Jerusalem: The Eternal City
By Rachel Paulose
AAP Guest Columnist
Jerusalem, as Simon Sebag Montefiore reminds us in his new “biography” of the city, “is the only city to exist twice — in heaven and on earth.” Montefiore’s book is a masterful, Josephus-emulating collection of a veritable army of characters who left their marks, usually in blood, on this terrestrial and celestial city, the gateway to Asia.
“Jerusalem” opens with a montage of the carnage the Romans inflicted on desperate Jewish citizens in 70 A.D. during the siege of Jerusalem. Romans crucified nearly 500 Jews each day on the Judean hillsides; Jewish mothers cannibalized their own children in their desperation for food; and soldiers who captured Jews escaping the siege gutted them alive to seize the treasure escapees had swallowed to evade their tormentors. Finally, on the anniversary of the Babylonian destruction of the city, the Roman General Titus stormed the temple at dawn. Now, with their holy temple under attack, “the Jews fought for every inch with almost suicidal abandon.” Between 600,000 and one million Jews died or were sold as slaves in Jerusalem’s last stand. Expelling the Jews from Jerusalem, the Romans set in motion a worldwide diaspora.
After this horrific opening scene, Montefiore returns to tell his story chronologically. He organizes this history of Jerusalem by cataloging the stories of those who have tried to lay claim to her: the Jews (starting with King David), Romans, Muslims, European Crusaders, finally returning full circle to the Zionists.
Montefiore’s time travel tour of Jerusalem is rich with detail. Along the way, we meet mad Antiochus Epiphanes, who desecrated the temple with pig flesh, as well as the heroic Maccabees who resisted him and later Roman tyrants, inspiring the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah. We encounter a full entourage of European kings, including the emperor Constantine, who changed the course of Western civilization by adopting Christianity as the official state religion; the Leper King Baldwin of Great Britain, who helped lead Crusades in claiming rights as the King of Jerusalem (a designation the King of Spain dubiously purports to hold to this day); and King Edward the Longshanks, one of the first rulers in history to odiously force Jews to wear gold stars.
We fend off various false messiahs including Mordecai Sabbatai Zevi, husband of Sarah (who had previously “worked as a prostitute which did not shake her conviction that she was destined the marry the messiah,”). We behold the conquering Muslims, including Ahmet Jazzar Pasha, the butcher warlord of Palestine, whose suspect officials and subjects were missing so many body parts they caused the English Princess Caroline to show astonishment at how many “persons one sees in the streets without noses;” and Imam Hakim, who ordered the destruction of all the dogs and cats in Cairo, forbade the eating of various foods for no particular reason, and slept during the way and worked at night while ordering all his subjects to follow suit.
We witness the first of the Evangelical missionaries, including the Spafford family’s Zionist missionary sojourn to Jerusalem (although Montefiore here misses an opportunity to share the story of the origin of the much beloved hymn “It Is Well with My Soul,” the sort of small detail in which he generally delights). We watch the Europeans return with much fanfare in modern times, including Lawrence of Arabia, colorful confidante of kings and prime ministers; German Kaiser Wilhelm II, whose sinister proposal of “mass extermination of Jews using gas” was tragically adopted generations later; and General Sir Edmund Allenby, who at long last captured Jerusalem for England (the British Foreign Office hilariously cabled him to avoid any “Christ-like pretension” entering the city: “Strongly suggest dismounting!”).
We observe the opening rounds in the ongoing struggle between Jews and Palestinians such as Amin al-Husseini, the Palestinian mufti who rejected the Chamberlin government’s offer of a Palestinian state (and no Jewish) state in 1939 as Hitler stormed a path through Europe. Finally, we are present for the birth of modern Israel as Winston Churchill, Harry Truman, Dr. Chaim Weizmann, David Ben-Gurion, and other luminaries draw the lines, negotiate the terms, and fight the battles for modern Israel. We see the Mossad finish the work of Nuremberg as Adolf Eichmann is captured in Argentina and ultimately brought to justice in Israel.
We feel the tension of General Yitzak Rabin, chain smoking 70 cigarettes a day and drinking only coffee on his way to a nervous breakdown in the tense days before the Six Day War, Israel’s victory under General Moshe Dayan in the face of overwhelming odds against a united Arab call to “drive the Jews into the sea.” We learn of the origins of blood libel (Jewish children were detained to force their mothers to reveal the concocted hiding place of the blood of a murdered monk and his Muslim servant in 1840); pogroms (from the Russian “gromit” [i.e., to destroy] in the wake of Emperor Alexander III’s state sanctioned terror), and waterboarding (invented in 1937 by Sir Charles Tegart, the British officer who ruthlessly ruled Calcutta for thirty years).
“Jerusalem” is so thorough in its quotes, anecdotes, and pictures that the absence of small treasures, such as David Rubinger’s immortal photograph of the capture of the Western Wall in 1967, is almost startling.
We also learn of the Montefiore family’s own poignant connection to Jerusalem, including their effort to buy the Western Wall for the Jews. It is hard to escape Montefiore’s own conclusion that “the sanctity of the city grew out of the exceptionalism of the Jews as the Chosen People.” The attempts of the Jewish people, including the Montefiores, to claim their heritage lends “Jerusalem” its most moving moments.
Sadness seeps through the pages of “Jerusalem,” and it seems “death is our constant companion,” in Jerusalem’s story through the ages. But life, indeed the hope of eternal life, are what make Jerusalem something considerably more than the “graveyard of empires.”
“Jerusalem” has its shortcomings. Montefiore is not a consistently disciplined writer. One early sentence rambles on for 86 words interspersed with 19 punctuation marks in a futile search for an editor, who is evidently too exhausted by the ordeal to realize the next sentence fails to begin with a capital letter.
Grammar school mistakes aside, “Jerusalem” at times appears to tailor history in furtherance of Montefiore’s stated goal of “encourag[ing] each side to recognize and respect the ancient heritage of the Other.” For example, Mohammed is drenched in fulsome praise: “handsome, possessed of .… an all-conquering geniality …. “he was admired for his integrity and intelligence.” Inexplicably, no mention is made of Mohammed’s child bride or the lack of a Mohammedian link to Jerusalem (“Jerusalem and the Temple are never actually mentioned by Muslims came to believe that the Furthest Sanctuary was the Temple Mount,”).
By contrast, acknowledging the Bible as his sole source for certain portions of his history, Montefiore proceeds to mangle pieces of its history. Montefiore inaccurately claims David was granted “asylum” from the priests of Nob (they granted no such shelter but merely surrendered modest provisions at David’s insistence); falsely describes Jesus’ brother James as an apostle (the apostle James was the son of Zebedee, no relation to Jesus); and suggests the New Testament was written to curry favor with the Roman Empire, a bizarre claim belied by Montefiore’s own description of Revelation’s (the final book of the New Testament) depictions of Satanic figures of Roman origin.
More significantly, the eschatological theology regarding Israel that divides Evangelical from Reformed Protestants (and Catholics, for that matter) is a critical distinction that Montefiore fails to convey, in a way that undercuts his narrative. While it is true that Reformed Protestants do view themselves as the “rightful heirs to the Jewish heritage,” Evangelicals believe Jews are still God’s “Chosen People,” and this conviction underlies the fierce Evangelical loyalty to modern Israel.
Still, given the daunting scope of his task, Montefiore’s production is a riveting and largely objective narrative. Make no mistake, Montefiore is an author clearly smitten with his singularly arresting subject. If you complete the march to the end of “Jerusalem,” you may be as well.