Books: Jerusalem: The Biography

The Dome of the Rock, one of the holiest sites in Jerusalem. Boris Heger /Report Digital-REA-Redux

For all its holiness, Jerusalem has often been a disappointment to visitors, including those with designs on the city. T. E. Lawrence, the British officer who led the Arabs in revolt during World War I, called it a “squalid town” of “hotel servants.” Kaiser Wilhelm II, the German emperor who hoped to counter British influence in the Middle East, described it as a “dismal arid heap of stones.” Even the father of modern Zionism, Theodor Herzl, couldn’t wait to leave the city and return to Vienna. After a visit in 1898, he wrote: “The musty deposits of 2,000 years of inhumanity, intolerance and foulness lie in your reeking alleys.”

Their impressions are included in a new book by the British historian Simon Sebag Montefiore that traces the 3,000-year history of the city and tries to answer a question that even today, with all the news coverage, can seem vexing: Why Jerusalem? Why has it been so coveted, so revered, so fiercely fought over for so long? In unraveling that mystery, Jerusalem: The Biography reads like a richly drawn novel, with complex characters—kings, priests, philo-Semites, and anti-Semites—and riveting anecdotes. It also puts the region’s contemporary conflict in perspective. Long before Israelis and Arabs launched at each other a century ago, the city had suffered recurring episodes of the most grotesque violence. “Really, the past 60 years have been one of the most peaceful periods in Jerusalem’s history,” Montefiore said in an interview.

How grotesque? Already in the book’s preface, Roman soldiers are disemboweling insurgents in the first of three major Jewish rebellions against the Roman Empire, “driving stakes up their victims’ rectums to force them to reveal their caches of grain.” A millennium later, Crusaders are killing “anyone they encountered in the streets and alleyways,” cutting off “not only heads but hands and feet, glorying in the spurting fountains of cleansing infidel blood.”

As the narrative unspools, one overlord gives way to another in Jerusalem, but the themes remain constant: invasion, insurrection, religious and political persecution, and brutal crackdown. Only when the Ottoman Empire collapses on itself in the early 20th century does the chronicle shift to a struggle between rival nationalist movements. But even in the simplicity of the new drama, there’s more to the story. Montefiore describes in detail how divisions among Palestinians thwart their ability to counter the Jewish march to statehood. Their 1936 uprising quickly devolves into a campaign of internecine killing. Their increasingly fanatical leadership rejects compromises that would have left the Arabs controlling a large majority of the territory. Though it’s tempting to view the long war between Israelis and Palestinians as the inevitable outcome of their conflicting aspirations, this book is a reminder that better stewardship might have put the two sides on a different path altogether.

books-jerusalem-om03-ephron-inline “Jerusalem” by Simon Sebag Montefiore. Knopf. 688 p. $20.63.

Montefiore, who at 45 has already authored bestsellers on Joseph Stalin and Catherine the Great, says he decided to write the Jerusalem book after finding no equivalent in print. Other histories tend to focus on particular episodes in Jerusalem’s past—usually the reign of King David, Jesus’ time, the Crusader period, or the modern Israeli-Arab conflict. Montefiore wanted to fill in the gaps, which he says are no less interesting.

He also wanted to tap his family’s connection to Israel. The author is related to Sir Moses Montefiore, whose philanthropy helped sustain the Jewish community in 19th-century Palestine. He says he’s been visiting Israel all his life. To counter his own possible biases, Montefiore sent sections he wrote about the modern era to Palestinians and Israelis for review before the book’s publication. Some came back with insightful commentary, others with polemical nitpicking. “Writing about Jerusalem can be such a minefield,” he said in the interview. “I hardly slept for three years.”

As for the question, why Jerusalem?, the answer is the Jewish Bible. By recording the early story of Jerusalem and acclaiming its holiness in a text that became the touchstone of the world’s main religions, authors of the Old Testament virtually guaranteed the city would be a focal point throughout history. “No other city has its own book and no other book has so guided the destiny of a city,” Montefiore writes. The reader can judge based on the torturous narrative whether it’s been more a blessing or a curse.