Jerusalem: The Biography 
by Simon Sebag Montefiore.
Weidenfeld, 638 pp., £25, January 2011, 978 0 297 85265 0
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Where might you seek Jerusalem? You could start in Bologna, which since at least the ninth century CE has boasted a Jerusalem theme park called Santo Stefano, a complex of churches and chapels around the octagon of San Sepolcro. At the centre of San Sepolcro’s columned Romanesque splendour is a full-size medieval reproduction of the superstructure of the Holy Sepulchre, which helps us understand what it looked like before its custodians accidentally set fire to it in 1808. Alternatively, you might travel to Moscow, to contemplate a similarly informative 17th-century replica of that ill-fated monument, housed of course in a monastery called New Jerusalem. Or, saving on air fares, you might go to Norfolk, to clamber round the intricate corridors of another octagon, the very strange Red Mount Chapel in King’s Lynn, which seems to be some 15th-century Norfolk pilgrim’s effort to reproduce either the tangled claustrophobia of Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre, or the outward appearance of the Dome of the Rock, which Christian tour-guides in Jerusalem then confidently pointed out to pilgrims as the Temple of Solomon.

In more Protestant mood, you could linger in Norwich, where 17th-century Congregationalists endowed the façade of their elegant Old Meeting House with echoes of the imaginary architecture of the Jerusalem Temple they had seen in a Dutch picture book. Or you might ignore the attractions of the Witch Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, in order to recall what other early Congregationalists wanted to signify by that place name: Salem was a city set on a hill for a newly founded Puritan Israel. Armchair travellers may prefer to turn to YouTube to revisit the recent royal wedding, and the communal singing of a peculiar poem by William Blake that has gained national anthem status. It was not much thought of until it acquired a splendid musical setting, an inspired piece of bombast by Sir Hubert Parry; ever since, the English have much enjoyed noisily pledging that they will not cease from mental fight until they have built Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land. So many Jerusalems.

It may well be better for your sanity to take one of these journeys than to make a pilgrimage to the place itself. The city of Jerusalem is notorious for inducing the Jerusalem Syndrome, which currently reduces around a hundred people a year to a state requiring urgent psychiatric attention, as the complicated and often unwelcoming reality of the place collides with their heightened religious expectations. One such deranged soul, Michael Rohan, an Australian Protestant trying to hasten the end of the world, set fire to the venerable Al-Aqsa Mosque in 1969, and smiled serenely throughout his subsequent trial; the horrified Israeli government was only too aware that his actions had done nothing to lessen the chances of the world ending. Indeed, if Rohan had lit his kerosene a few decades later, in the era of al-Qaida, he might have precipitated the massacre of thousands. As it was, he destroyed the beautiful 12th-century pulpit which the great Kurdish warrior-sultan Saladin had brought from Aleppo to celebrate the Muslim reconquest of the city from the Crusaders, which symbolism no doubt afforded the arsonist considerable satisfaction. I remember my own alarm when I overheard a South Korean Protestant pastor talking to his flock in the gift shop of Jerusalem’s Garden Tomb, a site originally sponsored by that opinionated and self-destructive Victorian Evangelical, General Gordon. The pastor was trying to encourage them to buy models of Herod’s Temple; ‘After all, we all want the Temple rebuilt, don’t we?’ he coaxed. ‘Oh yes!’ came the enthusiastic chorus.

You might say that the Jerusalem Syndrome began with King David. Once he had escorted Israel’s sacred Ark of the Covenant into the city, having conquered its Jebusite inhabitants and proclaimed it his capital, he danced in his exaltation ‘before the Lord with all his might … girded with a linen ephod’ – the sort of apron priests wore and so not appropriate for kings. This was a sure sign that he had got religion with a vengeance. Michal, one of his wives, ‘looked through a window, and saw King David leaping and dancing before the Lord, and she despised him in her heart.’ One can see her point, though the Lord God disagreed and made sure that she remained childless. A good thing too, is the implication in 2 Samuel 6.23.

In Jerusalem, the reasonable, the sensible, the moderates have rarely got a look-in. The British governors in the 1920s and 1930s, Sir Ronald Storrs, Edward Keith-Roach OBE and Sir Arthur Wauchope, had much the same experience as Queen Michal. Simon Sebag Montefiore in his biography of the city rather wistfully describes their rule as a golden age in Jerusalem’s history, when decorous gatherings of religious leaders from all faiths might pose for a group photo in the cool Oxford Gothic surroundings of St George’s Anglican Cathedral, benevolently flanking a moustachioed, plume-hatted and sashed British high commissioner, while the great Arab ‘Families’ of the city, who had gracefully accommodated themselves to many rulers over the centuries since the first Islamic conquest, could drive to jolly parties and soirées in their new Buicks. Then everyone began shooting and hurling hand grenades at each other, and in 1948 the British ignominiously quit a city which had once more gone mad. They bequeathed it partition, such a feature of the empire’s demise from Ireland to the Indian subcontinent to Cyprus – each partition the result of a hapless effort to do the right thing and play fair with each side.

And what is all the fuss about? The place is not on any major trade route, or on any regular marching road for armies. Old Jerusalem is readily comprehensible because its city walls have been preserved intact (minus a conspicuous gap, knocked through so that Kaiser Bill could make a more than usually pompous entry on behalf of imperial Lutheranism). Even considering the extensions to the wall made in the late Roman period, Jerusalem usually surprises those who visit it for the first time by how small it is. King David’s conquest, accompanied by some murderous sarcasm directed at the over-confident Jebusites, was its first recorded smiting, but smitings aplenty were on the way. The walls are difficult to defend, as is testified by Jerusalem’s depressingly frequent capitulation to invading armies (followed repeatedly in Montefiore’s narrative by the massacre or enslavement of those not already felled by hunger or eaten by their starving fellow-citizens).

Jerusalem has never manufactured anything much, apart from souvenirs for pilgrims: its industry has been sacredness ever since its first gnomic appearance in the pages of biblical history. Long before David’s capture of the city, a reasonably trustworthy historical event, there is a transcendent moment in the story of the Patriarch Abraham, which has the eerie quality of an unexpected and otherworldly intervention, distinctive even amid the wondrous (and ahistorical) narratives of Genesis. The King of Salem, Melchizedek, brings bread and wine to the patriarch in the triumphant afterglow of Abraham’s victory in battle, and intones a blessing. That is his prerogative; for this Melchizedek is Priest of the Most High God. The bread and wine, plus the grant of a tenth (or tithe) of all produce he received from a grateful Abraham, have resounded through the songs, liturgical practices and ambitions of clergy ever since.

Most High God, El-Elyon: he is the chief and perennial inhabitant of this scruffy town in the hills, and like his dwelling place, he has been known by many names since, of which Yahweh, Theos, Deus and Allah have been among the most significant. He lives on one of the two hills that originally comprised Jerusalem, separated by a narrow valley now hardly perceptible after centuries of infill. The hill to the west, the military stronghold of the Jebusites, was called Zion, and that has remained one of the names which resonate through the three monotheisms of the Middle East. The rock to the east was El-Elyon’s home, long before David turned his attentions to conquest, or Judaism was conceived, and it is still the focus of passion, joy and destructive fury for the uncomfortably tangled trio. Its original name, Mount Moriah, is comparatively little heard in the acclamations of the three religions, because the sequence of buildings on it has attracted more emotional interest.

For Jews, this is the site of three successively rebuilt versions of their Temple, first begun by David’s son King Solomon, one of the greatest places of pilgrimage in the ancient world for a millennium. In the extravagant and sadly temporary final form achieved by King Herod ‘the Great’ in the first century BCE, it was among the most magnificent religious buildings ever created. Its footprint still determines the boundaries of what Jews and Christians call the Temple Mount, and the quality of Herod’s masonry can still make one gasp, in those relatively small sections of the site where religious rivalries leave it accessible to admire. For Muslims, this is their third most holy site: Haram al-Sharif, the Noble Sanctuary. Mecca, although an ancient goal of pilgrimage, was far outclassed by Jerusalem until the time of Muhammad. It is possible to interpret the Prophet’s image of himself and his destiny as the last in the succession of Hebrew prophets, and his initial mission as a resolve to restore a monotheism concentrated on the Jerusalem Temple, which Christians had compromised. To begin with, Muhammad instructed his followers to pray facing Jerusalem, and he altered the direction to Mecca only after a murderous disagreement with the Jews of Medina. From that moment, the possibility of a united movement of Jews and followers of Muhammad was at an end, and the Muslims formed their own single community; it was only a few years after the Prophet’s death in 632 that his followers triumphantly conquered the city. The seventh-century Dome of the Rock on Haram al-Sharif was clearly intended as a rebuilding of the Temple after deliberate Christian neglect; it was commissioned from Byzantine craftsmen by Jerusalem’s Muslim ruler, Abd-al-Malik, whose plan was to replace the Christian emperors in Constantinople.

That Abd-al-Malik needed to create this extraordinary structure is a testament to how differently Christians felt about the Temple Mount. The same rock once cherished by Melchizedek is a curiously ambiguous place for them: they have no presence there, and that is entirely their own doing. In the three centuries of their triumph, from their first sponsorship by Constantine the Great down to the Byzantine emperors’ loss of the city to the Muslims in 638, they deliberately left the site of the Temple as a place of ruins and foul-smelling garbage, because their Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, was recorded as prophesying in his earthly ministry that not one stone of the Temple would stand on another. In this saying, Jesus, who was a worthy successor to the Hebrew prophets in the quality of his political insight, encapsulated a vital feature of Jerusalem’s history: the destructions of the city are as significant as its periods of glory.

The first known destruction was by David. Thereafter, the Temple in Jerusalem steadily consolidated its position in the religion of the two quarrelsome Davidic kingdoms, Israel and Judah, though its dominance was always threatened by rival sacred centres, one of which, Mount Gerizim, 25 miles northwards, survives to this day as the focus for a cult of the High God by the Hebrew people called Samaritans, who have never been displaced from it. Both Jews and Christians look back respectfully to King Josiah of Judah. After a coup d’état around 640 BCE, which killed his father and installed this boy on the throne in Jerusalem, Josiah became the champion of the Temple’s growing claim to centrality in the worship of the Most High God, increasingly known as Yahweh (in later centuries, this name was too sacred to pronounce aloud). It was also Josiah’s regime which providentially discovered an ancient law-code in the Temple itself, and its contents probably lie behind the text of the biblical book that Hellenised Jews named Deuteronomy (‘Second Law’). More laws would be crafted in a later period, but like Deuteronomy, they were back-projected in time a thousand years or so, and some were attributed even greater antiquity.

Thus, thanks to Josiah, in much the same era that Homer’s epics began taking on their particular significance among Greeks as basic to their identity, the Jews too began to focus their religious identity on the contents of a book. To begin with, there was probably only one copy of the Deuteronomic code for consultation and solemn public recitation, which would have been kept in the Jerusalem Temple, but together with the literature it inspired it was an increasingly indispensable point of reference for the religion of Yahweh. That proved to be of huge importance when a new catastrophe befell the Jews at the hands of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. He besieged and captured Jerusalem in 587-586 BCE and the Temple was destroyed. The royal descendants of David and the governing elite were led as captives and exiles to Babylon.

That traumatic first Jewish loss of Jerusalem is central to understanding Judaism, for within a century the exiles had a chance to return to the city of David. This was thanks to two further foreign conquerors, the Persian kings Cyrus and Darius, to whom Jews have remained permanently grateful – it is a shame that there is no rhetorical purchase in this golden memory for present-day relations between Israel and Iran. Maybe if the Babylonian exile had lasted more than a few decades, the impetus to preserve and enhance a Jewish identity might have been lost, but as it was, the exiles who returned were able to rebuild the Temple; it was reconsecrated in 517 BCE. There could be no independent native monarchy now, for the rebuilding was thanks to the generous spirit of the new overlord Cyrus and his successors. Henceforth the Temple and its priesthood was the absolute centre of Jewish identity, as well as the only significant institution in Jerusalem, and so it remained for the next half-millennium, even when the priests did get the chance to promote themselves into monarchs of an independent Jewish state.

Those who began rebuilding the Temple in 520 were helped by the exiles who stayed in Babylon, and from now on these groups jointly regarded themselves as the true representatives of mainstream Judaism. By contrast and significantly, they refused help from local people who had not been deported in this or previous disasters, and who may have included exiles whom the Babylonians had brought to Palestine from elsewhere in a transfer of populations. The returned exiles and their descendants continued to feel condescension or hostility to these others as ‘the people of the land’, a people who had not shared in the sufferings of God’s chosen people – who had not sat by the waters of Babylon or wept remembering Zion. It was those despised ‘people of the land’ who concentrated their affections on the rival temple on Mount Gerizim: it is because Mount Gerizim lies in the central Palestinian territory known as Samaria that they are called Samaritans. (Christians will remember the contemptuous overtones in the parable Jesus told about an oxymoronically Good Samaritan.) This division of peoples has remained potent in Jewish memory, and it has considerable resonances for the present-day troubles of Jerusalem. It helps explain Jewish attitudes in the state of Israel to the other peoples who have their inheritance in the same land, and who do not have the sufferings of the Holocaust seared into their cultural memory. If the events of 1933-45 were a catastrophe for Jews outstripping the Babylonian exile, another word for catastrophe is potent for other inhabitants of modern Jerusalem: Nakba, the exile and dispossession of Palestinians which began in 1948. It is good that at least some people in the city can see the connection, but there are plenty who cannot.

The period after the rebuilding of the Second Temple created the ‘Tanakh’ or Hebrew Scripture, which Christians were later to appropriate as their Old Testament. The archive of prophecies and laws preserved from the pre-exilic kingdoms was edited and transformed with new material reflecting on the history which had ended in the trauma of exile. It is likely that most of the 150 biblical psalms which masquerade under the authorship of King David are actually the hymns sung in the Second Temple, but much else was designed as a meditation on the meaning of losing and regaining Jerusalem. This brooding on the past may lie behind the story of the Patriarch Abram, whom God renamed Abraham in a Promised Land, itself later called Israel after his renamed grandson. Just as the exiles had travelled back to Jerusalem from Babylon, so the patriarch had journeyed to the Promised Land from Ur, a city near the mouth of the Tigris and Euphrates; both journeys could be different parts of a single divine plan. From Babylon the Jews borrowed ancient tales, like the story well known throughout the Middle East about a great flood, and incorporated them in their own narrative of the ancient past, with its pattern of divine punishment and redemption. They told stories about a Garden of Eden, a paradise which had been lost to Adam and Eve through a human act of disobedience; these tales may allude symbolically to the loss of a real sacred garden, the first Temple in Jerusalem. The disobedience of kings in Judah had resulted in God punishing and expelling the royal line through the instrument of Nebuchadnezzar. So the Fall of Adam may be considered as a piece of political and theological commentary on Jerusalem’s eclipse. The biblical stories which Jews, Christians and Muslims cherish and embellish have everything to do with the city’s history.

Equally long-term effects sprang from the loss of Jerusalem at the peak of its architectural splendour in the Jewish revolt against the Romans of 66-70 CE, which culminated in the siege and destruction of city and Temple by Titus, a future Roman emperor. Montefiore elegantly makes this the first story he tells in his biography, drawing on the vivid contemporary account by one of the most talented and complex ancient historians, the Jewish aristocrat Josephus. Thereafter, Christianity and Judaism both had to make do with a Temple of the mind; they both became religions of a book, not of a single physical place. Even before the revolt, the Jewish establishment had excluded many of those who identified themselves as Christians from using the Temple; Christianity’s character as a sect within Judaism was beginning to mutate into something else, and Christian worship took on a distinctive, Jesus-centred character. But after 70 CE Jews too had to worship without the Temple which had been central to their conception of themselves. Their verbal reconstructions of the Temple interwoven in Mishnah and Talmud, which underlay a newly normative tradition of Judaism pioneered by the remnants of the old Jewish elites, remain one of the most remarkable literary and mystical constructions in religious history. Christians, who have come to dominate so much of the world’s surface over the centuries, have had the opportunity to build many new Jerusalems to compensate for their loss; Jews, rarely so blessed with power or territory, have usually had to make do with their imaginations, while Muslims have for most of Islam’s existence been able to enjoy possession of the real thing.

The dismal reality, after Herod’s Temple became a blackened heap and the city a graveyard, was a series of further heroic failures to establish Jewish independence from Roman rule. After the last failure in 132-36, Jerusalem was completely replaced by a minor Roman colonial town, not even defended by walls. Just to add insult to injury, the Emperor Hadrian built a huge Roman temple there for yet another version of El-Elyon, Jupiter Capitolinus, and the much reduced settlement’s new name, Aelia Capitolina, incorporated a reference to this latest Most High God. Half a millennium later, the Arab conquerors of the city still frequently called it Iliya, in unconscious homage to Hadrian’s family name. That usage of the seventh century revealed that many people in Palestine had never given up thinking of the city as Aelia, despite the fact that since the 320s it had officially once more been known as Jerusalem: a sudden twist of fortune that had been the work of a newly triumphant Roman emperor, Constantine. Under Constantine and his fourth-century successors, the city experienced a further rebuilding and rebranding, but to the intense frustration and misery of Jews, not for their benefit, but for the heretical sect of Jesus-worshippers whom they had expelled from their ranks. Only briefly did the Jews get a chance to start rebuilding their Temple under the patronage of the Emperor Julian, a member of Constantine’s family who had come to loathe the Christian takeover, but Julian was soon dead, and the Christian advance to power remorselessly continued.

These Christians, suddenly favoured by a Roman emperor who was convinced that their God had won him his victories and his throne, did everything they could to emphasise their radical break with the Judaism which had nurtured them, and their treatment of Jerusalem became crucial in this. The Holy City was once more to be a pilgrimage centre as significant as in the time of the first and second Temples, fostered by a new succession of bishops of Jerusalem who successfully promoted themselves as of equal status to the four established patriarchs of Mediterranean Christianity – Alexandria, Antioch, Constantinople, Rome. Yet Christians now deliberately spurned the actual site of the Temple and in an extra piece of spite, forbade Jews to approach it. This might seem paradoxical, for in their sacred literature and cultic practice, Christians made a wholesale appropriation of the memory and imagery of Temple and Zion. Yet their use of such tropes was paired with the insistent refrain that Jerusalem was the place where Jesus died on a cross (thanks to the Jews, they said); here, too, he had been laid in a tomb and had risen again from the dead. So Christians turned from the Temple ruins on the east side of the city to the west, where these events had happened.

Even if a historian exercises professional scepticism, the odds are that their identification of the site was correct. Their chosen area contains remnants of first-century tombs resembling the one in which Jesus is likely to have been laid, and includes a quarry which could easily have doubled as a place of execution. Constantine might have drawn on traditions maintained over three centuries by local Christians. The site was (probably coincidentally) the one on which Hadrian had built his temple to Jupiter Capitolinus, and now in the 330s this was demolished so that Constantine could create his substitute Holy of Holies, in honour of his newly acquired Christ. Within the confines of his new church (much mightier than the medieval church we see now), it is a great surprise to walk up such a short span of steps from the place of crucifixion to the tomb, without having to leave the present-day complex of buildings.

One can imagine the Lord, who prayed soon before his Passion that ‘they may be one’, feeling his agony prolonged in this most contested of churches. The contest is even in its name, for Western Christians call it the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and Eastern Christians the Church of the Resurrection. It is typical of Jerusalem: a palimpsest of periods, histories, architectures and artefacts, which also contrives to lower the spirits and make one despair of sacredness. The best and the worst in this menagerie of Christian pettiness is to be found in the raised courtyard at its east, which fringes the apse, and is referred to as the roof of the church. Here an unexpected village of Ethiopian stone huts is a sour relic of the moment in 1951 when the Ethiopian Orthodox Church finally severed its ancient constitutional link with the Coptic Church of Egypt and appointed a native Ethiopian patriarch. The angry Copts in Jerusalem then expelled the Ethiopian Christians from the rooms they had occupied for centuries in the Coptic Patriarchate, overlooking the church roof. The Ethiopians constructed this makeshift village for themselves a few yards away, and there they still live in dignified holy poverty, which includes the transport of all their water in plastic cans, across various courtyards and up two flights of stairs to the roof. I watched them performing this drudgery, as a Coptic clergyman sat in a deckchair a few yards away on a terrace on the other side of the roof, secure in the possession of his own water-tap.

There are some less depressingly contested ancient sites within the city walls. With a good fortune rare in their troubled national history, the Armenians of Jerusalem won the favour of Saladin when he expelled the Crusaders and their carpet-bagging Latin monarchy in 1187, and so Armenians were allowed to stay when all other Christians were being forced to leave. Ever since, the Armenians have hung on jealously to their privileges, sometimes against considerable odds, as in the days of their 18th-century Patriarch Gregory, who became known as ‘the Chainbearer’ from the iron chain he hung around his neck as he sat begging at his door to pay off the debts generated by Ottoman taxation on his miniature city within a city. Thanks to him and his successors, the Armenians still have possession of a sizeable chunk of prime city real estate, much to the irritation of the Israeli authorities, who suspect them of greatly exaggerating the number of their current residents in order to preserve their inheritance in the Armenian Quarter from territorial encroachments by other communities. At the heart of their monastic complex is the ancient Armenian Orthodox Cathedral of St James, which has all the holiness, serenity and dignity that the Holy Sepulchre lacks, partly because St James is very sparingly open to the public. By far the most rewarding of the ancient Christian churches of Jerusalem, it is much to be recommended to persistent visitors for its restorative qualities.

Pleasing too is the end result of the shameful treatment of the neighbouring Jewish Quarter after Jordan occupied it in 1948: historic synagogues and much besides were dynamited, in the spirit of petty cultural vandalism which was all too typical of the 20th century. Before the meticulous restorations and imaginative re-creation of the area in the wake of Israel’s victory of 1967, a good deal of archaeological excavation was undertaken, in a fashion rarely possible in the historical congestion of a living city. As a result so much more has become clear about the city’s history, and a surprising amount has been confirmed in the record of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. Much of the constantly evolving picture of such finds is presented in Montefiore’s frequent footnotes, which throughout the book lead the reader to up-to-date archaeological evidence or to an enjoyable anecdote. Byways these may be, but byways emphasise the unpredictable, many-layered quality of the city, which compensates in part for past savagery. Those who enjoy the tranquil atmosphere of scholarship in the reading-room of the Khalidi Library in the Street of the Chain may not readily appreciate that it is actually the 13th-century tomb of the Tartar warlord Barka Khan, who was responsible in 1244 for the final bloodsoaked ending of Crusader rule in the Holy City, before his own death in battle, hopelessly drunk, at the hands of the House of Saladin. Moreover, as Montefiore informs us with obvious relish in the same footnote, the building also boasts the amenity of a red British postbox, a prosaic reminder of the shortlived 20th-century comeback of Christian rule.

For sheer exhilaration, there is little in Jerusalem to equal the Dome of the Rock, whose anonymous Christian architect distilled centuries of Roman and Byzantine meditation on mathematical proportion and turned it into a cool assertion that Islam had rediscovered all that was best in Judaism and Christianity, but now had winnowed out the errors. Those errors are particularly castigated in the Arabic inscriptions of the interior, which amid the earliest surviving written samples of the Quran remind the viewer that ‘The Messiah Jesus, son of Mary, is only an apostle of God.’ It is perhaps fortunate for the good tempers of the Frankish Christian canons who used this exquisite space as the Latin Cathedral of Jerusalem from 1099 to 1187 that they never bothered to look upwards to see what this inscription said.

If the Dome of the Rock is the greatest building of the city, Jerusalem’s walls, its other great visual symbol, are also mostly the result of Islamic investment, particularly from the Ottoman sultans of the 16th century. That applies to the iconic Damascus Gate, so regularly featured in modern illustrated Bibles, such as the one still on my shelves from childhood. It should not be forgotten that Muslim rulers have so far possessed the city longer than either Christians or Jews: the Jews between David and Herod managed around a millennium, the Christians in their Byzantine and Crusader epochs (plus the brief modern British occupation) around four centuries, but Arabs and Ottomans some 1200 years. Still, in international law, the Old City is not the possession of the State of Israel, and much continues to hinge on that.

A handful of people have been part of Jerusalem’s story without being monsters or leaving disaster behind. One might have counted King Herod the Great for the sake of his architectural legacy, had he not been one of the more grotesque specimens in Montefiore’s catalogue of human excess, garrotting two of his own sons amid more routine holocausts, such as the incident which involved the murder of 45 out of 71 members of the then Sanhedrin (the only reported atrocity of Herod’s which is likely to be fictional is the Gospels’ story of the Massacre of the Innocents). Standing aside from this half-Arab monarch, we don’t have to discount too much familial piety in Montefiore’s story to recognise the more solid virtues of the Victorian patriarch Sir Moses Montefiore, an exceptionally wealthy and philanthropic Anglo-Jewish financier. His many contributions to the improvement of what was then a dismally decayed and depressing city are still symbolised in the austere and unexpected shapes of almshouses for impoverished Jews and a windmill, both of which might look more at home in industrial Lancashire. Montefiore’s benevolence (and cash) were sufficiently impressive for the Ottoman overlords of the city to accord him the singular honour of being the first Jew since the Roman destruction openly to visit the Temple Mount, although to save everyone’s face he was borne (with an honorific escort of 100 Ottoman soldiers) in a sedan chair, to avoid infringing the scriptural prohibition on Jews setting foot on the Holy of Holies.

Yet even Sir Moses is an important part of the story of conflict in modern Jerusalem: a symbol of the nexus between re-emergent Judaism and Anglophone Protestantism in the 19th century which so radically affected the future of the city. Both groups were excited at the prospect of the Last Days arriving, which happy event could not take place until the Jews were securely back in the Promised Land. The contradiction in expectations has always been that Protestant apocalypticists expect Jews to convert to Christianity before the Lord will return; Jews beg to differ. This has not prevented a pragmatic alliance developing, with aims which are far from pragmatic, and which continue to shape the fate of all of us. Let it be remembered that Jerusalem has already been the sparking point for a destructive war between European nations when, between 1853 and 1856, France and Britain fought Russia in a dispute about which Christian Great Power was to be regarded as Custodian of the Holy Places in Jerusalem and its environs. Back then, the European combatants merely wasted thousands of lives and caused unmeasurable misery in the Crimea. Now we have the technology to do plenty more damage. Matters are made only more dangerous if politicians ignore the real historical inheritance of Jerusalem, or worse still, try to rewrite it in the fashion of Yasir Arafat, who claimed during negotiations with President Clinton (to the despair of bona fide Palestinian historians) that the Jewish Temple had never stood in Jerusalem and was actually sited on Mount Gerizim, so the Jews had no historic claim on the city.

It is an exhausting experience to read Montefiore’s comprehensive history of this troubled place. That is no fault of his, for he writes with elegance and authority. Rather, the problem lies with Jerusalem itself; I have felt the same about other bird’s-eye views of the story, for instance the absorbing study by Amos Elon, Jerusalem: City of Mirrors (1990), a book which, perhaps understandably, does not have much presence in Montefiore’s account. You follow the hammer-blows of history on this small, overcrowded place; you get through the next siege or massacre, and you desperately want there to be a happy ending to it all; and there isn’t. It is all too easy to become infuriated with the city’s obstinate refusal to live up to its own billing in Psalm 122: ‘Jerusalem is built as a city that is at unity in itself.’ Has anyone any practical suggestions as to how that might come about?

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