Jerusalem: The Biography

Simon Sebag Montefiore’s, Jerusalem: The Biography (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2011) is a highly readable history of Jerusalem, by a late descendant of a nephew of the famous Sir Moses Montefiore who with his wife Judith, alongside the Rothschilds invested considerable time and money in building Jewish Jerusalem in the nineteenth century – familiar to its occasional visitors mostly by the Montefiore mill in Yemin Moshe, not far from the King David Hotel. Though it remains somewhat unclear what Sebag Montefiore means by the term ‘biography’ (fortunately he does not attempt to sketch Jerusalem’s ‘character’), the continuous history in little more than 500 pages includes riveting stories about the Macedonians, the Romans, Cleopatra and Anthony, the Herods and Berenice, Jesus Christ, Constantine and Helena, Muslims, Crusaders, the Ottomans whose Suleiman the Magnificent is credited with building most of the Old City’s current wall, and, in increasing detail, the scrambles over Jerusalem and wider Palestine in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Most of this is done with ample attention to the sources, relying mostly on earlier scholarship. The story is littered with well-chosen quotes of main actors, often taken from his own reading of primary sources, some of which have not before been included in historical research, such as lucky find of a part of the Montefiore family archive or the little-known diaries of the oud-player Wasif Jawhariyye whose notes cover almost all of the first half of the twentieth century. Very well worth reading indeed, because of the importance of the story itself for understanding an important part of world history, because of the author´s wide reading, his elegant summarizing, and because of adequate style that succeeds in keeping a light touch despite the sometimes gruesome stories that need to be told.

However, two critical remarks should end this brief review. One is that, of all the groups that live and work in Jerusalem, the Eastern Christians seem to have enlisted the least of his sympathies. This is true especially for the later centuries when their role in the city is considerably more important than a description focused on European, American and Russian Christian missionaries and diplomats, Jewish immigrants and local Muslim families would lead one to suspect. While this is understandable from the available sources (both primary and secondary), this does not excuse facile references to the ‘brawling’ of the clerics in the Holy Sepulchre, being little more than the repetition of long-worn-out stereotypes about the clergy’s eternal rivalries (for a better understanding, cf. Raymond Cohen’s work on the Holy Sepulchre, weblog d.d. 26-1-2010).

The other is that, despite the book’s earnest and mostly successful attempt to treat all groups involved in the same manner, it cannot be overlooked that the book in its basic outline as well as in its representation of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, is written from a Jewish-Israeli perspective. It cannot be accidental that the first chapter starts with King David’s assumed settlement in Jerusalem and the last chapter is devoted to General Moshe Dayan’s capture of the Old City in 1967 (in 53 chapters – referring to a full year?), which appears to underline the author’s belief in the essential belonging of Jews to the Holy City, however negotiable its borders might be.

However, it is also no accident that the prologue discusses Titus’ destruction of the Jewish temple in the year 70 CE, and that the epilogue recapitulates the story of the unsuccessful negotiations about Jerusalem that followed the Israeli victory of 1967 –Sebag Montefiore remains deeply convinced of the precariousness of belonging, possession and sacredness, whether for Jerusalem’s Jewish, Muslim or Christian admirers.

photograph MvdB: the closing of the doors of the Holy Sepulchre on Maundy Tuesday (2011), by a member of the Nusseibeh family (cf. Sebag Montefiore, p. 519).

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