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.
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.