Hopes and fears of all the years

The little town of Bethlehem has been irrevocably linked with Western visions of the Holy Land, but Nicholas Blincoe shows there is much more to its history

Books
Inside the airlock: A pre-1914 Christian family in Bethlehem under the Ottomans (G. Eric and Edith Matson Photograph Collection, Library of Congress)

I once met a carpenter who had been born in Bethlehem and lived in Galilee. He did seem a little apologetic about his lack of miracles and inability to come up with catchy parables.

In the Western mind, Bethlehem is irreversibly linked with Christ and our vision of the Holy Land. Mangers. Magi. The Life of Brian. But of course, there’s much more. Bethlehem: Biography of a Town, by Nicholas Blincoe, is a cross between an informal guide book and a history.

Blincoe is best known as a novelist, so you would expect his work to contain some souped-up rhetoric superior to the work of the average historian or hack. He opens with a story of how he took a Christmas pudding to Bethlehem one December as a gift. He manages to extend a witty conceit out of the suet cannonball for 18 pages, taking in East-West relations, Derrida, Jewish mysticism and history (“time literally hinges on Bethlehem, as we count forwards and backwards from Christ’s birth”). It’s a performance that would have had the metaphysical poets standing to applaud.

If it’s hard to unpick the political and economic morass  that is present-day Israel and the West Bank, it’s comforting to know that complexity has always been standard in the region. Almost a suburb of Jerusalem, Bethlehem has attracted attention because of its powerful neighbor (Bethlehem controls Jerusalem’s water supply, so invaders go for it first) and has been caught up in the relentless battles over commerce and ideology in the region.

Married to a Bethlehem native, Blincoe includes a number of personal anecdotes in his chronicle, ranging from his hanging around the British Museum (an unavoidable destination if you’re investigating the ancient past of the Middle East) to his enjoying an ice-cream in the Popemobile.

Blincoe doesn’t stint. He goes all the way back to the geology and the creation of the Jordan Rift valley, some 23 million years ago. There’s a bit of a gap until the next substantial item, the famous Ain Sakhri calcite figurine, some 11,000 years old, that was discovered in a cave near Bethlehem. It depicts two entwined bodies and is possibly the oldest representation of sexual intercourse (or a wrestling trophy).

The role of Bethlehem as a sort of “air-lock” is something Blincoe underlines. It’s a point of contact with the big city, an entry-point for traders and the desert people, or the doorway to the baking voids for those early Christians who had a mania for emulating Christ’s experience in the wilderness.

The word hermit comes from the Greek for desert, and one of the most successful former hermits was St Jerome, who ended up in residence in Bethlehem. Blincoe is very amusing on St Jerome, a relentless self-publicist, dietician and guru to many rich Roman widows. New Age scamming started a long time ago.

Visiting a gloomy underground chapel that was supposed to be St Jerome’s study, Blincoe is put in mind of Dürer’s  celebrated print showing the saint hunched under his labours: “It was something of a disappointment to learn that his actual study was a bright, upper-storey room with a view over the desert. Of course it bloody was.”

Summing up history in a pithy way is one of the book’s charms. Jerusalem and Mount Zion weren’t always the centre of the Jewish world. The Crusades? The first crusade was essentially a land grab by some itchy European warlords.

I never knew about the Arab contribution to the Catholic Church: a run of Syrian Popes. “Much like the Cubans of Miami, who tirelessly campaign against the island’s communists, the Arab exiles coloured the Church’s attitude toward Islam.”  A dispute in the Church of the Nativity between the Franciscans and the Orthodox monks was one of the causes of the Crimean War.

You sense that Blincoe is straining to be balanced as we get to the modern era, but unsurprisingly, as someone close to Palestinians, he leans a little to their side. I doubt many non-Palestinians (or even Palestinians) would go along with Blincoe’s characterisation of Yasser Arafat as “one of the most interesting and dynamic political leaders of the 20th century” (assuming he’s using “interesting” in the traditionally complimentary sense).  Blincoe argues that Arafat has been unfairly scapegoated for the failure of the Camp David talks in 2000 by Barak and Clinton. That’s one for academics to chew over.

Blincoe uses the trendy term “elitist” a number of times, as in “the people may share the anti-elitism of all Palestinians”. This is a lapse for a talented writer. “Elitist”, like “populist”, doesn’t  mean anything but a vague, general disapproval.

The temple in Jerusalem created a thriving publishing industry because the skins of the many sacrificial animals were turned into vellum, and thus helped to promote the dissemination and status of scripture. Reflecting on this, Blincoe observes a parallel later, that, because of technology and education, “the Victorian publishing industry gave birth to the modern novel”. I’m puzzled. I suppose it depends how you define “modern”, but Jane Austen died 20 years before Victoria got to the throne.

Bethlehem: Biography of a Town is a thorough and entertaining account, although it will doubtless , like anything on this subject, enrage some readers.