Jerusalem: The Biography
by Simon Sebag Montefiore
Knopf, 650 pp., $35.00
No city is harder to chronicle than Jerusalem. Its symbolic reach so far exceeds the limits of its temporal power in any age that the city demands a particular understanding and knowledge. The sensitivities that surround its formidable tangle of archaeology, faith, and history can tempt the scholar into either partisanship or pallid tact. Above all, the author’s attitude toward the Israeli–Palestinian conflict tingles like an electric current through every account. Even the most emollient history will cause offense to somebody.
Jerusalem has for so long incited fantasy that the geographical city may come as a shock. Unlike Beirut or the great inland cities of Syria, it occupies a haggard site of rock and eroded valleys, where a minor trade route once crossed the Judean hills. Moreover, the city itself—alternately desolate or bitter and divided—has outraged generations of believers. “A golden goblet full of scorpions,” wrote the tenth-century traveler Muqaddasi, who yet loved Jerusalem; while Amos Oz called it “a black widow who devours her mates while they are still penetrating her.” Even today a hundred patients a year are committed to the city’s mental asylum with Jerusalem Syndrome, a madness of “religious excitement induced by proximity to the holy places” of the city.
In his ambitious and arresting Jerusalem: The Biography, Simon Sebag Montefiore is fascinated less by faith in itself than by a history whose violence, piety, hypocrisy, and sheer human drama—its personalities variously grand, repellent, or both—must be as extreme as those of any city on earth. The word “biography” suggests an anthropomorphic city, to be approached as flesh and blood; and so Montefiore treats it, ranging from the founding Canaanites (although he gives them short shrift) to the Palestinian–Israeli conflict, and opening out a long vista of human frailty. Despite some awkwardness of method, it is a powerful achievement, erudite without pedantry, and intimate with the complex archaeology of the city on the ground. In the matter of competing faiths, it is all but pitch-perfect.
Few sites are more confusing than Ophel, the earliest Jerusalem, whose modest ridge abuts the platform of successive Jewish Temples. Through its ruinous labyrinth—and that of early Israelite history—Montefiore threads his way adroitly. Certain moments he identifies as pivotal to the city and to the Israelites’ survival. Solomon’s dedication of the Temple crucially grounded the Ark of the Covenant on a site of permanent sanctity; and the apocalyptic yearnings of Isaiah, at a time of Assyrian threat, gave birth to the concept of a celestial Jerusalem and of the messianic End of Days.
The sack of the city by Nebuchadnezzar in 586 BC, and the Babylonian exile, created another, unexpected nodal point. For all three religions—Judaism, Christianity, Islam—this traumatic spoliation confirmed Jerusalem as
the venue of the Last Days and the coming of the divine kingdom. This was the Apocalypse—based on the Greek word for “revelation”—that Jesus would prophesy. For Christians it became a defining and perennial expectation, while Muhammad would see Nebuchadnezzar’s destruction as the withdrawal of divine favour from the Jews, making way for his Islamic revelation.
Forty-seven years later Babylon fell to the Persians, and Cyrus the Great, in an astonishing edict, permitted the exiled Jews to return to their city. Another, later, sack of Jerusalem—its terrible razing by the Romans under Titus in AD 70—was a defining moment with the opposite effect, scattering the Jews in a diaspora that saw the birth of modern Judaism.
From the start Montefiore recounts the careers of the first, sacred kings, David and Solomon, as straight history, while cautioning that the Bible is our only written source. Here is a minefield. The career of David, in particular, as the founder of Jewish Jerusalem, and the extent of his sovereignty (the Bible even stretches it to Damascus) are sharply relevant to today’s political debate. Some scholars doubted that David had even existed until the 1993 discovery of a (disputed) ninth-century-BC stela naming him.
Montefiore, after a vivid retelling of this royal era, notes how its recorded history began to be synthesized just before the Babylonian exile—some four hundred years later than the lives of its earliest kings. And a succinct footnote encapsulates the progress of the Bible’s formation in Babylon, suggesting just how tentative the earliest history is. But Montefiore speculates that David’s life, especially, with its piquant and sometimes inconsequential details, may have been remembered from the words of a contemporary. Indeed it is just such telling bits of incidental information, serving no narrative or prophecy-fulfilling purpose, that may persuade one of a historical truth.
The retrospective modification of narrative becomes a recurring technique of Montefiore’s opus. He will give a colorful, sometimes near-legendary account of an event, then undercut it with a well-researched caveat. Later historical periods, in particular, lend themselves to an indulgence in the dramatic and the luridly violent, and he succumbs with gusto. He cannot resist a good story. But then the correctives will come—these too, given his scholarly integrity, he cannot resist—and an undergrowth of qualifying footnotes may appear. This tension between scholarly responsibility and a love of narrative driven by personalities can occasionally feel uncomfortably bifocal. Sometimes the footnotes make more interesting reading than the stories they serve (and others are wonderfully various and discursive, ranging from the possible origin of the Hebrews to the history of slings).
After the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC and the collapse of his short-lived empire, Jerusalem occupied a fault line between his Seleucid and Ptolemaic successors—and the mayhem and the horrors pile up. In 167 BC the Seleucid king Antiochus Epiphanes leveled the city walls and soiled the Temple with pig’s flesh before consecrating it to Olympian Zeus:
Those practising the Sabbath were burned alive or suffered a gruesome Greek import: crucifixion. An old man perished rather than eat pork; women who circumcised their children were thrown with their babies off the walls of Jerusalem. The Torah was torn to shreds and burned publicly: everyone found with a copy was put to death.
The ferocious revolt and hegemony of the Jewish Maccabees and the rule, under Rome, of the Herodian client kings brought only an escalation of mass slaughter, family murders, plunderings, and sexual caprices. Among the multiple horrors recorded during the grotesque dynasty of Herod the Great, only the Massacre of the Innocents appears to be a Christian slander. “It is ironic,” comments Montefiore, “that this monster should be particularly remembered for the one crime he neglected to commit.”
Rather than enter the quagmire of New Testament controversy, Montefiore more or less endorses the historicity of the gospels. His most hardheaded misgivings come, as often, in a few footnotes; and he embeds Jesus firmly inside Judaism, as any work of history must, with the recognition that Jesus was, however unusual, a practicing Jew. As if exhausted by the previous melodrama of the Herods, Montefiore records Jesus’s ministry a little tepidly (as he does, later, that of Muhammad). One suspects he is not too interested, until the drama of the Passion unfurls. He treats the Resurrection at last with a discreetly voiced alternative: that the Apostles, or family, simply moved the body to another tomb.
Christians may object that Montefiore ignores Jesus’s distinctive focus on charity, or complain that later the exponential growth of Christianity goes unexplained (except for a short section on Saint Paul). But the author is kind to the validity of Christian memory: above all, to the disputed site of Jerusalem’s great Church of the Holy Sepulchre, submerged under the debris of Titus’ destruction. The Church’s later history, with its bedlam of conflicting sects and profanities, is allowed to speak lamentably for itself.
The message of the third great faith contending for Jerusalem—Islam—is likewise rendered swiftly here. The quality of the Koran is opaque to most Westerners, and Montefiore affords it a single sentence before advancing down the more familiar paths of history. His narrative of Islam’s earliest years eschews the modern questionings of Muhammad’s life (although he notes that the Prophet’s first biography appeared two centuries after his death), and he hurries on instead to the Arabs’ astonishing first conquests.
In the mid-seventh century the Muslims swept first over Byzantine Syria and Palestine, then over Sassanian Persia, with astounding speed. Jerusalem was a special prize. Their veneration for the site of its Temple sprang from the earliest years (they had first prayed facing Jerusalem, not Mecca), and was soon bolstered by mystical belief. Muhammad, it was said, on a divine night journey, alighted on the great rock at the Temple’s heart, and there met the biblical Patriarchs, even Jesus, before ascending to visit heaven.
On this spot, near the end of the seventh century, Abd al-Malik, the Umayyad caliph of Damascus, raised the Dome of the Rock, the architectural jewel of Jerusalem. In a city whose every holy site steals or resanctifies a preceding one, the Dome seems to rise from the Temple esplanade—the Muslims’ Haram al-Sherif, or Noble Sanctuary—in perfect self-containment. In fact it was the creation of Hellenized craftsmen, working within Islamic strictures; it probably covers the site of the Judaic Holy of Holies, and its octagon echoes the rotunda of the Christian Holy Sepulchre.
With the downfall of the liberal Umayyad dynasty in 750 and the passing of the Caliphate to the Abbasids of Baghdad, Jerusalem saw a gentle decline. Its minority Jews and Christians, it seems, recovered their self-esteem under the more tolerant Egyptian Fatimids, who seized the city in 969, but a century later all Palestine was slipping into lawlessness, inviting the European incursion of the Crusades.
The knights’ conquest of Jerusalem is one of the grimmest in a long procession of such tragedies. Montefiore gives the terrible, official Crusader version of the sack, then amends it into more plausible history by one of his scrupulous footnotes. The subsequent chronicling of the kingdom that the Crusaders established—ruled by a variegated line of kings and queens, riven by battles and internecine scandals—is perfectly suited to Montefiore’s gifts. Softened by Eastern custom and replenished only fitfully from the West, the Crusader realm gains nuance (in Montefiore’s telling) from Muslim culture: from the chronicle of the resilient Syrian Usama bin Munqidh, in particular. And a sympathetic portrait of the warrior-sultan Saladin highlights his honorable reconquest of Jerusalem in 1187, which reads like a standing reproach to the Crusader carnage of eighty-eight years before.
One of the refreshing virtues of Jerusalem: The Biography is the space it gives to those periods when the city languished in relative obscurity. Soon after the Crusades, the Mameluke slave-kings of Egypt ruled it for nearly three centuries, while it insensibly declined. The religious schools and tombs that they endowed now line the Haram al-Sherif in mellow restraint, their alternating courses of rose, black, and cream still handsome, and it was the Mamelukes who shaped the old Muslim quarter that survives today. Then, in 1517, Jerusalem passed peacefully to the Ottoman Turks, under whose greatest sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent, the city received its distinctive walls—a last flurry of rebuilding before the long stagnation.