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It is impossible today to hear the word Jerusalem without thinking about the violence that is again bedeviling the Holy Land. The Palestinians do more than throw stones; and the Israelis are entitled to their own odes to lost children. Like 10-month-old Shalhevet Pass, the daughter of Jewish settlers in the mostly Palestinian city of Hebron, who died last month when a sniper put a bullet, apparently intentionally, through her head. Last week, one-year-old Ariel Yered was critically wounded in a Palestinian mortar attack on the Atzmona settlement in the Gaza Strip. Almost 400 Palestinians and 65 Israelis have died since last fall, when peace negotiations imploded over the question of Jerusalem's status.
The current agony is not atypical of the locale's holy, bloody history. Over the centuries, each of the West's great faiths has coveted the city; each alternately has controlled it, and each has constructed around it a separate sacred history. As the myths have collided, the result has been a play of extremes: physical splendor alternating with utter destruction; moments of pious exultation oscillating with the grossest carnage. Or sometimes carnage and exultation at once. "Men rode in blood up to their knees and bridle reins," wrote an 11th century Crusader fresh from a massacre of Muslims on the Temple Mount. He added, "Indeed, it was a just and splendid judgment of God."
The years from A.D. 1 to A.D. 33 happened to be a high point for the holy city. It was, says Eric Meyers, professor of Judaic studies at Duke University, "a great, great metropolitan area" and home to the lavishly restored Jewish Temple, a world-renowned wonder. It was prosperous and cosmopolitan. And it was also, unknowingly, the cradle for something else, a way of believing, of seeing, that would change the West and the rest of history. It is worth revisiting Jerusalem during this period not so much in celebration as in curiosity--to know the metropolis that shaped Jesus' last ministry and so wove itself into his great story, and to note, cautiously, the ways in which its vexations foreshadow those of Jerusalem today.
It is the Gospel of Luke that describes Jesus' childhood visit to Jerusalem. Though he had been there before--Luke says his family was visiting "as usual" for Passover--the 12-year-old from Nazareth, 60 miles to the north, must still have been agog walking south down the grand new Roman street toward the Temple's lower entrance. A stretch of that road is visible today, just below the Western Wall, majestically wide but piled high on one side with huge blocks of stone that rained from above during one of the city's many destructions.
There is a debate regarding exactly how citified the young Jesus would have been. Excavations of the city of Sepphoris, near Nazareth, reveal a bustling town, suggesting that he may have been less of a country lad than previous scholarship posited. But his native Galilee certainly had nothing to compare with this. Jerusalem was one of the biggest cities between Alexandria and Damascus, with a permanent population of some 80,000. During Passover, Succoth and Shavuoth, the great festivals during which Jews were obligated to make sacrifices at the Temple, between 100,000 and 250,000 visitors (historians differ) would stream down the long city thoroughfare.