Jerusalem is the house of the one God, the capital of two peoples, the temple of three religions and she is the only city to exist twice – in heaven and on earth. – preface
It’s been a long time since I read a history book. An academic book. I am going to Jerusalem and Jordan this February and I thought it would be meaningless to go to the most disputed plot of land on earth and not knowing its history.
Wow, was I in for a surprise……
It took me close to 2 hours to read 50 pages. It contains narrow line spacing with lots of footnotes, do not even need to mention the research notes, bilbliography and index that run 96 pages, which I skipped. There were maps and lineage charts, so that you get to know some of the most horrifying tyrants, cruel or wise kings in the various family trees. Still the most confounding family tree has to be one that belong to the Herods. As most of the descendants called themselves Herods, and to make it more complicated there is a lot of intermarriages.
You see, long before the Zionists occupied the land and created the nation called Israel, Jerusalem had gone through so many conquests and re-conquests. I won’t be able to tell you off the cuff who these conquerers were unless I refer back to this big book and trace the sequence of events. Montefiore takes the history of the old city from its beginnings as a fortified village beginning with King David through every conquest or occupation – Canaanite, Persians, Macedonians, Maccabees, Romans, Byzantine, Assyrian, Arabs, Ummayad, Abassid, Fatimid, Saladin dynasty, Crusader, Tartar, Mamluk, Ottoman, British, Jordanian and finally Israeli (in the process I may missed out the more brief and less significant conquests including the Albanians, the French (Napoleon), Russians etc.). In short, everyone wants a piece of Jerusalem. Nothing makes a place holier than the competition of another religion.
Usually when the city changes hand, rival places of worship were destroyed and new ones constructed with the stones of earlier buildings. The Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa mosques were made palaces for the crusaders, The Church of Holy Sepulchre was once desecrated. Populations were slaughtered, sold into slavery or fled the city only to be replaced by new waves of immigration. The city was once ruled by tyrants, kings with their conniving wives and concubines, trod by prophets and Jesus Christ, mystics and madmen who claims to be the messiahs and rightful rulers of the city. It is not only tribes of different religions are at odds with one another, tribes of same religion but different sects cannot get along. The Sephardic Jews think differently than Orthodox Jew or Zionists; The Greek Orthodox cannot get along with the Armenians, the Catholic cannot get along with the Protestant, The Coptic Egyptian wants their spot in the limelight and it was the Ethiopians who has the rights to the rooftop monastery and St Michael’s Chapel. With a history like this, readers are sure in for a roller coaster ride!
Before New York or London became cosmopolitans, Jerusalem was a city as such that people speak many languages as in Tower of Babel. They wear different costumes and practice different customs and religions. The only problem with Jerusalem was its holiness. Every leader (or contenders) wants to claim it as their own.
Montefiore wants to write the history of Jerusalem in its broadest sense for the general readers, regardless of the readers religions or political agenda, as a history book. His task, he said, is to pursue facts, not to adjudicate between the mysteries of different religions. However he also said, the effect of the religions and their miracles on the history of Jerusalem is undeniably real, and it is impossible to know Jerusalem without some respect for religion.
The view of Jerusalem is the history of the world; it is more; it is the history of heaven and earth. – Benjamin Disraeli, Tancred
Reading the history of Jerusalem is reading the history of the world. Simon Sebag Montefiore did me a big favour compiling the history in one volume, an easy digestible book. No doubt there is a lot of information in it but I found the book to be well researched, consists of very organised chapters by period, even handed and most importantly the book is engaging.
Montefiore ends the book with a moving epilogue, describing a typical day of multi-ethnic Jerusalem, where one hour before dawn, The Dome of the Rock is open: Muslims are praying. The Wall is always open: The Jews are praying. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is open: The Christians are praying in several languages. It is amazing to know when Saladin appointed the Judehs family as ‘Custodian of the Key’ and the Nusseibehs family as ‘Custodian and doorkeeper of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre’ in 1192, the ritual is still practised by the descendent of these two families until the present day. Jerusalem is a special place…..
“Here, more than anywhere else on earth, we crave, we hope and we search for any drop of the elixir of tolerance, sharing and generosity to act as the antidote to the arsenic of prejudice, exclusivity and possessiveness.” (page 510)
It is an important book and I think everyone should read it.
By the time you read this I would have been on my way to Jerusalem and then to neighbouring Jordan to visit Petra, the Dead Sea and the Red Sea. I wish you a good February and abundance of sunshines!
Hardback. Publisher: Weidenfeld & Nicholson 2011; Length: 541 pages; Setting: Jerusalem Source: Own copy. Finished reading on: 3rd February 2013.
About the writer:
Simon Jonathan Sebag Montefiore (born 27 June 1965, London) is a British popular historian and writer).
Montefiore’s father is descended from a line of wealthy Sephardic Jews who were diplomats and bankers all over Europe. At the start of the 19th century, his great-great uncle, Sir Moses Montefiore, became a banking partner of N M Rothschild & Sons. His mother, Phillis (also known as April) comes from a Lithuanian Jewish family of poor scholars. Her parents fled the Russian Empire at the turn of the 20th century. They bought tickets for New York City, but were cheated, dropped off at Cork, Ireland. During the Limerick Pogrom of 1904 they left Ireland and moved to Newcastle, England.
Montefiore was educated at Caius College, Cambridge, where he read history. He went on to work as a banker and foreign affairs journalist.
Montefiore’s books have been world bestsellers, published in 33 languages. His first history book, Catherine the Great & Potemkin, was shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson, Duff Cooper, and Marsh Biography Prizes. Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar won History Book of the Year at the 2004 British Book Awards. Young Stalin, which I own, won the LA Times Book Prize for Best Biography, the Costa Book Award, the Bruno Kreisky Award for Political Literature, the Prix de la Biographie Politique and was shortlisted for the James Tait Black Memorial Prize.
His novel, Sashenka, set in twentieth century Russia, appeared in 2008. Miramax Films and Ruby Films have bought the rights and are currently developing a movie of Young Stalin.
A Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, he lives in London with his wife, the novelist Santa Montefiore, and their two children.