By Navtej Sarna. Grade: B
What made me choose this book is the interesting title. Call me naïve, but what did Indians have to do with Jerusalem or Herod? All I know of Herod is that he was a tyrant who wouldn’t let anything stop him achieving his ambitions. So how did Indians get there? Read this book to find out!
Author Navtej Sarna, an Indian diplomat and the present Indian ambassador in Israel, walks us through history of a longstanding Indian presence in the center of the ancient city of Jerusalem and how generation after generation, the Indian hospice has been taken care by an Indian Family settled here. Having earlier read about this place, which also housed the Indian soldiers during the World War, his posting as the Indian Ambassador to Israel only further helped the cause. The many Indian pilgrims like the Nawab of Hyderabad, helped build this hospice and was once visited by the great Sufi saint Sheikh Farid, who, in the twelfth century, is said to have fasted in the very premises of this hospice. The author summarizes this tiny humble abode as, ‘Haram Sharif, Temple Mount, Mount Moriah — by whatever name it may be called, this must surely be one of the most controversial and bitterly fought-over patches of land in the world. And also the most revered. For the Jews, it is the site of their First and Second Temples, both long destroyed. For the Muslims, this is the third most holy place in the world, after Mecca and Medina, the site of the Prophet’s night journey to heaven. This, too, is the place that was personally cleansed by Caliph Omar when he uncovered the Rock after conquering Jerusalem for Islam, and give centuries later washed with rose water by Saladin to rid it of the sacrilege wreaked by the Crusaders.’
Eight hundred years ago Baba Farid, the great Sufi saint of the Chisti order, visited Jerusalem, freshly wrested back for Islam from the Crusaders by Saladin, and meditated there for forty days in an underground room. Later, an Indian Hospice was born through a waqf endowment around that room and has welcomed Indian pilgrims—and soldiers—to Jerusalem ever since. For close to a century, through the tumultuous years of the British Mandate, the Second World War, the birth of Israel and the ensuing decades of conflict, the Hospice has been looked after by an Indian family—first by Sheikh Nazir Hasan Ansari, a police inspector’s son from Saharanpur, and then by his eldest son, Sheikh Munir Ansari.
Following in the tradition of literary travellers such as Bruce Chatwin and Paul Theroux, Navtej Sarna wanders through the timeless narrow lanes of Old Jerusalem, sifting through fact and fable to tease out the unique story of the Indian Hospice and the Ansari family. What starts off as a personal conversation becomes a deeply researched but lightly told account that weaves historical narrative with telling personal detail.”
The author has flawlessly researched the topic and his years of hard work is well evident in the meticulously detailed prose of the book. His efforts has bought into knowledge the existence of this small, non-descript Indian heritage in the heart of Jerusalem, of which most of us were unaware of. But the prose can get dull and seem a less motivating at times, this being the main reason I took so long to finish a 174 page book.
So read on only if you are into history, else the book can get a little taxing!