Dec 7, 2013

Jerusalem: A Biography, by Simon Sebag Montefiore

It took me well over a month to read this tome, and I'm still not sure whether it was time well spent. This 550 page book is a history of the city of Jerusalem, from pre-Jewish times up through the modern day. Some parts are more interesting than others; sometimes this was because I already knew some of that particular history so the section was less intriguing to me, and sometimes it was because the section seemed better written than others. The section entitled Judaism is well-written, and it's interesting how Montefiore told the story as found in the Bible while also referring to outside sources. Other sections reminded me why I didn't read non-fiction for such a long time: they seemed to be simply fact written after fact, with little in the way of literature to make the facts come alive. And though Montefiore makes much of his unaffiliated, unbiased presentation, he doesn't hide that his own family, the Montefiores, were ardent Zionists and had a large impact on Jerusalem and the founding of Israel. One has to wonder, then, exactly how unbiased he can be.

I find that the overall history left me rather cold, but the numerous little factoids, the oddities of history, were fascinating. I would much rather have read a book more focused on, say, the Jewish army corps that was created by a German kaiser in the 1800s, than read the entire history of Jerusalem.

Despite Montefiore's hopeful stance in the Epilogue, I can't say that I was left with much more hope for a peaceful Jerusalem than I had before reading the book. What struck me most was the horrific fighting between - not the Jews and the Muslims, as you might think - but the various sects of Christianity! In modern Jerusalem, it appears to be more likely for a Greek Orthodox Christian priest to attack a Catholic priest than for a Jew or a Muslim to attack the other. If not even two sects of the same religion can get along, how can two separate religions hope to coexist peacefully?

My cynicism aside, it's an interesting, varied history, and one not as well known as many people think. I don't know that I would suggest this book to the lay reader, but for anyone interested in religious history or the roots of the current Middle East crisis, "Jerusalem: A Biography" is certainly a good source of information.

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