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Apocalypse City

But even when Jerusalem seemed forgotten, writes Montefiore, the devotees of biblical truth in faraway lands—whether in Mecca or Massachusetts—projected their faith back onto the city:

All cities are windows into foreign mindsets but this one is also a two-way mirror revealing her inner life while reflecting the world outside. Whether it was the epoch of total faith, righteous empire-building, evangelical revelation or secular nationalism, Jerusalem became its symbol, and its prize. But like the mirrors in a circus, the reflections are always distorted, often freakish.

The Ottomans ruled Jerusalem for four centuries, and Montefiore animates this often neglected time with the piecemeal encroachment of strangers. Sephardic Jews filtered in, as did pilgrim-adventurers; and the seventeenth-century annals of the irreverent, polymathic traveler Evliya Celebi illuminate the city like no other. In the intervals between local wars and revolts, European visitors grew more frequent. But even in the nineteenth century, with the arrival of foreign missions and richer pilgrims, romantic foreigners were mooning over the city’s desolation, or voicing disgust.

We were seated all day in front of the principal gates of Jerusalem,” wrote Lamartine;

we made the circuit of the walls in passing by all the other gates of the city; not a living being entered or came out. Not a beggar was even seated on the boundary stone, no sentinel showed himself at the entrance; we saw nothing; we heard nothing…. We saw only four funeral processions issuing in silence from the gate of Damascus.

Later writers—Melville, Gogol, Twain, Thackeray—left portraits of grinding misery. Flaubert found the decadence he craved here. Yet by now the consulates were appearing, and the eager archaeologists, and the place was “so overrun by apocalyptic Americans,” Montefiore writes, “that the American Journal of Insanity compared its hysteria to the California Gold Rush.” By midcentury, too, some wealthy Jews were arriving. The philanthropist Sir Moses Montefiore (the author’s great-great-uncle) even founded a Jewish quarter outside the city walls, which is still named after him, and crowned by a Kentish windmill. The future British prime minister Benjamin Disraeli, more cavalier, reported that the city’s communities were indistinguishable from one another (and that the Arabs were “Jews on horseback”).

Jerusalem at this time, Montefiore writes,

had at least two faces and a multiple personality disorder: the gleaming, imperial edifices, built by the Europeans in pith helmets and redcoats as they rapidly Christianized the Muslim Quarter, existed alongside the old Ottoman city where black Sudanese guards protected the Haram and guarded condemned prisoners whose heads still rolled in public executions. The gates were still closed each sundown; Bedouin surrendered their spears and swords when they came into the city. A third of the city was a wasteland….

Such continuity as Jerusalem knew came not from its rapacious Ottoman governors (whom a suspicious sultan might recall if they governed too effectively), but from its old Muslim families. These inherited jealously guarded duties. The Husseinis were muftis on the Haram; the Nusseibehs oversaw the Church of the Holy Sepulchre; the Khalidis dominated the law courts. Their descendants—with many of their privileges—survive today.

During wide research (including his own family archives), Montefiore has unearthed other, less familiar characters. Among these the most fascinating is Wasif Jawhariyyeh, an Arab lute player, fixer, and prodigious diarist (his diary is still untranslated from the Arabic) whose musical talent gave him access to every level of society. Another is the Druze princess, singer, and grande horizontale Amal al-Atrash, an Eastern Mata Hari who spied for all sides during World War II, and met a mysterious end in the Nile.

Then there is the aristocratic opportunist Monty Parker, with “expensive tastes and minimal income,” who set up a syndicate for discovering the Ark of the Covenant. His sponsors included Consuelo Vanderbilt, the Duchess of Marlborough. He and his friends, disguised as Arabs, were eventually discovered digging under the pavements of the Haram al-Sherif and brought the whole city into uproar; they barely escaped with their lives.

Each title of every section of Montefiore’s book—and there are over two hundred of them—features the name of one or more historical figures: “Absalom: Rise and Fall of a Prince,” “John the Baptist and the Fox of Galilee,” “Queen Melisende: The Scandal,” “Herbert Samuel: One Palestine, Complete,” and so on. This is a feat in itself, as well as a self-imposed stricture. And of course the book’s subtitle, “The Biography” (an indefinite article would have been more modest), asserts Montefiore’s single-minded dedication to character and chronology, and his ambition to share his city in the most accessible way possible.

This, of course, is profoundly conventional historiography, far from the socioeconomics of the Annales school and others, with their downplaying of événements. Sometimes the long procession of human violence becomes so intense that there is an illusion of nothing quotidian in between sieges and massacres, and the passages of more general overview—on the design of Herod’s Temple, perhaps, or the stirrings of Zionism—come as a relief. But if there is any history in which personalities and deeds are pivotal, it is Jerusalem’s. The illusion that these are merely froth on an ocean of ineluctable social or cultural tides is refuted by the world-changing decisions of such rulers as Cyrus and Constantine. The inevitable, Montefiore infers, is deduced only in retrospect. So he wades into his rich and often grisly material with a populist touch, and humanizes many a cardboard hero in a few deft phrases. He is hard, in particular, on military reputation. The Roman triumvir Mark Antony, we learn, was “thick-necked, barrel-chested, lantern-jawed and prided himself on his muscular legs,” but he may have been an indifferent soldier; Pompey’s epithet “the Great” was partly ironic; and even the noble Saladin was more tenacious than brilliant.

Montefiore’s lightning-quick and sometimes dismissive sketches typically combine character with looks. Talleyrand is a “louche, lame ex-bishop”; Chateaubriand, less happily, the “bouffant-haired Catholic royalist.” The British statesman Arthur Balfour, a poetaster and enthusiastic tennis player, is “a foppish romantic who never married and a frivolous improviser….” Often a light irony is at work, while the surrender of Jerusalem to the British during World War I descends into pure farce: “The mayor sought a white flag—even though in his society, it proclaimed the home of a marriageable virgin. A woman offered him a white blouse, but this seemed inappropriate….” In the end he hoisted a bedsheet onto a broom and sallied out through the Jaffa Gate to surrender the city to the first British soldiers he met. These were two Cockney mess cooks rifling a chicken coop, and they refused his offer. Only after five more attempts was a major general summoned and the city given over.

Jerusalem: The Biography is a double-headed book: at once a scholarly record and an exuberantly written popular tour de force. And it has another supreme merit. Its author is the scion of a distinguished Jewish dynasty, and a practicing Jew; yet he insists rigorously on the equal justice of the Palestinian claim. In this, his scrupulously fair narrative will be the reader’s judge, not vice versa. Of the famous (or infamous) Balfour Declaration and the Sykes-Picot Agreement that carved up the Middle East, he writes:

The promises to the Arabs and the Jews were both the result of short-term, ill-considered and urgent political expediency in wartime and neither would have been proffered in other circumstances.

In the same spirit, his step-by-step account of the growth of Zionism, Arab reaction, the British Mandate, and the ensuing Arab–Jewish war proceeds evenhandedly. Then comes the Israeli seizure of Jerusalem during the Six-Day War in 1967. A surge of religious euphoria followed, even among the most secular Israelis—not to mention an apocalyptic ecstasy among some Christians. “The possession of the city,” Montefiore writes, “was so intoxicating that giving her up became henceforth unbearable and unthinkable—and vast resources were now mobilized to make such a thing very difficult indeed.” And here his more detailed narrative ends.

In an epilogue that frees his book at last from the tyranny of personalities, he brings Jerusalem up-to-date and into the contemporary impasse. This brief, lucid account of the past forty-four years—the apparent intransigence, the tragically missed opportunities—is a model of balanced restraint. At a time of resurgent fundamentalism, where an understanding of opposing sacred narratives has grown ever more urgent, that is hard to underestimate.

Montefiore’s book asserts, from time to time, that “the history of Jerusalem is the history of the world,” but this is a Eurocentric assumption. To almost half the world’s populace—Hindu, Buddhist, Chinese—Jerusalem is inconsequential. To yet others this brutal, vividly written history may have the unintentional effect of turning them away from the toxic city altogether, and calling down a plague on all its contending houses. And even in the three Abrahamic faiths there were gleams, always, of another, less bloodied Jerusalem, mystically conceived as a celestial ideal or a human longing.

Nearly two centuries ago the philosopher Hegel praised Luther for seeking divinity not in “an earthly sepulchre of stone” but in the inner recesses of consciousness; while later Freud, in a letter to his niece, wrote that it was the very absence of the Temple that liberated Judaism. Remembrance, he felt, had freed itself at last from the tainted material world.

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