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24 June 2021, Gateway House

Indians At Herod’s Gate: A Jerusalem Tale

This book by the former Indian Ambassador to Israel, Navtej Sarna, traces the history of a centuries-old Indian hospice, located in Jerusalem's Muslim Quarter. In May 2021, the outbreak of an armed conflict between Hamas and Israel raised tension throughout the walled city, particularly within the Muslim Quarter. This is not the first time the hospice has been caught in armed conflict due to its location. In light of these recent events, the book has become an extremely relevant piece to read.

Bombay History Fellow

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The holy city of Jerusalem has always been the most fought over city in world history, ever since King Solomon built the first Jewish Temple in 957 BCE.[1] Subsequent events, big and small, have confluenced to make Jerusalem home to the holiest of holy sites for all three Abrahamic religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam. And this convergence all takes place within a walled area of 0.9 square kilometres.

Old Jerusalem or the Walled City, is home to the Jewish Western Wall –Kotel – or the outer wall of the Second Jewish Temple [2]  in whose direction Jews the world over turn to while praying. It is the ground of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre where Jesus Christ was crucified and buried till his body’s miraculous disappearance, commemorated annually by the holy days of Good Friday and Easter. And Jerusalem is home to the Dome of the Rock[3]Haram al Sharif – the spot from where Muslims believe that their Prophet Mohammed ascended to heaven to meet God.

But at this crossroads of religion-civilization-culture-and-politics, there is an Indian narrative too. In his book Indians At Herod’s Gate: A Jerusalem Tale, author Navtej Sarna – a former Indian Ambassador to Israel (2008-2012) – uses this history of convergences and conflicts to explore the little-known story of the Indian Hospice in Old Jerusalem. What unfolds is a nuanced history of not just when this hospice for pilgrims was built but why it is located where it is – close to Herod’s Gate. This precinct is still referred to by locals as Al Hind or place of Indians.

Bringing this tangible and oral history to life is the author’s stories of some of the many Indians who once stayed, donated to and built the Hospice. The 40-day self-abnegations and meditation by the Punjabi Sufi Saint Baba Farid in a cave within the Hospice compound, sometime in the 12th century first marks this ground. His followers later bought this ground and erected a shrine dedicated to their Saint. Centuries later Indian soldiers of all denominations and faiths stayed here when deployed to the Middle East during the First World War and inter-war years.

Some of these soldiers gave back to the Hospice by building its substantial Travancore and Delhi wings. It is these additions that are responsible for the Hospice’s voluminous built space.  As a pilgrim’s rest-house, thousands of Indian worshippers for whom Jerusalem was once a bus journey away from the Hajj sites of Mecca and Medina, passed through its portals – and still do. The Indian Embassy in Tel Aviv recommends the Hospice as a place of interest for Indian tourists.

Although this book was published in 2014, soon after Ambassador Sarna’s posting  in Israel, it is relevant today in light of the outbreak of armed conflict between Hamas and Israel on 10 May. This was partly triggered by the potential eviction of local Palestinians from their homes in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood of East Jerusalem following a likely adverse judgement in a 10-year-old case by Israel’s Supreme Court.[4] Frequent clashes between Israeli police and local Palestinians during this year’s Ramadan added another dimension with tensions peaking over the route of the Jerusalem Day[5] march (9-10 May) through the Muslim Quarter of the Walled City. This route was later altered by Israeli authorities. It is significant that the Indian Hospice is located in the Muslim quarter of the walled city of Jerusalem, geographically placing it close to this disputed area and the violent clashes.

This is not the first time that the Hospice because of its location, has been in the midst of armed conflicts. The worst was during the 1967 Six Day Arab-Israel War when the current caretaker Sheikh Mohammed Munir Ansari lost his mother and sister when the Hospice became collateral damage in the aerial bombings. It is noteworthy that Sheikh Munir Ansari’s father, Sheikh Nazir Ansari, came from Saharanpur (UP) and was sent to Jerusalem by the leaders of the Khilafat Movement headquartered in Bombay (Gateway House’s Revisiting Khilafat House article), to look after the Indian Hospice. He became popularly known then as the Indian Sheikh.

What the author emphasizes is that except for this one instance when the Hospice was badly damaged due to bombings, it has otherwise always been an island of graciousness and peace, a piece of India or Al Hind that rises above the local, regional and international conflicts and, often, fragile peace that surround it. And this largely has been due to the efforts, sometimes under trying circumstances, of Sheikh Nazir Ansari and his descendants, who today continue to look after this Hospice.

Though this book is described as a travelogue, it reads like a mystery novel – a factual one, though. The reader can feel the author’s excitement with every clue he uncovers about the history of the Hospice, its Waqf properties and the Indian presence that was once so evident in the maze of lanes, by-lanes, dead-ends, courtyards and religious sites. Maulana Mohammad Ali of the Khilafat Movement is buried in the compound of the Haram al Sharif.

The story of Indians in Jerusalem is pieced together painstakingly through oral history, old maps, Sharia court documents, medieval travelogues, inputs from academics, and some serious legwork through the Old City. The end result is a kaleidoscopic overview – geopolitical, economic and cultural – that highlights the free-flow of people between the Subcontinent and the erstwhile Middle-East for almost a millennium.

The book is an enjoyable, fast-paced read but it could have benefitted from a keener proofread. The print-on-demand copy had poor production quality for the photographs – which is disappointing as there were some valuable old photographs reproduced. The small hand-drawn map of the Old City of Jerusalem requires a magnifying glass in order to decipher it. This map is key to the book, as it helps the reader get a sense of the layout of the Old City and a context of how really close the various quarters – Jewish, Armenian, Christian, Muslim – and religious sites are.

It is this jostling for space that makes the attainment of even a brokered fragile peace welcome in this holy city.

Sarna, Navtej, Indians At Herod’s Gate: A Jerusalem Tale. Rupa Publications (New Delhi), 2014.

Sifra Lentin is Bombay History Fellow, Gateway House.

This review was exclusively written for Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. You can read more exclusive content here.

For interview requests with the author, or for permission to republish, please contact outreach@gatewayhouse.in.

© Copyright 2021 Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. All rights reserved. Any unauthorized copying or reproduction is strictly prohibited.

References:

[1] The First Temple was constructed during the reign of King David’s son, Solomon, and completed in 957 BCE. King David had united the 12 Tribes of Israel and made Jerusalem his capital.

[2] The Holy City of Jerusalem (Hebrew Yerushalayim) is central to Judaism. The First (King Solomon’s) Temple and the Second Jewish Temple were built here – both believed to be destroyed on the same day (9th of the Jewish month of Av) but different years and observed by Jews as Tisha B’ Av. After the destruction of their two Temples, the Jewish Diaspora pray in synagogues but all synagogues are aligned to face towards Jerusalem, therefore effectively whether praying at home or in a synagogue Jews always face towards Jerusalem.

[3]The term “Haram al-Sharif” or “Noble Sanctuary” refers to the whole area that surrounds that Rock from which Prophet Mohammed ascended to heaven to meet God. For Muslims, the importance of the Dome of the Rock (mosque) and Al-Aqsa Mosque makes Jerusalem the third-holiest city, after Mecca and Medina.

[4] This judgement has been deferred for the moment after the outbreak of protests.

[5] Jerusalem Day is an annual holiday celebrated in Israel. It marks the day on which Jerusalem city was reunited after the 1967 War. The date of this holiday varies from year to year as it is observed as per the Jewish Calendar.

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