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Non Fiction

Jerusalem by Simon Sebag Montefiore

jerusalem montefiore

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.

Rating: five_stars

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!

Haram el-Sharif with The Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque in view

Haram el-Sharif (Temple Mount) with The Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque in view – Photo credit and book review from Guardian

Hardback. Publisher: Weidenfeld & Nicholson 2011; Length: 541 pages; Setting: Jerusalem Source: Own copy. Finished reading on: 3rd February 2013.

About the writer:

simon sebag montefioreSimon 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.


About JoV

A bookaholic that went out of control.... I eat, sleep and breathe books. Well, lately I do other stuff.


28 thoughts on “Jerusalem by Simon Sebag Montefiore

  1. Jerusalem is the most fascinating city I have ever seen.
    Enjoy your trip!

    Posted by Andreas Moser | February 8, 2013, 9:50 am
  2. I have always wanted to go and visit Petra. Your whole trip sounds fantastic, have a wonderful time!

    Posted by Marie | February 8, 2013, 7:18 pm
  3. It is a dense book isn’t it? My husband is an RE teacher and a few times we’ve picked this one up whilst out and about but the small font always puts him off!
    I’m majorly jealous of your Jerusalem trip, can’t wait to hear all about it…

    Posted by Sam (Tiny Library) | February 8, 2013, 8:27 pm
    • Sam,
      Wait till I sort out thousand of my photos! It is dense but also not so. I bought a paperback and I thought the fonts are too small. I returned it back to Amazon and bought the hardback instead and it worked. 🙂

      Posted by JoV | February 18, 2013, 9:41 pm
  4. Man, sounds interesting! It sounds like the perfect thing to have as an e-book — then you could dip in and out, and the small font wouldn’t be an issue.

    Posted by Jenny | February 9, 2013, 2:13 pm
  5. Well done on reading a history before going there, I remember spending two months in Bethlehem and reading Karen Armstrong’s A History of Jerusalem, One City, Three Faiths published the same year I visited. By the time I finished I was exhausted and I looked at my husband, born in this part of the world and said “Congratulations, you survived” because after reading of all those conquests and massacres through the ages, the fact that any family continues to have a history from within the region today was quite incredible to me – they are by necessity a mix of people with genes coming from many of those conquerors, regardless of their professed faith.

    Enjoy your visit, knowing all those old walls and monuments have seen.

    Posted by Claire 'Word by Word' | February 10, 2013, 9:41 am
    • Claire,
      Thanks. It is amazing to talk to someone who has been there!

      I suppose the recent conquests is raw and recent, that’s why the turmoil. I thought about families who lived there and carried on centuries old tradition are so awesome… what we cannot tolerate is if they are uprooted and asked to leave their ancestry homes, which is what happened in parts of Jaffa and Jerusalem in the middle of last century.

      To see the old walls and monuments who bear witness to the history is truly amazing. What is equally awesome is to tread the same road that Jesus and other prophets have trodden is so surreal. I remember standing on Mount Nebo and thinking about Moses looking at the Holy land and not reaching it. It is emotional and powerful.

      Posted by JoV | February 18, 2013, 11:10 pm
      • Yes, it is sad for those who were uprooted, my husbands family was forced to abandon their family home and village in the North and became refugees in Bethlehem, which always struck me as a strange concept, to be a refugee in your own country, but in a land as old as this, to be moved from one’s ancestral village and made to live elsewhere is like having to leave one’s country I guess.

        I am sure this experience will stay with you forever, as it did for me. Fortunate indeed we are to have had the privilege of visiting.

        Posted by Claire 'Word by Word' | February 19, 2013, 5:45 pm
        • Claire,
          I thought it’s a tragedy to be uprooted and wouldn’t wish it for anyone. At least migration or to be an immigrant in another country, sometimes, is a voluntary choice, but uprooting and being ousted is not.

          We left a part of our soul in Jerusalem and since we came back there is not a day and in our dream we haven’t dreamt about the place. We are very fortunate to see Jerusalem. I hope there will be a day when you go back there and visit again.

          Posted by JoV | February 20, 2013, 9:07 pm
  6. Dear JoV, thank you for recommending this book to me! I too have finished reading it, just about. And I must salute your effort in writing a good summary of the book. I tried and have given up. Because the content is too vast.

    I too love to read the epilogue the most. It is a touching read. Certainly has opened up my mind. So thanks again!

    Mine is here if you have the time to read -> http://www.wilfridwong.com/2013/02/11/jerusalem-the-biography-by-simon-sebag-montefiore/

    Posted by Wilfrid Wong | February 11, 2013, 5:38 am
  7. I pleased you review this Jov I wonder if it was any good I like a earlier book on a totally different subject by the same writer ,all the best stu

    Posted by winstonsdad | February 11, 2013, 4:38 pm
    • Stu,
      Simon Montefiore writes very diversely but there is a Russian theme that runs through 2 of his books. This book Jerusalem is very good. An eye opener. If it’s too much to take in, perhaps a few pages a day, a week would be fine.

      Posted by JoV | February 18, 2013, 10:25 pm
  8. Wow, sounds like an amazing book! Thanks for including all the bio stuff on the author. I was wondering if he is related to Moses Montefioret. Thanks to you now I know. You should post your link to the Middle East Reading Challenge.

    Posted by maphead | February 12, 2013, 3:32 am
  9. Interesting review. Really enjoyed it! I have a friend who enjoys books from and about the Holy Land so I will have to recommend this to him. This probably doesn’t relate much to your site but I wonder if you can do a feature post on the site, ReadWave and perhaps the founders, Rob and Raoul?

    I would be very grateful if you could get back to me on my blog (the link is there if you click my name) or by email: submissions@readwave.com

    Posted by NyNy | February 12, 2013, 1:43 pm
  10. A fantastic review. I’ve had this on my shelf for some time but haven’t had the courage to start it yet. Only Montefiore could manage all that material so confidently. Hope your trip goes well

    Posted by Tom Cunliffe | February 18, 2013, 8:26 pm
  11. Great Review-the time spent reading this book will repay it self many times over on

    Posted by Mel u | February 19, 2013, 10:17 am
  12. Oh! You went to Petra? Oh please share some photos! I’ve always wanted to go there…. one day!

    Posted by olduvai | February 20, 2013, 3:11 pm


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Ratings Defined

0 = Abandon the book after first chapter

1 = Waste of paper, we will see what the environmentalist say about this!

2 = Skip it, read the book if you have got nothing better to do

2.5 = An average book, easily forgettable.

3 = A good read.

3.5 = A good entertaining read, a page-turner

4 = So glad that I read the book, a book with substance and invaluable for future reference

4.5 = So glad that I read the book, would pester everyone to read it, invaluable, I would want to own it and wouldn't mind a second read (something that I seldom do)

5 = The book is so good that I feel like I am on scale 4 and 4.5, and more, it blew me away and lingers on my head for weeks!

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Goat Mountain
Strange Weather In Tokyo
Strange Shores
And the Mountains Echoed
Ten White Geese
One Step Too Far
The Innocents
The General: The ordinary man who became one of the bravest prisoners in Guantanamo
White Dog Fell from the Sky
A Virtual Love
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Reading, after a certain age, diverts the mind too much from its creative pursuits. Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking. - Albert Einstein (1879 - 1955)

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