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 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 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 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).
It's a brave man who attempts a history of Jerusalem!
From the sheer amount of information required, it's perhaps questionable whether any one person could do the job. So the author perhaps shouldn't be blamed too severely that in so many places this account is superficial and even factually incorrect.
To be honest, I *almost* put the book in the trashcan several times during the first 100 or so pages. The history and archaeology of the ancient Near East is a particular interest of mine, and it was depressing to see how often the author uncritically reproduced long out-of-date theories, presenting them as fact. By the time I got to the 'Jesus Christ' chapter I'd stopped being surprised and was frequently laughing out loud at the sheer frequency of unsupported assertions, question-begging statements and even jaw-dropping howlers.
But this was also the point where I 'got' the book and started to enjoy it. Taken as any kind of scholarly work the book is a failure - but if you think of it more as an 'entertainment', it works.
Up to this point, I had been continually thinking, "If this book is so often wrong in the areas of Jerusalem history that I actually DO know about, how can I trust a word of it when I get to the historical periods that I know nothing about?"
But taken as 'entertainment', this stops being so much of a concern. You just enjoy the big picture, and forget about treating individual 'facts' as actually factual - treating them more as little fictions thrown in to add colour, really.
In short, the best way to read this book is as if you were watching a Holywood movie on the history of the city. It will give you a GENERAL idea of what happened historically, but will flesh out the 'script' with interesting speculations (without marking them as speculations, of course) and certainly won't let any facts get in the way of spinning a good yarn.
You'll come away with a rough idea of what actually went on, but since this is the 'Hollywood' version, you'll be properly cautious about repeating any individual 'facts' without checking them out elsewhere.
So... great fun - just don't use it for your history exam!!!
on 23 January 2011
A fascinating story of the city of Jerusalem, and by extension of Israel, by a brilliant historian. Sebag Montefiore is rare in a historian in handling the archaeological evidence deftly, and sifting through the axiom and labels, to present the material clearly - so structures ascribed to King David are shown to have been built by Herod, for example. I loved that he covers some of the crack-pots, such as Captain Monty Parker and his search for the Ark of the Covenant, not just the 'greats' of history.
on 11 March 2011
Packed with facts and anecdotes this book will fuel your dinner party conversations for years to come. My only criticism is when Montefiore ventures into Christian theology his understanding is woefully light. Other than that, it's an immense work. All your favourite characters are here: Caesars (lots of them), Herod, Jesus, Mohammed, crusaders and lots more who influenced our culture and who people are still arguing about.
If one book will help you understand the world today it could be this one. I'm going to read it twice.
on 7 June 2011
I'm astonished at the praise that's been heaped on this book, both here and in the press. I couldn't get beyond page 80. There are three problems. First, the author seems to have difficulty in marshalling his material. There are lengthy footnotes on almost every page, many of which have a direct bearing on the main narrative, and this makes for a tiring and disrupted reading experience. And then, Sebag-Montefiore has a maddening fondness for short sentences. He writes several of them in a row. Some without verbs. It's like reading a book on Twitter. And finally he lapses frequently into the most awful cliches. I gave up after finding the mother of Herod the Great's wife described as 'a real-life version of the stereotype of the mother-in-law from hell'. There's so much wrong with that, that I don't know where to begin! I really enjoyed Sebag-Montefiore's biography of Potemkin, so perhaps the very concept of this book has defeated him, though it doesn't appear to have stopped him scaling the critical heights. Two stars for effort.