The Life of a city

Jerusalem deserves a great biographer, and Simon Sebag Montefiore is equal to the task.

christian information center jerusalem_521 (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
christian information center jerusalem_521
(photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
The elegantly embossed cover of Jerusalem: The Biography might be reason enough to purchase this book. Cambridge-educated Simon Sebag Montefiore brings such rich language, and a wealth of history, to his latest work that it deserves to be recognized.
Montefiore might seem an odd candidate to write a history of Jerusalem. He was previously known as a biographer, particularly of Joseph Stalin, on whom he published two books. But somewhere along the way he must have caught the ailment that affects so many who gaze upon the holy city: Jerusalem syndrome.
The author opens his opus by noting that “the history of Jerusalem is the history of the world.” This is not exactly the case; it is the history of the Christian, Muslim, Jewish and, to a lesser extent, Roman, Persian and Greek worlds. One doubts the Chinese or Hindus have much interest in it.
Nonetheless, Montefiore sets out to “show that Jerusalem was a city of continuity and coexistence, a hybrid metropolis of hybrid buildings and hybrid people who defy the narrow characterizations that belong in separate religious legends.”
He sets himself astride the way, seeking not to question the various truths of the religions that hold the city dear, but trying to straddle the nationalisms and rival archeological and sociological theories that abound. He writes that while Edward Said’s Orientalism promised a corrective to Western-dominated views of the East, the opposite attempt since to “airbrush these Western intruders out of the history... is absurd.” Unlike some authors, Montefiore makes fundamental use of Muslim sources in his history, such as Usamah bin Muniqidh, a historian of Crusaders.
Before going back to the beginning of the city’s history, the author opens his introduction on the eighth of Av, the day before the Romans captured the city from the Jews in 70 CE and laid it waste. “In the mayhem and methodical destruction afterwards, a world vanished, leaving a few moments frozen in time,” he writes.
In choosing to focus on the people who have influenced Jerusalem, before and after 70 CE, Montefiore notes that “Jerusalem’s sanctity did not just evolve but was promoted by the decisions of a handful of men.”
Jerusalem is broken up into various sections detailing the groups and religions that have dominated the city: Judaism, paganism, Christianity, Islam, the Crusaders, Mamelukes, Ottomans, the British Empire and Zionism. It is not a completely equal portrayal. The Ottoman rulers from 1517 to 1800 receive barely 20 pages, while the period of the Crusades (1099-1193) gets about 60 pages.
This isn’t the author’s fault; not only is the Crusader period interesting and populated with colorful characters, it was also well chronicled by Muslims and Jews. The subsequent Ottoman period marked a long decline and abandonment of the country, whose forts were left in ruin and whose trees were cut down.
The book ends with the Six Day War – a wise choice that avoids dealing with the current political squabbles. It begins with King David’s conquest of the Jebusite city, Zion.
David renamed the place and chose it as his capital. The narrative moves quickly through the biblical kings and onward toward the period of Alexander the Great.
Jerusalem became a “semi-independent statelet within” the Hellenistic world of the time,” writes Montefiore. “Jerusalem had become a theocracy... harsh rules regulated every detail of life, for there was no distinction between politics and religion.”
But it did not turn out so well. The Greek ruler Antiochus IV Epiphanes profaned the city and brought upon himself rebellion by the Maccabees. Here Montefiore lets the reader down slightly: The politics and wars of the Maccabees are quite engrossing, and some of them, such as John Hyrcanus, could have used more attention.
A fascinating section detailing Jerusalem’s fate under the Romans captures a period where fledgling Christianity coexisted beside the ruins of Judaism.
“Jerusalem was the headquarters of the Tenth Roman legion,” and the “Christians, led by Simon son of Cleophas, Jesus’ half-brother or cousin, returned to Jerusalem where they started to honour the Upper Room, on today’s Mount Zion,” the author relates. The history is well known, of the feting of the city under the Byzantines, its conquest by the Arabs, the Crusaders, the British and others.
Montefiore’s book details all these stories and turns even the well-known ones into delightful short glimpses at the characters who have ruled the city. He doesn’t fall for the modern psychoanalysis and revisionist history, noting of Richard the Lionheart, for example, that “the claim that he was a homosexual has been discredited.”
He notes, too, that “the cliché that Crusaders were barbarians and the Muslims aesthetes can be taken too far.”
Beautiful color photos, numerous maps, charts of family dynastic trees and copious notes, including footnotes that detail the history of Jerusalem’s archeology and architecture, add greatly to this text. Jerusalem deserves a great biographer, and Montefiore has provided the best in recent memory.