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Tuesday, July 8, 2014

“Jerusalem: The Biography”, by Simon Sebag Montefiore

688 pages, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., ISBN-13: 978-0307266514

Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Jerusalem: The Biography is an impressive effort born from a combination of intelligence, scholarship, and superb talent. This history book brings to life Montefiore’s remarkably ambitious project and shows that he has succeeded in the most admirable way. Jerusalem needed such a biographer as Montefiore; many writers and scholars have approached this subject in different ways; rivers of words had flown about the universal city; but nobody had offered such a vibrant panoramic and punctual view before.

The history of Jerusalem is the history of world. It is difficult to talk about any emperor, king, ruler, and sultan of the past and not to mention Jerusalem. It is difficult today to open a newspaper and not to find an article on Jerusalem. For millennia, Jerusalem was a formidable center of attention, everybody wanted to be involved with this city, conquer it, destroy it, rebuild it, subjugated it, visit it. Jerusalem is the protagonist of the Bible, it is history and legend, is on earth and is also the only city existing in heaven. So strong and so fragile, it needed to have another dimension to survive all the offenses received. It is the capital of two people, the shrine of the three Abrahamic faiths, and the place where the Apocalypse will take place. An ancient city layered with hope and desperation whose tragic destiny was always shaped, for various reasons, from far away.

An incredible long and complicated history the one the Montefiore tells, starting from 5000 BC to 1967, with an epilogue that updates the most recent years. The author manages to maintain the impartiality of the historian in such a delicate and ignitable matter; he feels that the meaning of his book is to show how both parts, the two people, Palestinians and Israelis, have their own reasons, rights, and history, and they both finally deserve peace. The author also says that he wants just to pursue the facts, not to judge the mysteries of the different religions, and he writes about Judaism, Christianity and Islam referring to the facts, often dissipating the confusion that can naturally rise between history and religious tradition.

This book is a biography, but a biography of a city? Yes this is the best title, because under the pen of its author Jerusalem comes alive, like a big matron, a mysteriously stable woman, both oppressed and desired, passive and receiving, fierce and tragic, witness of the most incredible horrors and the most pious sentiments. Montefiore is a meritorious historian and a talented narrator and his book is both history and a fascinating tale at the same time. His style is dense, measured, and pleasantly fluid. He is able to masterfully depict the characters that troubled and made Jerusalem thrive like a painter. With a few essential brushstrokes Montefiore can describe their personality, features, qualities and destinies. The succession of the events is fast but always controlled and lightened by juicy curiosities, evocative atmospheres (and by the author's tactful sense of humor). The reader never loses his way in Montefiore’s smooth narrative. The historian courageously and superbly managed to fuse homogeneously all the sources, references, quotations, archeological evidence and interviews. He is able to give the right weight to oral traditions, doubts, legends, gossips, fantastic accounts, and political and religious distortions.

Jerusalem is vividly described in its evolving features, the great architecture constructions (made, as it happens, of material recycled from their predecessors), the dusty roads, the walls, the hills, the heat. Jerusalem with her busy inhabitants, the markets, the waves of thousands of pilgrims, the sacrifices, the smell of the burned meat of tons of lambs. The traffic in the temple, the high priests, the massacres, the stench of the dead bodies, the invasions (strategically often perpetrated during the Sabbath), the mass crucifixions, the screams of the ones thrown down of the walls, the madness and the fear in the streets. The whores, the lust, the vices. The political reasons and the religious sentiments of the rulers, their family and subordinates brought to thriving moments, sudden reversals of fortune, imaginative intrigues, repetitive killing of family members, imprisonments and changeable alliances. With no peace, Jerusalem saw thousands inhabitants given to slavery, new migrations repopulating the city and the cyclical persecutions against the Jews, in a scary alternation of tolerance and intolerance.

This magnum opus is both a tool for the knowledge and a lively biography. It’s a book for who already knows Jerusalem or doesn’t know anything about Jerusalem, it’s a scholarly book meant to be appreciated by readers of different levels. It can satisfy readers interested in history, religion, civilizations, international cultures, art, archeology, human behavior, family ties, war strategies, political balances and unbalances, romance, or just any curious reader.

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