For at least a decade, conventional wisdom in Western capitals has had it that “everyone knows” what the future of Jerusalem will be. A Palestinian state will encompass the West Bank, Gaza Strip and the Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem, with swaps of territory to allow Israel to annex the largest Jewish settlements in the West Bank, including those that ring the city. Jerusalem will be the capital of both states; it will be open to citizens of both countries and people of all faiths. In the historic Old City, the holy sites that have been the focus of centuries — or millennia — of conflict will have their own governance: perhaps an international authority or a system of shared sovereignty.
Yet as the British writer Simon Sebag Montefiore makes clear in his sweeping and absorbing “biography” of the city, this carefully balanced compromise of shared sovereignty and tolerance would be a radical change in the history of Jerusalem — a small, arid, relatively poor and often squalid city subject to unearthly and inhuman passions. “For 1,000 years,” writes Montefiore, “Jerusalem was exclusively Jewish; for about 400 years, Christian; for 1,300 years, Islamic; and not one of the three faiths ever gained Jerusalem without the sword, the mangonel or the howitzer.”
No other city on earth has such a dark history of murder, rape, pillage and torture. On dozens of occasions its walls have been festooned with the heads of its victims. The 19th-century novelist William Makepeace Thackery, one of many disillusioned visitors, wrote that “there’s not a spot” in Jerusalem “at which you may look but where some violent deed has been done, some massacre, some visitors murdered, some idol worshipped with bloody rites.”
Montefiore, whose previous books include a vivid portrait of Josef Stalin’s Kremlin, offers a fact-rich and mostly chronological account of the conquerors, empires and warlords who have taken turns ruling and ravaging the city. He begins with a searing and sometimes stomach-turning retelling of the most famous siege of all: the destruction of Jewish Jerusalem in A.D. 70 by the Roman commander Titus, who celebrated his grisly victory by crucifying 500 prisoners a day.
Then follows a sometimes numbing narrative of successive conquests and occupations by Canaanites, Israelites, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Macedonians, Seleucids, Romans, Byzantines, the Arab Umayyad and Abbasid dynasties, Fatimids, Seljuks, Crusaders, Saracens, Mamluks and Ottomans — and on to the 18th-, 19th- and 20th-century European colonists from France, Russia, Germany and Britain. The history ends in 1967, with the conquest of the Old City by Israel.
Montefiore is a master of colorful and telling details and anecdotes; some of the best are in the notes at the bottom of many pages. He serves up tales of the sex lives of rulers and their consorts as readily as accounts of their conquests. One 10th-century ruler, an Ethiopian eunuch and former slave named Abul-Misk Kafur, was “deformed, obese and malodorous,” writes Montefiore. “He splashed on so much white camphor and black musk that his master renamed him after them.” The author draws on some unusual but rich sources, like the diary of an Arab Christian oud player who chronicled the city’s demimonde in the early 20th century.
The book’s strongest parts are its descriptions of the European — and particularly British — struggles over the city after 1850. Montefiore has a particular connection to this era — his great-great uncle, Moses Montefiore, was a Jewish baronet who visited Jerusalem seven times and built its first Jewish neighborhood outside the old city, complete with a Kentish windmill that still stands.
Notwithstanding his ancestry — or maybe because of it — Montefiore’s account is admirably dispassionate and balanced, eschewing the anti-Zionism that often infects British writing about the former Palestine. He is unsparing in his descriptions of the bumbling, delusions and anti-Semitism of the British governors and generals who ruled Jerusalem from 1917 to 1948, even as thousands of Jews poured into the city from Europe. (“The Crusades have now ended,” the British conquerer of the city, Gen. Edmund Allenby, reportedly declared as he was handed the city’s keys by its Arab mayor.)
Montefiore argues that the Balfour declaration of 1917, which opened the way to Jewish immigration with its vision of “a Jewish homeland” in Palestine, was the product of “peculiar attitudes to the Jews” by then-Prime Minister Lloyd George and his foreign minister, Arthur Balfour, and a “special concatenation of circumstances,” including Britain’s desire to detach Russian Jews from Bolshevism. Lenin seized power in St. Petersburg the night before the declaration’s issuance; had he acted “a few days earlier,” Montefiore writes, “the Balfour Declaration may never have been issued.”
As he reaches the modern era, Montefiore writes with sadness about the exclusionist passions that still rule a city defined by diversity. Former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, he notes, refused to acknowledge that Jews had a history in Jerusalem or that the Temple was once located where the Dome of the Rock mosque now stands; his successors and even Palestinian historians stick to that absurd orthodoxy.
“If this book has any mission, I passionately hope that it might encourage each side to recognize and respect the ancient heritage of the Other,” Montefiore writes. It could happen; there has been movement on both sides in the last 20 years. But a lot of history weighs against it.
By Simon Sebag Montefiore
Knopf. 650 pp. $35