Simon Sebag Montefiore’s epic survey of Jerusalem’s sanguinary history does not inspire confidence in the civilizing qualities of religion. The pile of corpses accumulated over millenniums from the persecutions both perpetrated and endured by all three of the faiths — Christianity, Islam and Judaism — that have contended for Jerusalem would surely be high enough to reach the celestial home of any one of them. Not that politicians come off any better than believers here. Anyone frustrated by the intractable stalemate in the contemporary Middle East peace process may take grim comfort from the knowledge that Jerusalem has been a flash point for global warfare since the time of the Egyptian pharaohs: “the desire and prize of empires,” as Montefiore puts it, “yet of no strategic value.”
Montefiore embraces Jerusalem’s paradoxes in his chronological account, which seeks to avoid hindsight and disclaims a political agenda. He succeeds admirably in remaining evenhanded, a particularly notable achievement since his great-great-uncle Moses Montefiore, an English financier, was foremost among the wealthy European Jews seeking to ameliorate the dreadful conditions under which their coreligionists lived in Ottoman-ruled 19th century Jerusalem. Like his great-great-uncle, who befriended Jerusalem’s powerful Muslim Families while building facilities for the city’s Jews, Montefiore appreciates the messy, on-the-ground reality of life in Jerusalem throughout the centuries.
Montefiore’s depiction of all three faiths is restricted to the actions of their founders and adherents as revealed by the plethora of primary and scholarly sources he ably employs. “My task is to pursue the facts, not to adjudicate between the mysteries of different religions,” he writes. The author of prize-winning biographies of Stalin and Potemkin, he uses the same focus on individual lives to tell Jerusalem’s story, though in this case the cast of characters is much larger and stretches across more than 3,000 years.
The main narrative begins around 1000 BC with the capture of Jerusalem by David, king of the Israelites. Jewish Jerusalem survived, tossed among various empires, until 70 AD, when the Romans crushed a rebellion, demolished the Second Temple and obliterated the city, leaving only the holding walls of the Temple Mount, a few towers, and a pile of wreckage scavenged and reused by Jerusalem’s conquerors ever since.
Montefiore’s detailed account of the city’s subsequent architecture — a pagan temple erected on the rock where Jesus was crucified, replaced by Christian churches after Constantine’s fourth century conversion; the seventh century Muslim shrine and mosque built on the Temple Mount — cogently makes the point that “most of Jerusalem’s shrines … have been borrowed or stolen, belonging formerly to another religion.” Jerusalem’s political and social history is equally complex. Its Arab conquerors tolerated Christian and Jewish worship within limits of fluctuating severity; pilgrims from all three faiths were flocking to the city by the 11th century. Crusaders executed the most barbaric slaughter since the Romans when they took Jerusalem in 1099, yet the ruling class of Christian Jerusalem adopted many Eastern customs. Saladin recaptured the city for Islam in 1187, but warfare among Christian armies, various Muslim powers and the barbarian Tartars reduced Jerusalem by the early 15th century to a grimy backwater whose 6,000 residents alternately fleeced and lynched the pilgrims.
Montefiore whisks through this grubby period to arrive at the consolidation of the Ottoman Empire, which established a status quo that endured in Jerusalem from 1517 until the late 19th century. Ottoman sultan Suleiman restricted worship by Jews, streaming into Jerusalem after their expulsion from Spain, to a narrow street alongside what became known as the Wailing Wall. For strategic reasons, he recognized Western Catholics as custodians of the city’s Christian shrines, infuriating the local Greek Orthodox. Rivalry between the two sects remained so bitter over the ensuing three centuries that in 1846 a battle on Good Friday between adherents left 40 people dead around the altar of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The glaring contrast between religious ideals and human actions could hardly be more pointed.
They may have hated each other, but it was the anti-Semitism of both wings of Christianity that permanently altered Jerusalem’s demographics. Pogroms had already sent thousands of Russian Jews fleeing to the city by the time European persecutions provoked Theodor Herzl to publish his influential Zionist tract, “The Jewish State,” in 1896. World politics led the British government to support this idea in the Balfour Declaration, cynically designed to enlist Jewish support for America’s entry into World War I. Prince Faisal, aiming to rule a Kingdom of Syria extracted from the dying Ottoman Empire, was willing to accept a Jewish majority in Palestine within this kingdom. Jewish immigration exploded: By 1936, there were 100,000 Jews in Jerusalem; Christians and Arabs totaled 60,000.
The city’s Muslim religious leader paid a friendly visit to Hitler and encouraged anti-Semitic riots. The radical Jewish Irgun responded by tossing grenades into Arab cafés. Montefiore impartially describes atrocities on both sides in the years leading to the establishment in 1948 of “a much larger and stronger Israel than would otherwise have emerged” if Arab leaders had not repeatedly rejected the two-state partition repeatedly accepted by Zionist leader David Ben-Gurion. The author is equally matter-of-fact about the rise of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, whose secular socialism was not so different from Ben-Gurion’s, ironically, except that his pan-Arabism mandated the elimination of Israel. The main narrative concludes with the Six-Day War in 1967, when Jerusalem, divided between Jordan and Israel in 1949, came under exclusive Israeli rule.
“The conquest transformed, elevated and complicated Jerusalem in a flash of revelation that was simultaneously messianic and apocalyptic, strategic and nationalistic,” Montefiore writes in his brief epilogue, which sketches an increasing fundamentalism on all sides that does not bode well for lasting peace in the region or the city. Yet throughout Jerusalem’s history, acts of appalling barbarism prompted by religious intolerance have alternated with deals struck by pragmatic leaders who recognized they could never keep the Holy City solely for themselves. It’s fitting that Montefiore closes his densely textured book, suspicious of all sweeping assertions, with a quiet morning walk to watch Jews, Christians and Muslims praying at their respective sacred sites on “the divine esplanade where Heaven and Earth meet.” Whatever Jerusalem’s political future may be, it stands as a monument to humanity’s enduring religious faith, in its best and worst aspects.
“Jerusalem: The Biography”
By Simon Sebag Montefiore
Alfred A. Knopf, 652 pages, $35
Smith is a contributing editor for the American Scholar and reviews books for The Times, the Chicago Tribune and the Washington Post.