books · history · reading

Jerusalem- The Biography by Simon Sebag Montefiore

“O Jerusalem, fragrant with prophets
The shortest path between heaven and earth…
A beautiful child with burned fingers and downcast eyes…
O Jerusalem, city of sorrow, 
A tear lingering in your eye…
Who will wash your bloody walls? 
O Jerusalem, my beloved
Tomorrow the lemon-trees will blossom; the olive-trees rejoice; your eyes will dance; and the doves fly back to your sacred towers”

– Nizar Qabbani, Jerusalem

The story of Jerusalem is a story of 3000 years of existence in a city that is marked sacred for three of the world’s greatest monotheistic religions. It is a story of a city that has wept tears of blood while its own inhabitants fought for control over one another and conquerors poured in through its golden gates to capture the sanctity and revel in the deliverance that it inadvertently and perhaps unwillingly promised to the world. But not just that, Jerusalem- The Biography is the story of maddening lust borne on the shoulders of men and women who plotted, rioted and murdered but also wept, besieged and prayed for a chance to live in the city’s merciless bosom.

In a wistfully poetic fashion, the author traces the often-complicated and blood-thirsty history of which is perhaps the world’s most inextricable city, tangled in its own stories and in a web of overlapping ambitions and counteracting dreams. It is written in unbiased prose but is a mesmerizing account of everything Jerusalem’s people have been through.

From the Kingdom of David and the Herods, to the crucification of Jesus Christ and the subsequent formation of Christendom, from the prophecies of Muhammad and the Arab conquests to the much-glorified Crusades, from the modern politics and the world wars and the mandates, to the conclusive Six Day War and right up to the Israel-Palestine stalemate of the twenty first century, life in Jerusalem has hardly ever seen a peaceful period. Aside from bouts of undisturbed culture that rises like a crescendo, the remaining phrases of Jerusalem have been distraught with frenzied killings and invasions, riots and pogroms, all in the name of God. Could a solution ever be reached in a city which is ‘more a flame than  a city and no one can divide a flame‘? Dr. Sebag-Montefoire hopes that such a solution will one day be within grasp. he acknowledges Jerusalem’s fragility and describes a daily modern-day dance of rituals between the various sects that call their holy shrines on its soil but he seems to think peaceful coexistence is possible. I would not venture to be so hopeful.

This book is like a lilting tale passing from era to era with a flowing timeline. Jerusalem changed hands often enough- from Jewish to Christian to Islamic and back full circle, she saw hundreds of rulers. Each of them have been carved out distinctly and impartially here. It may be impossible to remember names and events unless you have a photographic memory or resort to taking notes. But what am I taking away from this book?

Probably a better understanding of the convergence of the Abrahamic religions. The knowledge that all three spawn from one another and share the same stories and the same ultimate goals, yet each claims superiority and remains in a constant state of hostile retaliation with the other. Although it is easily observable that Judaism has almost always been at the persecuted end of the spectrum and Islam is mostly irreconcilable and rigidly violent, without taking sides one can be wishful that all three would simply see some sense. Their histories are common, they share the same shrine and worship the same God (if they must do so at all). Why then must so many human lives be pointlessly sacrificed for no visible goal? If Apocalypse is coming, must we face it with our hands reddened and our hearts leaded? This question will remain on my mind.


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