Jerusalem is always in the headlines, or so it seems, but the same city on a hill has commanded the attention of the Western world without interruption since biblical antiquity. That’s why Jerusalem is the subject of enough books to fill a library, the latest of which is Simon Sebag Montefiore’s “Jerusalem: The Biography” (Knopf: $35.00), a lively yet magisterial work that offers a fresh look at the city that three religions regard as holy.
Montefiore comes by his interest in Jerusalem in a unique way. He is descended from the family of Moses Montefiore, one of the great Jewish benefactors of Jerusalem in the 19th century, and the windmill that his ancestor bestowed on the city is still one of its iconic sights. “I feel I have been preparing to write this book all my life,” the author explains. “Since childhood, I have been wandering around Jerusalem. ‘Jerusalem’ is my family motto.”
Of course, the London-based Montefiore is best-known for his lush biographies of Joseph Stalin, “Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar” and “Young Stalin.” Perhaps that’s why he chose to characterize his new book, rather fancifully, as a biography rather than a history. Indeed, he previews his own personification of Jerusalem when he quotes Amos Oz at the very outset of his book: “Jerusalem is an old nymphomaniac who squeezes lover and lover to death, before shrugging him off her with a yawn, before shrugging him off her with a yawn, a black widow who devours her mates while they are still penetrating her.”
Montefiore fully understands how Jerusalem figures in the Abrahamic religions — “A history of Jerusalem must be a study of the nature of holiness,” he concedes — but he insists on tearing aside the veil of piety and revealing the contradictions and conflicts that abound in the long history of the Holy City. “This is a place of such delicacy that it is described in Jewish sacred literature in the feminine — always a sensual, living woman, always a beauty, but sometimes a shameless harlot, sometimes a wounded princess whose lovers have forsaken her,” Montefiore writes. “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.”
Significantly, Montefiore disclaims any intention to write about “God in Jerusalem,” and he astutely refers any reader in search of such a book to Karen Armstrong’s “Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths.” Rather, he declares his mission to “pursue the facts,” which is certainly an understatement. His effort begins in distant antiquity — a period for which his only source is the Bible itself — and the principal narrative ends in 1967 because, as he explains, “the Six Day War essentially created the situation today and provides a decisive stop.”
Along the way, he provides a rich, provocative and often surprising overview of Jerusalem’s long history, always directing the reader to colorful details and incidents, always writing in the supercharged prose that is his trademark, whether his eye falls on Jerusalem during the Jewish War (“Spymania and paranoia ruled Jerusalem the Holy”) or the Islamic conquerors and rulers of Jerusalem (“His enemies taunted him: ‘Yazid of liquors, Yazid of whoring, Yazid of dogs, Yazid of monkeys, Yazid of wine-swoons’”), or the Crusaders who set up a Christian kingdom in the Holy Land in the late Middle Ages (King Baldwin IV, a leper, “had to endure a variety of treatments — blood lettings, oil-rubs in ‘saracenic ointment’ and enemas”).
His own ancestors figure in the tale he tells. When the British financier Moses Montefiore visited Jerusalem in the 1820s, the city was “fallen, desolate and abject,” according to Montefiore’s wife, Judith. The experience transformed Montefiore: “He left as a reborn Jew, having prayed all through his last night there,” recalls the author. Montefiore became one of the city’s great and enduring benefactors: “Jerusalem’s Jews welcomed them ‘almost like the coming of the Messiah,’” the author explains, “but begged them not to give too much because the Turks would simply cripple them with higher taxes after they had gone.”
“Jerusalem” ends with a brief epilogue that reflects upon the unanticipated and unintended meaning of the victories of 1967. “[T]he possession of Jerusalem gradually changed Israel’s ruling spirit, which was traditionally secular, socialist, modern, and if the state had a religion it was as much the historical science of Judaean archaeology as Orthodox Judaism,” he writes. But the entry into the Old City created a consensus that had not existed the day before. “Religious and nationalistic Jews alike shared the conviction that they must energetically embrace the exciting mission to rebuild and forever keep the Jewish Jerusalem.”
By this point, Montefiore has reminded us in fascinating detail that changes of sovereignty are commonplace in the history of Jerusalem; indeed, a cycle of conquest has been endlessly repeated since the Babylonian Conquest. So we are hardly surprised when he shows that something as unremarkable as an archaeological dig in contemporary Jerusalem was capable of causing riots that resulted in 75 deaths and 1,500 injuries, yet more proof that “archaeology is worth dying for in Jerusalem.”
Montefiore’s conclusion is characteristically quirky. “When they are not in conflict, Jews, Muslims and Christians return to the ancient Jerusalem tradition of ostrichism — burying their heads in the sand and pretending the Others do not exist,” he writes. “By the bile-splattered standards of Jerusalem, this ostrichism is a sign of normality — particularly since the city has never been so globally important.”
Such shoulder shrugging is an occupational hazard among those of us who love to read and write about history. The more things change, we know, the more they remain the same. “For 1,000 years, Jerusalem was exclusively Jewish; for about 400 years, Christian; for 1,300 years, Islamic,” writes Montefiore, “and not one of the three faiths ever gained Jerusalem without the sword, the mangonel or the howitzer.” Precisely because Jerusalem is holy, ironically enough, it has always been — and remains — a battleground.
Montefiore returns to Amos Oz for an idealistic proposal: “We should remove every stone of the Holy Sites,” Oz once wrote, “and transport them to Scandinavia for a hundred years and not return them until everyone has learned to live together in Jerusalem.” But Montefiore knows that messianism of any kind is futile and, in any case, 100 years is only the blink of an eye in Jerusalem’s long history. His final word, then, takes the long view.
“Jerusalem, so lovable in many ways, so hate-filled in others, always bristling with the hallowed and the brash, the preposterously vulgar and the aesthetically exquisite, seems to live more intensely than anywhere else,” he writes. “Everything stays the same yet nothing stays still.”
Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. He blogs at