Tuesday, 24 May 2016

Mini-review of Simon Sebag Montefiore's "Jerusalem: The Biography"

An extremely impressive book in many respects, taking in over three thousand years of endlessly fascinating history, from the first Jewish settlement in the area to the Six Day War of 1967 (a short epilogue reflects on events since then and the possibilities for Jerusalem’s future). This takes in periods of Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, Seleucid, Roman, Byzantine, Arab, Egyptian, Turkish and British rule. I’d no idea of how relentlessly bloody and violent the city’s history actually was. It actually gets depressing to read about the endless brutality and sectarianism and squabbling, not least the ludicrous scuffles between Orthodox, Catholics, Copts etc. that continue to this day in the Holy Sepulchre, albeit not with the same deadly effects as in former times.

                The narrative is episodic in parts – there is relatively little on late medieval or early modern Jerusalem – although I think that is a reasonable decision as some periods are simply more interesting than others. I certainly found myself singularly unengaged by the tedious parade of debauched, grasping, tyrannical and often psychotic despots who had charge of Jerusalem during a great deal of the Mamluk and Ottoman periods. What was very new to me was the extent of European involvement in Jerusalem in the nineteenth century, and the centrality of Jerusalem to the Crimean War. I was also largely unfamiliar with the detail of Jerusalem’s history in the first half of the twentieth century. SSM dwells in some depth on these subjects.
            A minor quibble is that SSM doesn’t always get things quite right in regard to theology. His description of Luther’s objections to Catholic doctrine is odd, to say the least, and he has bought rather glibly into a number of highly debatable views about early Christianity – that it didn’t really exist because of the various different sects, that Constantine imposed his own theological vision at Nicaea etc. He is, however, scrupulously fair in his treatment of the Arab-Jewish conflict that has dominated so much of the modern history of Jerusalem.

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