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Desire of the Everlasting Hills

Desire of the Everlasting Hills

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Written by Thomas CahillAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Thomas Cahill

  • Format: Trade Paperback, 368 pages
  • Publisher: Anchor
  • On Sale: February 13, 2001
  • Price: $16.00
  • ISBN: 978-0-385-48372-8 (0-385-48372-4)
Also available as an unabridged audiobook download, eBook and a hardcover.
EXCERPT

History has much to do with hills. From the Hill of Zion on which King David built Jerusalem to the Athenian Acropolis, from Bunker Hill of the American Revolution to Malvern Hill of the American Civil War, from Iwo Jima's Mount Suribachi to Vietnam's Hamburger Hill, the hills of this world have been prized. Much of humanity's recorded story has taken place on their flanks and summits, and how much blood, of both conquerors and conquered, has been absorbed by their accommodating soils no one can say.

In Rome I love to climb the Janiculum, which the ancients called the "Golden Mountain" because of its yellow sand. One of the splendid natural defenses of Rome, it is a ridge that rises steeply from the west bank of the sludge-green Tiber and gives spectacular views of the great city that is spread beneath it. Like other strategic hills, it has known many battles.

It was just a century and a half ago--in 1849--that armies last clashed on its summit around the ornamental Renaissance arches of the Gate of San Pancrazio and in and out of the charming medieval buildings that lie beyond the gate and on whose walls one can still discern the work of bullets.  What the bullets did to the men who fought here has long been concealed by earth.  The winners were French troops in service to a reactionary pope, outraged that Italians would dare take up arms against him in their attempt to dissolve the Papal States and unite Italy. The losers were boys as young as fourteen, tragically outnumbered but fighting with the insane bravery of youth, inspired by their charismatic leader, Giuseppe Garibaldi, and his no less charismatic wife, Anita.  Today, each Garibaldi has a noble equestrian monument on this summit. Garibaldi with his saintly, mild demeanor, surveys the city from his lofty marble platform; superwoman Anita, cast in bronze, raises a firearm in her right hand as she suckles a baby at her left breast, all the while urging her horse forward. They lost the battle but won the war; for beneath the hoofs of Anita's advancing charger one can make out in the distance Michelangelo's bone-white dome of Saint Peter's and the lilliputian statelet of the Vatican, to which the pope's vestigial temporal power has been confined since 1870.  The dead child-soldiers have no monument in marble or bronze, just a street sign--Piazzale dei Ragazzi di 1849 (Great Square of the Boys of 1849)--but their spirits haunt the slender umbrella trees that cluster mournfully in the Villa Doria Pamphilj, the vast seventeenth-century parkland that runs beside the scene of their deaths, where dirt paths are named in their memory and the boys of contemporary Rome kick footballs and fly kites.

The Janiculum is more than a Roman hill. It speaks to Everyman, for one patch or another of its sloped ascents can serve to remind almost any traveler of his own ancestral history. At the southern end of the hill the alleys of Trastevere wind mazelike in patterns established more than two millennia ago. Until the Tiber silted up, ships sailed upriver from the Mediterranean, depositing exotic cargoes and even more exotic human specimens in the port of Trastevere. From every corner of the ancient world they came here with their strange costumes and peculiar practices, Greeks and Syrians bearing the crushed pride of the vanquished, Gauls and Britons displaying their lately acquired refinements, Oriental merchants speaking languages but dimly understood, Africans of every kind--Egyptians, Berbers, Nubians--and Jews with uncut beards, the whole babble contained within Trastevere's narrow streets whose haphazard apartment buildings, designed to cram in as many souls as possible, leaned over the filthy streets, nearly blocking out the sky. Trastevere (in those days Trans Tiberim, the Place-across-the-Tiber) was exciting and a little dangerous, as it remains today, a place where basic cravings--for food, sex, revenge can spurt unexpectedly into view.

It is instructive to select one or two of these groups of migrating visitors and see how they fared in subsequent ages.  The Jews, for instance, have now been in Rome longer than anyone else, boasting lines of descent far more ancient than any non-Jewish Italian can claim, back to the beginning of the Roman empire and earlier. The first Roman home of the Jews was Trastevere, as memorial fragments found here still testify. These have been mounted in the portico of the Basilica of Santa Maria, where you can identify the shofars and etrogs that distinguished the graves of ancient Jews, as well as the doves and ships of those Jews--a minority within a minority--who were members of a primitive Christian community, the first to be established at Rome, probably in the fourth decade of the first century.

In the Middle Ages, the community of Jews crossed the river to the huddled quarter that is still called the Ghetto; and from the slopes of the Janiculum there are fine views of the silvery Synagogue, built at the beginning of this century near the site of its several, much smaller predecessors, the four corners of its dome giving it a curiously Asian appearance and distinguishing it from all the other domes of Rome. During the Middle Ages, the Jews, protected by popes who valued their services, fared better in Italy than in other European countries, though they were subject to punitive taxes and, as early as the thirteenth century, were made to wear a yellow 0, precursor of horrors to come. Then the retrograde and, at times, paranoid papacy of the early modern period began to insist on marginalizing the Jews in new ways. Locked by night within the Ghetto by order of Paul IV in the sixteenth century, they were dragooned by subsequent popes into listening to Christian sermons and giving up all trades save moneylending, scrap metal, and rag. Forced to be objects of ridicule during carnivals and papal processions, they were periodically barred from owning land or practicing any profession (though they had once been physicians to the popes) and at last banned from any role in public life.  Their fellow Romans, however, more simpatici than popes generally are, tended to be fond of their Jewish neighbors and to count them as friends and fellow citizens. It is, therefore, considered a terrible blot on the Roman character that the Nazis were able, during their occupation of the city, to round up the Jews of Rome en masse and deport them to Auschwitz on the fateful 16 ottobre 1943, a date most Romans have committed to memory and which occurred less than a hundred years after Garibaldi's Battalion of Hope had, by its youthful deaths on the Janiculum, won belated freedom and civil rights for all the citizens of Rome.

Shades of my own ancestors haunt the prospect from the Janiculum. Looking out across the valley in the hour before dawn, I can imagine there appearing on the northeast horizon bands of naked, mustachioed Celts, the locks of their lime-washed hair standing up on their heads, an "immense host, covering miles of ground with its straggling masses of horse and foot," as the Roman historian Livy described them. Early in the fourth century B.C. they rode their horses into a much smaller Rome, causing panic and flight among the inhabitants. "The air," wrote Livy, "was loud with the dreadful din of the fierce war-songs and discordant shout of a people whose very life is wild adventure." All who did not flee before the marauders hid themselves within the fortifications of the Capitoline Hill, save for the elderly, who could not climb and were slaughtered on their thresholds. Then, waiting for the dead of night, the barbarians almost made it up the Capitoline itself, climbing the stones that face the hill on one another's shoulders in an eerie silence no one thought them capable of. But at the last moment, just when the first of the invaders had reached the summit, the geese of the Capitoline, sacred to Juno whose temple stood on the heights, honked their frantic warnings, and the Celts were cut down. If I could examine the genetic cells of these fierce warriors, I could establish kinship.

I can claim even closer kinship with the Irish noblemen Hugh O'Neill, earl of Tyrone, and Rory O'Donnell, prince of Tyrconnel, who lie buried beneath the flagstones of San Pietro in Montorio on the east side of the Janiculum. They fought against impossible odds and almost succeeded in expelling the English occupiers from "Elizabethan" Ireland.  Was the prototype of "Tyrconnel's dread war cry, 'O'Donnell Abu!,' " which rang out in Ireland against the soldiers of Elizabeth I, heard first in the western world at the gates of Rome on that faraway morning in 390 B.C.? Beneath the square cobblestones of the Janiculum, who knows whose history remains to be recovered?

The story of the world, like the history of its hills, is written in blood, the blood of barbaric warriors and bold partisans, of old women and beardless boys, of the guilty and the innocent. And what is the "desire of the everlasting hills"? What could be the meaning of this phrase, taken from the blessing of Jacob on his son Joseph, the last of the patriarchs? Is not the desire of the everlasting hills that they be saved from their everlastingness, that something new happen, that the everlasting cycle of human cruelty, of man's inhumanity to man, be brought to an end?

Two thousand years ago a man was born into a family of carpenters in occupied Palestine. He was a small-town Jew, born in a bad time for Jews. Their land was no longer their own, and they had been made to bow before a succession of conquerors who had diluted their proud culture and, as many would have said, infected it. His name, as everyone knows, was Jesus of Nazareth--or, as the Jews of his own day called him, Yeshua.  As everyone knows, he preached a message of mercy, love, and peace and was crucified for his trouble. This unlikely character has long been accounted the central figure of Western civilization. Even now, as we cross to the beginning of the third millennium since his birth, we count our days by his appearance on earth; and, though our supposedly post-Christian society often ignores and even ridicules him, there are no serious suggestions for replacing him as the Icon of the West.

But this book is part of a series on cultural impact. And the great question about Jesus must always be Did he make a difference? Is our world--in the century that began with the Turkish genocide against the Armenians, reached its nadir with the "scientific" holocaust of six million Jews (and five million others), not to speak of the slaughter by their own governments of Russians and Chinese to its end with genocides in central Africa and "ethnic cleansings" in the Balkans that are still, horribly enough, "in progress"--is our world any better than the one inhabited by the Celts and Romans of twenty-four centuries ago? Did the values preached by Jesus influence the Anglican Queen Elizabeth or her opponent the Catholic Earl O'Neill? Did she ever shudder at the carnage of her battlefields? Did he, even once, as he surveyed the hacked limbs, the gouged eyes, the grisly dying, wonder if there was another way? Do Christian values have any influence on the actions of Christians who on both sides of the English/Irish divide have continued to "fight the old fight again"? Did the life and death of Jesus make any difference to the denizens of first-century Trans Tiberim? Does he make any difference to the residents of today's Trastevere?

These are hard questions; some will no doubt label them unfair. But they must be posed at the outset. For if this Jesus, this figure professedly central to our whole culture, has had no effect, he has no place in a history of cultural effects. In the pages that follow, we will look at the phenomenon of Jesus, as experienced by those who knew him best and by the first generations of his followers, who in their surviving traditions, both oral and written, bring us as close as we can get to this often elusive historical figure. When our investigation is completed, we will pose the hard questions again.

But in order to understand Jesus we must begin before his time and strive to appreciate how the world he was born into came to be.

Of the many enigmas of John's Gospel nothing is more mysterious than the story that does not belong there. It interrupts the flow of John's tightly stitched scheme of narration, and though, like many Johannine episodes, it gives a starring role to a woman, its supple Greek has all the characteristics of Luke's pen:

At daybreak, Jesus appeared again in the Temple precincts; and when all the people came to him, he sat down and began to teach them. Then did the scribes and Pharisees drag a woman forward who had been discovered in adultery and forced her to stand there in the midst of everyone.

"Teacher," said they to him, "this woman has been caught in the very act of adultery. Now, in the Torah Moses ordered us to stone such women. But you--what have you to say about it?" (They posed this question to trap him, so that they might have something to use against him.)

But Jesus just bent down and started doodling in the dust with his finger. When they persisted in their questioning, he straightened up and said, "He among you who is sinless--let him cast the first stone at her." And he bent down again and continued sketching in the sand.

When they heard this, they went away one by one, starting with the oldest, until the last one was gone; and he was left alone with the woman, who still stood where they had made her stand. So Jesus straightened up and said, "Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?"

"No one, sir," answered she.

"Nor do I condemn you," said Jesus. "You are free to go. But from now on, avoid this sin."
This entire passage sounds like the Synoptics and could easily be slipped into Luke's Gospel at 21:38, where it would make a perfect fit. It was, in fact, excised from Luke, after which it floated around the Christian churches without a proper home, until some scribe squeezed it into a manuscript of John, where he thought it might best belong. But why was it excised in the first place? Because the early Church did not forgive adultery (and other major sins) and did not wish to propagate the contradictory impression that the Lord forgave what the Church refused to forgive.  The Great Church quickly became far more interested in discipline and order than Jesus had ever shown himself to be.  This excision is our first recorded instance of ecclesiastical censorship--only for the best reasons, of course (which is how censors always justify themselves).The anarchic Johannine church had had good reason for its reluctance to attach itself to the Great Church, which it knew would clip its wings; and for all we know, it was a Johannine scribe who crammed the story of the aborted stoning into a copy of John's Gospel, thus saving it for posterity.

The passage itself shows up the tyrannical mindlessness that tradition, custom, and authority can exercise within a society. The text of the Torah that the scribes and Pharisees cite to Jesus is Leviticus 20:10, which reads, "The man who commits adultery with his neighbor's wife will be put to death, he and the woman." Jesus, doodler in the dust and reader of hearts, knows the hard, unjust, and self-deceiving hearts he is dealing with. He does not bother to dispute the text with them, by which he could have asked the obvious question "How can you catch a woman in the act without managing to catch her male partner?" He goes straight to the heart of the matter: the bad conscience of each individual, the ultimate reason no one has the right to judge anyone else.

How marvelous that in the midst of John's sometimes oppressive solemnities, the wry and smiling Jesus of the Synoptic gospels, the Jesus the apostles knew, the holy fool, still plays his holy game, winning his laughing victory over the stunned and stupid forces of evil.  This is the same Jesus who tells us that hell is filled with those who turned their backs on the poor and needy--the very people they were meant to help--but that, no matter what the Church may have taught in the many periods of its long, eventful history, no matter what a given society may deem "sexual transgression," hell is not filled with those who, for whatever reason, awoke in the wrong bed. Nor does he condemn us.

Excerpted from Desire of the Everlasting Hills by Thomas Cahill Copyright © 2001 by Thomas Cahill. Excerpted by permission of Anchor, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.