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Till We Have Built Jerusalem

Reinier van Straten

Jerusalem: The BiographySimon Sebag Montefiore
Jerusalem: The Biography
W&N, 2011
696 Pages
ISBN 978-0297852650


“The Land of Israel is the centre of the world; Jerusalem is the centre of the Land; the Holy Temple is the centre of Jerusalem; the Holy of Holies is the centre of the Holy Temple; the Holy Ark is the centre of the Holy of Holies and the Foundation Stone from which the world was established is before the Holy Ark.” So claims the Roman-era collection of rabbinic homilies, the Midrash Tanhuma. How can any individual, encountering this city—the geographical intersection of three religious traditions—possibly hope to make sense of it? Every year several cases are reported of a condition known as Jerusalem Syndrome: those afflicted, overwhelmed by the gravity of this ancient omphalos, exhibit symptoms ranging from endlessly circumambulating the city walls to believing they are the next messiah. Cynics, though, are struck by the all-too-human nature of the supposedly sublime, citing either the gaudy competitive displays of religious magnificence or the city’s profane fleshpots (the novelist Gustave Flaubert’s agricultural fact-finding mission financed by the French government somehow turned into a “sexual tour”). It is within these boundaries that Simon Sebag Montefiore undertakes the intimidating task of telling the story of Jerusalem.

Jerusalem: The Biography, replete with glossy photographs and useful maps, is not the first attempt at an anthropomorphic “biography” of a city; see for example Peter Ackroyd’s London: The Biography or Colin Jones’s Paris: The Biography of a City. Yet the term appears to add little to the way in which the reader is expected to engage with the book: the preface refers to the “history of Jerusalem” throughout, and besides the book’s subtitle, the word resurfaces only once after the prologue, describing the Bible as the first “biography” of Jerusalem. Equally, to call the book a “political” history—the history of the polis itself—would also have been a misnomer. The book’s narrative is certainly structured by the revolving door of Jerusalem’s successive rulers, whom Anthony Beevor lists as “Canaanite, Israelite, Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, Macedonian, Seleucid, Roman, Byzantine, Ummayad, Abassid, Fatimid, Seljuk, Crusader, Saracen, Tatar, Mamluk, Ottoman, British, Jordanian and finally Israeli”. Yet the book does not deal with Jerusalem as a political entity. Instead, the plot is driven by places—the Temple Mount and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre are described as “palimpsests, works of embroidery in which the silk threads are so interwoven it is now impossible to separate them”—and by individual people.

Sebag Montefiore, whose relative Sir Moses Montefiore was a great philanthropist in Jerusalem, seeks the continuities behind Jerusalem’s ebb and flow. The preface asserts that any study of Jerusalem must also be a “study of the nature of holiness”, a project that cannot even get off the ground when, instead of dealing with the nature of God in the city, it simply waves in the direction of Karen Armstrong’s Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths. Nor is there any room for the discussion of other Jerusalems, such as the mainstream Christian interpretation of the biblical Jerusalem as an allegory for heaven, or the Jerusalem that the poet William Blake sought to build “in England’s green & pleasant Land”. Perhaps understandably, utopian Jerusalems are not the book’s main focus: Sebag Montefiore’s approach is strictly historical and anthropocentric, if not humanist. The Jerusalem of myth, mind, and Diaspora longing is acknowledged, yet a historical bent is discernible when the author accords the Byzantine Empress Helena, who in the fourth century discovered most of Christianity’s holy sites in Jerusalem, the honorific “the first archaeologist”. In this manner the reader can begin to understand the intertwined, overlaid sites of memory of David’s City. Take for instance the Muslim Dome of the Rock, whence Muhammad ascended to heaven: during the 12th-century crusader kingdom of Jerusalem, the dome was temporarily rededicated as the Templum Domini and is also believed to be the site of Moriah, where Abraham almost sacrificed Isaac. The author defines “holiness” as the relationship between man and God; that “holiness”, therefore, most plausibly refers to man’s relationship to the central position that Jerusalem occupies in the minds of its inhabitants, or even to the idea of universality itself.

The book’s style is not unlike a leisurely yet detailed guided tour around a museum such as the one housed in the Old City’s Tower of David next to Jaffa Gate. At one end, the book’s tour begins with Jerusalem’s prehistoric origins as a Canaanite city, then proceeds to the mythical City of David, cross-referenced, as far as possible, with archaeological evidence; at the other, it ends with a profusion of historical data, black-and-white photographs, and difficult editorial decisions. The tour is also footnoted with the guide’s favourite anecdotes. Attempts are made to verify the historicity of certain myths, but the guide’s more prurient interests in (albeit famous) individuals’ tragic encounters with the universal city leave a deeper impression: from the scandalous story of David and Bathsheba to Asmahan, the bisexual Druze princess, star of the Egyptian silver screen, and patron of the King David Hotel (Amal al-Atrash, her real name, was also called “Princess Trash” by anyone who was not quite so taken by her exotic charm). Musings about the sexuality of controversial heroes Richard the Lionheart and T. E. Lawrence, the Lawrence of Arabia immortalized by cinema, as well as the graphic description of the “living putrefaction” of King Herod, may bring Jerusalem’s otherworldliness down to a more human level. However, one may question the relevance of Lawrence being the victim of homosexual rape in 1917 at the hands of the Ottoman governor Hajim Bey and his myrmidons; and whether this does not in fact constitute a paean to Eros and Thanatos, or put more plainly, to sex and gore.

The narrative appears to concentrate less on periods of peace, such as those enjoyed under Islam on either side of the crusades, and more on turning points. The lives of ordinary men and women are less important than exemplary figures: when Sebag Montefiore discusses Families (always capitalized), he usually means ruling families—among them the Herodians or Ummayads—or those entrusted with hereditary positions by ancient conquerors: the Nusseibehs, for instance, act as “Custodian and Doorkeeper of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre” and were appointed by Saladin at least as early as 1192. However, this act of concision is probably wise when trying to tell a story across such a broad expanse of time. Those who wish to know more may refer to the copious endnotes and comprehensive bibliography. The chronological approach also has the benefit of avoiding a teleological understanding of Jerusalem that sees the city’s present situation as inevitable. Of its nine chapters, the book dedicates only the last to Zionism, the focus of which is inevitably far narrower and gives a gruelling, blow-by-blow account of the Arab Revolt (1936-39), the War of Independence (1948), and the Six Day War (1967). Here the narrative ends, with the exception of an epilogue expressing hopes for peace. Unsurprisingly, the book offers no solutions, but through the drama that unfolds before us we begin to appreciate the irreconcilable and even interrelated validity of its actors’ claims, a tragedy that may be overcome only through mutual understanding.

In the end, Sebag Montefiore’s approach is far too focused on human individuals to examine the nature either of holiness or of the city’s universality according to the ambitions of the preface, but this should not detract from the book’s many successes. Jerusalem: The Biography manages to tell the story of Jerusalem without doing violence to its multiplicity; in fact, it takes great pains to convey the interrelationship of all these sites of memory, the “palimpsests” of the city. The book provides a key to understanding the genealogy of Jerusalem’s topography and architecture, so often razed and rebuilt, in a style that is entertaining yet appropriately erudite. The author’s penchant for the sensational risks raising the city’s characters to larger-than-life figures, but his grappling with Jerusalem’s mystique from an anthropocentric angle opens up a worldly complexity that would otherwise be inaccessible to the naked eye.

Reinier van Straten is reading for a DPhil in Modern Languages at Magdalen College, Oxford.