Describing the book as a story drawn from real life, Balcı told Sunday’s Zaman that the project started five years ago when he and İnce arrived in Jerusalem with a team to make a documentary about Jerusalem, one of the oldest cities in the world, holy to all three Abrahamic religions. Gaining access to sacred sites, some closed to the public for the past 30 years by Israel -- such as the minarets of the al-Aqsa Mosque -- and photographing them brought lost stories to life, stories essential to the value of the heritage sites.
Hoping to restore neglected parts of Jerusalem’s history, particularly from the time of Turkish rule, Balcı believes the book will serve to bring the two nations together, as it was in years gone by, in the time of the Ottoman Empire and before.
What were you aiming for with this book about Jerusalem? Why did you pick Jerusalem instead of another city? How will the book resonate with the Turkish society and Turkish speaking communities?
Firstly, I did not specifically set out to create this book, it just came to life. I spent more than seven years in Jerusalem and during that time I was a guide for Turkish tourists in Jerusalem. Of course, being a guide required me to know a lot about Jerusalem and I subsequently became interested in its history and culture. So I decided to research Jerusalem’s history. The one thing that seemed to be left out of the history books was the fact that over the course of its 4,000-year history, Jerusalem had been ruled by Turks for nearly 1,000 years since A.D. 832 -- with the exception of 150 years during the Crusades -- until 100 years ago, when the British and then the Israelis administered the city. So before coming to Anatolia, the Seljuks first established their Turkish state in Jerusalem. However, this was not widely depicted in either Turkish history books or tourist guides, so I decided to research this gap of knowledge. I was interested in the contributions of the Turks -- the Seljuks, the Abbasids, the Ottomans, etc. -- to Jerusalem. While researching I encountered a huge treasure trove of information. I discovered that almost all of the major buildings in Jerusalem today were built during the period of Turkish rule, except for maybe Masjid Qubbat As-Sakhrah, which was constructed by the order of the Umayyads.
This book is a product of all my research, although my research is still uncompleted. I believe that it is necessary to depict the real history of Jerusalem firstly to the Turkish nation, and later to the whole world. We have gotten to know Jerusalem and Palestine as territories under occupation for years, not knowing that Jerusalem was a heritage of our fathers. We should know that we were once living there and our grandfathers died there fighting for Jerusalem. This gap in recognition resulted in a decline of support for Jerusalem and replacing it with rhetorical passion against the city.
In fact, Jerusalem is a city that has left a mark on our history. The main question is whether we view this part of our historical heritage just as it is, or through a radical, anti-establishment discourse. Unfortunately we have done the latter, and our current issues with Jerusalem are a result of opposition against the secular order in the country and not because of protection of our heritage. As a matter of fact, Jerusalem is not a religious issue, but part of our heritage. Jerusalem is not an issue of occupied territories but an issue of occupied history. It is an issue of forgotten history. It is an issue of necessity because there are traces of our history that are still alive in Jerusalem. It is an issue of necessity because a Turk going to Jerusalem should feel at home. I do believe that this book will fill in the gap of the forgotten 1,000 years of Jerusalem’s history. I hope that the reader going through the pages of the album will be made aware of the history of those lost years of Jerusalem.
During your seven years in Jerusalem, what did the stones of the city of Jerusalem teach you? What was the most powerful of these lessons?
For me Jerusalem is a city where place and time merge. Before traveling to Jerusalem I believed that the history of humanity followed a sequence independent of the physical world. However, in Jerusalem I began to understand that time is another dimension of location. The city will teach you this only if you know the language of the stones. There is an archeological park to the south of the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem which has been the site of continuous occupation due to its geostrategic position. In the past the city’s location was secure and strategically important due to its proximity to water, and therefore each time the city was razed throughout history it was not relocated but rather rebuilt. That is why you find the 25-staired remains of a city in the archeological park, but you must recognize it to understand it. An unknowing person wandering in the park would never notice it, they would see only a big pile of stones, but a well-informed person has the opportunity to see 4,000 years of history built layer upon layer in these stones. In fact, while walking on or around the stones one is following the passage from one historical period to another. The sense of time in this place relates only to Jerusalem. It may be that neither clouds nor trees reflect the passage of time, but the olive trees in the garden bear witness to 1,000 to 1,500 years of history; they remind us of the Prophet Jesus and the last three days of his life.
You say in your book that a solution that would work for the majority of both Israelis and Palestinians seems complex and that the problem would probably go on until the “Second coming of Christ.” You then say although it is difficult, one should still attempt to come up with a solution. How can this book be a hope for a solution? How can we settle the conflict from your point of view?
Any piece written about Jerusalem in Turkey typically starts off by criticizing Israel. Even if the issue deserves criticism, by starting out this way, one boxes oneself into a paradigm that appears to be reactionary. This paradigm is a colorless one that produces no solution to the problem. Although no Israeli would say that they have read a study conducted by a Turk, I publicized this book on Jewish websites when it was published. The Israelis knew that I was not searching for mistakes of the past, but rather was displaying the spectacular heritage of their history. My book tells the story of daily life of Jews, Christians, Muslims and secular people living together in peace during the period of the Ottomans.
I do believe that the album will boost readers’ hope for a solution. As a Muslim, of course I am hopeful, as Islam and Muslim prayers as a whole always reflect hope. However, if we look at the issue in terms of present conditions, the reality is that Palestinians want to regard Jerusalem as a capital of their independent state. The Jews are already controlling Jerusalem and at the moment they are in a position to announce it as their eternal capital. The situation reminds me of two men who fell in love with a lady and are constantly fighting over her. You cannot divide this lady into two -- Jerusalem cannot be divided. However, we need a miracle if we are to have a settlement, a settlement where both sides could say that this lady [Jerusalem] is mine. The fact is, she will belong to neither of them, which is why only a miracle in the form of the “Second coming of Christ” could settle this longstanding conflict.
My solution of a settlement is in the title of the book -- “Jerusalem, the Holy Capital.” I am not underlining the holiness of the city, as a matter of fact the word Jerusalem already means holiness, but I am trying say that Jerusalem is a capital of both sides. Jerusalem cannot be the eternal capital of Israel, not the prospective capital for Palestinians. Jerusalem should be for all humanity, and should be the city that all Abrahamic religions view as their capital. Even if you leave out the content of the book, the title of my book provides a resolution to the problem.
You conclude your book with the phrase, “For our part what we should do right now is to complete the Jewish traditional prayer of ‘Next year in Jerusalem’ and say amen in order to bring peace to Jerusalem.” However, as a Muslim you would most probably say amen for the favor of Muslims. In that case, how will peace and tranquility come to Jerusalem?
The traditional Jewish prayer of “Next year in Jerusalem” means to bring happiness to Jerusalem in the coming year. However, I want to say amen to the prayer of recognizing Jerusalem as a holy capital. Of course Jews pray for the welfare of their city, that they might live peacefully. No Jew prays, “Next year in Jerusalem may there be fighting,” as no Jew living in Jerusalem prays for conflict. They will of course desire peace and tranquility. Unfortunately, however, until now in the minds of most Jews there has been a presumption that it is impossible to live in peace with Arabs, Muslims or Palestinians. They believe that they will live in peace only after they are rid of Muslim Palestinians. In fact, if they rid themselves of this presumption they will live in peace.
Basically I see peace in Palestine and in Jerusalem not as a change in circumstances followed by a change in mindset but as a change in mindset reflected in changing circumstances. Yes, the reality of a history marred by continuous occupation is unpleasant. The conditions of the occupation are becoming critical, and the basis of this escalation is the paranoid belief that Israelis cannot coexist with Palestinians. The same paranoia is being reflected collaterally on the Palestinian side as well. They are also attached to the idea that “these Israelis will never treat us fairly,” and to the belief that they will never regain their territories. The current conditions, the shared history, may in fact justify the paranoia of both sides, but if the future is built on the awfulness of the present, we will construct a far more awful future. One should learn how to start from zero, and that zero point is the holy capital, the name I gave to the book.
This is not all I want to say. Many sensible people in both Israel and Palestine say that Jerusalem is a city of God and should be given to God. It is strange that people are fighting each other due to Jerusalem being a city of God. However, I remain hopeful, and that is why I call for a Jerusalem accessible to all the people of the world, where people of different religions will live in peace, and later this change will be reflected in the physical world.