We Wanted to Publish an Illustrated History of the Holy Land. We Couldn’t Make Everybody Happy.Historians/History
tags: Middle East, Jerusalem, religion, holy land
H. G. M. Williamson was Regius Professor of Hebrew at Oxford University. His expertise in the texts of the Old Testament is complemented by his active participation in the archaeology of the Biblical period in the Holy Land. He is the co-editor (with Robert G. Hoyland) of The Oxford Illustrated History of the Holy Land (2018).
Even in these troubled times pilgrims flock by the thousand to the Holy Land. Many have a religious motivation: they want to walk “in the footsteps of Jesus” or to see the land of the patriarchs. Often, however, despite the best spin that the tour guides put on it, what they actually see is “the land of Herod” and the buildings of the Crusaders or the Ottomans. What is more, when they consult their digital maps or guidebooks, they will not find “the Holy Land” anywhere depicted. As a political definition of turf it simply does not exist. Indeed, it occurs as a name only once in the Hebrew Bible/ Old Testament, never even once in the New Testament, and again it is extremely rare in the Qur‘an.
In devising this Illustrated Historywe were therefore guided by other than purely political—or sometimes even historical!—concerns. Rather, we wanted to outline the history of that part of the Levant that has seen the birth of two of the three great monotheistic faiths and has been of central concern to the third. This has had three particular consequences.
First, in terms of geography the boundaries we have worked with have been varied, depending on where the action relevant to the faiths was based. While the region around Jerusalem is always most prominent it was necessary usually to go further north as well, but only sometimes to include, for instance, the territory of present-day Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon, of ancient Assyria and Babylon (in modern Iraq), and even of Turkey, the heartland of the Ottoman empire.
Second, our chronology has also been determined by the goals of the book. Although some of the earliest human remains world-wide are found in the Carmel caves, and although Jericho has often been called the oldest city on earth, we in fact start with Abraham, whose name has in recent years come to be associated with the three Abrahamic faiths. And perhaps I might add here that we stop in 1918, not because that was the end of the Holy Land but because we wanted resolutely to avoid any danger of contaminating that notion with current political claims and counter-claims. We are historians, not specialists in international relations.
And thirdly, while of course the political history of the nearly three thousand years we cover is given full attention, the focus throughout is on how the land has provided the setting for the development of three great faiths. To help with this, we decided not only to include chapters on what I like to call the normal “hunks of history,” but also three on matters peculiar to religion but in one way or another shared by all of them: pilgrimage, holy places, and sacred texts. Such social/cultural matters are quite as much an element of history as kings and battles.
So at a minimum, this book should prepare people for a better understanding of what one actually sees on the ground, whether visiting in person or only as an armchair pilgrim. It is remarkable how an increased knowledge of history can enrich the appreciation of landscape and the built environment, turning what sometimes looks like a confused jumble of remains from widely differing periods into an intelligible whole. I have seen people’s appreciation of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, for instance, completely transformed once it is explained to them why things are as they are and how they developed from very different-looking beginnings.
There is a deeper matter, however, which is of interest, if not challenge, for all whose knowledge of the history of this region is derived primarily from the sacred texts of one of the religions or another. Proper historical narratives are the result of painstaking research which combine information from a variety of sources, and in some cases these were not available to writers long ago or even, from time to time, quite recently. To mention just the most obvious of these, it is only really in the past century that we have discovered and deciphered many of the records from the nations of antiquity who impacted the Holy Land: Assyrians, Babylonians, Arameans, Egyptians, Persians, and so on. These obviously often fill out the picture presented in familiar sources (such as the Bible in antiquity) and help us to realize that both sides had their axes to grind in ways that historians have to take into account.
Again, archaeology has refined and developed its techniques in transformative ways so that excavation is no longer just a treasure hunt but a vital tool for filling in the longer term trends in agriculture, domestic as well as public architecture, and other such cultural stages in the way of life which determines much of the path along which history evolves. This is all obviously to be welcomed.
These newer data can also challenge deeply-held positions that are based only on an inherited knowledge of the story. Naturally each author in this volume has to present the data with all the clarity that she or he can muster, and we are aware that sometimes people will find this disturbing. The authors of each chapter were therefore specifically asked not to alienate the reader but rather to lead him or her gently through the evidence that cannot be ignored by anyone wanting to maintain their intellectual integrity.
As editors we concluded our preface by saying that “we do not believe that the results of modern historical research are in any way incompatible with the continuing use of the Bible as scripture.” We also added that our hope is that “through such understanding appreciation of what each of the faiths had to offer may be deepened without the hostile fragmentation which has characterized much of the history we trace here and which still, sadly, is prevalent in the modern world.”
As is often said in the present climate, the Holy Land sometimes sounds like a contradiction in terms. It is up to each reader to work through how their faith or their cynicism will take these points on board, but of one thing we are certain: it cannot be done by refusing to face up to the history which is here outlined by expert scholars on the basis of the best knowledge currently available to us.