Saturday, December 1, 2001
S u n d a y ,  D e c e m b e r  2,  2 0 0 1
Monday, December 3, 2001

Slaughterhouse of the Religions

Excerpts from a poignant article describing a reporter's visits to and reflections upon the religious history and religious presence in the "holy" city of Jerusalem:

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Once again Jerusalem is mourning its dead. No place in history has been the scene of such intense, brutal and cyclical violence. Our reporter, who first visited Israel 20 years ago, returned and found a city imbued with anger and sadness.

In a Jerusalem emptied by fear and war, I stood one evening, quite alone, in the vast excavated area below the Temple Mount.

Here archaeologists have dug through the successive layers of history — Ottoman, Byzantine, Crusader — back to the stones that once formed the great temple of the Jews, left where the Roman legions pulled them down and scattered them, to put up a shrine to another god.

This is the richest archaeological site in the world, where three great monotheistic religions were formed, fought over and fractured, a place that means more, to more people, than anywhere else on the globe.

But the pilgrims, students and tourists have all gone, kept away by the upsurge of Israeli-Palestinian violence and the war in Afghanistan; tense teenage Israeli soldiers with machine-guns guard the gates.

For an hour I lingered there among the ruins; the only moving thing was an emaciated cat picking its way among stones carved by a Roman stonemason 20 centuries ago. Then the call of the muezzin, summoning Muslims to prayer from the al-Aqsa mosque overhead, split the silence.

At times of violence between Muslim and Jew, the loudspeakers are turned to full volume. The call to prayer was echoed from another mosque on the Mount of Olives, and the guttural, beautiful antiphony bounced off the blistered rock.

Then the Christian bells from the Old City chimed in, as if in answer, or opposition; and a few hundred yards away, by the Western (Wailing) Wall, the last remnant of the temple, a handful of Jewish worshippers loudly murmured and rocked.

The sounds of rival worship collided and merged, enveloping the sacred city on a hill; it is a sound peculiar to Jerusalem, but it echoes to the West Bank and Gaza, to Belfast, Washington, Kandahar and Kabul.

This is where the story starts, and this is where it will probably end. To understand why men still kill in the name of God, come to Jerusalem, holy of holies, the “slaughterhouse of the religions”, in the words of Aldous Huxley, the oldest, hottest crucible of belief, holy nationalism boiled down into an area of less than one square mile. Marx thought religion an opiate; here it is closer to crack, liable to intoxicate the user into a frenzy of violence.

... the country is more divided than ever, Islamic fundamentalism and Jewish ultra-Orthodoxy are on the march, but Jerusalem’s cacophonous song of arguing religions is the same one that it has always sung, a mournful music of anger, faith and fear that shapes our world today as much as it always did.

Osama bin Laden sings it when he insists that Israel is polluted and Jerusalem desecrated by “The Infidel”; Ariel Sharon sang it when he marched on to the Dome of the Rock in September last year, touching off what Palestinians call the al-Aqsa intifada.

It is the last thing a Hamas suicide bomber sings before he detonates; some of the Israeli security forces may sing it under their breaths as they open fire; and the hijackers who brought down the World Trade Centre sang it most insistently of all: our religion is right; your religion is wrong; our Jerusalem is the holy one.

... Jerusalem is al-Quds (The Holy One) in Arabic, and Hagia Polis, the Holy City, as it appears in Saint Matthew. Jerusalem lies at the heart of negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis, with all that this means for relations between Israel and the Arab world in general.

... The Palestinians long for Jerusalem in their diaspora, just as the Jews venerated it in their own exile; leathery and brutal crusaders wept at the thought of Jerusalem, which they had never seen.

The very shape and skyline of the city tells of an unending religious war, for no place on earth has been the scene of such intense religious feeling and such brutal, cyclical violence.

... the city was conquered 37 times between its foundation and the capture of the city by Israel in 1967. In 1947, an international delegation struggled to find a candidate for governor of the projected city-state of Jerusalem who would not immediately be vetoed by every other religion; the Chinese delegate remarked that the only acceptable choice would be “a philosophical atheist with a kindness for humanity”.

The religions themselves split and fracture, forming a kaleidoscope of antagonistic sects: where once Pharisee battled Sadducee, today the Jewish community is riven between secular, Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, ultra-Orthodox and ultra-ultra; Christians from East and West, Greeks, Latins, Ethiopians, Copts, Armenians, Syrian Jacobites. Jerusalem boasts no fewer than three patriarchs and more than 30 Christian sects.

Ronald Storrs, the first British military Governor of Jerusalem and the son of an English vicar, pushed through a law requiring that all the city’s buildings must be faced with white Jerusalem stone, to give it architectural coherence.

On a sunny day the effect is blinding. By his rule, Storrs preserved the architectural form of the city, but he also provided another stark metaphor: the city forced into a uniform façade while hatred seethes behind the walls.

As I walked the streets of Jerusalem, I felt revulsion at the sheer depth of animus between and within religions, the never-suspended feeling of incipient violence, with too much belief in too narrow a compass, in a land as harsh and unforgiving as the people who lay claim to her. Zion itself comes from the word ziya, which means parched desert.

Many other visitors, at least those who come without their own religious preconception, have experienced the same sense of awe and revulsion. Huxley saw the city’s inimical peoples living in “the same brown squalor, alternately building, destroying, killing and being killed, indefinitely”.

... Herman Melville saw “stones to right and stones to left ... stony tombs; stony hills & stony hearts”. But each stone means something different, with layer upon layer of construction, physical, religious and metaphorical, attaching to the same object or place.

Slung-shot stones to bring down a Goliath or a frightened Israeli in uniform; stones to build belief from. The rock under the dome was once a pagan altar, then the Jews’ foundation stone, perhaps the altar for the great Jewish temple, and the departure point for Muhammad’s night-flight to Heaven.

Today the Dome of the Rock is closed off to tourists and non-Muslims, guarded by Israeli soldiers. ... for all its beauty, the dome is like almost every other building in Jerusalem, a religious propaganda statement in stone: one historian has described it as a “victory monument commemorating triumph over the Jewish and Christian religions”.

Jerusalem's Dome of the Rock

... the “Jerusalem sadness” settle on us, the “combined effect of the tragic desolate beauty and inhuman atmosphere” of a place “poisoned by religion”.

... Violence and madness seem so close to the surface that the simplest acts or even errors provoke carnage: in 1926 a Jewish boy kicked his football into the Muslim quarter and was killed by fanatics when he went to claim it: 133 Jews and 116 Arabs died in the bloodbath that ensued.

... From somewhere down in the ancient city, the faint and lovely tone of the muezzin wafts up again, the stony sound of the centuries, the battle cry of belief echoing across the generations.

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  • The Times [link inactive]
Best of CNN Videos (November 26 to December 2)

Pop-up windows for some of the best of recent CNN web videos (Note - CNN adds videos frequently - see their web sites for links to all of their video selections):

Israel bombing victims mourned
(2:21) CNN's Chris Burns has more on the reaction on latest acts of Mideast violence (December 2)
Airbus rudder may have caused crash
(1:09) CNN's Charles Feldman reports an Airbus jet like the one that crashed in Queens had rudder problems and had to return to Lima, Peru (December 1)
Marines gearing up
(2:13) CNN's Walter Rodgers reports U.S. Marines in Afghanistan are geared up to battle the elements as well as remaining Taliban resistance (December 1)
Pentagon day 55
(2:08) CNN's Bob Franken reports U.S. officials are saying the tough job in Afghanistan is only going to get harder in the weeks ahead (November 30)
U.S. troops move into Bagram
(3:03) CNN's Jim Clancy reports U.S. troops have taken up positions inside the Bagram Air Base north of Afghanistan's capital, Kabul (November 30)
U.S. Marines land in southern Afghanistan
(2:56) CNN's Walter Rodgers describes the Marine expedition into southern Afghanistan (November 30)
George Harrison remembered
(1:49) A look back at the life and music of George Harrison (November 30)
George Harrison dies
(5:03) Ex-Beatle George Harrison dies of cancer at the age of 58. CNN's Michael Okwu reports (November 30)
Mixed reports on Afghan fighting
(2:02) CNN's Bob Franken sorts out mixed reports on fighting in Afghanistan, including one saying Northern Alliance troops killed Taliban prisoners (November 29)
Afghans ravaged by war
(2:36) CNN's Ben Wedeman reports on people in Kabul suffering emotionally from years of war (November 29)
TV returns to Kabul
(2:56) CNN's Christiane Amanpour reports on how some residents of Kabul are getting their freedom back by watching TV (November 29)
U.S. hits compound near Kandahar
(2:36) U.S. hits compound near Kandahar
Pentagon officials said intelligence reports placed Taliban leaders inside the targeted compound. CNN's Jamie Mcintyre reports (November 28)
Former Taliban join hunt for bin Laden
(2:10) Former Taliban soldiers who joined the Northern Alliance are helping in the search for Osama bin Laden. CNN's Brent Sadler reports (November 28)
Easing tensions with art
(2:15) CNN's Mark Potter reports that the Miami airport is trying to soothe travelers' nerves by presenting a still, gentle world through children's eyes (November 27)
U.S. Marines move into position
(1:53) The Pentagon says the Marines are outside of Kandahar where they will base the hunt for Osama bin Laden. CNN's Jamie Mcintyre reports (November 27)
Terrorists trained in Jalalabad
(2:38) CNN's Brent Sadler looks at the eastern Afghanistan city of Jalalabad, where many al Qaeda training camps were once based (November 27)
Marines setting up near Kandahar
(4:58) CNN's Donna Kelley and retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Don Shepperd talk about the type support Marines will have in Afghanistan (November 26)

Kandahar's Taleban Defenders Must Surrender or Die

Excerpts from article describing the end days of the Taleban control of Kandahar:

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Kandahar’s Taleban defenders must surrender or die in an inevitable bloodbath, America’s Defence Secretary declared yesterday.

“If they don’t surrender they are going to be killed,” Donald Rumsfeld said as the battle for the Taleban’s last bastion reached what one senior US Marine positioned near the city described as its “culmination point”.

The Taleban garrison’s position appeared to be hopeless. The ancient walled city was surrounded by anti-Taleban forces and all exit routes were blocked. It was being pounded by relentless US airstrikes. Residents were fleeing in their thousands.

The Pentagon has further increased the pressure on Kandahar’s Taleban by doubling the number of combat helicopters based at the US-controlled airstrip south of the city.

Mohammed Hassan, Kandahar’s hardline Governor and close ally of Mullah Muhammad Omar, the Taleban’s supreme leader, was said to have been killed by an American bomb in a village just west of the city.

... Major James Higgins, a leader of the 1,000-strong US Marine force that has established a base at an airstrip south of Kandahar, said that he expected the city to have fallen already.

The Taleban had “a snake squeezing in on them” with “opposition forces coming from the north down, from the southeast up, and us coming potentially from where we are . . . Now it seems to be reaching a culmination point.”

... Civilians fleeing Kandahar described a rapidly emptying city veiled by an enormous dust cloud thrown up by the relentless bombardment. “In the last 24 hours five minutes haven’t gone by without us hearing bombing and the roaring of planes.” ...

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  • The Times [link inactive]

'They wanted to kill as many of us as they could'

Excerpts from article describing the experience of one of the survivors of the recent bombing attacks in Israel:

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Shimon Zion was heading for one of Jerusalem’s noisier nightspots to celebrate his 19th birthday with a group of friends when the first of the two Palestinian suicide bombers blew himself apart in the bustling Ben Yehuda pedestrian mall.

Thirty minutes later he was still not sure how many of his friends had survived. Jerusalem’s city centre, as popular as Piccadilly Circus on a Saturday night, had become an inferno where, as one dazed teenager said, “it was raining body parts”.

The carnage was as bad as any conventional battlefield. Everywhere youngsters were sobbing into mobile telephones, telling desperate relatives that they were alive.

The eldest of the ten victims was 20 years old, the youngest 14 and the rest teenagers whose favourite Saturday night pastime was hanging out on Ben Yehuda Street, or in the cafés and bars that surround it, after the end of the Sabbath.

Part of the head of one of the bombers from the radical Islamic group Hamas — themselves aged 17 and 20 — had lodged on one of the smashed buildings on either side of the street.

“These bombs were deliberately aimed at young Jews. The Arabs wanted to kill as many of us as they could. That is why they picked this place, at this time,” Shimon said, his birthday clothes crumpled and spotted with blood. ...

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  • The Times [link inactive]