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Review of JERUSALEM, The Biography - by Simon Sebag-Montefiore
published in the Independent, Friday 21st January, 2011

Reading Jerusalem is a compelling experience of a very peculiar place. It's a city that has never made anything but history. Jerusalem is not an entrepot, a manufactory, a place of finance or a crossroads. It is a place apart, a Holy City amongst broken arid hills on the edge of a desert, where for three thousand years pilgrims have come to repent, to pray, to celebrate, to wait for the second coming, to attempt to question God and to die.

Simon Sebag-Montefiore's history of Jerusalem is a labour of love and scholarship. It is a considerable achievement to have created a sense of pace and variety throughout his three-thousand-year narrative. He has a wonderful ear for the absurdities and the adventurers of the past, so that beside the humourless high-achievers, such as Herbert Samuel and General Allenby, we also get to see Jerusalem through the eyes of professional party animals like Wasif Jawhariiyeh, Amal al-Atrash (a double-agent Druze Princess) and Monty Parker, a totally amoral treasure-seeking English aristocrat, as well as such passionate English interlopers as Orde Wingate, 'the Lawrence of Judaea' and the dashing Sir Sidney Smith.

Immersing myself in Sebag-Montefiore's chronicle was totally gripping but it was an ultimately depressing experience. If this is the point on earth at which God's influence is most manifest, we are indeed nothing but the Devil's spawn and nothing good will ever come of us. Extortion, riot, incest, schism, civil strife, torture and assassination stalk the alleys, cellars and towers of Holy Jerusalem, and that's in the good times. The fat years of peace allowed parasitic dynasties of priests, custodians, hoteliers, shop-keepers and pimps to milk pilgrims, visitors and distant believers for all they are worth. The flow of sacrifices, fees, tithes and charity unite all the different generations of Jerusalemites, be they Jewish, Muslim or Christian.

It was in these good times that the fabric of Jerusalem was embellished by half a dozen of the world's totemic buildings, erected by such fascinating characters as Herod the Great, the Empress Helena, Caliph Abd al-Malik, Queen Melisende and Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent. The Temple Mount, the Holy Sepulchure, the Dome of the Rock and the walls of Jersualem still dazzle the imagination of the world with their unique combination of mystery, elegance and magnificence. We are in the midst of another boom period of Jerusalem construction at the moment, as the modern state of Israel invests a fortune in tarmac, poured concrete and limestone veneer. As well as creating new monuments, old ones have been lovingly unearthed and restored, while the old city is surrounded with a fortress-like grid of suburban settlements.

What Sebag-Montefiore's history also makes clear is that possession of Jerusalem has time and time again been a poisoned chalice, a piece of imperial hubris that brings the fates (and regional jealousies) down upon the state that possesses it. It has always been an extravagance to feed and guard the Holy City, perched amidst dry hills and filled with a populace addicted to prayer and charity. For King Abdullah of Jordan, the British, Herod, Heraclius, Babylon, Saladin, the Sassanids and Assyria, possession of Jerusalem was the irresistible jewel in the crown that also marked out the high noon of all their Empires.

The transition of Jerusalem from one imperial power to another was not always violent. The British took over from the Ottomans just as Caliph Omar took the surrender of Christian Jerusalem from the hands of the Patriarch - without so much as a drop of blood spilt . Yet it is the sieges and sacks of Jerusalem that keep the story-telling historian in business. The destruction of the Assyrians and Babylonians, and the ultimate flattening of Jewish Jerusalem by the Roman legions (under both Titus and Hadrian) were apocalyptic in their fury. And the Christian knights of the First Crusade and a succession of medieval Mongol and Tartar cavalry raids achieved almost equal levels of horror and destruction.

Another theme revealed to us in this history is the vital role of the super-power ally. Herod the Great was totally dependent on his subservient alliance (and personal friendship) with the Roman political leadership, just as the Crusader states were completely dependent on the Frankish Kingdoms. Throughout the Muslim period, it was the wealth of Egypt that underwrote the financing of Islamic Jerusalem. The modern state of Israel follows these historical examples. Zionism (which was formed and empowered out of the suffering of countless millions of Jews in the Russian Empire) piggy-backed its way into the Holy Land through the agency of the British Empire before adopting the USA as its sole parent after 1956. Part of the political genius of the Zionist leadership was that it created an incomparably effective, good-cop, bad-cop strategy to its public diplomacy. Elegant men of letters and science, men of the stamp of a Theodor Herzl or a Professor Weizmann or Sir Moses Montefiore, held sway in the drawing rooms and conferences, whilst the people who exercised real power, men like Ben-Gurion and Menachim Begin, quietly exercised other skills ­ with guns, bombs, assassination and fear.

I disagreed often with Sebat-Montefiore's emphasis, and with what he chose not to tell, but that is the privilege of the writer. However there are a number of issues which need addressing if his Jerusalem really aspires to be ŒTHE biography' not just Œa biography'. Without bewildering his readership with too much pre-history I believe that the Canaanite period (which is becoming ever more emphatic and extensive from recent digs) deserved a chapter of its own, and an imaginative exploration of its culture. As it is, this foundation level of Middle Eastern history is misleadingly entitled 'The World of David', as if it was no more than a prologue to the interesting bit, which is when the Jews first make their appearance on the stage. Surely it is a vital task for any historian to stress that the Jews (as testified by their own sacred history) also first came to this city as alien conquerors. No creed is indigenous to Jerusalem, we are all guests, even if some have much, much greater claims than others. Although David and Solomon are eternal fixtures of belief, example and inspiration, they are very far from being established as historical characters ­with not a single archaeological pebble of evidence yet found in their favour. So to publish a map showing the extent of their vast and possibly imaginary kingdoms is completely inappropriate. Nor did I care for the casual dismal of Edwin Montagu as a Œtormented Jew'. Montagu was a Cabinet minister with considerable experience of government who feared that a Zionist state would make every Jew in Europe an outsider and a potential fifth columnist and intensify existing anti-semitism to murderous levels. He may not have been right, but his fears that Zionism might inadvertently reap rivers of blood must not be kicked under the historical carpet so lightly.

Does anyone write history without an underlying passion and motivation? Sebag-Montefiore's own family occupies a distinguished place (alongside the Rothschilds) as one of the aristocratic British Jewish dynasties whose patronage in the 19th century established the first foundations of modern Israel. His own experience, as an emotionally involved historian, certainly helps him sympathise with the chroniclers of the past, be they Josephus, William of Tyre or Usamah bin Munqidh. And that's were I would put this book, right beside Josephus's Jewish Wars. Vivid, compelling, engaged, engrossing, knowledgeable ­ but partial.

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