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.
Simon Sebag Montefiore has previously written about Prince Potemkin (Catherine the Great’s minister and lover) and Joseph Stalin. A family connection has helped him to extend his range beyond these Russian topics. He is a descendant of Sir Moses Montefiore, the great Victorian character and philanthropist who was one of the first to win rights for his fellow Jews everywhere, paid for landmark buildings in the Holy Land, and was still visiting it at the age of 91. Jerusalem: The Biography is an indirect yet unmistakable celebration of Jewish continuity. Montefiore has absorbed and simplified a huge amount of specialist material on subjects ranging from Bible studies and hermeneutics, to archaeology and the classical world, and down to power politics past and present. With the easy familiarity of gossip, he provides character sketches of those who in one period or another held Jewish destiny in their hands, including Cyrus, Nebuchadnezzar, Alexander the Great, Antony and Cleopatra, the Umayyad and Abbasid rulers, Saladin and Richard the Lionheart, and Theodor Herzl and Prime Minister David Lloyd George. This is history as only someone with exceptional grasp and confidence can write it.
Throughout the Middle East, empires arose down the centuries on the assumption that wealth depended on territory, and that meant invasion and war. The winners were those able to enlarge their tribe into an empire. After the heyday of King David and Solomon, the Jews were unsuccessful at empire building and therefore bound to be incorporated into the empires of more powerful neighbors. Overwhelmed by Assyria, then captured and exiled to Babylon, the Jerusalem Temple destroyed for the first time, the Jews might well have followed the Jebusites and other regional tribes into oblivion.
Particularity, some sense of separate identity, enabled them to survive Persians, Macedonians, Seleucids, and Hellenistic rulers with similar dynastic names. The Romans were more methodical and, by the time they had finished, Jerusalem had been reduced to Stalingrad-type ruin. This time, the Temple was destroyed so completely that nothing survived except the huge ashlars at the base, ever since known as the Wailing Wall, where Jews were to pray and lament their loss. Celebrating the military operation, the historian Tacitus gives the figure of 600,000 dead Jews.
In the succeeding centuries, the rulers of Jerusalem were alternately Christian and Muslim. Doctrinal disputes so divided Byzantine Christians that, by the time of the Arab invasion in the seventh century, they could not bring themselves to defend Jerusalem. Omar, the Arab commander, was responsible for building the Dome of the Rock, the city’s sole architectural marvel. Octagonal in shape, the mosque is situated right above the Wailing Wall, a proud symbol of Muslim superiority that has served to remind Jews of their lowliness and humiliation. Muslims and Jews have often come to blows on this spot holy to them both, and they could do so again at any moment.
The response to Arab jihad was Christian crusade — for Islamists, Crusaders is still the pejorative term for Westerners. Retaking Jerusalem, the first Crusaders killed 10,000 Muslims and the streets ran with blood. Montefiore quotes a witness, an enthusiastic chaplain: “Wonderful sights. . . . Piles of heads, hands, and feet were to be seen on the streets. It was necessary to pick one’s way over the bodies of men and horses.”
History would have been very different if the crusading kings of England, France, and Norway, Conrad III of Germany, or the Norman noblemen who appointed themselves kings of Jerusalem had driven the Muslims back, as Ferdinand and Isabella were to do finally in Spain in 1492. Saddam Hussein liked to compare himself to Saladin, the Muslim general who broke the Crusaders. Conquering the region in 1517, the Ottoman sultan Suleiman the Magnificent ordered his men to build the city walls that today look picturesque. In the World War I campaign against the Ottoman Turks, the British appeared to have the last word when the victorious Field Marshal Allenby entered on foot through one of Suleiman’s gates to take possession of Jerusalem.
In Montefiore’s account, the cruelties and follies inspired by religious faith of every sort are a condemnation of humanity, far more shameful and unnatural than tribal warfare or even the imperial policing of the Romans. Jerusalem has been “a den of superstition, charlatanism, and bigotry,” he writes, “the cosmopolitan home of many sects, each of which believes the city belongs to them.” Dogma generates intolerance. The principal Christian monument is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, supposedly a shrine to Jesus Christ but in practice a constant source of scandal and violence as the denominations squabble over their traditional rights and duties. As late as the 19th century, the Descent of the Holy Fire, an annual ceremony in the church, would regularly end in fighting and even loss of life.
So aggressive were the Christians that the Ottomans installed Muslims as hereditary guardians. At that same period, a number of churches and institutions were built, ostensibly as Christian monuments but more realistically as fronts for the ambition of European empire-builders to expand in the Middle East.
The final third of this book is a very fair account of the comeback of the Jews as seen through the prism of their ancestral capital. To judge by footnotes, Montefiore must have been to Jerusalem very often, finding his way around and discovering striking details, for instance that Mark Twain once stayed in an Old City hotel in which Ariel Sharon later bought an apartment. The rise of Jewish nationalism was unforeseeable, he argues, a response to the mixed influences of Christian Zionism, the Balfour Declaration, the award of the Palestine Mandate to Britain, and the murderous hold that Nazism acquired over Europe in the mid-20th century. In the end, though, the Jews themselves were responsible for the independence of their nation and their state. Secular power and spiritual ideals for once worked in their favor.
For the Arabs, Zionism reversed the position they had always taken for granted of superiority over the Jews, and the perceived dishonor left them no choice except to fight. Montefiore describes how Jerusalem developed into a center of Arab resistance under Haj Amin, the grand mufti; various members of his family; the Nusseibehs and Khalidis; and other notables. By the end of the war of 1948, Jordan had taken possession of East Jerusalem, including the Old City and its Jewish quarter within Suleiman’s walls. This became a backwater. There was no freedom of worship. Ancient synagogues were destroyed, cemeteries were vandalized. Abandoned, the Wailing Wall seemed a pile of dusty rubble. Once I walked to it as a tourist, but small boys rushed out to throw stones and chase me away. Palestinians, mostly clerics, have put themselves in the position of denying any Jewish connection to the historic past, and to the Wailing Wall especially.
In 1967, King Hussein of Jordan agreed with Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser to join in the concerted Arab attack on Israel. In spite of urgent warnings not to do so, the king ordered his artillery to shell West Jerusalem and his Arab Legion to join battle. Forty-eight hours later, the Israeli army was in control of the West Bank. Had it not been for the fatal miscalculation to fall in with Nasser’s plans, the West Bank would still be Jordanian, there would be no Israeli occupation, and the world might have been spared this source of hatred and war.
There is a Jerusalem Syndrome, Montefiore says in another of his telltale footnotes, whereby something inspired by the Bible induces a psychosis in people, a religious excitement that has nothing to do with facts. Assorted Islamists and leftists, as well as the United Nations and its committees, are among those prone to psychosis on the subject of Israel. This admirable book explains in the light of knowledge and reason how things in that conflicted part of the world have come to be what they are.