Jerusalem: The Biography – review

My review of Jerusalem: The Biography, by Simon Sebag Montefiore, in yesterday’s Dallas Morning News.

(Shorter review: It’s genuinely marvelous, and should be required reading for anyone with any interest in the city).


Special Contributor

Some places live and breathe on at least two different planes: the physical, and the notional.

“New York” is more than pavement and politics, for instance. It’s also – particularly for those who will never step foot on that pavement – an idea, a vision. “This isn’t New York” can be compliment or curse, but the reference is only rarely to the city’s infrastructure or tax code.

Jerusalem is such a place – yet its reality is much more than merely bifurcated.

Almost since the city’s foundation, Jerusalem has existed as holy relic, political fulcrum, way station to conquest, and glittering prize for every major civilization with a toe-hold west of Baghdad.

What “Jerusalem” meant to a 19th century Syrian, for instance, is very different from what it meant to a 18th century Englishman, or a Jew fighting Roman or Jordanian occupation. Not to mention the city’s 21st century partisans: politicians in Washington, Palestinians in Amman, Jews in Chicago, Russian Orthodox Christians in Moscow, the European Union parliament, the Israeli and Palestinian governments. All have something to say about the city, all have influence on its daily affairs, and, frequently, each knows precious little of the full sweep of Jerusalem’s actual lived history – or each other.

In the monumental Jerusalem: The Biography, author Simon Sebag Montefiore digs through millennia of evidence and anecdote to find the beating heart of a city long pressed into service as a battering ram against competing narratives. There are myriad Jerusalems, it seems, but the stones and hills are the same, all resonating with the prayers and dreams of millions of very different people.

“So a history of Jerusalem has to be a history of both truth and legend,” Montefiore writes. “But there are facts and this book aims to tell them, however unpalatable to one side or the other…. The city’s past is often imaginary.”

While the sheer work involved in putting together a work of this scope is dizzyingly impressive – from King David through the Roman empire, Arab conquest, Crusades, Napoleon, British Mandate, up to the 1967 Six Day War – Montefiore’s even greater accomplishment is Jerusalem’s sheer readability.

On every page, the reader is gripped with unfolding drama, joy and sorrow, as empires rise and fall, each certain it has achieved some kind of permanence, each leaving rivers of blood in its wake – and (in one of the book’s more unsettling constants) bodies and/or decapitated heads on or around Jerusalem’s city walls, literally up to and including the mid-20th century British.

As Montefiore writes, however, Jerusalem has also always been “a hybrid metropolis of hybrid buildings and hybrid people who defy the narrow categorizations that belong in the separate religious legends and nationalist narratives of later times.” One group builds, the next destroys, those who come after use bits and bobs of what remains to build something new – again and again and again.

The book isn’t flawless. For instance, the author makes clear that the Montefiore family played an enormous role in shaping modern Jewish Jerusalem, but in a distracting lacuna, never mentions his own place in the family. Furthermore, there are occasional inaccuracies – from the ritual observance of the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, to the 2000 Israeli-Palestinian Camp David peace talks – that stick out in a work so otherwise finely tuned.

But inaccuracies fade into the background in the face of Montefiore’s otherwise masterful wrangling of centuries of fact into blood-and-bone human epic. A hugely ambitious effort, clearly produced with real love for the city and its people, Montefiore’s Jerusalem should be read by everyone and anyone who would dare to venture an opinion on the city, or its future.

Emily L. Hauser has written about the contemporary Middle East and Muslim world since the early 1990s. She blogs at


  1. corkingiron

     /  December 5, 2011

    Well just thanks a bunch. Now there’s yet another book I’m gonna have to read. Day-umm.

    Seriously – a good review EE.

  2. Thanks for the wonderful review. I would add that Montefiore paints a picture of present day Jerusalem that is curiously missing the stark reality that Israel has become a segregated country, most notably in Israeli Occupied East Jerusalem. He does not seem to either know or want to write about the daily crimes against humanity which affect Palestinians in East Jerusalem. To see how Palestinian homes in Jerusalem are demolished is heartbreaking, and many are, see
    One wonders if the author has an interest in the Montefiore Hotel – with its 47 comfortable rooms – and wants to somehow promote tourism by ignoring the harsh realities, one being the cruel destruction of a children’s playground in East Jerusalem, simply because the children are not Jewish. This was captured on video at

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