Jerusalem : the biography

by Simon Sebag Montefiore

Paper Book, 2011




New York : A.A. Knopf, c2011


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)

Media reviews

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.
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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.

User reviews

LibraryThing member OneIanBaker
I personally found the book incredible. I can understand a few of the sentiments contained within the.ken.petersen review, but I think he is being more than a little harsh on the book and the author. History books don’t by their nature have to provide a Hollywood happy ending, and I think Sebag Montefiore does a fantastic job in adding colour, passion, intrigue, and depth to the descriptions of the families and individuals who have left their mark on Jerusalem over the last few millennia. He fashions all these interlocking events, plots, people and relationships together into a fascinating and entertaining story that would not seem out of place in a novel. This is all woven together with incredible detail and research typical of the author. The fact that so many historical ‘household named’ figures, walk upon the stage of the story told only helps to heighten the level of engagement: King David, Goliath, Jesus, Solomon, Caesar, Nero, Cleopatra, Saladin, Richard the Lionheart, Disraeli, Rasputin, Lawrence of Arabia, and Churchill.

Yes, at times it is a bleak story: death, torture, obliteration of people, the frequent destruction of the city itself, most of which is the result of the pursuit of power, but this is not unique to Jerusalem. The unsavoury behaviour throughout is fairly consistent with most of human history, however shameful and depressing that may seem today. It is hard not to feel a modicum of despair, and equally hard not to join the dots in your mind and attribute all the nastiness to what seems like a futile, never-ending war over supernatural artefacts, gods that can’t be seen, and sacred places and spaces.

The book itself is indeed a ‘tome’, coming in at about 500 pages (in the hardback), but there is a lot of history to cover: the birth of Jerusalem, the origins of Judaism, King David, Jesus and Herod. Imperial Rome, the rise of Islam, the Arab Conquest and the Crusades, not to mention more recently the Great War, and so, so much more. It stops ominously (probably for the best) in 1967- the legality of the expansion not elaborated upon.

This book would appeal to a range of readers. If anyone wants to understand the background, motivation, or supposed justification of/for the current Middle East crisis, this book is a perfect starting point, and is almost politically neutral. If you are a history enthusiast, or just have a thirst for knowledge, get it on your bookshelf. If you like exciting, enthralling stories again, it is certainly that. And finally, even if you’ve always wanted to read the bible, but aren’t sure about all the mumbo jumbo or ‘advice’, the first part reproduces the history, development and evolution of the three Abrahamic religions, with a more pragmatic, evidence-based commentary rather than a focus on the mythical.
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LibraryThing member ashergabbay
Several years ago I took a course at the Open University on Jerusalem through the ages. The course covered Jerusalem from the perspective of the three monotheistic religions, from biblical times to present-day Israel. It was a most interesting course that understandably required a lot of reading. “Jerusalem: The Biography”, by Simon Sebag Montefiore, is basically a summary of that course. I could have saved so much time...

Montefiore traces the history of the holy city through 3,000 years: from King David (about 1000 BCE) all the way to the Six Day War (1967 CE). The book covers Judaism, Paganism, Christianity, Islam, The Crusades, Mamluk and Ottoman rule, European rule and Zionism. That is no mean task given that it’s not that big of a book, only a few hundred pages long.

I found the book to be interesting not because of the historical chronicle. Sebag’s work is at it’s best when demystifying some of the common misperceptions about Jerusalem. These can be geographical – the “Tower of David” has nothing to do with the Israelite king, or cultural – the “Holy Fire” hoax of the Easter celebration in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, or even biographical – what was Lawrence of Arabia really doing in Palestine during the English invasion. The book is full of entertaining anecdotes that spice up this historical biography.

I found the last part of the book, dealing with 19th and 20th century events, to be too detailed. It may be inevitable that writing on current events is easier due to the availability of sources (there are no newspapers from King David’s day), but it leaves a somewhat unbalanced feeling about the narrative. Many of the details could have been left out without impacting too much the overall picture of how the city’s history evolved over the ages.

Jerusalem is unique. It’s history is even more unique. Sadly, most of that history has been written in blood and reading about so much pain and misery in one condensed volume is not very pleasant. One needs to visit modern-day Jerusalem to soak up its history and its significance directly from the stones and ruins and feel for oneself what this city has to offer. Just don’t go there in July and August when it’s too hot to soak up anything but your own sweat…
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LibraryThing member LynnB
This book undertakes an ambitious project: to tell the very complicated history of Jerusalem, which in some ways, is the history of the world. As in biblical times, we still see the interplay of myth and truth in the world today.

The author has done a great deal of research. The book is full of entertaining anecdotes that spice it up (if anyone was having kinky or extramarital sex, it is duly noted). In spite of that, I found it somewhat tedious: this happened, and then this happened and then this....without much context.

At my university courses in political economy, we were shown that the root cause of most (if not all) wars could be traced to ecnomic interests. In the case of Jerusalem, I can't make that link. Instead, I see the darker side of religion. As Mr. Montefiore notes, "not one of the three faiths ever gained Jerusalem without the sword."

The author has said that he hopes that telling the history of Jerusalem with increase inter-faith tolerance. But as I read this book, I felt a sense of sadness -- his hope is, unfortunately, not supported by his text. There is nothing in this book that makes me think things in Jerusalem will ever change.
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LibraryThing member NaggedMan
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.
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LibraryThing member boekenstrijd
Montefiore’s Jerusalem is 20 % religion, 20 % violence, 20 % sex, 20 % politics. Very lively, with an abundance of colorful characters.

The history of Jerusalem is the story of cyclical destruction and renewal. Kings, prophets, emperors, pashas, governors, colonists and crusaders have conquered the city, destroyed parts of it and build others. Every inch was fought over and is soaked in blood. Holiness went hand in hand with violence, intrigue, treason, vice and greed.
In Simon Sebag Montefiore’s book Jerusalem is made out of equal measures of religion, politics, sex and violence. It is filled to the brim with plots, sieges, power games, and attacks.
Montefiore does not offer much guidance or analysis. Only in the epilogue he summarizes, by stating that Jerusalem was Jewish during a thousand years, christian during four hundred years and Islamic during thirteen hundred years.
Montefiore recounts stories and does so admirably. He knows how to breath live into his characters, even when they only appear in a few paragraphs.
There are so many anecdotes on every page of this book that it makes the readers’ heads spin. One beheading is followed another conspiracy, and the next plot is already in the making.
His story is that of the powerful man and women who ruled the city or at least tried to. He has an open eye for women, especially the concubines, courtesans, prostitutes, adulterous wives and nymphomaniacs.
The borders of the area of which Jerusalem was the capital were rather fluid. That remains so, of course, till the present day. Jerusalem is never a quiet corner of the world.
Montefiore’s story is not original, which is not to be expected. The Bible is a major source and for the later stages he seems to lean heavily on well known works. His description of part of the crusades is remarkably close to the classic work of Sir Steven Runciman.
During those crusades we encounter Sigurd, king of Norway, the first European royal to visit the newly conquered Jerusalem. Sigurd is the name the Norwegian terrorist Anders Behring Breivik adopted, when he joined the reconstituted order of the Knights Templar. It isanother reminder that this history still has an effect in the present.
Jerusalem was often on the frontier of empires and and a playground in their struggles. That was still the case in the First World War, when the British sponsored Zionism out of political reasons. They were hoping to keep or gain the support of Russia and America. Later, the British came to regret that move and were more pro-Arabic and often outright anti-Semitic.
If there is a connecting question in this book, it is how Jewish Jerusalem was. In his thoughtful epilogue Montefiore does not say who the city belongs to. Jews and Arabs both have their rights.
The situation is made even more complicated by the role that Jerusalem plays in the apocalyptic visions of fundamentalist Christians and Muslims.
Montefiore says the Old City should be transformed into a ‘demilitarized Vatican’. If that will ever be the final chapter of another biography of this city remains an open question.
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LibraryThing member the.ken.petersen
The story of Jerusalem is one that should embarrass every religious man, woman and child. It is the story of hate, of some fatuous belief that my religion out ranks yours. Christian,Jew and Muslim should hang their heads in shame.

This book starts with hundreds of pages of silly wars, wars of pretence - such as the Crusades - and just when one is at the very point of hurling it through the nearest window, we hit more modern times. Britain's unfortunate role is followed by France and then the USA; each certain of their own righteousness and pre-ordained right to treat Jerusalem and its inhabitants as they wish.

The author does not offer any solutions to the problem: who could? My own offering is to remove all the peoples, of whatever faith, and then to drop enough nuclear bombs to keep the area highly radioactive for the foreseeable future. Whatever faith, so much killing over such a long period is beyond reason. As you might be able to tell, this is not a story with an ounce of human kindness. It is a tale of total despair. The only thing as unreasonable as the Israeli point of view is that of the Arab and the bleatings of the West, in the name of a peace, that they never truly tried to deliver, ring with the hollow blast of hypocrisy.

It was incredibly difficult to issue a star rating to this work. I suspect that the author has done a pretty fair and reasoned job and, as such, deserves more praise than is given by three stars; but the story is so bleak, and ultimately pointless, that the temptation was to hand it a nil rating. In the end, I took the easy route of awarding a middle three.
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LibraryThing member jcbrunner
Jerusalem truly is the Rocky of cities. It almost hurts to read about how many times it was conquered and destroyed. Situated at a crossroads between Egypt and the Fertile Crescent, it suffered the invasions from both sides and later from invaders from across the sea. Having been at the center of the medieval world, it reverted to a sleepy minor town that lived on more in memory. The Zionist project as well as the importance of the Suez canal revived interest in Jerusalem, a city promised to too many people and filled with stones of too much meaning. The 20th century saw the rise and return of Jerusalem to international prominence which also triggered new waves of destruction and expulsions. Simon Sebag Montefiore's great history of the great city ends much too early. A wonderful if tragic read.… (more)
LibraryThing member Dabble58
Got this out of the library and feel I must buy it in my next book-buying frenzy. I need more time with it than I got. Fascinating and quick flowing. Want to know more.
LibraryThing member john257hopper
I borrowed this from the library as I wanted to know more after reading a novel set partly in Jerusalem. This books packs a lot of information, but I found the constant flow of new names, etc. a bit overwhelming to take in at the moment, so I will just browse some parts.

No star rating.
LibraryThing member 4bonasa
Excellent history of the most famous City on this planet, if not the Universe.
A must read for the religious and irreligious alike.
LibraryThing member riverwillow
Anyone with an interest in the Middle East, its history, politics and religion, should read this book about this divided city - it may be physically united, although the walls that separate the communities is a better representation of the religious, emotional and psychological issues that divide its communities - as it really puts into context the problems faced by this city and parts of the wider Middle East.

Montefiore's narrative - he starts at the beginning and chronologically narrates the history city to the present day - is packed with historical detail and is pretty even handed, not an easy thing to do considering its tumultuous history, as Montefiore notes 'not one of the three faiths ever gained Jerusalem without the sword.' Jerusalem, the centre of three of the world's main religions, is, without doubt the most blood soaked space on earth and is the place where 'one can easily image the unthinkable' might occur.

But there is a sadness at the heart of the narrative, as Montefiore points at that at key points throughout there have always been choices to be made, and it seems that the majority of times the wrong choice was made, a the hatred and intolerance was intensified and solidified.
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LibraryThing member freelancer_frank
This is a book about endurance and tolerance as demonstrated by Jerusalem's turbulent history. Montefiore begins begins at the beginning and continues right up to 2000 and beyond. The book is well structured chronologically with no particular bias being given to one historical period over another. Each period is well illuminated by Montefiore's ability with story, character and details. The book as a whole is compelling and absorbing. There is a lot to be learned but nothing is opaque. Given the subject matter, there is always going to be criticism about the perspective (rational, religious, etc...) but Montefiore navigates the issue with great skill.… (more)
LibraryThing member charlie68
A good history of the eternal city of Jerusalem. Often sad and brutal as Jerusalem seems to bring out the best and worst in people. Covers and enormous time frame from the beginnings to Modern day.
LibraryThing member HadriantheBlind
Another impressive work by Mr. Montefiore, detailed the extremely long and vivid history of one of the world's most famous cities into a very readable and flowing history, from King David, to David Ben-Gurion, and beyond.
LibraryThing member busterrll
Great Read Learned a lot - Reads like a Story from your crazy Aunt Sally what with some many Characters over the course of time but that is to be expected. Only downside - Font size of notes is so small as to require a magnifying glass.
Well worth reading but a bit daunting given its size.
LibraryThing member konastories
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.… (more)
LibraryThing member dgbdgb
Good history of Jerusalem, which must have the most complex and horrific history of any City in the world. Found the last half better than the first. It's a very large volume, but still moves through early historic events with considerable speed. Ideal for dipping in and out of.
LibraryThing member StBenedictsLacey
Tells not only Jerusalem's history, but Israel's as well. Historical data and charming anecdotes.
LibraryThing member MiaCulpa
Not being religious, Jerusalem is not a place I have spent a lot of time thinking about over the years but Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Jerusalem: The Biography brought my Jerusalem-based thoughts into sharp relief. At times Jerusalem almost reads like a Horrible Histories book, as Jerusalem has suffered more catastrophes like almost no other city.

I note that other reviewers have cited the book’s length and density as drawbacks. I didn’t find this an issue and instead found myself wanting more. Perhaps a sequel, written in twenty or so years, will be produced to satiate my appetite.
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LibraryThing member sloopjonb
Interesting read, but SSM might have been a bit less credulous about some of the many lies told by contributors to Jerusalem's history (Suetonius, Josephus, TE Lawrence, etc etc ...)
LibraryThing member PDCRead
To try and tackle the history of one of the most famous cities in the world, in one book, is not the easiest of writing challenges, but Montefiore has had a pretty good go at it. He has tried to cover from the very earliest references to relatively recent events, and this has made this a very substantial book indeed.

I won't try and surmise all 600 plus pages into a couple of paragraphs would be nigh on impossible, but suffice to say Montefiore has filled these pages with immense amounts of detail and history of the lives of the people that have occupied this city. It has played a significant role in many world events and is considered one of the holiest places by the three abrahamic religions. He sets the context for each of the eras and highlight the movers and shakers of that time.

All good stuff, or so you would think. But this amount of detail makes this so difficult to read at times, along with literally a cast of thousands over the millennia, it did feel like I was wading through it at times. Jerusalem has been the place where much blood has been shed, and there is almost too much detail with regards to this. My other big bugbear with it was footnotes. These should be a small piece of information that adds to the main body of text, but some of these were huge. A foot note that long should be in the main body, but if that were the case then it would have been more unreadable. The author does add in some personal opinions too, not the done this for a history book, which should be impartial and non judgemental.

That said is a book I'm glad I have now read, and I feel a sense of achievement having done so, but I will be unlikely to pick it up again.
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LibraryThing member Hubster

At times a surprisingly violent read that I brought on the spur of the moment, mostly on the strength of my love of another of the author's works: Stalin, court of the Red Tsar. Much to my surprise I have to say I don't regret this for one moment.

I was dimly aware of the importance of the city in world history but only once it was all laid out in this tomb of a book did I realize just how it really has in many ways truly been the centre of the world. Many names from pre history you may have only heard of casually will be happily fleshed out, very often ending with a bloody battle and/or the odd outbreak of compromise and good sense. Sadly not quite enough of the later.

Fun fact for British readers: A man called 'Thomas Cook' acted as a travel agent in 1869 taking a party pilgrims to the holy land, creating modern tourism and the package holiday.
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