Jerusalem – The Biography, from the pen of Simon Sebag Montefiore, is a fittingly epic work chronicling the history of the city of Jerusalem. As you would expect from the author of Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar, which was the most impressively researched biography I have ever come across, pieced together as it was solely from the actual correspondence of Stalin and his cohorts, this “biography” of Jerusalem is an incredibly well researched and authoritative account of this mystical city from approximately 1000 B.C through to present times.
It is a brave undertaking, as the sweep of history covered in this book is truly immense. Helpfully though, the author has employed a novel approach here, in that he treats Jerusalem as a biographical subject, and that Jerusalem acts effectively as a witness to the historical events that occur throughout this broad expanse of history. This keeps the historical focus squarely on events impacting Jerusalem, and acts as a sort of historical filter. This device works very well for the most part, and despite there being a few flaws with it, the reader is richly rewarded with not just a detailed, thorough, exciting and vibrant history of this city, but also having read it will likely emerge with an illuminated and refreshed view of world history in general.
This book is intended to be a city’s biography, but curiously enough, it is really a book constituted of a great many mini-biographies of the main players whose histories integrate with that of Jerusalem’s. It very well could be construed as a pseudo-history of humanity itself. The characters and charlatans we meet along this historical journey range from kings Herod and Nebuchadnezzar, through an array of (mostly insane) Roman Emperors, Islamic sultans and pashas, with even Genghis Khan, Tamerlane and Napolean making apperances. These guys really are to name but a few, and are some of the more well known names of history, but the amount of lesser known names and their deeds as chronicled in this book is truly awesome, and makes for very exciting reading. The mini-biographies within mostly detail tales of slaughter, rape, pillaging, seduction, savagery and intrigue of truly biblical proportions. If you think we live in barbaric times now (and I’m not saying we don’t), reading some of the events chronicled here will really make you think. That said, it all makes for fascinating and riveting reading!
The story of Jerusalem is touted as “the story of the world” on the book’s ornate cover, and I would tend to agree, to a certain extent at least. It is truly amazing to read of the monumental historical events which have revolved on or around Jerusalem, and also of the pantheon of historical figures who’s stories are similarly intertwined. One of the things I really liked about this, was the anecdotes and actual footnotes that accompany most of the histories, often humorous if not blackly so, but always fascinating. Also, some historical figures are exposed here in a different light, shall we say, to the way they are normally and popularly displayed. One example that stuck in my mind was that of Napoleon Bonaparte – exposed here as an undoubted butcher and coward, an incompetent general, and as a general who literally abandoned his men to the enemy. Rather clashes with the more popular Napoleonic histories, eh?
This is a story that encompasses the history of Judaism, Christianity (orthodox and non-orthodox) and Islam: Jerusalem is a sacred and holy city to all three religions, for reasons explained within this book. Interestingly, and as any student of history will testify, history has a real habit of repeating itself and its “themes”, and its fascinating throughout history to see the ebb and flow of these three religions striving for control of Jerusalem throughout the millennia. In fact, having read this book, I can honestly say I have a better understanding and appreciation of the attitudes and dare-I-say mindsets, on both sides of today’s divide in the Middle East. The weight of history surely bears down heavily on both Palestinian and Israeli alike, and you really have to wonder is it more of a hindrance than a help with regards peace. The author himself briefly puts forward his suggestions for peace in current day Jerusalem, which interestingly include a land-for-peace initiative as a key element. At the time of writing, this idea was unfortunately rejected out of hand by Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
The author clearly made every effort to be impartial when dealing with the 20th century history of Jerusalem, especially regarding the creation of the Israeli state and displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians and Jews, giving plenty of attention to the “Stern Gang” and Irgun for example, the bombing of the King David Hotel and the massacre of Arab families at Deir Yassin, while also chronicling the equally terrible atrocities on the Arab side. The English troops often have nothing to be proud of either, for example their turning away of boatloads of Jewish Holocaust survivors, being particularly sickening. I am not being judgmental, merely pointing out that the author does not shy from detailing the facts, regardless of sides. One minor gripe I have though, is that although he is impartial, he very occasionally understates the impact of some acts – for example, the infamous “security wall” which Israel effectively uses to block off Gaza from the outside world, some say even serving as an effective prison wall on a civilian population, he just calls a “depressing concrete eyesore”. Disappointingly, he lays the blame for Israel’s invasion of Lebanon and subsequent war there in the 1980’s, squarely and solely at the feet of Yasser Arafat – that’s a bit simplistic and possibly not true, which is surprising for a historian of his stature.
While on the subject of gripes, I would just like to expand on a few I have, all basically relating (as mentioned earlier) to the author’s device of treating Jerusalem like a human biographical subject. You basically get a “keyhole” view on history here, as the author necessarily restricts your view of events somewhat, by usually only expounding on the ones impacting the city. I say “usually”, and that is the essence of my gripe – the Sebag Montefiore is somewhat selective on which events he chooses to expand on that don’t effect Jerusalem. That is to say, sometimes you get a “full picture” of people’s lives or events occurring even outside of Jerusalem, and then other times, for events having a similar impact on Jerusalem, you don’t get the same detail. The Armenian genocide, committed against the Christian Armenians by the Ottoman Turks (and which is still incredibly denied by today’s Turkish government), part of which directly happened in Jerusalem, unbelievably receives barely a mention – he bizarrely calls it a “deportation” in the main text, only in a footnote later on calling it genocide. This is amazing, considering the mentions of the Jewish genocide committed by the Nazis – why does the Armenian genocide get brushed under the counter here? Perhaps for fear of the Turkish government suing the publisher, as they still deny the genocide? To be honest, for a historian this is a big error I feel, for if you were not aware of the genocide prior to reading this, you would surely have missed it in this “historical” account of the times. Robert Fisk’s The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East is really still for me the definitive work on 20th century middle eastern history.
You also get a somewhat “barbell” view of history here – heavy at both ends but somewhat light in the middle ages (from after the Crusades). I think this book ideally would have been longer, as some eras are raced through, while others get in-depth analysis. Of course, the scope of the book is so large in terms of the period it covers, maybe that wasn’t really feasible.
As I’ve said, the gripes are minor, and I hope I have not focussed too much on them, for they should not distract from what is a fantastic and worthy history of this eternal city and its people. Being written by Simon Sebag Montefiore, it should be no surprise that this a supremely well written and researched piece of work, that was a real pleasure to read. It will take you some time to get through and digest it all, but it is a trip very much worth taking. Simon has a genuinely intimidating vocabulary, and I must admit he had me reaching for the dictionary a few times! He is a master at describing courtesans, seducers and the seduced in extremely elegant and gentlemanly language – for example, one such character was described as “callipygian” – if you think about it, that’s a rather subjective description, don’t you think? There are plenty of people with voracious priapic appetites – you get the picture!
Overall though, what I took from this book was a picture of Jerusalem as an eternal city, standing still and constant throughout the vagaries of history, while it is history itself and its events that are fluid, changing and ephemeral.