Nov 2004 Journal

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Time frames and place names

Jews count time from the Creation, Christians from the birth of Jesus, and Muslims from Mohammed's flight from Mecca to Medina. Roman chronology began with the foundation of their city. Finally, because the French Revolutionaries claimed they were restarting the evolution of society from scratch, they declared the overthrow of the king their year Zero, and even renamed the months, turning February into Pluviose (rainy), August into Thermidor (hot), and November into Brumaire (foggy).

Sweeping away the past has also been the motive behind the renaming of many places. Currently, the most eye-catching of these changes are part of the rebranding that followed decolonisation in the Third World. Notable examples are Beijing (formerly Peking), Mumbay (formerly Bombay) and Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia).

Something analogous happened half a century earlier. In post-revolutionary Russia the Bolshevik drive to erase any trace of the Tsarist past led to the transformation of St Petersburg into Leningrad, Ekaterinburg into Sverdlovsk and Tsaritsyn into Stalingrad. The autocratic and antisemitic Romanovs have no claim on our pity; even so, detaching the name of a city from that of its founder strikes me as an affront against history. Another offence against history occurred when the Bolsheviks renamed Nizhny Novgorod - a place name evocative of the very soul of Russia - Gorky.

At around the same time as the Communists consolidated their grip on Russia, the Turks drove the Greeks out of their enclaves in Asia Minor. Following their victory, they renamed the city of Smyrna Izmir - a change which sticks in my craw. Not because I am particularly pro-Greek - I would never return the Elgin Marbles - but because Smyrna is a name redolent of classical antiquity. (It was one of the seven Greek towns that disputed the honour of having been the birthplace of Homer.)

Another change of place name I can't warm to is the morphing of Königsberg into Kaliningrad. Admittedly, Königsberg was a stamping ground of Prussian Junkers and Slavophobes, but the name was encrusted with the patina of age - whereas Kaliningrad has neither history nor hinterland, and immortalises a nondescript Soviet apparatchik.

There must be many elderly Germans and Austrians born in historic outposts like Königsberg, Breslau and Pressburg who mourn the disappearance of those place names from the map. If they want to assuage their nostalgia, they should look up a list of Jewish 'show biz greats'. Königsberg appears in all movie reference works as the birth name of Woody Allen, while Pressburg, now Bratislava, was evoked by the name of the great British filmmaker Emeric Pressburger. On a lesser order of magnitude, Breslau, now Wroclaw, lived on in the name of the comic Bernie Bresslaw (and Grünberg - now Zielona Gora - in that of your editor).

From this moderately contentious issue I move on to a literally explosive one. What does the place name Al-Quds mean to you? Very little, I assume. But to a billion Muslims it is the Arabic name of Jerusalem, their third holiest city.

In the hypothetical event of a change of sovereignty over the city and its rebranding as Al-Quds, what, I ask, would be the effect on the Western imagination? The title of Tarquato Tasso's Renaissance epic Gerusalemme Liberata would become quite meaningless; the same holds good for Selma Lagerlöf's story collection Jerusalem, Margaret Drabble's Jerusalem the Golden, and Arnold Wesker's play They Call This Place Jerusalem. Likewise, the words of William Blake's mystical hymn Jerusalem (almost Britain's substitute national anthem) would become unintelligible.

The reason why Blake's words have a special place in the nation's affection is intimately connected with the Jews' Passover 'toast' 'Next year in Jerusalem'. The phrase is not primarily an affirmation of Zionism, but expresses a yearning for a better world. This is an example of the Judeo-Christian heritage at the heart of Western civilisation, for in the Book of Revelation the 'New Jerusalem' symbolises a perfect society.
Richard Grunberg

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