Some Songs About Jerusalem: With a Few Explanations Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Some Songs About Jerusalem: With a Few Explanations

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Sing us one of the songs of Zion1.
- Psalm 137:3

People have been singing about cities since there were cities. Chicago's a 'toddlin' town'. New York's 'the city that never sleeps'. Nightingales sing in London's Berkeley Square, and we love Paris in the springtime. What makes songs about Jerusalem different from songs about San Francisco, or even Baghdad? It may have something to do with its history, or the fact that many, many people keep arguing about the symbolic meaning of this piece of real estate.

Singing about Jerusalem isn't just singing about where you left your heart, or where your girlfriend lives, or how cool the nightlife is. Singing about Jerusalem involves hot topics, like religion and politics. Singing about Jerusalem is fraught. It has been that way for several thousand years.

Missing Jerusalem

Jerusalem was the capital of the ancient kingdom of Judah. It was also the religious centre of a form of monotheistic worship, because it housed the Temple Mount, where prayers were recited and a massive amount of animal sacrifice and ritual barbecuing took place. In 587 BCE, the Babylonian army destroyed Jerusalem for political reasons, taking many of its people into captivity in Babylon, where they remained for decades. The Babylonians also destroyed the Temple. At that time, one of the most mysterious artefacts of Jewish worship, the Ark of the Covenant, was lost. Nobody knows for sure what happened to it, although the apocryphal Second Book of Maccabees offers a clue:

It was also in the same document that the prophet, having received an oracle, ordered that the tent and the ark should follow with him, and that he went out to the mountain where Moses had gone up and had seen the inheritance of God. Jeremiah came and found a cave-dwelling, and he brought there the tent and the ark and the altar of incense; then he sealed up the entrance. Some of those who followed him came up intending to mark the way, but could not find it. When Jeremiah learned of it, he rebuked them and declared: 'The place shall remain unknown until God gathers his people together again and shows his mercy. Then the Lord will disclose these things, and the glory of the Lord and the cloud will appear, as they were shown in the case of Moses, and as Solomon asked that the place should be specially consecrated.'
- 2 Maccabees 2: 4-8 New Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition (NRSVCE)

The loss of the Temple, the Ark, and the holy city itself were a horrible blow to the people of Judah, not to mention the shock of being force-migrated to a foreign country. This form of ethnic cleansing was common in the 6th Century BCE, but it wasn't pleasant. All of which serves as background to the psalm, or song, about the Waters of Babylon. The poem is attributed to Jeremiah, the same prophet who is credited in Second Maccabees with hiding the Ark in a cave. Jeremiah had a hard life: at one point, local authorities threw him into a pit full of mud. No wonder he was called the 'weeping prophet'. We can well imagine Jeremiah writing this song.

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.
We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof.
For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song; and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion.
How shall we sing the Lord's song in a strange land?

- Psalm 137: 1-4 Authorised Version

The poem goes on to swear eternal allegiance to Jerusalem and all it stands for, and to envision revenge upon the conquerors. 'O daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed; happy shall he be, that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us.' The song ends with the cheerful idea that someday, some other invading army will murder the Babylonian's babies, as they had no doubt murdered Judah's. It's a bitter commentary on human beings and warfare.

We don't have an original setting for this psalm, but there have been many sung versions over the centuries:

  • William Billings used Psalm 137 as the basis of his anti-British 'Lamentation Over Boston' in 1778.
  • Psalm 137 inspired Giuseppe Verdi to compose the slave chorus 'Va, pensiero' for his opera Nabucco.
  • Classical composers who have set the song include Johann Sebastian Bach, Franz Liszt, William Walton, John Taverner, and Antonin Dvorak.
  • Stephen Schwartz set a version of the text in his musical Godspell, as 'On the Willows'.
  • 'Rivers of Babylon' was a hit in the 1970s for Rastafarian reggae group The Melodians and also Boney M.
  • Leonard Cohen recorded his Psalm 137-inspired song, 'By the Rivers Dark', in 2001.
  • 'I Hung My Harp Upon the Willows' is a song by the Scottish band The Trashcan Sinatras.

1800 Years Later, Give Or Take

The good news was that the Babylonian Captivity ended in 538 BCE, when the Persians let the people of Judah return and rebuild the city and Temple. The bad news is that the Romans came in and levelled the place again in 70 CE. Again, almost everyone had to go into exile – this time, across the Mediterranean, north and west into Europe, and eastward into Asia. This kind of major movement is called a diaspora. You'd expect all the new 'missing Jerusalem' songs to be by and about homesick Jews. But oh, no. Our next big Jerusalem hit is by Walther von der Vogelweide, and it was a big hit in Germany in the 13th Century.

Nu allerrêrst lebe ich mir werde,
Sît mîn sündic ouge siht
daz here lant und ouch die erde,
der man sôvil êren giht.
ez ist geschehen, des ich ie bat,
ich bin komen an die stat,
dâ got menischlîchen trat.

Walter von der Vogelweide, Palästinalied
Now for the first time I live in a worthy manner,
As my sinful eyes behold
The noble land and earth
To which so much honour is given.
It has come to pass, that which I always prayed for,
I have arrived at the spot
Where God walked in human form.

It's a pretty jingoistic song about the Crusades, those ill-advised military adventures in which pretty much every country in Europe formed a Coalition of the Willing to go and 'take back' Jerusalem. Before you say, 'What do you mean, back?', it might be a good idea to point out a few basic historical religious facts about what had happened since the Roman sack of Jerusalem in 70 CE.

  • Christianity had become, first, the religion of the Roman Empire, and then, the official religion of almost every country in Europe. (Lithuania held out for paganism until the late 14th Century.) Christians thought Jerusalem was a very important city, because they included the books of the Hebrew Bible in their own scriptures, and because Jesus's ministry took place in and around the city. For the Christians, Jerusalem was part of the 'Holy Land', worth singing about, and possibly worth fighting for. World maps during this period usually indicate Jerusalem in the centre.

  • Islam had been founded in the 7th Century CE, becoming the third great monotheistic religion on the planet. Muslims, followers of Islam, accepted both Hebrew and Christian scriptures – although with their own interpretation of events and ideas. They also claimed many of the characters in the Hebrew Bible as ancestors. Muslims also considered Jerusalem to be a holy city and wanted to protect it from abuse by the profane. For this and other, more mundane reasons, Muslim forces took over Jerusalem in the 7th Century CE, and were still there in the 11th Century CE, when the Crusades began.

  • The head of the Christians in western Europe was the Pope, who was also a major political figure headquartered in Rome. Popes were interested in wielding power and accumulating wealth. A major territorial expansion for Christianity in the direction of Asian trade routes would certainly be desirable at this point in time. Hence all the sermons about freeing the Holy Land from all those heretical Others.

To sum up: there were a number of potential claimants to the 'Holy Land'. Which is why Walther's song continues:

Kristen, juden und die heiden
jehent, daz diz ir erbe sî.
got müez ez ze rehte scheiden
durch die sîne namen drî.
Translation:Christians, Jews, and heathens (meaning Muslims)
Claim that this is their inheritance.
God will have to make the right decision,
Through his three names.

Yes, invoking the Holy Trinity is rather stacking the deck. But it is a Christian song.

The Christians pretty much lost the Crusades, a fact they don't seem to like to dwell on. Time passed, and people kept singing about Jerusalem.

Fast-Forward Another 500 Years or So

By the late 19th Century CE, Christians, Jews, and Muslims were still claiming Jerusalem as their inheritance. By this time, the Christians had far more powerful armies. In the United States, people were developing a renewed interest in the Holy Land, but one that was more concerned with piety and tourism than bloody conquest.

In 1867, writer Mark Twain joined other Americans in a tour of the Holy Land aboard the Quaker City, and wrote about it in Innocents Abroad. Package tours of the Holy Land became even more popular after the 1880 publication of General Lew Wallace's best-seller Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. Wallace, a veteran of the US Civil War, spent several years reading every book he could find on the Holy Land and First Century CE life, just to prove to superstar atheist Robert Ingersoll that the Bible was true. Pious Americans kept Ben-Hur on their bookshelves along with their Bibles, Bible dictionaries, and copies of Josephus's Jewish Wars.

With all that Holy Land erudition floating about, and all those maps in the backs of Bibles, it is no wonder that Jerusalem crept into the musical repertoire.

Last night as I lay sleeping,
There came a dream so fair,
I stood in old Jerusalem
Beside the temple there.
I heard the children singing,
And ever as they sang
Methought the voice of angels
From heaven in answer rang…

- Stephen Adams, 'The Holy City', 1892

In keeping with the religious sentiments of the time, Jerusalem is of course pictured as a beautiful city, with no mention of mud-brick houses, rubbish and drainage issues, or any other symptom of urban blight. The plot of the song – and it has one – is very religious, and follows the gospel accounts of Jesus' life. In the first stanza, the singer dreams of children singing hosannas as they hail Jesus as king. These events are described in the gospels as happening a week before Jesus' death by crucifixion, and now commemorated in church calendars as Palm Sunday. The second stanza turns much darker, as the 'shadow of a cross arose upon a lonely hill' outside Jerusalem. The third stanza erupts in triumph, describing the city of which the earthly Jerusalem is merely a symbol: the Heavenly Jerusalem.

No need of moon or stars by night,
Or sun to shine by day;
It was the new Jerusalem
That would not pass away…

- Stephen Adams, 'The Holy City', 1892

'The Holy City' continues to be sung at Easter and other times around the world. Of course, others can sing about Jerusalem, as well, with equal dedication – and probably more practical immediacy. The Israeli anthem 'Hatikvah' can be sung at the opening of the Knesset or on a playing field, but the 1878 poem on which it is based expressed the centuries-old longing of the Jewish people to go home, even before the founding of modern Israel.

Hatikvah bat sh(e)not 'alpayim,
Lihyot ‘am chofshi b(e)’artzeinu,
Eretz-Tziyon virushalayim.

'Ha-Tikvah', Imber/Cohen
Translation:Our hope is not yet lost,
The hope 2000 years old,
To be a free nation in our land,
The land of Zion and Jerusalem.

And the Beat Goes On

If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget how to play the harp.
- Psalm 137: 5 New Living Translation

Does it matter who sings what about Jerusalem? Ask Egyptian singer Hani Shaker, who also sings about Jerusalem – and who sued the Israeli police force for using his music in a campaign to recruit Arab-Israeli citizens. Ask an American political leader.

My country’s very first settlers also saw themselves as pilgrims, sent by Providence, to build a new Promised Land. The songs and stories of the people of Israel were their anthems…
- Mike Pence before the Knesset, 22 January, 2018

In the 1990s, an Israeli psychiatrist, Dr Yair Bar El, identified a psychiatric disorder that temporarily afflicted many visitors to the Holy City. While most of those affected were considered harmless, extreme cases of Jerusalem Syndrome caused at least 470 tourists to be hospitalised between 1979 and 1993. Local residents are also known to be affected by this spontaneous psychosis, which can cause people to behave in exaggeratedly religious ways, and even to dress up like Biblical figures or try to enact supernatural events. Dr Bar El stated that Jerusalem Syndrome may be partially caused by the shock of being confronted with the earthly Jerusalem, after believing so fervently in the symbolic or heavenly city.

Chances are, somebody will be singing about it.

'The Holy City' Video

1'Zion' is a poetic name for Jerusalem.

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