Beauty and blood of a holy city

A personal history of Jerusalem is vivid and informative

By Robert Low, February 14, 2011
Weaponry and worship:  a soldier and an Orthodox man at the Kotel

Weaponry and worship: a soldier and an Orthodox man at the Kotel

Jerusalem: The Biography
By Simon Sebag Montefiore
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £25.00

The Jewish Odyssey: An Illustrated History
Marek Halter
Flammarion, £27.50

On a visit to Jerusalem, Thackeray mused: "There's not a spot at which you may look but where some violent deed has been done, some massacre, some visitors murdered, some idol worshipped with bloody rites."

The observation is reproduced in Simon Sebag Montefiore's brisk and richly informative history of the Golden City and the people who built it up, looted it, burnt it down and massacred its inhabitants in a cycle that seems to repeat itself over the centuries, frequently in the name of religion. Living in Jerusalem has rarely been a recipe for longevity. The deadly pageant rolls on: Assyrians, Thracians (Alexander slaughtered 50,000 when he took the city), Romans, Crusaders, Arabs, Ottomans…They came, they saw, they slaughtered.

The sheer scale of the horrors so often visited on the place and its people is appalling: you turn the pages and wonder that your hands aren't stained with blood. And throughout the mayhem, the Jews clung on in their ancestral city, their fortunes waxing or waning depending on the whim of their conquerors.

Sebag Montefiore has the good popular historian's eye for the telling detail and the pithy phrase: "The more sacred she [Jerusalem] became, the more divided." He's writing about the time of the First Temple but it could be about today. And yet, among the holy murderers, a few harmless observers survived to leave a record: thank heaven for Josephus, without whom we would know little of what the Romans got up to, for Usamah Bin Munqidh, "an Arab Quixote" in Crusader times, for Wasif Jawhariyyeh, an invaluable, early-20th-century diarist.

Throughout the ages, Jerusalem has attracted fanatics, madmen and adventurers like no other city on earth; there's even a mental condition known as Jerusalem Syndrome, first identified in the 1930s as "a psychotic decompensation related to religious excitement induced by proximity to the holy places".

Montefiore has unearthed a little scoop during his extensive researches: the full story, apparently hitherto untold, of an English adventurer, the Hon. Captain Monty Parker, feckless brother of an earl. Basing his venture on the bogus theories of a Finnish spiritualist, this prototype Indiana Jones reckoned in 1908 that he could find the Ark of the Covenant and managed to persuade a small army of international investors to finance his search for it beneath the Old City.

As the Israelis have discovered in recent years, digging under the Temple Mount is liable to lead to misunderstandings with the local Muslims, and Parker's reckless adventure nearly led to bloody reprisal. He escaped by sailing from Jaffa on his boat just ahead of the mob. "The wrath of the people of Jerusalem was so great," recorded Bertha Spafford, daughter of an American couple who, having lost five of their six children in tragic circumstances, founded a messianic cult called the Overcomers in a mansion on the Nablus road that was to become the world-famous American Colony hotel. How fitting that an entire floor of the hotel should now be occupied by the Middle East peace envoy Tony Blair, another Westerner with a touch of the messianic.

A worthy counterpoint to Montefiore's absorbing history is Marek Halter's The Jewish Odyssey, a beautifully produced panoramic guide to Jewish history by a survivor of the Warsaw ghetto. A must for the coffee table - better still, buy it as a barmitzvah present instead of an idiotic computer game.

Robert Low is consultant editor of Standpoint magazine. Simon Sebag Montefiore will be appearing at Jewish Book Week on February 26 at 7.30pm

Last updated: 3:16pm, February 18 2011