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Book Review: Jerusalem: The Biography by Simon Sebag Montefiore

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Simon Sebag Montefiore’s history of Jerusalem is an epic summary of the city’s history told in chronological order. Jerusalem: The Biography is certainly splendidly written and meticulously researched—Montefiore paid for translations of certain historical materials—and Montefiore is a master of popular history, having established himself with books like Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar. But the story here isn’t so compelling, for it is essentially a story of thousands of years worth of violence as kings and emperors, politicians and tyrants, and the three faiths have struggled for the control of the city.

Violence is fine for a brief while, but hundreds of pages of it can make one lose interest quickly. The grotesque spectacle begins with the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD, with Roman soldiers “driving stakes up their victims’ rectums to force them to reveal their caches of grain.” Reading more entries in this catalog of blood and destruction soon become a bloody chore. I have certainly struggled with the question that is sure to arise in the mind of any reader: what’s the point of this terrible bloody history?

No one of the dozens of characters who make their mark and are marked by the city seem to learn anything; the same lack of insight applies to nations and faiths as kings and politicians. Both struggle over the same ground century after century as if re-enacting some cryptic Jungian subconscious drama. There is also here a certain desperate neediness to own God. God is a prize here and those who struggle over the possession of His Holy City probably believe that they will lord over the rest of the world.

No matter how you care to try and explain this pointless bloody treadmill that is the city’s history it is all rather creepy and even somewhat schizophrenic: the Holy City of God is not a place of peace, healing or reconciliation but the object of bloody, brutal struggle. The history of Jerusalem ultimately repels, and a grim conclusion suggests itself about man: humanity is a disturbed lot. What’s worse, one gets the sinking feeling that there is more violence yet to come, if the history of the city is any indication.

Montefiore could have certainly written a different kind of book, one organized by a structure other than chronological, a book that could hide the violence, but in choosing to drag the reader through the fields of corpses he is making a point—the violence needs to stop because it is senseless. Whether those who wish to posses Jerusalem in order to be closer to God will figure this out remains to be seen. 

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About A. Jurek

A. Jurek is one of the editors at Blogcritics. Contact me at: a.jurek@blogcritics.org
  • Gaelic

    Thanks for the wonderful review. I would add that Montefiore paints a picture of present day Jerusalem that is curiously missing the stark reality that Israel has become a segregated country, most notably in Israeli Occupied East Jerusalem. He does not seem to either know or want to write about the daily crimes against humanity which affect Palestinians in East Jerusalem. To see how Palestinian homes in Jerusalem are demolished is heartbreaking, and many are.

    One wonders if the author has an interest in the Montefiore Hotel – with its 47 comfortable rooms – and wants to somehow promote tourism by ignoring the harsh realities, one being the cruel destruction of a children’s playground in East Jerusalem, simply because the children are not Jewish. This was captured on video.