This ambitious excavation of ‘the career of architecture’ in the prehistory of the Palestine conflict was written between September 1996, when Benjamin Netanyahu ordered the opening of the ‘archaeological tunnel’ running from the Buraq, or Wailing Wall, to the Muslim quarter, and Ariel Sharon’s ‘visit’ to the Haram al-Sharif, accompanied by a thousand or more Israeli security troops, four years later. Daniel Monk’s aim is to explore the relation of consciousness to matter—to examine the projections, the representations, the mutually ‘interpretative performances’ through which the stones of old Jerusalem have, it seems, become so imbued with meaning that it is self-evident that such acts will result in ‘explosions of anger’, ending in bloodshed. It is this obviousness that An Aesthetic Occupation subjects to critical examination. In providing ‘a record of all the work that had to be done for the “archaeological tunnel”, or Sharon’s “visit”, to achieve their unquestioned political immediacy’, Monk sets out to undermine ‘the presumption that, in architecture, a political reality presents itself to view directly and without mediation’.

His focus is on the early Mandate period—in particular, on the career of E. T. Richmond, 1920s political assistant to the British administration and later director of the Department of Antiquities in Jerusalem; and on the work of the Shaw Commission set up in the aftermath of the 1929 Buraq riots. Drawing upon an extraordinary breadth of sources—official reports, memoirs, private collections (Monk is the editor of Richmond’s unpublished papers), travel literature, newspapers in Arabic, Hebrew and English, contemporary scholarship and Adornian critical theory—he shows that what we have in the sacred geography and religious architecture of Palestine is not a timeless obviousness but a historical obviation.

In 1883, two years before his death in Khartoum, General Charles Gordon arrived in Jerusalem, flourishing the latest topographic survey of the Palestine Exploration Fund. Beneath the ‘cumulative debris’ of oriental history—the shroud of the contemporary Ottoman city—its contour lines, he claimed, revealed the shape of an anamorphic figure embedded in the landscape. Its head lay in a rounded—‘skull-shaped’—knoll, to the north of the city (its phallus, according to Gordon, at the Dome of the Rock). Here, then, was the true Golgotha; in Aramaic the ‘place of skulls’. Gordon thus dislodged the site of the crucifixion and Christ’s burial place from the marble-encased tomb at the heart of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, venerated by Catholic and Eastern churches, but on whose authenticity Protestants had long shed doubt. The ‘Garden Tomb’ rapidly became a site of Anglican devotion.

Monk’s concern in rehearsing the story, however, is not to decipher the great-power politics of France, Russia and Britain at play within this imaginary geography. In fact, he specifically distances himself from such an approach, since it would itself be tacitly sustaining the symbolic ‘immediacy’ of the sites—treating the monuments of Jerusalem as ‘the unmediated reflections of a secular Realpolitik’, just as Gordon took them to be identical with the features of his mystical figure. Instead, he takes Gordon as the first in a series of vaulting horses that will help him towards a materialist critique, après Adorno, of such phenomenologies of Spirit. The second leap is the rigorous scrutiny of Gordon’s mystical-imperialist topography by the PEF’s Charles Wilson, who posed a series of sharp questions that would need to be answered by any scientific attempt to authenticate the accepted crucifixion and burial sites. The third is the impassioned, idealist rebuttal to Wilson that takes form within the work of the Anglo-Catholic Arabist, Ernest Tatham Richmond.

Son of the Victorian painter, William Blake Richmond, the future eminence grise of Jerusalem’s grand mufti trained as an architect before departing for Egypt in 1895, at the age of twenty-one, to commence a civil-service career in the Ministry of Public Works. Richmond’s visceral hatred of the colonial philistinism he encountered in Cairo found expression in the ‘Dialogue about Foreign Dominion’ that he penned on his disillusioned return to England in 1911. Here, ‘Abdullah’ and ‘Dinsdale’, a gifted Arab nationalist and insightful English civil servant, earnestly debate the contradiction between the stated aim of empire—to improve the lot of other peoples—and its actual, patently oppressive, methods. Summing up, Dinsdale recapitulates Abdullah’s position as objection not to imperial power as such but ‘to the rule of ignorant foreigners who know nothing and have greedy desires and no real sympathy’. Abdullah proposes instead a new sort of empire which, through its very forms of government, would ‘foster the outward expressions of virtue an indigenous people lack and, in doing so, inaugurate a process that culminates in a natural dissolution of dominion; empire gains in that loss, recuperating from the subject people a virtue the occupier once possessed but lost to greed’.