Summer Session Will Take Students “On the Road” into the New and Old Jerusalem

Gary Gilbert, religious studies professor at CMC, will teach a three-week intensive course on Jerusalem (“Jerusalem the Holy City”), with a 10-day travel option to Israel, and an option to participate in an archaeological dig in Akko, Israel.

The course surveys the history of the city from the Bronze Age (second millennium BCE) to the present, focusing on the religious communities and traditions that have defined the city, the holy sites that have dominated its landscape, and the factors that have made it a source of great fascination and conflict.

In addition to the accelerated study session, students will have the opportunity to visit many sites covered in the course, including the Old City, City of David, several neighborhoods in the western and eastern parts of Jerusalem, and major cultural sites such as the Israel Museum and Yad Vashem.

Another option for students, whether or not they take the course, is to join Professor Gilbert on a four-week archaeological dig program in Akko, Israel. Two students accompanied Gilbert on this program last year, excavating a number of artifacts and gaining insight into the history and culture of the area. (Read more here.)

“I hope that students will come to know the important events and people who have shaped Jerusalem’s history, and appreciate that its history cannot be understood apart from the important contributions of religion, culture, architecture and politics,” Prof. Gilbert says. “Above all, I want my students to come away from this class with an understanding that the religious and political claims about the city cannot be reduced to a set of absolutes, such as right or wrong, true or false, good or bad. The history of Jerusalem is a complex fabric of interwoven narratives that resists such facile thinking.”

***

CMC: Is this the first time a CMC on-site study course has been offered on and “in” Jerusalem?

Gilbert: In summer 2008 Professor Jonathan Petropoulos and I led a group of 15 students on an academic travel program to Israel. The program, sponsored by the college’s Center for the Study of the Holocaust, Genocide, and Human Rights, focused on the memorialization of the Holocaust in Israeli society and issues of human rights, particularly in connection with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This experience inspired me to develop the present course, which I have now offered twice. This summer will be the first time I will be taking it “on the road.”

CMC: What is your favorite part of teaching the Jerusalem course?

Gilbert: Teaching about Jerusalem affords me the opportunity to engage with a wonderful array of materials and historical periods. In the class we read ancient religious texts, Medieval travelogues, and modern poetry; we study the art and architecture of the Jerusalem Temples, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, and the Dome of the Rock; we examine how archaeology and digging up the past contributes to claims about the city’s present; and, we explore the political ideologies and struggles that have shaped the modern city. The course approaches the subject from numerous fields of study, including religion, history of antiquity, the Middle Ages, and the Middle East, international relations, and literary analysis, and thus truly offers something of interest to everyone, regardless of one’s own academic focus.

CMC: What, if any, do you find to be the biggest misconception that students hold about Jerusalem when they first visit the city?

Gilbert: I would start with the name of the city. Jerusalem is often thought to mean “city of peace.” Not only is this a false etymology, but the history of the city has been anything but peaceful. In my experience students often bring with them many ideas about Jerusalem that they have acquired through their previous education or popular media. Very early in the course, however, they come to realize that much of what they had assumed to be true is actually more complicated, if not actually mistaken. Perhaps the biggest misconception about Jerusalem is that it is an ancient city. I know that sounds odd, and it is true that the history of Jerusalem goes back over 3,000 years, and some of the most important sites, such as Western Wall, the Dome of the Rock, or the Church of the Holy Sepulcher are each 1000 years old or more. But the Old City and surrounding historic basin comprise only two percent of the current municipality. The remaining 98 percent of the present day Jerusalem goes back no further than the middle of the 19th century.

CMC: It’s often said that people who visit Jerusalem and not always especially devout people come away transformed in some way by the experience. Have you seen that happen?

Gilbert: While some might claim that I am a bit addled, I swear it has nothing to do with the “Jerusalem Syndrome.” I have never met anyone who manifests these extreme reactions to the city, but its effects are real and well documented. Jerusalem certainly transforms people in ways that few other cities can. I am not sure why. Perhaps it is the hundreds of prophets, sages, and messiahs who have walked its streets before, or perhaps it is the way the golden Dome of the Rock shines like a beacon drawing people to its sacred precincts, or perhaps it being in the presence of intensely devout people, whether Hasidic Jews, Armenian monks, Russian pilgrims, or Muslim clerics. Whatever the reason, the type of transformation can vary. Some people come away energized and inspired to pursue peace and work for the common good; others become frustrated with a city that does not represent their ideals and values.

CMC: What is your favorite aspect of Jerusalem, be it religious, historical or cultural?

Gilbert: Certainly the Old City with its magnificent 16th century walls, profound holy sites, and lively markets top my list. As someone passionate about the ancient world, I also experience endless fascination with the numerous archaeological remains and the extensive antiquities collections in the Israel and Rockefeller Museums. Finally, Jerusalem is a city comprised of wonderful neighborhoods. I never miss the chance to take in the sights and smells of Mahane Yehuda market, sip an iced coffee on King George Street, or stroll down Emek Refaim to enjoy the houses and shops of the German Colony.

CMC: In your view, what is it that makes Jerusalem so vibrant?

Gilbert: I concur with the Israeli poet, Yehuda Amichai, who, in one of his most famous poems, taught us to recognize the importance of the people in the city. Whether they are residents or pilgrims, diplomats or tourists, religious or secular, it is the people, in all their religious, ethnic, national, linguistic and sartorial diversity, who make Jerusalem one of the great cities of the world.

CMC: Is there any lesson or cautionary warning that we can glean from the three major monotheistic faiths “co-existing” in this single small city?

Gilbert: While Judaism, Christianity and Islam disagree in many respects about Jerusalem, all three traditions locate their respective dramas of the end of time in the city. It is here that Messiah will come, the millennial kingdom will be established and the Ka’ba will enjoy its final resting place. Perhaps we might come to understand that despite the division and rancor that often characterizes our lives in the present, Jerusalem still represents the best aspirations we have for our collective future.

***

This is the third in a series of stories about CMC faculty and courses during the 2011 Summer Session. For additional information on this course, please visit Professor Gilbert’s profile page for contact information and office hours.

CMC’s 2011 Summer Session begins May 23rd and will offer both three- and six-week courses, all taught by CMC faculty. A full listing of course offerings will be available on the Summer Session Website.