By Arieh O’Sullivan
Jerusalem is in an awful location. There’s no water. It’s far from any main trade route, surrounded by mountains, and sitting on an earthquake fault. It shouldn’t even exist.
Writer Herman Melville described it during his 1856 visit as a “half-ruinous pile of mouldering grottoes that smelled like death.” Some 1,500 years earlier, a lust-filled hermit called Jerome found a city that had become an entrepot of sanctity, networking and sex. “All temptation is collected here…prostitutes, actors and clowns,” wrote the splenetic Roman who would earn sainthood by translating the Greek Bible into Latin in nearby Bethlehem.
The melancholic prophet Isaiah bemoaned that the city was once a beautiful woman but now was “behaving like a whore.” (Isaiah 1:21) And yet, this city of King David and Solomon, the place of Muhammad’s ascension to heaven and site of Jesus’ resurrection—sometimes portrayed as the navel of the world—can be splendidly uptight even while bathed in the most rejuvenating sunlight in the world.
So if its reputation is so bad, why does it have such enormous reverence? Such magnetic fame and draw?
“Jerusalem today lives in a state of schizophrenic anxiety,” writes British historian Simon Sebag Montefiore in his 650-page history of Jerusalem’s 3,000 rocky years. Jerusalem: The Biography attempts to tell the history of the city “as the center of world history” and should certainly not be seen as a guidebook.
Montefiore has been visiting Jerusalem since childhood and is related to Sir Moses Montefiore, “the great benefactor” who helped sustain the 19th-century Jewish settlements in Palestine.
His guiding method in this daunting task was to tell the story of the city through the characters and families and the “human equivalent of Jerusalem’s layers of stone and dust.” But his book reads more like a sexual history of Jerusalem, from King David to Moshe Dayan, with juicy details of orgies from the bloody Crusades and the surprising swinging parties of Jews, Palestinians and British during the city’s unified days before the Second World War Mandate period.
Montefiore appears to be fixated on Jerusalem’s gory past and less on its divinity. It is after all a biography, not a holy book. Describing desperate Jews fleeing Titus’s Roman soldiers during the First Revolt in 70 CE, he says they had swallowed their coins to conceal their treasure. “The soldiers started to gut all prisoners, eviscerating them and searching their intestines while they were still alive.”
In his chapter on the Crusader conquest of Jerusalem, aptly called “The Slaughter,” the author recounts eyewitness chaplain Raymond of Aguilers’s description: “Our men cut off the heads of their enemies, others shot them with arrows so that they fell from the towers, others tortured them longer by casting them into the flames. Piles of heads, hands and feet were to be seen on the streets. …Indeed it was a just and splendid judgment of God that this place should be filled with the blood of unbelievers.”
Just as in his award-winning biography, Stalin: The Court of the Red Bar, Montefiore excels in the description of his characters. So many histories of Jerusalem have appeared, but he was able to dig up an enormous number of little-known stories and embellish them with the context and historical facts that make this book so refreshing. Take for example the story of the 1882 visit by the young heirs to the British throne – Prince Albert Victor and his brother George (the future George V). They camped out in 11 luxurious tents on the Mount of Olives and were guided by Captain Charles Wilson, an archaeologist of the Palestine Exploration Fund. The princes even attended a Passover dinner but were more excited by their Crusader tattoos. “I was tattooed by the same man who tattooed Papa,” Prince George wrote. Who knew?
One fantastic story from 1911, which Montifiore claims appears here for the first time, is of a rogue called Monty Parker: “A twenty-nine-year-old nobleman with a plumage of luxuriant moustaches and a pointed Edward VII beard, expensive tastes and minimal income.” Edged on by a Swedish clairvoyant, Parker believed that the Jews had hidden the Ark of the Covenant in a tunnel on the Temple Mount before Nebuchadnezzar sacked the city in 586 BCE. Lavishly bribing everyone from the mayor, Hussein Husseini, to the grand vizier in Istanbul, Parker and his crew succeeded in digging on the Temple Mount itself. Rumors spread that he actually found not only the Ark but also the Crown of Solomon and the Sword of Muhammad, sparking anti-Christian riots. Parker fled to Jaffa and escaped on his yacht.
Montefiore acknowledges that “the life of the Muslim city from Mamluks to the Mandate has been neglected,” and he aims to fill in the gaps with his hugely thick book. Still, the best parts seem to be around periods already so much written about.
My suggestion is to read the bits around the time of King Herod and Jesus, then skip ahead till the time of the Crusaders, and then skip to the fascinating chapters of the 20th century. The bits about the Mamluks and Abbasids—who needs that? Montefiore devotes only five pages to the 200-year rule of the Abbasids, while the Crusades take up more than one-tenth of the book, including a delicious story about the possibly gay King Baldwin. Napoleon never even got close to Jerusalem, but that didn’t stop Montefiore from writing about that little invasion of the Holy Land.
Montefiore says he set out on a “daunting challenge” to pursue the facts of the city’s history and certainly not tackle the histories of Judaism, Christianity or Islam or of the Israel-Palestinian conflict—all topics obsessively studied and written about by others. “My aim here is to write the history of Jerusalem in its broadest sense for general readers, whether they are atheists or believers…without a political agenda.”
Still, he makes a great effort to tell the side of the Palestinians through their aristocratic families such as the Nashashibis and Nusseibehs. We learn that in the heyday of the Mandate, Jerusalem mushroomed. Decadent swinging parties were the vogue for the Arab grandees, British élites and celebrity visitors, particularly concentrating on the Antonius villa in Sheikh Jarrah. Polo and even jackal hunts were popular in the imperial province.
During the subsequent war, the city became a refuge for exiled kings such as George II of Greece, Peter of Yugoslavia and the Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie, all crowding into the King David Hotel. We are told that one temptress arrived and quickly “bowled over British officers with the speed and accuracy of a machine gun.” Syrian-born Arab singer Amal al-Atrash is said to have spied for all sides, but she regarded Zionism as a fashion opportunity: “Thank God for these Viennese furriers— at least it means you can get a decent fur coat in Jerusalem,” she is quoted as saying once before she drowned mysteriously in the Nile.
The story reveals the complexities of the city. Despite its repeated historical themes of divine revelation, invasion, development, destruction and rebirth, there is continuity, and this is what Montefiore’s book tries to capture, and it does. “For 1,000 years, Jerusalem was exclusively Jewish; for about 400 years, Christian; for 1,300 years, Islamic; and not one of the three faiths ever gained Jerusalem without the sword,” Montefiore writes. “Jerusalem lives more intensely than anywhere else.”
The reader will have to decide.
Arieh O’Sullivan, the bureau chief of The Media Line, an independent news agency in Israel, works in Jerusalem and lived there for nine years.