Jerusalem: The Biography
Reviewed by Malcolm Wagstaff

Jerusalem: The Biography, by Simon Sebag Montefiore.
London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2011. 638 pp, 104 plates, 16 maps and plans, 5 family trees, ISBN 978 0 297 85265 0. £25.

Simon Sebag Montefiore has added a new volume to the growing number of urban biographies, of which Peter Ackroyd’s London (2000) is perhaps the best known. In this case, Jerusalem is the focus of a chronological and largely political history of Palestine told for general readers through the crimes and passions of the city’s rulers. For the most part, these are grouped by dynasties, such as the Maccabees, the Herods, the crusader Baldwins and the Ottomans. Lesser local families such as the rival Husseinis and
Nusseibehs provide an element of continuity, almost from the Islamic conquest to the present. The Sebag Montefiore family makes an occasional appearance, too.

The author states that his purpose is to reveal ‘the organic patterns of life that defy the abrupt incidents and sectarian narratives of conventional history’. These include the episodic persecution of Jews, the endless, frequently bloody disputes about precedence in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and the developing bitterness between Jew and Arab. The author tends to stress the sensational in what, at times, is a rather racy narrative of events. Interesting but long digressions take the reader away from the main story from time to time. For example, we read about the background to the mad American consul, Warder Cresson, and the life of the popular Syrian Druze singer known as Asmahan. The footnotes add even more incidental information. Set pieces describe the social life of the city at some periods but not others. The major buildings, such as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Dome of the Rock, are introduced, their roles in the fabric of the city are described and their fate outlined. However, the reader is left with little sense of the discontinuities in the physical development of the city, particularly between its destruction by the Romans after the Jewish revolt of ad 70 and the emergence of what we know as the Old City of Jerusalem. Careful study of the plans is required.

Jerusalem Travellers familiar to ASTENE members are used as sources (e.g. Egeria, Al-Muquaddasi, Benjamin of Tudela, George Sandys, Evliya Chelebi, Chateaubriand, Robert Curzon, Herman Melville and Moses Montefiore). A few unexpected visitors (e.g. Nikolai Gogol and Rasputin) also appear. The author weaves different sources into a coherent story and uses hitherto neglected sources, notably the diaries of Wasif Jawhariyyeh (available only in Arabic) covering the late Ottoman period and the British Mandate for Palestine. The result is impressive—an instructive, fascinating and highly readable book. Whether it will realize the author’s ‘passionate hope that it might encourage each side [in the present conflict] to recognize and respect the ancient heritage of the other’ remains to be seen.

Malcolm Wagstaff