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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New books on Coptic Christianity: Armanios and Ibrahim

This year started off well for the study of Coptic Christianity, with two books covering the early modern and modern history of the major Christian community of Egypt that over the last years have felt increasingly pressured by the rapid changes in Egyptian society.

The first book is by Febe Armanios, and provides a welcome addition to the study of Christianity in the Ottoman Empire – this time from the vastly underresearched region of Egypt. While many of the straightforward sources (clerical and ottoman archives) have been used only to a limited extent (many of them being difficult to access), the author uses to the utmost a wide variety of chronicles and narrative sources to paint a picture of the life of the Coptic communitie of the period between, roughly 1500 and 1900. She pays particular attention to the ritual life of the Copts, not in the least because she reads closely hagiographic stories and clerical sermons. The ongoing important of the martyrs is emphasized by the story of the neo-martyr Saliba (which in its Coptic version downplays its potential anti-Islamic interpretation), but focuses on the ideal life of the Christian, in celibacy and married life, in the community as defined by the church. Similar concerns also surface in the study of the veneration of the virgin Dimyana, whose cult developed into an important regional spring festival. In the sources also the tension within the Coptic community, especially between the lay leadership (archons) and the clergy, higher and lower, becomes clear, a theme even more prominently present in her discussions of the pilgrimage to Jerusalem that, though dependent on larger political currents, was and remained of great communal imporantance in this period (as today – see the photo taken this year in Jerusalem). The last theme, most prominently present in sermons that were studied, but one of the enduring themes of orthodox Ottoman Christianity, is that of the rivalry with the Catholics, who in this period increasingly formed an attractive alternative to those Christians looking for new forms of religion or for more enduring contacts with the West. While not constituting the main theme of the book, Armanios description also testifies to the varied and ever changing relationships with larger Muslim society, both in its elite leadership and the mass of the common believers. While sometimes clashes took place, when individuals (such as the martyr Saliba) or groups (during one of the pilgrimages to Jerusalem) overstepped the lines of appropriate behaviour for the Christian minority, in many other cases careful negotiations and mutual respect offered security and peace for the Christians, often included Muslim arbitration in internal conflicts.

The second book, by Vivian Ibrahim, in many respects reads as a sequel to the book of Armanios. She too intends to show a much more nuanced picture of the Copts in Egyptian society, this time from the mid-19th to the mid-20th century, and she too, emphasizes the complex relationships within the Coptic group, not only between clergy and lay elites, but also between different types of clergy (monastic, episcopal and secular). Her focus, though, is much more on the political, reading the developments within the Coptic community against the background of the rapid modernisation that took place in Egypt in this period, with the British colonial period forming the background to various types of Egyptian nationalism. What becomes clear more than anything, is that the Copts, as little of course as other segments of Egyptian society, were not united in their assesment of these develpments. Copts that were involved politically did so in opposing political parties, some more to the secular left, others to the more or less religious right, espousing different ways of creating an Egyptian national identity. Like in the Ottoman period, these politically active Copts sought their alliances both within and without the community, which once more underlines that the communal boundaries have to be takes as much more permeable and malleable that earlier researcher cared to acknowledge. These wider concerns are presented via case studies of a number of interesting topics, such as the importance of the largely lay benevolent societies around the turn of the century, the political machinations in electing new popes, and the abduction of Pope Yusab II in 1954 by young men who favored more agressive championing of Coptic rights. While at some points one would have like the author to have spent a bit more pages on sketching the wider implications of the cases she described, these certainly contribute considerably to our understanding of the making of Coptic identity in the late 19th and early 20th century, thus providing essential background reading in the months and years to come when Egypt once again lives through a revolution that challenges existing patterns of cooperation and national identity.

Vivian Ibrahim: The Copts of Egyps: The Challenges of Modernisation and Identity (London/New York: I.B. Tauris, 2011).

Febe Armanios, Coptic Christianity in Ottoman Egypt (Oxford: OUP, 2011)

NB: note the beautiful icon on the cover of Stephen, the first Christian martyr (as far as I am aware he was not mentioned in the book), painted in the mid-18th c. by what may be a forefather of the author, Yuhanni al-Armani.

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Millet, Mission and Mandate – three recent volumes on the Middle East

Three interesting volumes on various aspects of Middle Eastern history were published last year (2010), all of which address, in different ways, the position of Christians from the 16th c. onwards. All three were the result of exciting conferences, and to all three I contributed – no further comments, therefore, but see the websites …

Sabine Schmidkte and Camilla Adang, Contacts and Controversies between Muslims, Jews and Christians in the Ottoman Empire and Pre-Modern Iran (Istanbuler Texte und Studien 21; Würzburg, Ergon-Verlag: 2010). See (the volume is not yet included in their list)

Norbert Friedrich, Uwe Kaminsky, Roland Löffler, The Social Dimension of Christian Missions in the Middle East: Historical Studies of the 19th and 20th Centuries (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2010). See:

Rory Miller (ed.), Palestine, Britain and Empire: The Mandate Years (Surrey: Ashgate, 2010). See:

For my contributions, see:

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The Arabs and the Holocaust

Not really in the field of Middle Eastern Christianity, but one of my more impressive reads of the last month is worth noting here: Gilbert Achcar’s The Arabs and the Holocaust: The Arab-Israeli War of Narratives (Saqi, Lebanon: 2010 — originally published in French, Les Arabes et la Shoah, Actes du Sud, 2009).

(for two extracts from the introduction, see

In this recent book, Gilbert Achcar, a Lebanse scholar working at SOAS (London), revisits ‘Arab’ thinking on topics as broad as the origins of Zionism, the connections of Arab politicians with Nazi-Germany, their support for Nazism, up to the current Holocaust denials of Ahmadinejad whose provocations on this subject have gained him support from a variety of groups in the Arab world. Achcar’s main interest is in showing how diverse the Arab world has been and still is on everything that has to do with the origins of Zionism, Jews in the Arab world, and the reception of the Holocaust, especially in its use of legitimizing the state of Israel and its actions.

He does so in a remarkable balanced way, being well acquainted with international, Israeli and Arab scholarship on the subject, carefully treating these sensitive issues, but at the same time not sparing either side´s follies and misrepresentations. He has not interest in covering up the rabid anti-Semitism that has come from and still exists in the Arab world. However, he places these ideologies and the persons that espouse them in the perspective of a much more diverse political and ideological field, paying attention to alternative positions that were and are available and that in the current ‘war of narratives’ often are disregarded. One of the most sensitive issues of his book concerns the use of comparisons with Nazi Germany, which, to an extent that suprised me, are used by all parties involved as way to denigrate or insult the opponents, be they part of one’s own tradition or the enemy’s, making the comparison increasingly meaningless. His examples should prevent anyone from ever using such comparisons again. However, Achcar´s analysis also testifies to the importance of the Holocaust as a still immensely powerful cultural symbol — and thus something worth the trouble unravelling in its Middle Eastern ramifications.

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Who Are the Christians in the Middle East?

Last December, the second edition of Betty Jane Bailey & J. Martin Bailey’s volume on the Christians of the Middle East was published. I somehow had missed the first edition, and was looking forward to have a look at the second. While there is a lot of information in it that cannot be had anywhere else in a convenient and summary manner, I am not altogether positive about it.

What is unique for most books on this subject and might be a good reason to buy a copy, is the comprehensive introduction to the current state of the various churches that are members of the Middle East Council of Churches, along the lines of the four ‘families’ that serve as the organizational principle of the Middle East Council of Churches – the Eastern Orthodox, the Oriental Orthodox, the Catholic and the Evangelical/Protestant. For most churches, names of leaders as well as addresses and telephone numbers are provided — making this second part of the book into a kind of annotated directory – very helpfull for all of us who have regular dealings with this part of the world church. Also the Assyrian Church of the East, not officially a member of the MECC, is introduced, though with a wrong name (ancient Assyrian Church of the East – which usually refers to a part of this church in Iraq that did not accept the turn towards the Western calender in 1968) and attributing their non-membership solely to their own doing, which, though I am not aware of all the details, seems a rather one-sided view of the issue.

In fact, this church, as some of the other orthodox churches, suffer from a lack of insight in the early history of these churches, mixing up Christological doctrines (e.g., the ‘Nestorian Church’as ’emphasizing [..] the sole nature of Christ’ – a position, though this formulation is somewhat akward, usually is attributed to the opposite position of the Copts and the Syriac Orthodox), positions of the patriarchates, the life of the Christians in Ottoman times and more. Since there are many alternatives in the historic field, this need not deter the reader from buying it.

In addition to the chapters on the various countries in the third part of the book providing very brief but usually accurate overviews of the churches in their political contexts, the first part consists of a heterogeneous list of articles written by other authors. Among these, especially Riad Jarjour´s article on `The Future of Christians in the Arab World´ is a very balanced assesment of the current situation, which reflects the author´s long experience in the Middle East as well as in ecumenical circles. One of his last lines, is worth quoting, especially in view of the violence of the last months in Iraq and Egypt (p. 21): "Christians cannot be saved alone; either the Christians and the Muslims will be saved together, or both will be destroyed."

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More on the Catholics in the Middle East

Just in time for the Synod of Bishop’s Special Assembly for the Middle East another important volume was published on the Catholic Christians on the Middle East. It is the result of a conference in London (Heythrop College) held in June 2010, with its contributions published in record speed by the editors and organizers, Anthonoy O’Mahony and John Flannery. The contributions, by clerics or lay persons from the Middle Eastern churches or by researchers well at home in this field, cover a wide field and address many topics that also feature prominently in the discussions taking place in Rome: emigration, relations with Islam, Judaism and the other Eastern and Oriental Churches, but also issues of ecclesial and liturgical identity that of course often reflect the questions put by outside pressures.

Anthony O’Mahony and John Flannery: The Catholic Church in the Contemporary Middle East (London: Melisende, 2010) (

For interesting updates on the synod, see also and

Picture: funeral monument (featuring Arabic, Syriac and Latin) of patriarch Joseph VI Audo in the monastery of Notre Dame des Semences (Alqosh, North-Iraq), Chaldean patriarch from 1847 to 1878, leading his church in turbulent period, which included a further unification and strengthening of the Chaldean church but also several clashes with Rome.  

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Church & Catholicism in the Middle East

One of the books that should have figured on Pope Benedict´s reading list in preparation for the synod on the Middle East in Rome is the thorough introduction that was published earlier this year:  

Harold Suermann, Kirche und Katholizismus seit 1945: Naher Osten und Nordafrika (2010, Ferdinand Schoeningh)

This much-needed update on older overviews of Middle-Eastern Catholicism opens with an introductory chapter on common themes including the historical and current relations between the various Churches (Catholic and other), the relations with Islam and Judaism, and the continuous migration that drains most churches of their active members (though adding to others!), whereas Chs 2 to 10 give in-depth and detailed information of the situation in specific countries or regions. In addition to Suermann himself, chapters were written by Herman Teule (Turkey, Syria) and Rainer Zimmer-Winkel (‘Heiliges Land’ – the longest chapter).

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Special Assembly for the Middle East – Vatican

Last Sunday, Oct. 10, 2010, the special assembly for the Middle East of the Synod of Bishops started off with an eucharist celebration, and today, Monday, the opening session took place. While we have to wait and see what the meeting (continuing for another two weeks) will bring (see the link above, as well as the Vatican New Service:, it is worthwhile to note a few remarkable aspects of the Instrumentum Laboris, the working document to which many of the Catholic bishops participating in the synod contributed by answering to questions posed to them from the Vatican.  

This document presents an interesting overview of themes and discussions characterizing Middle Eastern Catholic Christianity in its wide variety, consisting of ‘Roman’ (latin-rite) Catholics, but mostly of Eastern-rite Christians, like the Syrian-Catholics, the Chaldeans, the Maronites, the Armenian-Catholics and the Rum-Catholics (Melkites).

First, the document is clearly not intended to be a political document: it focuses on pastoral, ecclesiastical and ecumenical issues, referring to the fraught political situation in many countries merely as one of the causes for the high rates of emigration that characterize many Christian communities. It does, however, single out two regions where these vaguely described circumstances are particularly difficult: the Palestinian territories and Iraq. While some might think this unsatisfactory (and the document itself asks for more attention to the suffering of Christians in the Middle East), the caution is justified by difficulties in pinpointing the exact causes of violence in general and more specific religious violence in particular.

Second, the document, and, thus, the bishops, tend to put most to all of their efforts in motivating the Christian communities of the Middle East to stay and multiply, to engage in local societies, to put in their best to contribute to the ‘common good’, through educational and social projects, by resisting cultural and political marginalization, and by striving and supporting a ‘positive secularism’ that ensures not only freedom of religious worship (generally present in all but a few Middle Eastern countries), but also freedom of religious change – something much more contentious both from the perspective of majority Islam, but also from the Eastern churches themselves which fear the consequences of conversions to Evangelical churches almost as much as to Islam — it seems that most communities in the Middle East, be the Muslim, Christian or else, tend to value their communal religious identity over and above individual religious choice.

Third, somewhat circumspectively, the document also addresses the sometimes difficult ecumenical relationships between the various Eastern Catholic communities — here especially the Lebanese situation seems to be intended where conflicts between separatist communal identities (i.e. the Maronites) and the more universal Catholicism of the other Christian communities complicates rather than softens the difficult political situation.

Fourth, while the document speaks mostly to the situation of Christians in Arab/Muslim contexts – where the vast majority of bishops reside, it also includes, very explicitly references to the situation in Israel, and not only to those of the Arab-Palestinian Christians, but also to the fast-growing Hebrew-speaking community. While admittedly tensions between the anti-Zionism of much of the Arab Christians and the explicit Catholic rejection of anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism exist, the document tries to do justice to various sides of the discussion, mostly by separating the ‘political’ anti-Zionism from the ‘theological’ anti-Judaism. Notably, this group of Hebrew-speaking Catholics consists for a large part of ‘new’ Catholics in the region: recent immigrants, legal and illegal, from Africa and Asia, especially the Philippines. This group also changed the fabric of Christianity in the Arab Peninsula, where many countries now, again have sizable Christian minorities.

Fifth, the importance of the diaspora communities is acknowledged explicitly, also by the inclusion of some of the bishops of the diaspora in the synod. One may expect some discussions to arise over this topic, because the document sees the diaspora communities mostly as serving those in the home countries – it would be interested to know how the churches in the diaspora think of their responbilities, especially those that have been present in the West already for over a century.   

Sixth, the document underlines the symbolic importance of the Middle East as the "cradle of Christianity".Thus its concern for a continuous Christian presence in the Middle East is not only a concern for the well-being of a vulnerable minority, not only a well-meant contribution to the welfare of wider Middle-Eastern society, but is also Christianity’s interest in maintaining a vital Christian presence in the lands of its birth, by supporting the ´living stones´ of the Christian community in the Holy Land, be in in Israel-Palestine proper, or in the wider Middle East. As such, it is also a dangerous concern that might easily backfire on the Christians of the Middle East — all too often they have been seen as pawns of Western and Christian ambitions in this region.

And finally: while the document is not speaking for all Middle-Eastern Christians (the majority of Christians in the Middle East belong to one of the Orthodox (‘Oriental’ or ‘Eastern’) churches, in addition to a variety of small Protestant, Evangelical and Pentecostal churches, many of the concerns are shared by other Christians, which suffer from the same political and social pressures, which also see many of their flock, especially the younger and higher-educated ones migrate, which also are affected by the ambiguities of the contacts in wider global Christianity, and which view the developments in the Catholic Church sometimes with envy, sometimes with distrust and sometimes with hope.  

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ZemZem 2/2010

Het net verschenen nummer van ZemZem (Tijdschrift over het Midden-Oosten, Noord-Afrika en islam – losse verkoop in veel boekhandels), waarvoor ik zelf de introductie heb bijgedragen, is een geslaagd themanummer over het christendom in het Midden-Oosten geworden, met artikelen die o.a. aandacht besteden aan het ritueel (Rima Nasrallah, Mat Immerzeel, Dick Douwes), (zendings)geschiedenis (Umar Ryad, Rogier Visser), verhouding tot westers christendom (Richard van Leeuwen), muziek (Neil van der Linden) en politiek (Saskia Bosch, Rena Netjes, Sylva van Rosse, Nella van den Brandt) —  terwijl van de overige artikelen in ieder geval het mooie portret van de eerder dit jaar overleden Nasr Abu Zaid (Nico Kaptein) genoemd moet worden.

Foto: Syrisch-Orthodoxe kerk van Bethlehem 


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The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet – David Mitchell

Though not having been short-listed for the Man Booker prize, there are at least five good reasons to read The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell (London 2010).

– the language, the language: while Mitchell makes non-native English speakers acutely feel the limits of their vocabulary, he also enriches it with thousands of words from all corners and levels of the language – from the coarsest to the most sophisticated. But above all it is beautiful, exciting, and consistently subservient to the intricate story line …

– which is the second reason to pick up this book: the fast-forward rushing story line that keeps one reading till the very end …

– third: being another examplary historical novel about a fascinating period: set in Dutch Deshima in Japan, firmly grounded in historical record but in its imagined reality free to  explore aspects of the Dutch-Japanese encounter that transcend the facts of the historian … the intrigues of geo-politics, the rise and fall of Dutch koopmanship, intercultural romantic love that moves forward the lives of the protagonists as well as the plot, interests in medicine, science and philosophy that bind Japanese and Dutch together but alienates them from some of their contemporaries, the endless problems of translation, and people that change with the times – themes of world history in one of its crucial phases.

– fourth: a Leiden University connection via scholarly research on this period by Cynthia Vialle and Leonard Blussé

– and, finally, fifth: the inobtrusive references to the so-called ‘hidden Christians’ in Japan who survived the suppression of Catholic Christianity in the early seventeenth century, the lingering suspcion of Christianity by Japanese officials, the religious convictions of the clerk Jacob de Zoet – a devout Christian clinging to his Psalter but over the years growing closer to the physician’s agnostic position-, in combination with the fertility cult that plays a crucial role in the story, make religion in its global permutations and effects on human behaviour one of the important subthemes of the book.

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