Jerusalem: The Making of a Holy City

A bloody good documentary

December 15, 2011

BBC Four

Holy history: Simon Sebag-Montefiore at the Western Wall

Holy history: Simon Sebag-Montefiore at the Western Wall

About halfway through last night's second episode of Simon Sebag-Montefiore's frantic journey through the history of Jerusalem, I began to feel both dizzy and nauseous.

Sebag-Montefiore - author of a best-selling history of the holy city - had argued that its bloody history was "the best argument against religion ever invented". But that was not what caused my momentary discomfort.

The dizziness came with the pace of the documentary. No sooner had the Muslims descended on Jerusalem, than the Christians were on their way from Europe to reclaim the city and the Muslims were getting together an army to re-conquer it - blink and you had missed a century.

The city has been destroyed twice, besieged 23 times, attacked 52 times, and captured and recaptured 44 times. To fit this kind of turmoil into three one-hour programmes is a major achievement.

The nausea came with the extreme level of violence. There were Jews burned in their synagogues, thousands upon thousands of Christians and Muslims massacred - so many, it seems, that the smell of putrefying bodies was said to linger for more than six months. There was dismemberment, garrotting, poisoning and more beheading than one cared to contemplate.

From a small, bronze-age settlement which benefited from a constant water supply and a secure hill-top location, Jerusalem rose, first under the Jews, then the Christians, became home to a great Muslim civilisation, its grandeur balanced by the constant threat of total destruction - indeed, several times in its history, it has nearly been wiped off the map completely.

There was more beheading than one cared to contemplate

Sebag-Montefiore, a gifted story-teller as well as an accomplished historian, seemed to relish the gore, perhaps at times a little too much.

This was a documentary series of the old-school. Sebag-Montefiore strolled around the Old City in a Panama hat, his chinos blending in with the Jerusalem stone, telling tales of jealousy, fanaticism and greed. With no archive footage (at least for the first two episodes), the words were illustrated, sometimes impressively, at other times clumsily, with scenes from modern Jerusalem (to show the enthusiastic adoption of Hellenistic culture by the Jews under the Greeks, we were incongruously shown teenagers playing basketball in a city park).

The story was gripping enough in itself - the final episode, to be screened next Thursday, illustrates how the old enmities spilled over into the 20th century. We learn of how the two peoples and three faiths that claim the city as their own, struggled for ownership, amid violence brutality and fear.

Not only has what Sebag-Montefiore describes as the "curse of Jerusalem" ruined lives and destroyed civilisations, it has also given birth to its very own psychotic illness - Jerusalem Syndrome. The city remains, in Sebag-Montefiore's words, "anxious, angry and divided".

The series culminates in the second half of the final episode with the story of the return of the Jews to their historic homeland, the demise of the Ottoman Empire and the turmoil of the years of the British Mandate.

Although a history of the Arab-Jewish conflict in around 30 minutes is a tough act to pull off, Sebag-Montefiore draws on centuries of conflict to give a balance and depth to the dispute rarely seen on British television.

All the more reason to put his book on your Chanucah list.

Last updated: 11:32am, December 15 2011