City of God

Simon Sebag Montefiore
Jerusalem: The Biography
(Knopf, 2011)

Entering its fifth millennium of continuous settlement, Jerusalem—the Holy Land, al-Quds, city of God, birthplace of Solomon, resting place of Jesus, home of the Temple, keystone of the Middle East, and capital of modern Israel—continues to endure the virulent downsides of Abrahamic righteousness. As the city has grown, changed hands, changed names, been ground to rubble and rebuilt into majesty, engineered so as to highlight its major mythology and invaded by every major power from ancient Persia to the medieval Franks, it has become an echo chamber of sanctity and desecration. No other city on earth has faced such savage, extreme, rude, cruel, and continually unflinching bloodletting in the name of God’s good grace. Simon Sebag Montefiore, historian, Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, and author of books on Stalin and Catherine the Great, has now penned a narrative history—a life, as he asserts—of this most contentious city, Jerusalem: The Biography.

The story of Jerusalem is largely a story of charismatic individuals, whose glories and follies—often equally vibrant—are etched into Montefiore’s chapters much like the sand-strewn steles onto which their tales were passed down. Jerusalem represents a global story, parlayed in tongues diverse as Aramaic, Greek, Persian, Armenian, Arabic, Hebrew, Latin, and English. Montefiore’s research likewise reflects a richness of texts. His digressions are as illuminating as they are flamboyant, a fitting testimony to his subject matter. He exhibits a keen familiarity with current archaeological research, and revisits conventional assumptions with spyglass in hand. His prose is by turns atmospheric and whip-smart. A typical sequence might include the following:

Jesus, like most crucifixion victims, was scourged with a leather whip tipped with either bone or metal, a torment so savage that it often killed the victim. Wearing a placard reading KING OF THE JEWS prepared by the Roman soldiers, many of them Syrian-Greek auxiliaries, and bleeding heavily after his flagellation, Jesus was led away, on what was probably the morning of the 14th of Nisan, or Friday 3 April 33.

Jerusalem begins deep in antiquity and terminates in 1967, a date which marks the end of the Six-Day War and the rough beginning of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Seemingly unruffled by such a scopious span, Montefiore digs, collates, assembles, and harmonizes an uncanny range of detail, drawing from diverse histories not only an elaborate and compelling chronology, but a sensuous lineage of human heartache, which threads the book from figure to figure. His chapters render Jerusalem (and numerous other regional centers) as vivid tableaux onto which these major individuals play perhaps the world’s most cantankerous game of chess. The author’s sources include biblical texts and exegeses, Pharaonic-era Egyptian archival corroboration, Greek histories, family genealogies, medieval and modern scholarship, and shards of archaeological evidence continually excavated from under piles of millennial sediment. Nero, Caligula, Alexander, Antony and Cleopatra, Lawrence of Arabia, Cyrus the Great, Ben-Gurion, Constantine, and Churchill: All these figures played significant roles in Jerusalem’s development and Montefiore unveils countless others to the benefit of common understanding. Two important narratives emerge in Montefiore’s telling. First is Europe’s overwhelming (and forced) conversion to Christianity. The codification of Christian doctrine following the Council of Nicaea in 325 galvanized Christian identity in Europe, opening Jerusalem to the interest and imagination of the West. Thus burgeoned the long-standing relationship between Jerusalem and Europe. The second major development, of course, is the advent of Islam, under whose banner many Arab factions unified. For the 400 years subsequent to Muhammad’s prophecy, Islamic rulers, Arab and non-Arab alike, governed Jerusalem. Islamic culture flourished in this period and many of its wealthy princes devoted immense resources, both material and imaginative, to pursuing science, geography, mathematics, and, more broadly, the question of wisdom. Jerusalem was the outpost for such ornament, being a central landmark in the monotheistic tradition and the destination in Muhammad’s legendary night flight from Mecca.

To learn Jerusalem’s history is, in part, to learn about the history of history itself. Among those whose work Montefiore cites, Herodotus, Josephus, Suetonius, Pliny, Tacitus, Eusebius, Cassius Dio, and Appian all appear by the close of the third century—several of them figuring directly into the events they depict. In this way, understanding the annals of Jerusalem’s long past must be a central part of grappling with the geopolitical, ethnic, and ideological legacies we face today. Jerusalem is a crossroads of global empire and a lodestar of global faith. The task to which the author sets himself is enormous, and he meets it with unending verve, scrupulous assembly, and a storyteller’s sense of pacing. That the history of this city is now available in an engrossing and entertaining narrative, anchored in rich, odd detail (and richer, odder characters) provides a welcome occasion for reflection on the foundations of Jerusalem’s wonder, its delight, and its ongoing political saga.

Contributor

Allen Wilcox

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