Jerusalem: City of the Book
by Merav Mack & Benjamin Balint
Yale University Press, 2019
Jerusalem: City of the Book is a new study of Jerusalem and its myriad libraries. As a sacred city to each of the three Abrahamic religions, each a people of the book, the city proves to be fertile ground to both examine the purposes and the fates of libraries and book collections. Sacred texts and political tracts jostle for supremacy in libraries small and large, visible and hidden away. The authors, Merav Mack, a historian and scholar of contemporary religion, and Benjamin Balint, a writer and translator, seek to explore and uncover libraries in the volatile and ancient city. The photographer Frederic Brenner supplements historic images with his own photographs.
My own first reaction to the volume came as I was flipping through its pages trying to get a feel for the work. On pages 42 and 43 are two black and white images, both photographed by Brenner, of the Biblia Sacra Polyglotta of 1657. On the left page is a print showing Bishop Brian Walton and on the right is the title page of the work. I have a history with this collection of six massive volumes that dates back to when I was a twelve year old boy in Bangor, Maine. This was the first time I had seen these images in a book, and I eagerly dug into the text to find out what connection these volumes had with the city and its libraries. The volumes I was familiar with were in the collection of the Bangor Theological Seminary were my father was a student and where I was to one day study myself. These books dated from an exciting time in scholarship. The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were the golden age of the antiquaries. Scholars from Petrarch on collected, described, and compared the literary remains of the ancient world. And this research was not restricted to classical antiquity. It influenced the study of the ancient and modern Near East. And, given the time period, this at first meant biblical scholarship.
Polyglot Bibles grew directly from this new scholarship. They were huge volumes that were expensive and prestigious. As their names suggest, they were printed in multiple languages and alphabets for the use of scholars and they presented immense challenges to the printers of the day. The work edited by Bishop Walton is also known as the London Bible, which should give some indication as to the political element in these undertakings as well. It is fascinating to note that the Bangor Theological Seminary had two full sets of this work with two different dedications. The first was to Cromwell and the second was inserted to Charles II on volumes sold after 1660. Politics, scholarship, and faith all are amply illustrated by the history of this Bible. The same can be said for the books and libraries of Jerusalem. The authors give only a brief nod to this work even though the book itself dedicates two full pages to reproducing images from it:
In the library of the Ecole Biblique, the heart of Jerusalem’s Dominican community, we came across a magnificent Walton polyglot Bible (shelfmark 328.13), printed in London in 1657. Each page features translations into Latin, Aramaic, Syriac, Arabic (by the tenth-century philosopher Saadia Gaon), and Samaritan, followed by each of the translations translated into Latin. The origins of this project go back two thousand years.
While the city, like Bishop Walton’s London Bible, is a polyglot place both in text and in speech, it as also a place with libraries held by many different communities. These libraries display a remarkable range of character and age:
The earliest mention of a library in Jerusalem comes in the second book of Maccabees, a volume written in Greek by diasporic Jews in the second century BCE. The book recounts the history of Jerusalem during a short period of about twenty years (175-161 BCE). But in the background it also tells the story of the return of the Jews to Jerusalem and Judea from Babylonian exile at the time of the prophets Ezra and Nehemiah (first half of the fifth century BCE). It records that Nehemiah established a library (bibliotheke in the original Greek) and collected the writings of David, letters of the kings concerning offerings, and books about the kings and prophets.
The collections in those libraries are in various states of preservation:
The Syriac library points toward a surprising reason for the secrecy that enshrouds some of Jerusalem’s libraries: shame. The Syriac collection, we could not help but notice, was in a poor state: it suffered from bookworms, mold, disintegration of pages. Brittle paper crumbled between our fingers. Several manuscripts showed signs of being hastily bound and lined with older volumes that had fallen apart. (These linings sometimes yielded up hitherto lost manuscripts.)
As the authors go on to note later in the book, Jerusalem’s librarians, who they at one point call Jerusalem’s poet-librarians, “fear both material loss and the destruction of memory, and for good reason. In this sense, a library may be a consolation in exile, a portable homeland. As the exiled Prospero wistfully says in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, 'My library / Was dukedom large enough.' A library may serve as a mark of trust in the survival of the word even as men and women perish.”
Jerusalem: City of the Book visits libraries both large and small, public, state and private, as well as hidden and famous. The collections may be celebrated or nearly unknown. In some, the keepers themselves may be ignorant of the treasures in their care. And through it all, the questions remain: what does fate have in store for these books? What does the future hold for these libraries? Jerusalem, always a precarious place, is well portrayed by the authors as they explore the books, the libraries, and the stories of the ancient city.
—Mark Richardson is the director of the Weathersfield Proctor Library in Vermont. His career includes archival work at a maritime museum and an art museum, as well as local history librarianship. A proud veteran of the U.S. Coast Guard, he now spends his time inland raising his family in a centuries-old farmhouse that resists the very idea of a level or straight surface.