Idea of Jerusalem
Ridley Scott's "Kingdom of Heaven" attempts to be even-handed towards the city. But it is difficult to be objective about Jerusalem.
Balian speaks eloquently to his own fighters about Jerusalem being more an idea in the head than a citadel of religion.
SIEGE OF THE CITY: Was the film politically correct? PHOTO: AP/20TH CENTURY FOX
THE wide critical interpretation of Ridley Scott's "Kingdom of Heaven" as politically correct is surprising. The film will be considered anything but by conservatives in Israel, even though the film has little to do with the Jewish faith and is all about the conflict between Christianity and Islam in the Middle Ages. The interpreters must have missed the last half hour of the film.
Towards the end, the hero, a Blacksmith-turned-Crusader called Balian, is handed the defence of Jerusalem by default. The Christians control the city but the King is dead from leprosy and his foolish generals have incurred the wrath of Saladin in Damascus. He has arrived with his virtually unconquerable army and beseiged Jerusalem. All within the walled city men, women, children, Christians, Muslims and Jews face certain death.
Balian the Thinker
But the intelligent Balian organises a brilliant military defence and earns the respect of Saladin. The leaders negotiate a ceasefire and the magnanimous Saladin guarantees safe conduct out of the city for all Christians in exchange for the surrender of Jerusalem. Balian, a thinker and not a blind believer, speaks eloquently to his own fighters about Jerusalem being more an idea in the head than a citadel of religion. By surrendering the city they do not surrender their faith; they only preserve the monuments in stone within its walls. He emphasises that the churches, mosques and temples of Jerusalam are but stone. The true kingdom of heaven, he persuades, is within us.
Later, alone in negotiation on the battlefield with Saladin, he speaks in the same vein to the great warrior. He says that if safe conduct is guaranteed to the inmates of Jerusalem, the great mosques within it which he knows stir Saladin's faith in Islam, will be preserved intact. If not, they will be destroyed, along with all the Muslims in the city, and then of what earthly or heavenly use will Jerusalem be to Saladin? Impressed by his acumen, Saladin (played superbly by Syrian actor Ghassan Massoud) agrees and wishes Balian and his people go in peace "Salaam-u-lekham" to which the French Blacksmith replies "Aleqom- salaam".
The notion that Jerusalem is holy to all three monotheistic religions of the Middle East is a statement of fact. But that idea elaborated to ideology unfettered entry for all to the great city would be disturbing to the preservers of modern Israel. The film ends with a sub-title that says "...the conflict continues...." or words to that effect.
What happens to Balian (Orlando Bloom)? He goes back to being a blacksmith in France. Later, by chance, Richard the Lion hearted passes en route to Jerusalem, and asks "where can I find Balian, defender of Jerusalem?" The weary man replies that he is just a blacksmith and if the King of England wishes to travel to Jerusalem he must go via Messina and ride until the language changes from Italian to something else as lyrical and vague as you can be in your sense of direction in the Middle Ages!
DEFENDER BY DEFAULT: Orlando Bloom as Balian.
So where did the idea of Jerusalem begin? The Israelis say that the history of Jerusalem began with its conquest by King David in 1000 B.C. However, archaeological evidence indicates that the city was inhabited from 3000 B.C. onwards and records in Pharonic Egypt use the name "Jerusalem" even before that. It is estimated that the city has been razed twice, besieged 23 times and has been subjected to several periods of terrorist attacks in the modern age, before and since the foundation of the State of Israel in 1948.
Question of control
None of the conflicts has been about wealth. All of them about control of sacred space within the walls of the city, particularly the Temple Mount as the Jews call it or Haram-al-Sharif, as the Muslims call it. It is the third most sacred site of the Islamic world because the Prophet Mohammed ascended from the rock upon it to the furthest reaches of heaven. And it is upon this same rock, according to Jewish tradition, that Abraham offered his son Issac as a sacrifice to God.
And then there was Jesus of Nazereth. The title of the film, "Kingdom of Heaven", is of course taken from Jesus's frequent references to that Kingdom in his Sermon on the Mount: "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven..." ("Gospel of Matthew"). The essence of the message is that it is not a Kingdom of space or material, which is important, but a kingdom of the mind, of the soul, of the spirit.
And as Balian very significantly says in the film, that kingdom is within us, not in Jerusalem. Yet, within the space of the city is the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus prayed and rested, Golgotha, where he was crucified and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, that great monument to his memory.
Clearly, it is more difficult to be objective about Jerusalem than it is for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle. Ridley Scott's "Kingdom of Heaven" attempts to be even handed towards the city. But the question is, can that fair mindedness ever be politically correct? When will Israel open the gates of Jerusalem, not to a seige, but to a pilgrimage?
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