Jerusalem’s archives are everywhere: the city’s archives – produced, accumulated or arranged by institutions, social groups, religious communities, citizens and travelers – are dispersed across the city but also – extra muros – all around the world: from Istanbul to Moscow, from Rome to Erevan, from Nantes to London, from Athens to Addis Ababa, from Amman to Washington.
Despite this richness, Jerusalem’s archives are sometimes unknown and untapped. Rarely have historians have encountered records produced by different actors, thus ending up with a historiography too often reduced to single voices and communities. An analysis of current conditions regarding primary sources for Jerusalem history has lead us to identify three major obstacles. The first is geopolitical: most researchers who work on Jerusalem cannot physically access the entirety of available sources owing to their nationality, religious identity or political affiliation. Faced with the difficulty of accessing local sources, researchers resort to travel narratives and exogenous diplomatic sources kept in their respective countries, which adds to the initial tendency towards a historiography disconnected from local realities and instead focused on geostrategic issues.
The second obstacle is linguistic: the city of Jerusalem has always produced archives in a multitude of languages. To gain an overview of the urban history of Jerusalem, one would theoretically have to master the syntax and paleography of Arabic, Hebrew, Ottoman, Latin, Greek, Armenian, Ethiopian, Coptic and Russian, but also most of the modern European languages, because Jerusalem has always been – and in particular since the mid-19th century – a “global city,” where all nationalities, faiths and populations intersect. This global polyglossia, impossible to achieve at an individual level, is today within reach if we summon the power of digital humanities for translation, indexing and interconnectivity.
The third obstacle is an archival one, related to the structural and record-keeping conditions at the archives themselves: for non-specialists, this is probably a less immediate problem than national or linguistic borders, but it is actually the most serious and is a particular focus of the project. Indeed, a large part of archives preserved in Jerusalem are only partially or poorly cataloged.
For reasons related to limited funding and to the current geopolitical climate, the descriptions of most of Jerusalem’s archival holdings are cursory at best. When they do exist, these catalogs are generally incomplete and written in the dominant language of the collection, which makes them de facto inaccessible to the majority of researchers. If a true historiographical renewal is to be achieved, a process of qualitative description must be undertaken by developing solid and coherent inventories that rely on the best European standards in the field. Open Jerusalem has already embarked on this unprecedented challenge to create a rigorous and detailed catalog of available archives related to the history of late Ottoman and Mandate Jerusalem. Despite the results already achieved, other archives remain to be identified. Open Jerusalem’s work goes on, ready to discover new traces of Jerusalem’s past, present and future.
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