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A fascinating explanation about the world's most controversial city
on 17 January 2012
This three-part BBC series is an informative and revealing documentary. It tackles a very delicate subject; the most revered city on earth, holy to the three major Abrahamic faiths. Wars have been fought over Jerusalem for centuries, and this series helps to explain why - and how the current situation in Israel developed. I've heard of the term `Zionism' for all of my life, but never really understood what it meant to the different groups involved, until now.
The presenter, Simon Sebag Montefiore, isn't just a journalist, author and historian. His family are descended from a group of Sephardic Jews, who had links to influential financiers like the Rothschilds. Brought up in Britain, SSB has spent a considerable amount of time with relatives in Jerusalem and brings first-hand experiences and insight to his explanation of its history. He explains some of this during the programmes so there's no question of questioning his standpoint and - from his extremely even-handed approach to all parties - I felt that his interpretations weren't unduly biased towards any particular faith. He came over as trustworthy, especially in his careful consideration about what might be mythological, and what is reasonably certain historical fact.
Over three hours, the series follows the linear development of Jerusalem from its earliest days as a small settlement, through the construction of the temple by Solomon, the life of Christ and the importance of the church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Roman period and then the change to life under Muslim caliphs and the building of the Al-Aqsa mosque. Of course the Crusades are covered, but the series also reveals less well-known historical episodes - such as the demolition of the city walls by the inhabitants which left it undefended, Queen Melisende's embellishment of crusader Jerusalem, the encounter between Saladin and Richard the Lionheart, and an early power-sharing arrangement brokered in the 13th century.
The final episode considers recent history. It highlights that, since the collapse of the Ottoman empire, the conflict in Jerusalem has been influenced by broader global concerns. When the world was at war, the Allies were quite capable of offering Jerusalem to both Jews and Palestinians at the same time, providing they would help with local battles. It also explains how complicated the current situation is, and makes clear the nature of the over-lapping territorial claims, all rife with religious significance.
However, the whole series isn't about politics - and SSB takes pains to demonstrate some of the astonishing architecture and beautiful buildings which make the city unique. The filming captures the contrasts of modern Jerusalem; a congested ancient city filled with modern people, some praying but many of them selling souvenirs; some in full religious garb but some with sub-machine guns slung over militia uniforms; some undoubtedly pious, but many westerners gawping a re-enactments of biblical ceremonies. So the programmes are never dull, although sometimes I struggled to see the beauty in the city.