Jerusalem: The Biography, by Simon Sebag Montefiore (Knopf, 688 pp., $35)
Three thousand years ago, King David captured Jerusalem from the Jebusites. Archaeologists are currently excavating what is thought to have been his palace. The scale is rather small, though some cut stones form an impressive buttress down a steep incline into the valley below. The palace is sited in what has always been a rocky and unpromising landscape far inland from the Mediterranean and with a hinterland of desert and the Dead Sea. Everything found here and in other digs confirms the account in the Bible of the Jews’ emerging from tribal warfare to take their place on the local scene.
Solomon, David’s son and heir, then built a monumental Temple in order to define and secure identity. A long and complicated story unwound as peoples of other faiths and ethnicities were curious about the Temple as a repository of Judaism, or did their best to destroy it and so eradicate Jews altogether. Invaders fought for physical possession while worshippers, pilgrims, and poets were engaged in fantasizing a Jerusalem in their own image. The world has other holy cities, but none in which secular power and spiritual ideals are so endlessly and confusingly entwined.