The Challenge of Jerusalem


“Walking where it all began”

In Night of Fire, Eric-Emmanuel described his mystical experience in the Ahaggar Desert. Now, he returns to first origins, with a memoir of his trip to the Holy Land, a territory indelibly marked by the imprint of History. Bethlehem, Nazareth, Caesarea: intense and cosmopolitan places which he captures on the instant, at the same time deepening his spiritual experience and prompting new questions, reflections, sensations and wonderment, until the final surprise in Jerusalem and an unexpected encounter with a man he calls “The Enigma”.


Le Figaro - « It affects body and soul: no one can remain indifferent. »

Eric-Emmanuel Schmi/ has temporarily interrupted his work on Crossing Time. Volume III of the eight volumes planned was published last year. Now, Schmi/ has produced an account of his journey of self-discovery during a pilgrimage to the Holy Land where he lived for a month. A travel book with a difference, The Challenge of Jerusalem describes, with the author’s hallmark sincerity, the discovery of his own spirituality: the spirituality of a man torn between a “Voltairean” mind, to which he lays claim, and a believer’s soul that dares to discuss its faith.

This new book harks back to Schmi/’s fabulous Night of Fire (2015), in which he described his mysQcal adventure in Tamanrasset at the entrance to the desert. In the plane to Jerusalem, he recalls: “I went into the Sahara an atheist; I came away a believer”. He was 28. Now, he is 63. The plane turns above Tel-Aviv before landing, and he recalls a second night of fire and his impassioned reading of the Books of Ma/hew, Mark, Luke and John, which he read in one go, “love-struck” by Jesus. “From that night on, the thought of Jesus never le[ me,” he admits. He went on to publish his insigh\ul The Bible According to Pilate in the year 2000, adapted for the stage under the Qtle My New Testament.

Labyrinth of Faith

With the interior décor in place, he steps into the Holy Land, where the harsh light wrests him abruptly from his daydreams. Distracted by so many marvels, he hits his head painfully in the taxi: his pilgrimage has begun, and with it, a third night of fire, this Qme in Jerusalem. The book’s secret is the unspoken soul of the city, which unveils itself brashly and powerfully, like Jerusalem itself, but also soothingly like a spiritual balm. It takes the reader by surprise, reaching out to both mind and body, leaving no one indifferent. The author ends up yielding to Jerusalem’s irresisQble lure: “I thought I was entering Jerusalem, but Jerusalem entered me”.

There’s another hidden appeal of this non-ficQonal travel book: the excitement of the group of pilgrims from Reunion Island whom the author joins, from Nazareth to the empty tomb of the Holy Sepulchre, does nothing to make up for the disappointment of anyone looking for God. Like so many pilgrims, he is disillusioned by what he sees. His fascinaQon borders on nausea, faced with the false archaeological evidence presented as arQcles of faith or, worse but very real, the angered shouts of a cleric keen to move on the massed pilgrims.

But nothing can steal the mystery from these holy sites; and therein lies the a/racQon of this book produced by a master of his cra[. In the midst of the physical quest, on which you can’t sleep at night and the smells are revolQng and religious trinket sellers exasperaQng, there’s a deeply metaphysical discovery. For no one bumps into the walls of this holy city with impunity; no one emerges untouched from this labyrinth of faith, passion, love and hatred, whether those white walls are religious or poliQcal. If the book’s Qtle is hardly original, it’s apt: “the challenge of Jerusalem” is exactly what’s involved.

One final surprise awaits in a book it’s hard to put down: the a[erword by a famous man. It’s not on the flyleaf, but Pope Francis himself has wri/en a note of thanks to Eric-Emmanuel Schmi/. The idea of visiQng the Holy Land in order to write up an account of the challenge as a travel diary came from Lorenzo Fazzini, head of the VaQcan Publishing House. Schmi/ is as famous and popular in Italy as he is in other countries, but it was his personal quest, a profane writer who’s open about his spiritual leanings, that drew a/enQon to him and opened privileged doors to him. But you wouldn’t call this a confessional book; on the contrary, it’s universal.

Jean-Marie Guénois

Midi Libre - « Editor's choice. A unique spiritual experiment »

With the roast lamb and chocolate bunnies this Easter Sunday, a new work from the prolific and always captivating author, Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt, landed on the reviewer’s desk. Schmitt had replied to a nod from providence to undertake a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

The resulting memoir isn’t your average travel diary. In Night of Fire (2015), he described a mystical experience in the Ahaggar Desert; now, he has revisited the cradle of religions to “walk where it all began” and to relate his journey with passion, not hyperbole, in dazzling yet unworldly prose, conveying the depth of his experiences without proselytising. This was a unique spiritual experiment. The best review of the book comes in an afterword from Pope Francis, who, in four pages, praises “the intimacy of a theological vision [...] as I have said many times myself: ‘Bear witness. Do not convert.’”

La Dépêche - « An In0mate Road Trip »

More than 2000 years later, Eric-Emmanuel Schmi7 has travelled to the Holy Land. From Bethlehem to Nazareth, from Caesarea to the Mount of Olives, the author sets off on foot to reach Jerusalem. On this highly personal road trip, he openly shares his emoHons combining them with descripHons of the grand periods that marked this Hny area of land and changed the course of the history of the world for centuries and centuries to come. It’s also a kind of confession by a man who believes in humankind.

Radio Triage - « A book that asks questions. »

Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt’s books often leave their mark. His scenes and situations can affect us, sometimes without us realising.

In this unique travel diary, The Challenge of Jerusalem, he asks us searching questions while pursuing his own spiritual journey. “Some people seek their roots on earth. I found mine in heaven...” he says. At the invitation of the Vatican, he agreed to join a group of pilgrims and follow in the footsteps of Jesus, travelling between the West Bank and Israel to Nazareth, Bethlehem and Jerusalem, and to Galilee and Capernaum where Jesus grew up, then to Judea where he was born. Eloquently but without pretension, Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt leads readers down the narrow streets of these holy places, never afraid to criticise the excesses and poor taste of so many tourist traps. Above all, he finds himself moved by what mankind has concealed under countless multicultural buildings: the biblical landmarks where Christ’s sufferings and the chapters of his life left, not so much traces, but silent witnesses, the stones and plants out in the open air.

Schmitt punctuates his travelogue with saliant scenes from the Bible, enabling us to rebuild, imbibe and experience along with him. So, for instance, he sets off in Jesus’ footsteps to walk the Via Dolorosa, praying at each station of the Cross in sincerity and with the sensitivity of a man and a writer. He describes Christ’s ordeal, conveying it in his own words. But his emotion and shock are palpable when he approaches the empty tomb of the Holy Sepulchre. This, in my opinion, is the most book’s most powerful section and also the most disturbing: it’s where we glimpse the light that guided his writing: “I thought I was entering Jerusalem, but Jerusalem entered me,” he explains.

So, yes, this is a book that asks questions, inviting us, unwittingly, to fly to the Holy Land and experience (or not) for ourselves the signs of the mysteries of faith.

Erik Poulet-Reney

L'Express - « The Challenge of Jerusalem »

It all started with a phone call from the Va4can, which wanted to send him to the Holy Land. Not surprisingly, Eric-Emmanuel Schmi@ accepted immediately, eager to embark on a trip he’d dreamed of since 4me immemorial. It was also a superb opportunity for the Goncourt Academician to don the robes of the perfect pilgrim just as The Sun Goes Down (Volume III in Crossing Time) was going to print in September 2022, a book in which Moses sets out to reach the promised land. No doubt about it: “my work and my life have fused,” smiles the novelist-philosopher. Before seQng foot in Israel, he reminds us that, as the son of scep4cal parents, he was an atheist un4l that mysterious night in February 1989 in Tamanrasset, where he had gone to research a book about Charles de Foucauld, from which he awoke a believer. It was his first revela4on and the inspira4on for a frenzied study of the New Testament.

So, now he’s in Nazareth with the Sisters of Notre Dame, together with pilgrims from Reunion Island. Resistant to liturgical ceremonies, he “squirms uncomfortably” during his first vespers and, on three occasions, falls out of the narrow bed where he’s staying. There’s the Sea of Galilee (Jesus resuscitated) and its kitschy chapel; Capernaum (recruitment of the disciples); the Mount of the Bea4tudes (Sermon on the Mount). All of which pleasantly take readers back to their Sunday school classes with the stylis4c brilliance you’d expect from the pen of this superb French-Belgian playwright. More strikingly, Schmi@ experiences, at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, his second revela4on in the form of a flesh-and-blood God, who, like the Pope in his aberword to this pilgrim’s notebook, doesn’t omit to invoke, in the land of three monotheis4c religions, the “sweet smell of peace” in the world.


Sud-Ouest - « An interior journey to Nazareth »

Faith, for a believer is, first and foremost, about the acceptance of mystery. Eric-Emmanuel Schmi< doesn’t try to solve the mystery: he immerses himself in it.

Is it an age thing? The author of The Bible According to Pilate and Oscar and The Lady in Pink increasingly reveals the man behind the books with each new work in print. Twenty years aEer his first novel (The Sect of the Egoists), Night of Fire (2015) described a life-changing spiritual experience in the Ahaggar (also relevant here) at the age of 28. Shortly aEer his mother’s death, Schmi< published a touching Diary of Lost Love, as a tribute to the cult of joy his mother passed on.

In The Challenge of Jerusalem, the Belgian author, having finished The Sun Goes Down, leaves his country to go to the Holy Land at the suggesSon of the VaScan. Pope Francis has added an aEerword to the book, wri<en in February.

The pilgrimage is an opportunity for self-exploraSon as Schmi<, who long ago leE the Church but is sSll moved by Christ’s tortured body, smiling down from the cross, travels along a ChrisSan and not specifically Catholic road. In Nazareth, Schmi< is imbued with palpable fervour, discusses the survival of the Hebrew language, and surrenders his mind (always a bit Voltairean) to the organic vibraSons of divine love.

Midi Libre - « I don’t feel like a creator, more like an observer. »

Why do you talk about the “challenge” of Jerusalem?

 Because Jerusalem challenges us to do something we find difficult. It’s a city that contains three monotheistic religions and which says to us “understand one another”. It asks us to go from fratricide to fraternity. I think brothers are being fratricidal, not fraternal, when they forget where they come from, when they think that they’re at the start of their own history and not the result of History. So, it’s a place that’s unique in the world, a place that incites the different ideologies to keep their individuality but to get on with each other.

 Was this trip the realisation of a desire you’d been harbouring?

 To the extent that I’m a philosopher in search of meaning, I needed to see this city. I knew it had something to tell me or, at least, that’s what I hoped. I hadn’t rushed to go to the Holy Land because I had high expectations and I was afraid of being let down. But the visit lived up to my expectations.

 What did you take away from it?

  I was already a believer, but I wanted to confront my faith, and it became definitively Christian in Jerusalem. I felt it physically. It was like an incarnation.

 You write that we travel in order to grow…

 Yes, because we’re not like the pilgrims of the past. We already have images before we leave home; our imagination has been saturated. So, we’re not entirely setting off into the unknown, but the journey involves the body and demands its contribution: there’s the fatigue, all that walking about, the thirst, but there’s also extasy… We add the body to what our digital world allows.

 Tell me about the faith that suddenly hit you in 1989, which you describe in Night of Fire (La nuit de feu).

 I was on an expedition to the Sahara Desert. We’d set out from Tamanrasset to follow in the footsteps of Charles de Foucauld. I’d been asked to write a play about him. I got completely lost in the rocky desert on that journey, and I spent 32 hours totally at risk with nothing to eat or drink. During that night under the stars, I had a mystical experience. Pascal, who himself was a convert from atheism, experienced the same thing. He called it his “night of fire” and I used the same term. But my experience was spiritual not religious.

 Is it true that your parents sent you to Sunday school to understand art?

 Absolutely! My parents were atheists. The only meaning Sunday school had was as a tool to decipher the Christian civilisation I lived in. You also discover the artist’s faith when you say that his ideas and novels already existed somewhere… That’s more Platonic than mystical but it’s a bit how the creative process appears to me: as though the characters and stories were already there and I just have to notice and listen and then write it all down. That’s how I experience my artistic activity. I don’t always feel like a creator, more like a keen observer.

 Is this the first time you’ve opened up about your writing processes?


 You talk about rereading as a painstaking tidying-up business, which prompts you to say “my novels are my tyrants”…

 I’m telling you, they really are (laughs)! I feel as though I’m a slave in the service of the novel. But I’m a slave who consents, all the same.

 Is the direct link with an audience crucial?

 That’s probably true for most writers. I can test the link in a different way, however. I started out writing for the theatre, so I’ve always been used to having an audience in the auditorium to check whether what I thought was funny really is funny and what I thought was sad is really sad. Unlike a novelist, a playwright gets to test out his intentions every evening.

 You’ve also launched the saga Crossing Time (La traverse des temps), which you say is your life’s project…

 Yes, because it involves a huge preparatory process beforehand: the appropriation of history, of religions, of technologies … I’d probably have done those things anyway because I’m naturally inquisitive, but I did them with this project in mind. You’ve got to have the gravitas and the confidence in yourself to write a novel that’s going to end up being 5,000 pages long. Actually, the whole thing made me hate myself in recent years, because I thought I was ready then I realised that I wasn’t! It’s only in the last three or four years that it’s finally coming to fruition.

 The central character crosses time with a kind of immortality.

 Yes, he has the ability to repair himself which at first seems like an advantage but then becomes a heavy burden. He travels through history and his own story is the history of humanity with all the historical pitfalls of technology, climate change and other upheavals.

 Is it also a way to express your love of nature?

 In Book I, Paradise Lost (Paradis perdus), yes, of course! When you think that our ancestors were hunter-gatherers, there weren’t very many of them and they lived in a verdant world where they were outnumbered by animals, and when you compare that to our planet today and the ecological anxiety that’s strangling us, I was keen to trace that trajectory. So, Book I was indeed a hymn to nature, absolutely!

 Does the saga give you a sense of immortality, too?

 When I’ve put the last full-stop on the final page of the series, I think I’ll be like the reader and say to myself, “What a relief it is to be mortal, at the end of the day!” (Laughs.) My character is increasingly going to experience his immortality as a curse, something that cuts him off from his fellows. When he loves a woman, he sees her die in his arms, the way we do a pet animal. He’s open, sensitive and caring but immortality weighs heavily on him. So, I think I wrote this book to make my own mortality more palatable rather than to make myself immortal.

Richard Gougis