January 22, 2018

Book Review | Jerusalem: The Biography by Simon Sebag Montefiore

Book Review | Jerusalem: The Biography by Simon Sebag MontefioreOh, Jerusalem. There is no other place on Earth quite as tragic, drenched in both blood and history.

And it makes for reading that cannot be put down.

Here’s the short version of why you should read Simon Sebag Montefiore’s history of Jerusalem: In just under seven hundred pages, Jerusalem: The Biography is a satisfying, narrative-based history one of the most contested pieces of real estate in world history, if not the most contested. In those relatively few pages, Montefiore manages to give at least the appearance of objective attention to each of the major religions that dominate the city’s history, as well as to the many, many conquerors that pass through its gates over its thousands of years of history. With all the sordid intrigue of an Italian opera, Jerusalem: The Biography is painfully tragic, proceeding chronologically with the march of history as it demands to be read from the introduction to the last page. Not a tale of the daily, mundane, or pedestrian, it is a story of kings, rulers, and the powerful. The average Jerusalemite appears only as a pawn of history, to be butchered, starved, driven-out, or resettled.

As a Christian, it’s hard to deny the allure of the holy city that was the setting for Jesus Christ’s life. Indeed, even Christianity’s god bemoaned the city, already ancient when he appeared, for its tragic past while alluding to the blood that would spill in its streets in coming years. And yet, as the reader turns through pages filled by debauchery, sieges, massacre, and horror, it is difficult to turn away from Montefiore’s writing. Full of detail, Jerusalem is full of more detail than could possibly be necessary to know the history of the three-thousand-year old city,

To point to how varied and thorough the detail Montefiore brings to bear as he tells his story, New York Times reviewer Jonathan Rosen started randomly opening pages throughout the book:

“[O]n Page 4, Roman soldiers are crucifying 500 Jews a day in the run-up to the destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70; on Page 75, Alexander Jannaeus, a much-loathed Jewish king of the first century B.C., after slaughtering 50,000 of his own people, celebrates his victory “by cavorting with his concubines at a feast while watching 800 rebels being crucified around the hills.” Crucifixion was so common in the ancient world, Montefiore notes in one of his many fascinating asides, that Jews and gentiles alike had taken to wearing nails from victims as charms, anticipating what became a Christian tradition. And when the population dwindled — as after the First Crusade, which like a neutron bomb eliminated the infidels but preserved the holy places — you could always dash across the Jordan, like Baldwin the crusader king in 1115, and bring back “poverty-stricken Syrian and Armenian Christians, whom he invited to settle in Jerusalem, ancestors of today’s Palestinian Christians.””

Despite his penchant for detail, Montefiore never seems to lose control of his narrative. Where tedium might threaten, a danger when facing a constant march of dates, names, and places, Montefiore seems to imbue his story with a kind of epicness… It is a city that is larger than history, exerting a magnetism on the peoples and nations that seem unable to avoid its attraction. Like a black hole, it seems to distort the laws of history and the decisions of otherwise rational actors who come too close to its gravitational pull.

And yet, the city is by no means as romantic as each successive re-writer of history would imagine it. From the barbarity of the crusaders at the turn of the first millennium to the dung-heap on the Temple Mount Caliph Omar found when he took the city in the 600s, to the modern-day controversies (including Yassir Arafat’s head-scratching claim that Jerusalem had never been the site of the Jewish Temple). Still, Montefiore takes pains to be fair to Jewish, Christian, and Islamic relationships to the city, all while correcting oft-repeated myths and politically charged rewrites of history.

In some senses, it can be hard to read Jerusalem: The Biography and see a god in all of this violence. And yet, it is not any god that has brought the seemingly unending death and war to the Holy Land, but the errant followers of the faiths that call Jerusalem home.

Originally posted at Attackofthebooks.com. Reposted with permission.

About Daniel Burton

Daniel Burton lives in Salt Lake County, Utah, where he practices law by day and everything else by night. You can follow him on his blog PubliusOnline.com where he muses on politics, the law, books and ideas. He is active on social media, Republican politics, and has been named to PoliticIt’s list of the “Top-50 Utah Political Opinion Leaders” on Twitter. You can reach him directly at dan.burton@gmail.com

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