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4.2 out of 5 stars29
4.2 out of 5 stars
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on 15 February 2013
I first read this book about 15 years ago, under its original title, "The Last Crusade", but lent it to a friend who never returned it. So I was really glad to find that it's now available again on Kindle. There are so many good things to say about it, I'm not sure where to begin. On a simple level it's just a great story, full of intrigue and betrayal, leading up to a proper "boy's own" climax - the cavalry charge at Huj. In terms of good, old-fashioned story telling, it reminded me of the best of C.S. Forester, or Bernard Cornwell's "Sharpe" books.

But there's deeper stuff going on here too. Underneath all the intrigue and the action there are political undercurrents - not only between the world powers who are fighting the war, but between local Zionists, Armenians, Turks and Arabs, who are all vying for control over Palestine. The characters are brilliantly observed, and almost all have ulterior motives for their actions - so there's perhaps a hint of Graham Greene thrown in here too.

Beneath this there is yet a further layer: most of the action takes place around Jerusalem - the centre of three great religions - and an atmosphere of religious mysticism bubbles up from time to time. So there are also echoes of EM Forster's "A Passage to India". One of my favourite characters was Magnus, a Swedish prophet whom, despite his ravings, I began to suspect was the only sane character here.

All of this is written in a beautifully crafted, often sardonic style, which makes you realise that the author is gently mocking the British as much as the Germans, the Turks as much as the Zionists, and the whole business of war and the absurd things it makes people do.

There are vignettes in this book that are both hilarious and depressing. It doesn't have the same claustrophic quality of Graham Greene, or the all-out, plot-driven rush of Bernard Cornwell. But it has elements of both, and weaves them together into a memorable and deeply satisfying book. I'd recommend it to anyone who wants an insight into the origins of the mess that is the Middle East today - but also anyone who just likes a good, old-fashioned story.
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on 19 March 2013
The tight focus of this excellent historical thriller is on muddle. Palestine in 1917 was a fragment of the rapidly disintegrating Ottoman Empire - a fragment, moreover, whose precise extent depended on the religious, ethnic or imperial preference of whoever happened to be making the case at any particular moment. It was fought over by the Turks, the French, the British, the Central Powers, Arab nationalists and Zionists, all of whom felt that they alone held the key to its future.
The trouble was, then as now, that one man's solution was every other man's nightmare. The only thing that the players in this particular square of the Great Game could agree on was that everybody hated everybody else and that no one could agree on anything for more than five minutes at a time.
Colin Smith, a master craftsman and a former foreign correspondent of distinction, pulls together the strands of the Palestinian conundrum just long enough for us to take a close look at the competing players. Some are cynics; others are mere pawns; most will be called on to fight for their beliefs, or the beliefs of those to whose cause they are bound. Soldiers and spies are the principal characters in this drama, the plot of which is dominated by war.
Smith's re-creation of the Battle of Huj, won after a superb charge by 12 officers and 158 men of the Warwickshire and Worcestershire Yeomanry, is genuinely thrilling, written as a crescendo as if with Bolero in mind.
At the time, Huj was hailed as a masterstroke of courage and ingenuity. Today, like the many engagements fought centuries ago in India, it is all-but forgotten. What will not forgotten by those prepared to take the plunge is the insistent, percussive throb of Smith's prose poem to the dead of battle.
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on 22 April 2013
I enjoyed this novel very much. It is extremely well researched and well written. The politics of the time and the machinations behind the setting up of the State of Israel and how they ran contra to what actually happened after WW2 are fascinating. Many Jews siding with Germany because the British were more interested with assimilation than the creation of a homeland. Gripping stuff. The novel is told from multiple viewpoints, though these are kept apart from chapter to chapter. Only at the end does the POV change from paragraph to paragraph during a bloody and intense battle, though this is never confusing and doesn't distance the reader from the characters.
The only minor criticism I have is that sometimes the author's interest in the subject takes over and there are passages of pure history offered as thoughts or dialogue. This can always be a problem with the narrator's voice showing through. However, since the history is so interesting, I didn't mind. This is more an observation than a criticism. The plot is necessarily interesting and the characters are well rounded and believable. It even ends with a mystery for those who like such things in a novel.
A very good read, I would have been happy to have paid for it.
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on 10 September 2015
I had believed, until now, the legend that Winston Churchill had participated in the last Cavalry charge of a British Army at Omdurman in the Sudan against an enemy played by Laurence Olivier at his melodramatic best as the Mahdi.
It now turns out that the last Cavalry charge of a British army, albeit largely made up of Anzacs took place almost twenty years later at Beersheba thus opening the way to the eventual capture of Jerusalem with consequences that resound today. Two days after the victory in Beersheba Lord Balfour published his eponymous Declaration offering a Jews a homeland in Palestine,.
The cavalry victory at Beersheba was achieved by a surprise attack on the Turkish /German left flank previously considered unlikely because of the lack of sufficient water supplies for the large Allied force.
This issue was resolved by the extensive knowledge of ancient waterways provided by a Jewish agronomist, Aaron Aaronson and by a masterpiece piece of deception, a precursor of the famous “Operation Mincemeat” in WWII
Aaron Aaronson was the founder of a pro-British Spy Ring named “NILI” a Hebrew acronym from the first Book of Samuel transliterated as “The Eternal of Israel will not lie”.
The narrative of “Spies of Jerusalem” turns on these almost forgotten events and the search for a mole dubbed “Daniel” within the German High Command.
The style of the writing keeps the previously uninformed reader enthralled and the informed reader fascinated to read the fleshing out in human terms of these seminal happenings. The array of characters, from the great Commanders Allenby and Falkenhayn, mavericks like T.E.Lawrence to the fictional humble Warwickshire yeomen reminiscent of D.H. Lawrence’s Mellors, a crazed Scandinavian would be Messiah and a charming Beiruti “Poule de Luxe” keep up the charge until the well-constructed denouement.
A literary mystery, that of T.E. Lawrence’s enigmatic dedication of the “Seven Pillars of Wisdom” is also probably solved
I cannot understand why Spielberg, Cameron or even some Israeli producer has not already picked up this enthralling property.
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on 20 June 2014
[I also posted this review on Amer. Amazon.]

The reviews here are mixed; some state that the story is slow starting, or seems to circle around its aims.

As a life-long student of espionage I have to say that - while the story does seem a bit slow starting - if one is searching for the 'spies' it rewards to pay attention from the start [hint: spies are usually the least likely people, not the James Bond dazzlers.]

A covert operation requires finance, access, communications and - hopefully - escape [in a pinch], putting it simply. The author develops these elements quite effectively. Some of the operatives appear obvious early on, others begin to emerge with the telling.

The conclusion of the tale - who is the master spy 'Daniel'? - is left in ambiguous indecision. However, examining the requirements stated above, there can be small doubt as to who 'Daniel' was.

The book can be fun if approached in the manner outlined here. It rather captivated me early on, and since I read just before turning off the light at bed, I found myself looking forward to bedtime.
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on 24 January 2016
I am delighted to confirm that all the other reviews (all 4* & 5*) which are already in existence as I write this are correct - this is an excellent book which more than repays your time & patience.
The meticulous research is obvious throughout the book as Colin Smith seamlessly interweaves actual events from First World War Palestine with his interpretation of the all-too-human characters involved and their various interactions. He does this in such a skilful way that you empathise with almost all of the characters &, for those that you don't or can't empathise with, you do at least understand their motivations.
This is no page-turner in the sense of car chases, hand-to-hand combat or use of technical gadgets on every other page but I was always reluctant to put it down nonetheless.
The strength of this book is the excellent characterisation & interplay of the (extensive) cast within the well-paced plot line. It is brought home to the reader on countless occasions throughout the book how fragile victory & defeat can be in wartime & how one can turn into the other as a result of the most bizarre & unpredictable occurrences.
The plot has been fully described in other reviews so I won't repeat it here but, if you enjoy Le Carre, do yourself a favour & give this try.
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on 4 February 2013
Although I have read a lot on WW1, I had never before read a novel which focuses on the conflict in the Middle East, instead of in Europe. Colin Smith provides a fascinating insight into the politics and espionage that was being played out in Palestine in 1917. I like the fact that he included strong female characters so that the book was not all about a battle between male armies, but about people of both genders who were involved in plotting and transmitting covert messages behind the scenes.

Although he provides a lot of historic detail and gory descriptions of the battles, Spies of Jerusalem is a book that will appeal to a wider readership than just those who are interested in military stories. His interwoven tales of love, betrayal, pain and bravery bring the characters to life, making the plot more than just an illuminating piece of war history.
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on 7 February 2013
This novel is a really good, meaty read, crammed full of intrigue and action. With decent twists at the occasional literary turn of phrase this book will appeal to fans of Alan Furst and John Le Carre. It's a thriller cum spy story cum war novel, merging all three together neatly. Grounded in historic reality and mentioning real people like T E Lawrence alongside the fictional characters, it really brings the History to life. Am now curious to read more about the period.
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on 21 October 2015
Spies of Jerusalem was a very rewarding read for me. 40 or 45 years ago Barbara Tuchman introduced me to WWI's Western Front. A few other works advanced my knowledge of the action in that venue and the Dardanelles. That was good, but not enough. Things in lots of other places began to change as a result of the war, and I wanted to understand more. As we approached the war's centennial I finally determined to advance my knowledge of the Mesopotamian and Jerusalem campaigns. T. E. Lawrence's book was a big help, but I had the nagging suspicion that it was a bit self-serving. Roger Ford's Eden to Armageddon promised to provide the impartial information I craved. But, it's kind of boring. Spies of Jerusalem gave me satisfaction, at least so far as Allenby's Jerusalem campaign is concerned. It's fiction, a thriller actually, but I researched several events and characters, and found them to have been accurately portrayed. I hope to eventually get back to Ford's book, and seal the deal. But not just yet.
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on 10 May 2015
Excellent novel.

The presence of existing spy rings taken from the different warring sides perspectives. Lots of twists set against the background of Jerusalem and Syrian Palestine during the First World War.

Particularly liked the references to T.E. Lawrence and also the battle at Huj.
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