Jerusalem The Biography (Simon Sebag Montefiore)


As the title suggests, this book intends to narrate the story of Jerusalem from the earliest times to the present day (or the Six-Day War anyway).  Now that I’ve written it down, it does occur to me that the book rather neglects archaeological evidence in favour of written records, so I’m not too sure about that earliest times bit.  In fact, the way Montefiore took obvious sources such as the Old Testament, Herodotus and Josephus and stitched them together to make a narrative rather worried me too.  There was room for a more critical approach–or perhaps not, given the nature of the book.

This is a place of such delicacy it is described in Jewish sacred literature in the feminine–but cities are always feminine (and very often personified) in the Hebrew Bible.  He seems to have in mind the superheated eroticism of Ezekiel (for instance), but there surely Jerusalem is synecdoche for ‘the Jews’.

I found the passages relating to periods I didn’t know about–the early history of Islam and the Crusades for instance–more interesting.  But there I had the problem that I didn’t understand why at one stage the Crusaders were able to defeat the Arabs and then a bit later the opposite was true.  Again I suppose this is a feature of what the book is doing–reflecting the effect of historical change on one place, not trying to explain or motivate that change.

Towards the end, we had various historical Montefiores quite archly introduced, but I don’t think I ever learned how (whether) they were related to this Montefiore.  Again, I have visited present-day Jerusalem (and as the author points out, what you see there is a lot more recent than people like to think), but the book didn’t evoke it for me.

A bit of a missed opportunity I think.

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