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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.