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Jerusalem: The Biography by Simon Sebag…

Jerusalem: The Biography (edition 2012)

by Simon Sebag Montefiore

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1,017298,361 (3.94)61
Title:Jerusalem: The Biography
Authors:Simon Sebag Montefiore
Info:Vintage (2012), Edition: Reprint, Paperback, 704 pages
Collections:Your library
Tags:Non-fiction, Rideau Club, 2012

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Jerusalem: The Biography by Simon Sebag Montefiore


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Prophets and patriarchs, Abraham, David, Jesus and Muhammad are said to have trodden these stones. The Abrahamic religions were born there and the world will also end there on the Day of Judgement. Jerusalem, sacred to the Peoples of the Book, is the city of the Book: the Bible is, in many ways, Jerusalem’s own chronicle and its readers, from the Jews and early Christians via the Muslim conquerors and the Crusaders to today’s American evangelists, have repeatedly altered her history to fulfil biblical prophecy.

A person could read the above paragraph and be inspired to consider how wonderful and sacred a place Jerusalem must be. Another person would be forced to think about the bloodshed that has occurred in the names of those religions in Jerusalem. I have never been there, but this book makes me understand that it's both of those things. The history of Jerusalem contains examples of the best and the worst that humans have wrought on each other.

Simon Sebag Montefiore called his book Jerusalem: A Biography for two reasons. First, the city has a personality of its own. In that paragraph above, he refers to Jerusalem as "her". The Talmud also refers to Jerusalem as a woman. The second reason is that the book is about "the people that made Jerusalem, and how they built it, and how it developed. It's people and families that build cities."

The book presents the history of Jerusalem from Abraham to the Six Day War. It is separated into chapters that usually focus on a single historical figure. Some example chapter titles: "The Fall of Antigonos: Last of the Maccabeans", "Duke Godfrey: The Siege", and "The Emperor and the Caliph: Charlemagne and Haroud al-Rashid". The chapters are short and can be read as self-contained stories within the story. It's extremely well-organized, very readable, and will be an excellent resource for years to come.

I never felt that the author (who is Jewish) was agenda driven. In fact, I would have to say that the book had a distinct secular feel to it. Referring to the paragraph at the beginning of this review, he states that people "have repeatedly altered her history to fulfill biblical prophecy", implying that any prophecy that may have been fulfilled was purposeful and deliberate. This includes Jesus. Of the Resurrection, Montefiore says: "Archaeologists tend to believe that the body was simply removed and buried by friends and family in another rock-cut tomb somewhere around Jerusalem." The book is not "about" the religions of Jerusalem, but the subject is impossible to escape. Overall, I feel he did a remarkable even-handed job, treating all religions with a bit of detachment.

I learned a great deal from this book, and I look forward to visiting Jerusalem someday. ( )
  ScottDDanielson | Apr 20, 2017 |
Tells not only Jerusalem's history, but Israel's as well. Historical data and charming anecdotes. ( )
  StBenedictsLacey | Mar 1, 2016 |
Oh, Jerusalem. There is no other place on Earth quite as tragic, drenched in both blood and history.

And it makes for reading that cannot be put down.

Here's the short version of why you should read Simon Sebag Montefiore's history of Jerusalem: In just under seven hundred pages, Jerusalem: The Biography is a satisfying, narrative-based history one of the most contested pieces of real estate in world history, if not the most contested. In those relatively few pages, Montefiore manages to give at least the appearance of objective attention to each of the major religions that dominate the city's history, as well as to the many, many conquerors that pass through its gates over its thousands of years of history. With all the sordid intrigue of an Italian opera, Jerusalem: The Biography is painfully tragic, proceeding chronologically with the march of history as it demands to be read from the introduction to the last page. Not a tale of the daily, mundane, or pedestrian, it is a story of kings, rulers, and the powerful. The average Jerusalemite appears only as a pawn of history, to be butchered, starved, driven-out, or resettled.

As a Christian, it's hard to deny the allure of the holy city that was the setting for Jesus Christ's life. Indeed, even Christianity's god bemoaned the city, already ancient when he appeared, for its tragic past while alluding to the blood that would spill in its streets in coming years. And yet, as the reader turns through pages filled by debauchery, sieges, massacre, and horror, it is difficult to turn away from Montefiore's writing. Full of detail, Jerusalem is full of more detail than could possibly be necessary to know the history of the three-thousand-year old city,

To point to how varied and thorough the detail Montefiore brings to bear as he tells his story, New York Times reviewer Jonathan Rosen started randomly opening pages throughout the book:

"[O]n Page 4, Roman soldiers are crucifying 500 Jews a day in the run-up to the destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70; on Page 75, Alexander Jannaeus, a much-loathed Jewish king of the first century B.C., after slaughtering 50,000 of his own people, celebrates his victory “by cavorting with his concubines at a feast while watching 800 rebels being crucified around the hills.” Crucifixion was so common in the ancient world, Montefiore notes in one of his many fascinating asides, that Jews and gentiles alike had taken to wearing nails from victims as charms, anticipating what became a Christian tradition. And when the population dwindled — as after the First Crusade, which like a neutron bomb eliminated the infidels but preserved the holy places — you could always dash across the Jordan, like Baldwin the crusader king in 1115, and bring back “poverty-stricken Syrian and Armenian Christians, whom he invited to settle in Jerusalem, ancestors of today’s Palestinian Christians.”"

Despite his penchant for detail, Montefiore never seems to lose control of his narrative. Where tedium might threaten, a danger when facing a constant march of dates, names, and places, Montefiore seems to imbue his story with a kind of epicness... It is a city that is larger than history, exerting a magnetism on the peoples and nations that seem unable to avoid its attraction. Like a black hole, it seems to distort the laws of history and the decisions of otherwise rational actors who come too close to its gravitational pull.

And yet, the city is by no means as romantic as each successive re-writer of history would imagine it. From the barbarity of the crusaders at the turn of the first millennium to the dung-heap on the Temple Mount Caliph Omar found when he took the city in the 600s, to the modern-day controversies (including Yassir Arafat's head-scratching claim that Jerusalem had never been the site of the Jewish Temple). Still, Montefiore takes pains to be fair to Jewish, Christian, and Islamic relationships to the city, all while correcting oft-repeated myths and politically charged rewrites of history.

In some senses, it can be hard to read Jerusalem: The Biography and see a god in all of this violence. And yet, it is not any god that has brought the seemingly unending death and war to the Holy Land, but the errant followers of the faiths that call Jerusalem home.


( )
  publiusdb | Jan 12, 2016 |
Another reviewer wrote that "this book contains pretty much everything anyone could possibly want to know about Jerusalem". One might well add, and a great deal of things one would prefer not to have known. What a terrible story. With the odd (very odd) and relatively (very relatively) peaceful interlude, SSM's deeply researched story reveals three thousand years of almost continuous violence, with great building upon great building erected then destroyed and one population routinely displaced by another, culminating in today's Jewish state versus Palestinian state (or not yet state?) while the most extremist / fundamentalist elements of the three Abramic religions squabble and fight, squabble and fight, each in direct contravention of their own sacred texts. For today's world both the deep history and the most recent decades explain why the USA (the West's leading home and breeding ground of fundamentalist Christians) is so clearly the worst possible country to lead efforts at bringing (or knocking) heads together and establishing a secure and lasting settlement. I write as a believing but non-fundamentalist Christian, with horror and regret for the roles Christians have often played and now play. And with such deep sadness for this extraordinary place and those of its population who struggle to live a peaceful life.
While this book is not in any sense pleasant reading, it should be compulsory reading for anyone even remotely engaged in the so-called peace process and / or the middle east more generally.
As for those who cavil at SSM's supposed credulity regarding some of his sources (Suetonius, Josephus, TE Lawrence are cited), he appears to me to have consulted as widely as possible among the available sources and to present - to the extent there's more than one source - a balanced perspective. ( )
  NaggedMan | Jul 19, 2015 |
Joy's review: This book contains pretty much everything anyone could possibly want to know about Jerusalem. Montefiore has included every fact he found, but he sacrificed readability in the process. I needed a thread or two to weave the book into a real story. As it is, the story goes: new guy comes in massacres lots of people, is oppressive, get replaced by another new guy of a different religion... with the occasional very brief period of peace. I'm glad I read it, but think Montefiore needed a better editor. ( )
  konastories | Apr 6, 2015 |
Showing 1-5 of 27 (next | show all)
This is not an account of daily life or humble devotions. It’s a little like learning about the American West by watching a John Wayne movie: everyone is a gunslinger or a sheriff, with nameless extras diving under the bar when trouble starts. Still, for a book that spans 3,000 years, it does a remarkably inclusive job.
added by LiteraryFiction | editNew York Times, Jonathan Rosen (pay site) (Oct 28, 2011)
Montefiore's narrative is remarkably objective when considering his own family's close links with Jewish Jerusalem. One might quibble with certain details, but overall it is a reliable and compelling account, with many interesting points.
Nonetheless, this is compendious and fleet-footed history of a city where the glorification of God has always been built on bloodied soil.

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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Simon Sebag Montefioreprimary authorall editionscalculated
Bischoff, UlrikeÜbersetzersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Figueiredo, Maria JoséTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Götting, WaltraudÜbersetzersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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(Preface) The history of Jerusalem is the history of the world, but it is also the chronicle of an often penurious provincial town amid the Judean hills.
(Prologue) On the 8th of the Jewish month of Ab, in late July AD 70, Titus, the Roman Emperor Vespasian's son who was in command of the four-month siege of Jerusalem, ordered his entire army to prepare to storm the Temple at dawn.
When David captured the citadel of Zion, Jerusalem was already ancient.
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Jerusalem is the universal city, the capital of two peoples, the shrine of three faiths; it is the prize of empires, the site of Judgment Day and the battlefield of today's clash of civilizations. From King David to Barack Obama, from the birth of Judaism, Christianity and Islam to the Israel-Palestine conflict, this is the epic history of three thousand years of faith, slaughter, fanaticism and coexistence. How did this small, remote town become the Holy City, the "center of the world" and now the key to peace in the Middle East? In a gripping narrative, Simon Sebag Montefiore reveals this ever-changing city in its many incarnations, bringing every epoch and character blazingly to life. Jerusalem's biography is told through the wars, love affairs and revelations of the men and women -- kings, empresses, prophets, poets, saints, conquerors and whores -- who created, destroyed, chronicled and believed in Jerusalem. As well as the many ordinary Jerusalemites who have left their mark on the city, its cast varies from Solomon, Saladin and Suleiman the Magnificent to Cleopatra, Caligula and Churchill; from Abraham to Jesus and Muhammad; from the ancient world of Jezebel, Nebuchadnezzar, Herod and Nero to the modern times of the Kaiser, Disraeli, Mark Twain, Lincoln, Rasputin, Lawrence of Arabia and Moshe Dayan. Drawing on new archives, current scholarship, his own family papers and a lifetime's study, Montefiore illuminates the essence of sanctity and mysticism, identity and empire in a unique chronicle of the city that many believe will be the setting for the Apocalypse. This is how Jerusalem became Jerusalem, and the only city that exists twice -- in heaven and on earth. - Publisher.… (more)

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