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Jerusalem: The Biography

Simon Sebag Montefiore

(Alfred A. Knopf; US: Oct 2011)

Simon Sebag Montefiore opens Jerusalem: The Biography with a lengthy description of the city’s destruction by Titus and the Roman army in 70 AD. He tells this story by mixing his narration with a personal account by the ancient historian Josephus. He describes the magnificence of Jerusalem at that time, “an opulent, thriving metropolis built around one of the greatest temples of the ancient world,” and the horror of the siege and sacking by Rome. He writes, “A rich woman named Mary, having lost all her money and food, became so demented that she killed her own son and roasted him, eating half and keeping the rest for later.”


This is one of the few sections when Montefiore, in this otherwise necessarily brisk history of a city with a rich and lengthy history, allows himself to describe events with such a lengthy narrative focus. The effect is immediate and clear: to make the reader understand the brutal cycle of destruction and splendor that has marked Jerusalem’s “story”, how these struggles have defined the passion of its citizens, admirers, and coveters around the world, and how this passion has given the city a dual existence as a spiritual symbol and physical entity.


Montefiore plays with the idea of story as a powerful motivator and creator of ideology. The importance that this city holds for so many in the Western world, primarily the Jewish, Islam, and Christian faiths, have resulted in a multitude of self-serving histories that have further fueled animosity, a situation that Montefiore seeks to untangle. In the epilogue he writes, “If this book has any mission, I passionately hope that it might encourage each side to recognize and respect the ancient heritage of the Other…each must recognize the Other’s sacred modern narratives of tragedy and heroism. This is a lot to ask since both of these stories stars the Other as arch-villain—yet this too is possible.”


To this end Montefiore performs a splendid balancing act, detailing the physical history of the city—its wars, its architecture, its squalor—with the history of the idea of Jerusalem as a spiritual nexus. The tone is respectful without reading as if the subject matter is being handled with overly sensitive kid gloves. Montefiore is careful to keep this theoretical element tethered to the actual, to only deviate from the local to describe happenings in Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, and the Americas, as they relate to the city. For example we get brief descriptions of Americans envisioning their country as a new Jerusalem, another “city on a hill”, but it is kept brief and is duly tied back into increasing American evangelical interests and involvement in regional politics from the 19th century to today.


Like any credible historian Montefiore abides by the Gospel of John’s dictum that the truth will set you free, or at least clear up dangerous misunderstandings. But Jerusalem is not merely a call for peace and harmony. It makes a case for history as a celebration of diversity—a teeming, unruly cacophony—and he employs archeological science, ancient texts, biographical sketches, and descriptions of events that revel in the gritty details as much as their overarching importance. The writing can be entertaining without pandering as a simplified and/or dubious history aimed at the mass market.


The book is broken up into nine parts, named by the primary movements or ruling states of different eras: Judaism, Paganism, Christianity, Islam, Crusade, Mamluk, Ottoman, Empire, and Zionism. Within these sections, Montefiore threads this complex history together by focusing on major and minor historical players. The chapters are broken up into subsections titled after these figures, a cast of thousands ranging from well-known political leaders like King David to Saladin and Moshe Dayan to religious figures like Muhammad and the Maccabees to citizens, writers, and forgotten and eccentric personalities like the charlatan archeologist Montagu Parker. The proliferation of names can be difficult to keep track of, but Montefiore does a good job of keeping the action clear.


One of the book’s greatest pleasures is the author’s use of footnotes to elucidate the kinkier corners of history. These include digressions on the use of the sling in ancient warfare, Joseph Stalin’s attempts to build new “Jerusalems” for his Jewish citizens in the Soviet Union, and the fate of Henry of Champagne, who died when “he was distracted by his dwarf and stepped backwards out of a window.”


In urging the reader to appreciate the point of views of all actors on Jerusalem’s stage, he seems to relish the eras when the coexistence of different tribes was at its most peaceful, when religious righteousness took a backseat to the everyday pleasures of community. He describes the traditions and daily routines that have survived for centuries: the annual picnic at Simon the Just’s tomb, the kitsch of the Holy Fire ceremony at the Holy Sepulchre, and the Qazaz family delivering the call to prayer at al-Aqsa mosque for the past 500 years. Though tension and conflict are always present, Montefiore quietly and persistently reveals the humanitarian impulses that leaven the strife and often reveal a touching source of the city’s beauty.


By the close of the book Montefiore has brought the action back to the mid-twentieth century with another lengthy battle scene, this time an equally engaging telling of the Israeli army taking the Old City from Jordan’s King Hussein during the so-called Six-Day War of 1967. There is a moment of triumph in reading about the Jews finally taking over the Temple Mount, the Western Wall, and the countless sites they had lost almost 2,000 years earlier.


The structure that the beginning and ending gives the book might imply a favoring of the Jewish-centered narrative of the city. But, crucially, the final sentence describes the devastation of the losers, with King Hussein weeping, “I cannot accept that Jerusalem is lost in my time.” Ending here, Montefiore seems to indicate that the ecstatic gains and agonizing losses that have defined Jerusalem’s history will not end any time soon.

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