In Jerusalem: The Biography, author Simon Sebag Montefiore asserts that the history of Jerusalem is “the story of the world” — with so many illustrious characters in world history playing important roles there.
At more than 600 pages, the book is a bit intimidating at first, but it is so well-written it doesn’t bog down. Montefiore, a historian, and a Jew, demonstrates “studied empathy with the yearnings of his various subjects,” reviewer Tom Holland wrote in The (UK) Telegraph. If only all those who pontificate about the Arab-Israeli conflict could do so with “studied empathy” instead of tribal, nationalistic or religious loyalties.
So Many Salacious Stories
I didn’t realize until I started reading this book that “many of Jerusalem’s rulers were far worse than Herod and had wonderfully redolent names, like the priapic and violent 12th- century warlord Zangi the Sanguine, the rapacious Crusader King Fulk the Repulsive (he really was) or one of his successors, Baldwin the Big.”
This was not taught in high school world history class!
And I certainly didn’t learn in Sunday School that Empress Theodora of Byzantium, a former showgirl, “was said to be a gymnastically gifted orgiast whose specialty was to offer all three orifices to her clients simultaneously.”
Outline of Jerusalem’s History
I thought I knew the basic outline of Jerusalem’s history from Sunday School, church and world history class. But my knowledge has significant gaps. Jerusalem has been shaped by religious, ethnic, tribal and national loyalties that distort a sense of perspective. Reading Simon Sebag Montefiore’s book is an effort to achieve a larger understanding.
I knew that Jerusalem was founded by Jewish King David in about 1000 BC. His son, wise King Solomon, “in all his glory,” built the First Temple to the monotheistic God Yahweh. About 500 years later, Babylonians led by Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the temple, ended the rule of the Israelites and enslaved them in Babylonia (present-day Iraq). Fifty years later, the Israelites returned to Jerusalem when the Persian King Cyrus the Great conquered the city. They began to build the Second Temple, which was completed in 516 BC and endured for more than 500 years.
Dastardly Roman pagans destroyed the sacred second Jewish temple in 70 A.D. and ruthlessly massacred both Jews and Christians, causing many to scatter, enslaving and persecuting those who remained. In the early 4th century, the Roman Emperor Constantine had a dream that led him to believe the Christian God was more powerful than pagan gods, so he made Christianity the official religion of the empire. The Roman Catholic Church grew in power and influence until the fall of the Roman Empire in 476.
Gradually, Orthodox Christians from the Eastern Roman Empire of Byzantium — Greeks and Armenians — supplanted the Romans in Jerusalem. Then in 637, fervent Muslims Conquerors took the city and controlled Palestine for about 400 years, allowing Jews to live and worship freely in the holy city in ways Christians had not allowed. The Muslims were eventually overthrown by bloodthirsty Christian Crusaders from Western Europe, who tolerated no dissent of any kind. Apostates were simply killed.
After the crusaders, Montefiore writes, “during the Middle Ages, Kurdish and Frankish warlords snarled over the city like dogs over a juicy bone.”
Attempts at Religious Unity
I didn’t realize, until I read Jerusalem: The Biography that early Muslims built the Dome of the Rock on the site of the Jewish temple, not as an act of hostility, but as an act of unity with the Jews, because they saw Islam as the true heir of Judaism.
When Caliph Omar, who wrested Jerusalem from the Christians in 636, visited the Temple Mount, he found what one observer called “a dung heap which the Christians had put there to offend the Jews,” Jonathan Rosen observes in his NYTimes review of the book. “Omar built his mosque there precisely because of its Jewish significance…”
Muslims agreed with Jews that Jesus was a prophet but not the Messiah, the Christ, the only son of God. The walls of the Temple Mount declared this to be so. Over the decades, as Jews failed to embrace Christianity or Islam, hostility towards Jews grew. “Omar II, around 720, banned Jewish worship on the Temple Mount — a ban that stood for the duration of Islamic rule…,” Rosen points out. This ban on non-Islamic prayers at the Temple Mount sadly stands to this day.
And yet, for centuries, Jews and Muslims had a “mutually beneficial relationship that was at odds with the far more antagonistic Byzantine Christians. The fact that such a mutually productive relationship was sustainable for so many centuries seems to make the present situation all the more tragic.”
Jews and Muslims Got Along Far Better Than Christians and Muslims
Some other shocking revelations from reviews of the book:
“Violence among Christian denominations in the city is pettier and far more ancient than the relatively recent national conflict between Palestinians and Israelis,” wrote one of The Guardian‘s reviewers. “When Pope Paul VI asked the Greek Orthodox for permission to pray at the chapel of Calvary in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the patriarch required him to make a written petition, then summarily refused it. The ceremony of the Holy Fire on Easter Saturday, when a tongue of flame “miraculously” descends and illuminates the church, has repeatedly deteriorated into brawling among monks who have little consideration for health and safety. As Tom Lehrer ought to have sung, the Armenians hate the Greeks, the Syriacs hate the Armenians, the Orthodox hate the Catholics, and everyone hates the Copts.”
The Ottoman (Turkish) Muslims conquered the city in the 16th century and ruled it for 400 years in relative peace and religious tolerance.
Has the Apocalypse Already Happened?
Reading Jerusalem: The Biography, one wonders if the Apocalypse that Jesus predicted — the forces of evil aligned in a great battle against the forces of good, with “weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth” — actually occurred a generation or so after Jesus’ crucifixion, when the Jewish temple was destroyed by Roman pagans in 70 A.D. One needs only to read the first chapter of the book (free download from Amazon.com) to ponder whether another Apocalypse could really be more violent and cruel and insulting to God than what the Romans did to the Jews and early Christians of Jerusalem.
As Munro Price wrote in his (UK) Telegraph review: “The bloodletting described is so horrendous that one wonders whether the Apocalypse, if and when it comes, could improve on it.”
In the context of 3000 years, the recent bloody history of Jerusalem seems relatively mild. In an interview, Montefiore observed: “Really, the past 60 years have been one of the most peaceful periods in Jerusalem’s history.”
Such historical knowledge can be used to justify Israeli mistreatment of Palestinians or a passive tolerance for the status quo. After all, things aren’t as bad as they used to be, and Palestinians may find their lives better in the West Bank or Gaza today than some of their Arab brethren have it in the neighboring countries of Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Iran, Egypt, or Libya.
But to a people aspiring to full human rights, the status quo is most definitely not acceptable. It’s far wiser to look back on the history of Jerusalem and focus on the relatively peaceful times, which were dominated by TOLERANCE and co-existence, if not grudging respect for differences.
What Jerusalem’s Bloody History Teaches: Importance of Religious Tolerance. Control By One Faction Is Doomed
If there is any lesson to be drawn from the history of Jerusalem, observed David Shapiro of Columbia University, “it is that people have killed each other and engaged in the ugliest of human behavior in Jerusalem—all in the name of religiosity. Nearly every group examined in Jerusalem: The Biography has suffered victimhood at one time—and nearly every group has acted as the oppressor as well.”
Jerusalem’s history is certainly proof of human sin, even if one wonders about God’s constant intervention in the holy city, wrote Barnaby Rogerson in his review.
If this is the point on earth at which God’s influence is most manifest, we are indeed nothing but the Devil’s spawn and nothing good will ever come of us. Extortion, riot, incest, schism, civil strife, torture and assassination stalk the alleys, cellars and towers of Holy Jerusalem, and that’s in the good times. The fat years of peace allowed parasitic dynasties of priests, custodians, hoteliers, shop-keepers and pimps to milk pilgrims, visitors and distant believers.
The history of Jerusalem is so full of brutality, gruesome violence, and oceans of blood that “the reader may begin to long for redemption, not from the book, which is impossible to put down,” wrote Jonathan Rosen in The New York Times, “but from history itself.”
Munro Price quotes Montefiore on the alliance between America and Israel:
‘The American Constitution [is] secular…separating state and faith, yet on the Great Seal, the Founding Fathers, Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin depicted the Children of Israel led by cloud and fire towards the Promised Land.’ For millions of Christian Americans today, supporting the Jewish state is a case of the new Israel protecting the old.
This fascinating but ghastly past does not inspire optimism for Jerusalem’s future. Yet its history does seem to teach one lesson – that attempts by any one religion to control the city are doomed. Ironically, the founder of Zionism himself warned against the dangers of this trap. Outlining his plans just before the First World War, Theodor Herzl wrote: ‘We shall extra-territorialise Jerusalem so that it will belong to nobody and everybody, its Holy Places the joint possession of all Believers.’ Words for Binyamin Netanyahu to ponder.
Will American Support for Israel Eventually Prove Too Expensive?
For many of the empires that have conquered Jerusalem, occupation proved so expensive to maintain that it essentially destroyed empires. Observed Barnaby Rogerson in his Telegraph review:
For King Abdullah of Jordan, the British, Herod, Heraclius, Babylon, Saladin, the Sassanids and Assyria, Jerusalem was the irresistible jewel in the crown that also marked out the high noon of all their empires.
This makes one wonders if US support for Israel, to the tune of $8 million a day or $3 billion a year — one-fifth of the entire US foreign aid budget — will eventually prove to be too expensive for the American empire to support. Money, if not morality. is a compelling reason for the US to support the peace process.