“holycityjerusalem” is a blog related to CASRN220 Holy City: Jerusalem in Time, Space, and the Imagination, a course designed for students interested in religion, comparative politics, international relations, Middle East and/or Israel/Palestine studies, rhetoric/communications studies (city branding), as well as urban studies.

The course provides a historical overview of the transformation of a small Bronze Age  city in the ancient Southern Levant into the holy city of Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Of special interest is the development of modern Jerusalem since the middle of the 19th century, including the roles of European colonialism, Ottoman politics, and Jewish and Arab nationalism in shaping the city as it now exists.  Jerusalem’s past, present, and meanings are considered through analyses of religious and secular rhetoric.

The subject of this course is Jerusalem, one of the most ancient continuously settled cities on this globe, a city “holy” to Jews, Christians, and Muslims, a bone of contention in the national struggle between Israelis and Palestinians for sovereignty, legitimacy, and national identity, and a point of public interest and emotional value frequently invoked in international media.

It is difficult to imagine a city of greater symbolic importance or one about which more has been written from more different perspectives and over a longer period of time. No city of the ancient southern Levant has been more thoroughly excavated and yet no other city is more controversial when it comes to its history and meaning. This is so in part because several major religious traditions and communities hold major stakes in the city, both literally as land-owners and as communities attached to the city’s past and its transcendent meanings.

It is impossible to learn everything there is to know about this city in a single semester. But here is what the course will focus on, how it will proceed, and what students may expect to get out of it.

Scope: Students may expect to gain basic knowledge of Jerusalem’s past and present, its religious meanings in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and its role in the modern conflict in the Middle East.

Approach: Instead of simply “covering” the long history of this city in chronological fashion, this course aims to enable students to subject the holy city and comparable phenomena to critical analysis. In keeping with the general idea of liberal-arts education, this course attempts to model critical inquiry and draw attention to the difference between inquiry and advocacy.

Complexity of subject requires a plurality of methods: Jerusalem is a city (what is a city? how does one study cities?) with a long history (what is “history?” how can one interrogate historical narratives critically?), with different meanings for a plurality of religious traditions and with different connotations in the respective historical memory of a plurality of national and religious communities. To do justice to the complexity of the subject, we will draw on a range of disciplines and theoretical approaches. These include urban studies, “meta-history” (interrogating the “emplotment” of historical narratives), comparative religion, rhetorical analysis, and others. This “methodological promiscuity” is not untypical for the study of religion.

Religious studies=critical study of religion: However we define it, religion entails the historical memory, ritual practice, literary sources, and values, customs, and beliefs of political and linguistic communities that are internally and externally demarcated against other “proximate” communities. To make sense of religious data (including oral and written texts, visual images, architecture, rituals, customs, and ideas) we must engage in comparison and critique. This includes the critique of historical sources (we don’t simply take on trust what is written; texts need to be read critically and tested against non-textual evidence), critical analysis of verbal rhetoric (we must suspect that religious rhetoric may be subservient to political interests and aims at persuasion or manipulation) and non-verbal rhetoric (architecture and urban planning “express” or “represent” religious or political intentions), political theory (addressing questions of covenant, soverignty, authority, secularism), and comparative politics (colonialism, imperialism, nationalism), and political history/IR (e.g., formation of the modern Middle East).

Focus: The course focuses on how the city has been configured in the respective historical memory and religious/national rhetoric of Jews, Christians, and Muslims, and on how their respective attitudes toward the city play into the formation and dissemination of modern narratives, foremost among them those of British colonial rule, of Zionism and the State of Israel, and of the Palestinian national movement. In this way, the course is relevant to Middle East studies but goes beyond mere politics or mere religion, looking at the many ways these spheres intersect in the Holy City in time, space, and the imagination.

A note on how to integrate this course with your studies in Religion, IR, Politics, or COM: I encourage students to bring their specialized knowledge and training to bear on the discussions and on your research and writing for this course. Students of religion may draw on their exposure to theories of religion. Others may be able to utilize theoretical models they have acquired in political science or international relations. COM students (and others, of course) may want to explore the theory of “city branding” in thinking about this holy and conflicted city.




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