three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
57-Mar-Apr-2012
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0

The Biography

A-Jerusalem-1Simon Sebag Montefiore, an award-winning British historian and writer, is the author of Catherine the Great and Potemkin (2004), Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar (2004), and Young Stalin (2008), among other works. His ancestor, English philanthropist Moses Montefiore, built Jerusalem's first Jewish neighborhood outside the Old City, and it is this connection that inspires Jerusalem.

The Topic: Jerusalem--arid, landlocked, and militarily indefensible--is an unlikely place for a city. Founded on faith, it is the simultaneous ringing of church bells, calls of muezzins, and sirens signaling the Jewish Sabbath that has made the city so significant to so many--and provoked 3,000 years of war. According to Montefiore, this "profound human need for religion" also makes it possible to understand Jerusalem today. His sweeping account--repeated massacre, pillage, fanaticism--opens with the destruction of the second Jewish temple in AD 70 by the Roman emperor Titus, follows conquests and occupations by Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Romans, Byzantines, Crusaders, and Ottomans (to name a few), and ends with Israel's conquest of the Old City in 1967. "For 1,000 years," writes Montefiore, "Jerusalem was exclusively Jewish; for about 400 years, Christian; for 1,300 years, Islamic; and not one of the three faiths ever gained Jerusalem without the sword, the mangonel or the howitzer." Attempts to rule Jerusalem today, tragically, are proving to be little different.
Knopf. 650 pages. $35. ISBN: 9780307266514

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars"Montefiore embraces Jerusalem's paradoxes in his chronological account, which seeks to avoid hindsight and disclaims a political agenda. He succeeds admirably in remaining evenhanded, a particularly notable achievement since his great-great-uncle Moses Montefiore, an English financier, was foremost among the wealthy European Jews seeking to ameliorate the dreadful conditions under which their coreligionists lived in Ottoman-ruled 19th century Jerusalem." Wendy Smith

Wall Street Journal 4 of 5 Stars"Mr. Sebag Montefiore barely misses a trick or a character in taking us through the city's story with compelling, breathless tension. ... This magnificent, troubling biography presents Jerusalem to its fourth millennium in a vivid amalgam of love and darkness, denying neither one nor the other." Norman Lebrecht

NY Times Book Review 3.5 of 5 Stars"Simon Sebag Montefiore unleashes so many kings, killers, prophets, pretenders, caliphs and crusaders, all surfing an ocean of blood, that the reader may begin to long for redemption, not from the book, which is impossible to put down, but from history itself. ... Montefiore, the author of two books on Stalin and another on Prince Potemkin, has a fine eye for the telling detail, and also a powerful feel for a good story--so much so that his vastly enjoyable chronicle at times has a quasi-mythic aspect. He cheerfully borrows snippets of Scripture, legends and dubious eyewitness accounts, weaving them into his larger narrative." Jonathan Rosen

Washington Post 3.5 of 5 Stars"Montefiore is a master of colorful and telling details and anecdotes; some of the best are in the notes at the bottom of many pages. ... The book's strongest parts are its descriptions of the European--and particularly British--struggles over the city after 1850." Jackson Diehl

Cleveland Plain Dealer 3 of 5 Stars"In truth, taste varies, and Montefiore's is questionable. He has a marvelous eye for anecdote and perceptive ear for quotation--rewarding the reader who opens his blazing book at random. Yet the writer sets for himself the adolescent goal of being an equal-opportunity offender." Karen R. Long

Critical Summary

Writing a comprehensive history of any city is challenging, but penning one with such a long, bloody, and contentious history is especially daunting. Montefiore, however, captivated the reviewers with his well-researched and fascinating book, which tells the story of Jerusalem through individual lives stretching across more than three centuries. Most critics felt that this approach worked. At the same time, remarked the New York Times Book Review, "It's a little like learning about the American West by watching a John Wayne movie: everyone is a gunslinger or a sheriff, with nameless extras diving under the bar when trouble starts." Although a few critics found the successive conquests numbing, Montefiore strikes a balance with colorful descriptions of, for example, the sex lives of rulers. Yet in an attempt to be evenhanded and in a "desire to be all things to all people" (New York Times Book Review), the book does lack some nuance. Still, there are few better--or more dramatic--places to start to begin to understand the contested city's history.