Just this week, I had to fly to Manchester sadly for a family funeral. Knock Airport didn’t suit so I flew from Dublin. It was hectic, stressful and thronging with people. I was left wondering whether travel is worth it, truly. Then I started to read ‘Nine Quarters of Jerusalem – A New Biography of the Old City’, by Matthew Teller, published by Profile Books. I was transported instantly to the city, the smells, the people and the excitement that travel brings to one’s heart. I am reminded how important it is for us to step outside of our normal world and routine in order to experience something new.
‘Nine Quarters of Jerusalem’ is a biography of the old city, the city being the main character. Teller starts with looking at ‘how maps shape our perceptions’; the power they have to tell the story the creator of the map wants to tell, and nowhere is this truer than in Jerusalem.
Maps since the 19th century only, apparently, have divided the old city into four quarters – Christian, Muslim, Armenian and Jewish – creating a narrative based on division and exclusion. Yet in truth the reality of life within the city is porous.
Christians may live in the Muslim Quarter and Muslims may live in the Jewish Quarter. The landmark Haram al-Sharif is not even included in the four quarters and is shown on maps as a separate rectangular area. Although a holy place for Muslims (housing the golden-domed Al-Aqsa Mosque) and Jewish (place of the Temple Mount), people have for centuries lived within the Haram.
Interestingly, nearly all the maps of Jerusalem were created by outsiders. In medieval times particularly, they were often drawn up after travel to represent how an individual or community conceived of the place. Jerusalem was the centre of the world, the ‘axis mundi’, the place of perfection, where heaven and earth connect, and to this day it is believed to be the centre that affects the whole world. For some belief systems the ‘End of Days’ will be served here.
There are layers of sacred space in this city, and Teller, as he wanders through them, reveals them to us chapter by chapter. He tells us of the impact a town planner from a village named Campden in north of England had on restoring the walls of the city. Every second chapter is about one of eight gates of the city (there are nine gates, but one is closed up), the history of the peoples that lived there, how the gates came to be and what happens inside and outside of those gates.
On his travels, Teller was asked what he thought of the city, a very difficult question to answer without causing offence. His reply seemed acceptable when he said, “The city looks different depending on which gate you walk through.”
I particularly loved the chapter on the Stations of the Cross, which describes the route pilgrims walk to emulate the path Jesus took to Calgary on the day he was crucified. It started as a continuous walk, but now the pilgrims stop off to memorialise events described in the Gospels. Teller intersperses this with stories of the people who live along this route and the joy to be found in a busy street. We hear the story of a blind man called Aladdin and Aladdin Street. He was Mamluk from a tribe of slave soldiers who seized control of Egypt, Syria and Jerusalem, ruling peacefully post the crusader period, from 1220 to 1517, creating a city of stability and spirituality.
Teller’s book brings Jerusalem alive with the stories of all the occupants, past and present. He tells us the big stories and the small stories of the people who made and still make Jerusalem what it is. I cannot wait to visit (soon I hope), and I will be taking ‘Nine Quarters of Jerusalem’ with me for sure.
Bríd Conroy and her husband Neil Paul run Tertulia – A Bookshop Like No Other at The Quay, Westport.