January 26, 2011
Jerusalem: The Biography
by Simon Sebag Montefiore (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £25)
Jerusalem is an epitome of the human condition: man at his best, and worst. Over three millennia people have believed the city to be the bridge between heaven and earth. But it has usually been a dangerous crossing. Jerusalem has inspired courage, sacrifice and chivalry; art, architecture, and music. It has also sunk into persecution, brutality, butchery, squalor and venereal disease. Just to its south lies the Valley of Hinnom, notorious for child sacrifices even in the early Jewish era. As a result, it came to be known as Gehenna: hell. Given Jerusalem’s history, it is appropriate that it should have its own branch of Hades.
Jerusalem is also a bloody testimony to the ambivalent nature of religion. The Christians who guard the Church of the Holy Sepulchre cannot live in peace. The monks and priests from the various denominations often assail each other, especially at Easter, as if they would re-crucify Christ. Jerusalem is a holy city, where the faithful often pray with a sword or a gun. Throughout its centuries—even in the high eras of grandeur—tragedy was always at hand.
That was especially true of the Jews. Archaeologists have established that David did exist. From the days of Royal David’s City, Jerusalem has been the capital of Jewry: the focal point for Jewish aspirations. This has helped the Jewish people to survive and to avoid the twin perils of extirpation and assimilation. Down the many centuries of exile and diaspora, millions of Jews have vowed “next year in Jerusalem,” even though they had no earthly prospect of visiting the city. The dream kept Judaism alive.
There was a problem. The Jews were the pioneers of monotheism, which enabled mankind to make a break with the superstitions of the pagan era. But Jewish monotheism created two daughter houses: Christianity and Islam. Both of them venerated Jerusalem and sought to rule it; both of them were prone to outbreaks of matricide. The Jews had already experienced terror. In AD 70, Titus conquered Jerusalem and destroyed the Jewish state. For the next 1,800-odd years, often oppressed, enslaved and massacred, Jews somehow clung to a presence in their city.
It is a moving story, and an endlessly troubled one. Many of the devout believe that the destiny of Jerusalem will be bound up with the end of the world. They may well be proved right.
To write a “biography” of Jerusalem is a formidable undertaking. Simon Sebag Montefiore has risen to the challenge. His book can be commended to anyone who is planning a trip to Jerusalem, or who wants background on the Palestinian question— or who just enjoys a good read. The author is especially good on archaeology. Just under the surface of Jerusalem lie 3,000 years’ worth of stones and bones. Many stones have been disinterred and reused. Newer buildings rest on the foundations of ancient ones. The city centre is an archaeological palimpsest, and Sebag Montefiore appears to have mastered the scholarship. But this is not an arid process: he can make the stones live and sing. He would be an excellent guide on an archaeological tour.
He also brings out the politicised complexity of all this. There is one obvious problem. Everything happened in such a small area. The Temple Mount has two of the most venerated mosques in Islam. But deep underneath them lie the foundations of Solomon’s temple. Although Israeli archaeology reflects the secular elements in modern Israeli heritage, those in charge of the excavations have come under increasing pressure from rabbis who insist that all work should cease as soon as a bone appears. There is also a far graver danger with archaeological aspects. The Israeli defence forces have to be vigilant in protecting the mosques, for there are some Jewish fundamentalists—most unworthy legatees of the wisdom of Solomon—who would like to blow them up, thus cleansing Temple Mount of Islamic “pollution.” That would probably drown the whole region in blood and fire.
Simon Sebag Montefiore also enjoys depicting the weird and wonderful personalities who found their way to the city over the centuries. Visits to Jerusalem often led to interesting behaviour. Whether it is the hill air or religious exaltation, there is something about Jerusalem that turns the traveller’s mind to sex. King David is the first known example, but he was not the last man to lose his heart to a Bathsheba, or behave criminally to a Uriah. Not everyone succumbed. While he was in Jerusalem, that notorious womaniser Arthur Koestler for once fell victim to guilt. He was deterred by “the angry face of Jahweh, brooding over the hot rocks.” Others merely rocked to their own heat.
This was especially true in the 1930s, when exotics and libertines arrived from all over the world, creating the impresssion that Jerusalem had become an entrepot for tranquil decadence. That was a brief interlude, which could only be sustained by those whose ears were resolutely deaf to the growing clamour in the streets. In Jerusalem, ancestral voices were usually prophesying war, and the prophecies almost always came true.
Although there is an epilogue, this book ends in 1967, with the liberation of the Old City: one of the few passages where our author’s prose is slightly below the level of events. But that may reflect his neutrality. Sebag Montefiore always rises above partisanship. If only that were true of more of Jerusalem’s inhabitants. Although the book does deal with recent attempts to find compromises and bring peace, the author is far too realistic and well-informed to indulge in optimism. There is little in Jerusalem’s past, and less still in the present, to encourage hope for the future. But the city is still there: one of the most magnificent sights on earth, no better place to meditate on the troubles of our proud and angry dust. For such a journey, this book is an excellent vade mecum .