Essays, Reviews


Going up to Jerusalem


No one knows when the human mind first developed the conviction that besides him, there is a power of a different nature operating on our planet. The only thing that we know for sure is that when scientists, - at the heart of the Neanderthal Caves, which hold the earliest burial places – spotted the first evidence of its existence, the concept had already included all the elements of importance. Some think that the thousands of experiences that resulted in the acknowledgement of a mode of life different from ours might have been talking shape at the borderline of dream and  vision, shadow and reflection. Others claim that that superhuman power is inherent within man and it is its flickering flame that enables him, the pilgrim in this world “ to identify “ all that refers to the potential, which reaches far beyond his limits.

Whatever made him realise it, the vague knowledge must have appeared as early as the days when the bereaved hunter was squatting by the dead body of his fellow-man. He might have had the suspicion that the deceased was alive, except that he lived a different life, had different characteristics and relations with the world, and the space in which he existed incorporated powers only partially cognizable for the rest.

This “other world “ has ever since been accessible, as part of their everyday experience, for certain individuals only, while others may never come across it. Nevertheless, social grouping and generating culture were definitely based on the mental act of dividing reality into two separate spheres, and marking out a centre, both physical and spiritual in nature. Without that act, man wouldn’t have been able to detach Cosmos from Chaos. This centre was then recognised by the ancient collective memory as the space where this “ different “, or transcendental power had once actually appeared and functioned. Due to this, that space had become the sacred space, an active place of recollection,  which somehow kept  communication up with the sky. Here the eternal renewal of creation never ceases to exist. As a consequence, it is here, in this centre that having attained its foundation and having been provided with indispensable strength, the world of everyday life can emerge.

There is neither community nor human culture without a “ sacred space “, a “ sacred land “. Each Shrine, temple, synagogue, mosque or  church signifies the sacred space on a small scale; on a larger scale it might either be the countryside, the country or the town. For the Jews, Christians and Muslims the most sacred space is Jerusalem. It is not then surprising that the yearning for Jerusalem is so deeply imprinted in our culture. When the holy wars were over and pilgrimages to the Holy Land had actually proved impossible, European people, with amazing initiative, recreated the sacred space that held Jesus Christ’s earthly life-history by consecrating cross-roads at the edges of towns and villages in the West; shrines were erected so that hundreds of thousands of tiny Jerusalems could continue to show the way to truth and life with eye-catching evidence.

Since the early days of Christianity, the yearning for Jerusalem had been so strong that even the eternal rival was unable to resist it. Rome, head and mother of all cities has its own Jerusalem: the prominent round basilica of Santo Stefano Rotondo rises on Celius’ Hill. Now it is a fact proven by  archaeologists that this significant holy building of exceptional design was  built in imitation of neither a Roman shrine nor Emperor Nero’s remarkable round market-hall, as was previously believed, but on a design that reflects an idealised layout of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. What is more, it seems to follow the visionary view of  New Jerusalem as it is described in the Book of Revelation.

Tradition has it that Pope Simplicius I dedicated this magnificent piece of architecture to Protomartyr Stephen’s relics, which were discovered in the 5th century and transported to Rome.

We, as Hungarians, can be justifiably proud that in the Eternal City, a large number of Hungary’s most beautiful art treasures have been preserved in this basilica. In the mid-fifteenth century Pope Michael entrusted it to the Hungarian Order of St. Paul, later succeeded by the Collegium Germanicum et Hungaricum, whose Vice Chancellor has been in charge of it ever since. Anyway, there is a parallel here that I find dear. In the same way that a piece of Jerusalem was transplanted to Rome in the form of the basilica, now a keen eyed and warm-hearted Hungarian photographer has brought his piece of Jerusalem to the Hungarian Academy in Rome, to the exquisite upstairs corridor of the Palazzo Falconieri and to the pages of this most beautiful catalogue in order to perform the magic we have always been waiting for. Benda places the sacred space before our eyes and marks out the focal point in the chaos of this perchance finite, still disorganised, profane world where the human mind can find its way back to the moment of origin and can take a firm hold.

Wherever he might be in the world, London or Beijing, Haifa or New York, Budapest or Cape Town, a Jew, when he wants to go to the City, will say: I’m going up to Jerusalem. I ask you to follow his example. Let’s open this impressive book and walk slowly up to Ivan Benda’s Jerusalem, which seems close to us on the pages, yet is as far as the sky. Through effort and goodwill and above all, through love, we can bring this sky closer to our profane world. He, who took these photographs shows us Jews, Christians and Muslims the path to follow. Through his integrity and talent he shows us that hand in hand we can set off to the Jerusalem of peace and love, which  doesn’t belong exclusivity to those who are now living and dying in that area on our blue planet. It belongs to any one on this planet who wants to and is able to find the sacred space – in his own heart.

                                                                       by László Csorba

                                                                       Hungarian Academy, Rome