on 1 August 2014
I thoroughly enjoyed this author's Russian biographies and works of fiction, so I was quite pleased when this biography of Jerusalem was released. However, not even halfway through it and I am very disappointed. It is filled with statements that are not referenced or in anyway supported, and which can be easily debated with other sources. The lack of accuracy makes me question what I am reading and doubt that I can trust the material, which makes it meaningless for learning about topics where I am less knowledgeable.
For example, on page 95 of the hardcover version, he writes: "Jesus, like John (the Baptist), despised Antipas as a venal debauchee and Roman stooge: 'that fox', Jesus called him." The Biblical texts offer a very different view of Jesus and his attitude and give an important reference point to be considered but are completely ignored here. And, the fact that Jesus called Antipas a fox does not in any way suggest He thought him a venal debauchee and Roman stooge. Where does this come from? What is the proof of such a statement? How do you arrive at venal debauchee from fox? A reference of some type would be good since there are other works that contradict such an attitude in Jesus.
It is just one example, but I find that the book is full of these types of statements and "undisputed facts" that are not referenced and in direct conflict with other historical works, which are just ignored.
I wondered at the start how an expert in Russian history could take on such a monumental task as a biography of Jerusalem, and my opinion is, not too well.
on 2 February 2011
Right from the off, with a blistering opening set in 70AD as the Roman general Titus lays siege to Jerusalem, this is a well-paced and absolutely gripping read.
Early on Simon Sebag Montefiore tells us that a story of Jerusalem is, really, `the story of the world'. If at the beginning I was sceptical, by the end I was not. What stops Jerusalem from being a Wikipedian succession of kings, rabbis, muftis and patriarchs is the author's elegant and consistent ability to supply fascinating characters - the kind of characters you might not expect to find in a book like this. For every despot - and there are plenty - Sebag Montefiore gives us a rake, a bungler or an eccentric. Just as Jerusalem emerges as a place of religious intensity, it is also a city addicted to vice.
An important and beautifully produced book. Highly recommended.
on 15 May 2011
I came to this book as an Arab reader, growing up with songs, poems, and books written about beloved Jerusalem, but never have I come across a book offering such a luxurious detailed and honest view and at such a scale! Written with remarkable neutrality and taking us through the diverse and rich history of the most disputed and news making region in the world! This comprehensive, and unpatronising treatment of Jerusalem's past is neither overwhelmingly scholarly to gloss over the gory (and fascinating) details, nor too hurried as to miss out important facts. Simon Sebag Montefiore combines the rare talent of total political and cultural understanding with a great and most eloquent narrating skill!
"Jerusalem, the Biography" is a new sort of History, written as a biography, through the people who made Jerusalem, starting with King David and ending with Barrack Obama, over a span of 3000 years. Each section is about a person who, made, destroyed, believed in, or fought for Jerusalem, some are ordinary people, some are monsters and dictators. There is massacre, siege, blood, violence, but also beautiful poetry.
The story of Jerusalem, is truly (as the author expressed) the story of the world, as well, of the Middle East, of religion, of holiness, of empire! I was thrilled to read about one of the greatest philosophers, the Arab historiographer "Ibn Khaldoon", about Suleiman the Magnificent, Caliph Muawiya, Saladin Dynasty, Druze princess and angelic voiced Singer "Asmahan", the Hashemite (Sherifian) Dynasty, and most exciting to read was some poignant poetry by Nizar Qabbani.
One can read it as an adventure story, or as an explanation of why the Middle East is what it is today, I felt infused with great knowledge, one that I could never acquire if I read a thousand books. The book offers correct answers and honest background of many of the issues of the region today such as, Israel vs. Palestine, America vs. Iran, written without an agenda, and with remarkable impartiality. And I must not forget the most fascinating details over the Apocalypse-the End of Days.
To fit such a swathe of history into a 650-page-turner is a bit of an art form in itself. The book also offers wonderfully informative illustrations and photographs, family trees, and even maps.
I thoroughly enjoyed three of Simon Sebag Montefiore's previous books (or rather masterpieces), but this has to be my most enjoyable read of a history, I have no words to do the author nor the book justice, well-paced and absolutely gripping, this book is a treasure -trove, and I highly recommend it for all readers of different faiths, political, cultural backgrounds, well versed in the Middle East or not.
on 22 January 2011
If Jerusalem is a City of World History then it is the capital of blood and holiness. Simon Sebag Montefiore's superb new book is rich with salacious detail, scholarship and narrative drive. Such has been Jerusalem's centrality to history that the author is able to use the city as a prism to shine light upon a number of diverse periods and movements - Roman, Jewish, Christian and Islamic.
The structure of the book is chronological and finely weighted. Jerusalem has witnessed blood upon the hands of Jews, Christians and Muslims alike - yet the author is balanced and insightful enough to praise those rulers and characters of all religions who infused Jerusalem with a sense of tolerance, prosperity and architectural beauty.
Jerusalem may be a long book, but it is never laboured. One can read this book cover to cover, or dip into it to mine facts or comment on your favourite chapters, such as the Crusades or the middle east during WWI or WWII.
Am pleased to say that Jerusalem: The Biography lives up to the anticipation and hype.
on 19 February 2015
Very interesting and informative, tracing the story of Jerusalem from David's conquest of it before 1000 BC right up to the present time. There are a few bits of misinformation: e.g., when the Ark of the Covenant was captured by the Philistines it was not recaptured in battle but sent back. Also, the first half of the word 'holocaust' derives not from the Hebrew word for raising up but from the Greek word for 'whole'. Montefiore seems to accept the biblical account of Jerusalem in the time of David and Solomon at face value, which many scholars today do not. I was also rather irritated by the way he describes events in the biblical period in the words of the King James Version, while events at other times are described in modern language. It gives the anachronistic impression that the ancient Hebrews talked in Tudor English!
The story as a whole is well told, but I found it immensely depressing. The whole history of Jerusalem seems to be one of power struggles, war and massacres, mostly committed by Christians, Muslims and Jews against each other and within their own faith communities. I cannot understand why Montefiore and many others love the city so much, but then, I have never been there and, though I am a Christian, have no particular desire to go there. I think the world would be a better place if we dropped the whole concept of a 'Holy City' or a 'Holy Land'.
on 6 February 2011
Although Simon Sebag Montefiore's Jerusalem is an entertaining and engaging romp through history, the present instability in Egypt and the Middle East adds greater resonance to this wonderful book.
Jerusalem: The Biography tells of past uprisings, powerful yet unpopular leaders, bloodshed and religious and political conflict.
I purchased this book after reading various favourable reviews - yet such is the scope and richness of this book that no one review (including this one) can do justice to this book, period and region (which is again at the centre of the world's attention).
on 28 August 2011
Montefiore's Jerusalem is 20 % religion, 20 % violence, 20 % sex, 20 % politics. Very lively, with an abundance of colorful characters.
The history of Jerusalem is the story of cyclical destruction and renewal. Kings, prophets, emperors, pashas, governors, colonists and crusaders have conquered the city, destroyed parts of it and build others. Every inch was fought over and is soaked in blood. Holiness went hand in hand with violence, intrigue, treason, vice and greed.
In Simon Sebag Montefiore's book Jerusalem is made out of equal measures of religion, politics, sex and violence. It is filled to the brim with plots, sieges, power games, and attacks.
Montefiore does not offer much guidance or analysis. Only in the epilogue he summarizes, by stating that Jerusalem was Jewish during a thousand years, christian during four hundred years and Islamic during thirteen hundred years.
Montefiore recounts stories and does so admirably. He knows how to breath live into his characters, even when they only appear in a few paragraphs.
There are so many anecdotes on every page of this book that it makes the readers' heads spin. One beheading is followed another conspiracy, and the next plot is already in the making.
His story is that of the powerful man and women who ruled the city or at least tried to. He has an open eye for women, especially the concubines, courtesans, prostitutes, adulterous wives and nymphomaniacs.
The borders of the area of which Jerusalem was the capital were rather fluid. That remains so, of course, till the present day. Jerusalem is never a quiet corner of the world.
Montefiore's story is not original, which is not to be expected. The Bible is a major source and for the later stages he seems to lean heavily on well known works. His description of part of the crusades is remarkably close to the classic work of Sir Steven Runciman.
During those crusades we encounter Sigurd, king of Norway, the first European royal to visit the newly conquered Jerusalem. Sigurd is the name the Norwegian terrorist Anders Behring Breivik adopted, when he joined the reconstituted order of the Knights Templar. It isanother reminder that this history still has an effect in the present.
Jerusalem was often on the frontier of empires and and a playground in their struggles. That was still the case in the First World War, when the British sponsored Zionism out of political reasons. They were hoping to keep or gain the support of Russia and America. Later, the British came to regret that move and were more pro-Arabic and often outright anti-Semitic.
If there is a connecting question in this book, it is how Jewish Jerusalem was. In his thoughtful epilogue Montefiore does not say who the city belongs to. Jews and Arabs both have their rights.
The situation is made even more complicated by the role that Jerusalem plays in the apocalyptic visions of fundamentalist Christians and Muslims.
Montefiore says the Old City should be transformed into a `demilitarized Vatican'. If that will ever be the final chapter of another biography of this city remains an open question.
on 23 January 2011
Throughout history Jerusalem seems to have been at the hub of where the world can come together - and then also pull itself apart. The city, from King David's time to the present day, has served as a place of worship and a prize to be won. Simon Sebag Montefiore has written an expansively researched but pacy account of this desert town which, even now, somehow resides at the centre of the world. In many ways the author's Jerusalem is a stage, upon which players make their entrances and exits - but what characters they are: prostitutes and prophets, crusaders and caliphs, worshippers and warmongers.
If you enjoyed the author's gossipy yet elegantly written biographies of Stalin then you should enjoy this title too.
The publishers should also be applauded for framing such a sumptuous portrait in old fashioned production values. The cover is attractive and textured, the book contains four sets of plates where one usually just gets one or two nowadays and the paper quality and typesetting are excellent. My advice is to buy this book as a present for someone - and read it first.
My one criticism would be that I would have liked the maps to be in with the text, rather than filed at the end.
on 20 August 2014
This was a very brave venture on which to embark. Jerusalem may be the holiest city on earth, acknowledged as such by all three Abrahamic religions (though Islam may put Mecca top of the list), but it has also been the site of appalling brutality throughout the ages. What makes this a brave venture is the fact that the controversies which led to all that brutality are very much alive today. And, what is more, the brutality continues. For a Jew, and one whose family has been closely involved with Jerusalem for many generations, to attempt an objective history of this sad and glorious city is courageous in the extreme.
But Simon Sebag Montefiore has succeeded. And succeeded brilliantly.
Only one of the founders of those three religions actually set foot in Jerusalem. Jesus, of course, did so often. Abraham didn't (because it didn't exist in his time) and neither did Muhammad (though it did). But the Jews founded the city and Muslims ran it for a thousand years. Throughout most of its history it has witnessed grotesque extremes of religious fervour. Jews have slaughtered innocent Arabs. Arabs have slaughtered innocent Jews. Both have slaughtered innocent Christians. Christians have slaughtered innocent Jews and Arabs. And all in the name of religion. The tragedy, of course, is that the slaughter goes on to this day (though the Christians do seem to have discovered, at last, that the founder of their religion - unlike both the others - did not live by the sword).
Sebag Montefiore triumphs because he describes both the vices and the virtues of Judaism, Islam and Christianity. Members of all three faiths can read this magnificent biography of a city in the confident knowledge that none of the religions is being put forward as being superior to the others.
This really is a wonderful read.
on 25 February 2015
This is - as you would expect from this writer - a very well-written popular history of the city. Giving the almost mythical proportions the city has in the imagination of many, from early pilgrims to crusaders and to many devout Christians and Jews, it is an eye opener to read how it has been an otherwise rather sleepy, dusty and unimportant provincial town for most of its existence. And not many will know that is has a large influx of American tourists of the late 19th and early 20th century (mostly Bible Belt-amateur archeologists) to thank for its renaissance, specifically in the American awareness. The book also makes it clear why through this specific period in its history the emotional bond has been created that USA citizens feel with Israel, much more so than any other Western nation.
Mr. Sebag Montefiore cannot of course get around the enormously important part played by his great-grandfather around that same time in litterally - and with his own money and efforts - restoring and expanding Jerusalem. This unavoidably leads to the suspicion that this book might have been titled: "Hey, let me tell you about the fantastic things my family did for Jerusalem!", but that would be doing this writer a grave injustice. It is a very well-written, well-balanced book that you will find no effort at all to get through and that will tell you a lot of things about Jerusalem that you did not know.