Any single volume history of a city as complex and diverse as Jerusalem is bound to be a romp. In Jerusalem: The Biography, Simon Sebag Montefiore starts his historical overview of this iconic metropolis with a detailed description of the Roman sacking of Jerusalem in 70 AD. While many readers might be generally familiar with the event, Montefiore captures the entirety of the siege in exacting detail. While an interesting read, it is through his focus on lesser known periods in Jerusalem’s history that Montefiore does justice to the competing Muslim, Jewish, and Christian visions of the city.
Montefiore has honed his biographical abilities through studies on key figures in Russian history from the evil Joseph Stalin to the Russian noblemen Grigory Potemkin. Montefiore has brought his skills as a Russianist to bear on this retelling of Jerusalem’s story. In particular, Montefiore notes the influence of Russian Jews and Christians in shaping the city’s religious geography.
While the role of Russian Jews in supporting Zionism is well known, Jerusalem’s impact on and place within Russian Christianity is less well understood. During the 19th century, Russian pilgrims from all walks of life began to flock to the city. One of the most famous of these pilgrims was Nikolai Gogol, the author of the classic Russian novel “Dead Souls”. The Russian fascination with Jerusalem continued through the 19th and 20th centuries and, as Montefiore’s book suggests, Imperial Russia’s wars with the Ottomans may have been a continuation of the 12th century Crusades to capture the city.
Montefiore’s biography makes clear that Jerusalem has not only inspired competing visions among the worlds three monotheistic religions, but has also been the site of conflicts between Christian sects. This is perhaps best exemplified by an 1846 clash on Good Friday in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher that devolved into a brutal sectarian conflict in which at least 40 Christians of various denominations were killed. Unfortunately, such episodes have been fairly common in Jerusalem’s history. Great empires have shed much blood in fighting over Jerusalem, a city with no geopolitical importance, which, as a result of geography, has been far easier to conquer than to hold.
Montefiore’s exposition on Jerusalem appears aimed at helping Muslim, Jewish and Christian readers understand each other’s perspective on the city. Montefiore largely succeeds in these efforts while also deftly recounting the city’s social history. A talented biographer, Montefiore constructs Jerusalem’s story not through the opinions of experts but rather through the lives of the colorful characters who have passed through the city’s walls.
His portraits of the “Leper King” Baldwin the IV, the half-Arab Herodian monarch King Phaesal, the Arab philosopher, Ibn Khaldun, and Israel’s war-time leader, Moshe Dayan, are revealing and sympathetic. Montefiore does not hesitate to include the failings of important figures, including his own great-uncle Sir Moses Montefiore, an English banker and proto-Zionist who as an octogenarian fathered a child with one of his teenage servants.
Although Montefiore spent three years writing this epic tale, a few parts of his narrative are worth questioning. I will outline a handful of these and Muftah.org would also love to hear from readers in the comment section below on this topic.
For example, Montefiore repeats the highly questionable claim that T.E Lawrence (of “Lawrence of Arabia” fame) was raped in 1917 while on patrol in the city. The only source is Lawrence himself and scholars have long debated the veracity of his claim.
Similarly, Montefiore adheres to the age-old belief that Cleopatra killed herself with an asp. Again we have only biased sources about the untimely death of one of Rome’s greatest enemies. Death by asp bite would have been highly painful and there were no shortage of painless fatal poisons in the ancient world. Indeed, both Cleopatra and the Anatolian leader, Mithradates, two of Rome’s greatest enemies, are described in Roman records as mastering the art of poisoning.
Most worrying is Montefiore’s exclusion of the views about Jerusalem held by minority religions. Curiously, the Mandeans, a Gnostic group, receive no mention in Montefiore’s text. The Mandean community views Jerusalem as an evil city whose inhabitants have historically worshipped false gods and prophets. Similarly, the Samaritans, another religious minority, are dismissive of conventional Jewish views of Jerusalem, but receive no attention in Montefiore’s otherwise exhaustive history of the city.
These issues aside Montefiore has drafted a readable introduction to the city, which will be of use to laymen and experts alike. For Muslims, Jews, and Christians a visit to Jerusalem is supposed to be a life-changing source of personal spiritual fulfillment. Montefiore’s book suggests that the city’s darkest and most unstable periods have come when leaders have used the city in order to satisfy personal ambition, rather than personal spirituality.
*Joseph Hammond is Muftah’s Book Review editor