Jerusalem: the Biography
by Simon Sebag Montefiore
Orion Publishing, 696 pages, (525 text) ISBN978-0297852650
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Jerusalem is the universal city, the capital of two peoples, the shrine of three faiths; it is the prize of empires, the site of Judgement Day and the battlefield of today’s clash of civilisations. From King David to Barack Obama, from the birth of Judaism, Christianity and Islam to the Israel-Palestine conflict, this is the epic history of 3,000 years of faith, slaughter, fanaticism and coexistence. How did this small, remote town become the Holy City, the ‘centre of the world’ and now the key to peace in the Middle East? In a gripping narrative, Simon Sebag Montefiore reveals this ever-changing city in its many incarnations, bringing every epoch and character blazingly to life.
Jerusalem’s biography is told through the wars, love affairs and revelations of the men and women – kings, empresses, prophets, poets, saints, conquerors and whores – who created, destroyed, chronicled and believed in Jerusalem. As well as the many ordinary Jerusalemites who have left their mark on the city, its cast varies from Solomon, Saladin and Suleiman the Magnificent to Cleopatra, Caligula and Churchill; from Abraham to Jesus and Muhammad; from the ancient world of Jezebel, Nebuchadnezzar, Herod and Nero to the modern times of the Kaiser, Disraeli, Mark Twain, Rasputin and Lawrence of Arabia. Drawing on new archives, current scholarship, his own family papers and a lifetime’s study, Montefiore illuminates the essence of sanctity and mysticism, identity and empire in a unique story of the city that many believe will be the setting for the Apocalypse. This is how Jerusalem became Jerusalem: the only city that exists twice – in heaven and on earth.
Anthony Beevor (Guardian)
Montefiore’s book, packed with fascinating and often grisly detail, is a gripping account of war, betrayal, looting, rape, massacre, sadistic torture, fanaticism, feuds, persecution, corruption, hypocrisy and spirituality.
Jonathan Beckman (Observer)
Jerusalem is a city of the imagination, an inspiration for religious sects from the Pilgrim Fathers to the Rastafarians, as well as hundreds of artists and writers. Sebag Montefiore barely touches on this aspect, although, unsurprisingly for the author of superb works on Catherine the Great and Stalin, he writes excellently on the reactionary clericalism of the 19th-century Russian tsars, who idealised Jerusalem even to the point of fighting the Crimean War over it. Nonetheless, this is compendious and fleetfooted history of a city where the glorification of God has always been built on bloodied soil.
The book is an enormous and enthralling epic, the prose equivalent of those sprawling Hollywood films such as The Ten Commandments, Ben-Hur or The Fall Of The Roman Empire. Here are dashing warrior kings, feuding prophets and priests, beautiful and dangerous women, spectacular battles and a potent mix of piety and profanity. All human life was there. All human life is here.
To write an impartial history of so contentious a place would seem an almost impossible undertaking, even more so when the reader is reminded of the author’s family’s participation in some of the events recounted here. Sebag Montefiore’s own family occupies a distinguished place (alongside the Rothschilds) as one of the aristocratic British Jewish dynasties whose patronage in the 19th century established the first foundations of modern Israel. His own experience, as an emotionally involved historian, helps him sympathise with the chroniclers of the past, be they Josephus, William of Tyre or Usamah bin Munqidh. And that’s where I would put this book, right beside Josephus’s Jewish Wars: vivid, compelling, engaged, engrossing, knowledgeable – but partial.
Featured in Bible Lands magazine, Summer 2011