THE CITY IN HEAVEN ON EARTH; JERUSALEM: THE BIOGRAPHY by Simon Sebag Montefiore (Weidenfeld, [Pounds Sterling]25)

The Evening Standard (London, England), January 27, 2011 | Go to article overview

THE CITY IN HEAVEN ON EARTH; JERUSALEM: THE BIOGRAPHY by Simon Sebag Montefiore (Weidenfeld, [Pounds Sterling]25)


Byline: VICTOR SEBESTYEN

THE most significant story in the foreign news pages this week has been the leaked documents from Al Jazeera which reveal how the last Middle East peace talks two years ago foundered -- on the old, apparently intractable issues about the status and future of Jerusalem.

As Simon Sebag Montefiore states in this masterly, vastly entertaining and timely book: "The history of Jerusalem is the history of the world. Jerusalem was once regarded as the centre of the world and today that is more true than ever."

This is a huge and complex subject covering more than three thousand years of recorded history. Any writer choosing to tackle it is ambitious. Sebag Montefiore succeeds because of the power of his storytelling. There is a vast amount of material to choose from (the bibliography alone of this book covers 25 densely printed pages). Sebag Montefiore has an unerring eye for the vivid detail to illustrate his point and the telling quote to place it in context.

He sets the scene with a brilliantly told account of the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in AD 70, when almost all the inhabitants were slaughtered in gruesome fashion and hundreds of thousands of Jews were sold into slavery. The story of Jerusalem involves a great deal of murder, rape, pillage and disembowelment, by Babylonians, Persians, Jews, Romans, Mamluks, Christians, Ottomans, Arabs, all with a lust for power and conquest.

Equally, it contains much beauty and idealism as "Jerusalem, the capital of two peoples, the temple of three religions ... is the only city to exist twice -- in heaven and on earth; the peerless grace of the terrestrial is as nothing to the glories of the celestial." This explains why a relatively small city, economically unimportant and with a poor climate, of no strategic importance, far away from the principal historic East-West trade routes, has held the imagination of so many for millennia.

It is no wonder that even now, hundreds of people a year are admitted into hospitals in the city with Jerusalem Syndrome, delusions suffered by visitors who become so intoxicated by the place that they believe themselves to be real biblical figures. Sebag Montefiore does not labour the point that kingdoms and empires have perhaps suffered from this psychosis, but it is clearly there.

He tells the story principally through families -- from King David and the Maccabees, Nebuchadnezzar, the Crusader kings, the house of Saladin, the Palestinian clans such as the still powerful Husseinis, the Rothschilds -- and his own. …

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