Jerusalem: The Biography, Simon Sebag Montefiore, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 696pp, £25 (hardback)

The striking cover of this book reproduces the famous panorama of Jerusalem from Bernard von Breydenbach’s 1486 bestseller, Peregrinatio in Terram Sanctam. Its centrepiece, the Dome of the Rock, is picked out in gold. I had always assumed that it was ever thus. But in fact, as Simon Sebag Montefiore relates, the Dome was only re-gilded by King Hussein of Jordan in 1964. For much of the last millennium, it was a leaden grey. Should I have been surprised? As Herman Melville put it, ‘No country will more quickly dissipate romantic expectations than Palestine, particularly Jerusalem. To some the disappointment is heart-sickening.’ Jerusalem is governed by the tyranny of high expectations. ‘She is the only city to exist twice,’ Sebag Montefiore observes on the opening page of the book, ‘in heaven and on earth.’ Yet, to destroy dreams, Jerusalem has also to exist on a third plane: in the mind.

This matters deeply because, as the author neatly points out, ‘All that matters in Jerusalem is what is believed to be true’. He sets out ‘to pursue the facts, not to adjudicate between the mysteries of different religions’ on the basis that ‘the quest for historical facts is even more important now’ in the era of the internet, when the computer mouse vies with the sword as ‘weapons in the same fundamentalist arsenal’.

Sebag Montefiore sets out to write ‘a history of Jerusalem as a centre of world history’. Sited near a major coastal trade route but relatively secure in a mountain fastness, the early city was named Beit Shulmani by Abdi Hepa. He was ‘a paltry potentate’ in a world dominated by the Egyptians to the south, the Hittites to the north, and the Mycenaeans to the west. Judaea was contested territory and the evidence left by its invaders provides a useful counterpoint to the Bible. The first biblical event corroborated by archaeology is the pharaoh Sheshonq’s invasion in the tenth century BCE. The annals of Sennacherib are a useful corrective to the Bible’s claim that God told the invading Assyrian king to go. They state that it was the rather more earthly tribute offered by Hezekiah, of thirty talents of gold and eight hundred of silver, that persuaded Sennacherib to leave. Sebag Montefiore’s rendition of these stories has all the vividness of a children’s illustrated Bible, though the scarcity of source material occasionally leads to repetition. We read that Constantine ‘slashed his way to power’; forty pages, and five hundred years, later Charlemagne is ‘hacking his way to ever-greater power’.

Herod, the best-drawn character in the first half of the book, epitomises the complex interplay of cultures. ‘Phoenician by descent, Hellenised by culture, Idumean by place of birth, Jewish by religion, Jerusalemite by residence and Roman by citizenship’, he owed his influence to patronage from Antony and, when Octavian’s general Agrippa defeated Antony at Actium, his survival to a brilliant way with words. Herod laid his crown before Octavian’s feet and asked him to consider not whose friend he had been but what sort of friend he was. Confirmed as king of the Judaeans, he began construction of the temple whose vestiges remain. It was a building ‘covered all over with plates of gold’ and of such fiery splendour at sunrise that visitors were dazzled. Probably a manic depressive, Herod had his scheming wife, Mariamme, executed, and tried to seal a regional alliance with his son Alexander’s father-in-law, the king of Cappadocia, by giving him a courtesan with the Bond-girl name Pannychis – ‘All Night Long’. Deliciously squalid amuse-bouches of this sort are on offer throughout the book. The author also dwells on Herod’s death, describing how the king’s body ‘started to ooze clear fluid, he could scarcely breathe, a vile stench emanated from him, and his genitals swelled grotesquely until his penis and scrotum burst out into a suppurating gangrene that then gave birth to a seething mass of worms’. As he concedes in a footnote, ‘It is possible that the genital worms were hostile propaganda’, but the fact that at Herod’s funeral his body was accompanied by five hundred servants carrying aromatic spices bears out the likelihood that the king’s decomposition began some time before he died.

Sebag Montefiore deals with Christ and Christianity with a nice objectivity. Jesus, he points out, was ‘born at a time of intense religious speculation … pseudo-prophets kept coming and the Romans kept killing them’. A further footnote informs the reader that ‘crucifixion originated in the east – Darius the Great crucified Babylonian rebels – and was adopted by the Greeks’. And in an arresting pair of sentences he highlights the significance of one powerful man’s choice. ‘In 312 Manichaeanism and Mithraism were no less popular than Christianity. Constantine could just as easily have chosen one of these – and Europe might today be Mithraistic or Manichaean.’

Christianity became the dominant religion across Europe, but the western Christians’ outlook was decidedly Manichaean. The crusaders who sacked Jerusalem in 1099 were so violent that the city stank for six months afterwards from the smell of rotting Saracen bodies. The clash was as much cultural as religious. A century later, the Muslim courtier-chronicler, Usama bin Mundiqh, noted that ‘anyone recently arrived’ was ‘rougher in character than those who have become acclimatised and frequented the company of Muslims’.

Although the Christian kingdom of Jerusalem did not last long, western interference did. The Seljuk Turks were succeeded by the Mamluks, whose leader Baibars accidently killed himself one evening with a glass of poisoned fermented mare’s milk. He had intended to bump off an enemy, but then absent-mindedly drank the preparation himself. The Ottomans seized Jerusalem in 1517. In an attempt to win allies against the Habsburgs, Suleiman the Magnificent then offered the French trading privileges and recognised the Franciscans as guardians of the Christian shrines. The Capitulations, as these were called, were agreed in 1535; four hundred years later, they still formed the basis for the French government’s claim to rule the mandates of Lebanon and Syria. Despite Napoleon Bonaparte’s best efforts, the French never did succeed in reclaiming the kingdom of Jerusalem for themselves. They were denied first by the Ottomans, and then by the British, who sponsored Zionism to thwart French ambitions in the region in the First World War.

Bonaparte, it transpires, was an early Zionist. As he advanced into Palestine on his ill-fated expedition he offered the country to the Jews as ‘the rightful heirs of Palestine’. The idea was taken up most strongly in the Protestant world. The Earl of Shaftesbury declared that there was ‘a country without a nation and God in his wisdom and mercy directs us to a nation without a country’. Sebag Montefiore also quotes the early US president John Adams, who ‘really wish[ed] the Jews again in Judaea an independent nation’. He does not, however, mention Adams’s hope that ‘once restored to an independent government and no longer persecuted’ the Jews ‘would soon wear away some of the asperities and peculiarities of their character and possibly in time become liberal Unitarian Christians’. Christian Zionism was frequently uncharitable. ‘I’m very much in favour of the Mauschels going to Palestine,’ declared the Kaiser. ‘The sooner they clear off the better!’

The practicality of such plans depended on the widespread belief among foreigners, from Bonaparte to Balfour, that Palestine was almost empty. Sebag Montefiore believes that ‘The tourists, whether religious or secular, Christian or Jewish … were good at seeing where gods had stood but almost blind when it came to seeing the actual people who lived there’. This was the weakness at the heart of the Balfour Declaration and the British mandate, which rapidly unravelled as violence between Arabs and Jews soared. As Clement Attlee promised the electorate a ‘New Jerusalem’ in 1945, Sebag Montefiore notes the irony that ‘he proved quite unable of governing the old one’.

As to the solution, Simon Sebag Montefiore notes that ‘international, or free cities, from Danzig to Trieste, have usually ended badly’. His personal hope is that all faiths adopt a policy of ‘ostrichism’, going about their business peacefully by studiously ignoring the existence of one another.

This is a superbly-written book, full of vivid stories, salacious details and even-handed observations. Its scope is such that no one can really judge it fully, nor criticise the inevitable errors that will creep in when dealing with such controversial subject matter. When describing the legendary 1940s singer-spy, the Druze princess, Asmahan, Sebag Montefiore writes that ‘It was said that if you were her lover it was impossible to be lonely in her boudoir, where you were liable to find one general under the bed, one in the bed, and Spears [a British envoy] dangling from the chandelier’. The anecdote conjures up another juicy image, but it was almost certainly invented by the French to destroy Spears’s credibility. Its inclusion left me wondering how many other nuggets in this fascinating book I should reluctantly disbelieve.

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