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#PodcastingHistory 4: Jerusalem

Updated: Dec 2, 2020

Thank you to everyone who has been reading and sharing #PocastingHistory! For this installment I get to hand the blog over to Ali A. Olomi of Head on History. Find out how a modern political decision resulted in an episode covering the complex history of one of the world's most famous cities in this entry about his episode, "Jerusalem":

I tell my students that history is more than a recollection of the past, but a lens to analyze the present—partly to get the STEM students to buy in on the value of studying history, but also to get them to think about the discipline in a different light. The announcement by President Trump to move the US embassy to Jerusalem provided just the opportunity to demonstrate what I was talking about.

Head On History as an idea sprang from the desire to provide students with a supplement for my classes. There are currently two types of episodes: the regular season; ten episodes that follow a specific theme, and special episodes which contextual current events. As a historian of the Middle East and Islam, I was particularly interested in taking some of the classes I taught and making the material available to both students and a wider audience. The first two seasons of Head on History cover the breadth of Islamic history.

I decided the podcast on Jerusalem would need to be a special episode. I would use the move of the embassy and the subsequent controversy it caused as a starting point to open up the history of the city and the history of the relationship between Islam, Judaism, and Christianity.

I started by laying out an outline of what I wanted to cover, drawing mostly from the class I had already taught on the subject. I look my lecture notes and re-worked them into an outline of a script. This original script was organized chronologically, starting with the founding of Jerusalem and working from there towards the interaction of the three Abrahamic faiths in the city.

Because the podcast is built upon a class I’ve taught, the majority of the research has already been done when I first designed the course. But as any good teacher or historian will tell you, there’s always more tweaking to be done. That means another jaunt into the literature on the subject. With my outline in hand, I knew what I wanted to cover, but I needed to keep up to date with the latest research. The literature review opened up a new angle. Interestingly, the idea came from a work of popular history published several years ago, Karen Armstrong’s Jerusalem. She mentions very briefly in her chapter on Al Quds, that Muslims, Christians, and Jews in Jerusalem shared certain holidays. Inspiration struck: a discussion of shared festivals or pilgrimages would dovetail nicely with an episode on the shared sacred history of Jerusalem.

Karen Armstrong didn’t include a citation, nor mention which pilgrimages were shared. This required a dive into the archive—a trip to the New York Public Library to look at Muhammad al Balami’s Tarikh, which as it happens is also part of my research for my dissertation. The Tarikh is a Persian translation of Al Tabari’s original Tarikh al Rasul wa al Mulk. Balami’s translation is more than a faithful rendering; he includes annotations and additions.

I located a passage about the importance of Jonah and the tombs of prophets—prophets that appeared both in the Hebrew Bible and in the Qur’an. From there, I looked at the United Nations information on heritage sites—from physical archive to digital. I was able to locate information about the Tomb of Jonah in Iraq and how Daesh, or the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, had targeted it for demolishing. The destruction of site, ostensibly because of the very same shared sacredness I was researching, was a tragic conclusion.

Whenever I teach religious history, I understand that I am working with sensitive topics and strong feelings. The debate over Jerusalem was heated in the twitterverse, but the physical destruction of history was an important reminder of the stakes of these debates. The Tomb of Jonah with its historic pilgrimage and festivals quickly became part of the podcast episode. The direction of the podcast also changed. The original script covered the chronological history of Jerusalem and the interaction of the three Abrahamic faiths in the city, but now it was thematically shaped by the concept of shared history, shared geography, and shared sacredness. I was conscious to not erase the histories of conflict or violence or paint a romanticized vision of the past, but I did want to highlight the history of co-existence. I was upfront about this in the podcast; this would be a presentation of how Jerusalem’s sacredness was structured by history and by virtue of its shared space.

The podcast that took shape was not just a history of a city, but of the people who lived there and interacted with one another. I was less interested in what building lay where in the city and instead what people said and felt about Jerusalem and more importantly how they shared the space.

When I sat down in front of my mic with my notes in hand, the story I told was of poets who extolled the virtues of a city, of crusaders who fought for a land, and of pilgrims who worshiped side-by-side in Jerusalem.

Ali A Olomi is a historian and Ph.D candidate at the University of California, Irvine where he works on the history of the Middle East and Islam. His dissertation examines Muslim identity in the Persianate world during the fragmenting of the Abbasid Caliphate and re-structed around an imagined golden age. He is the host of Head on History. He tweets @aaolomi


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