri­an Hill­man is an assis­tant pro­fes­sor in the Depart­ment of Phi­los­o­phy and Reli­gious Stud­ies at Tow­son University.

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