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Thursday, August 28, 2014

“Jerusalem: The Biography”, by Simon Sebag Montefiore

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

Jerusalem: The Biography by Simon Sebag Montefiore is an impressive effort born from a combination of intelligence, scholarship and superb talent. The City of Jerusalem needed such a biographer such 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, for in many respects 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; indeed, 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; Jerusalem is on earth and is also the only city that exists 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 incredibly long and complicated history like the one Montefiore tells begins in 5000 BC and ends today in 1967, and throughout 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 stated 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 dispassionately, often dissipating the confusion that can naturally rise between history and religious tradition.

The structure of the book cleverly allows the reader to have an easy access to it. The narration has a smooth chronological development and it's divided in nine main parts which are in turn divided in chapters, each dedicated to a character and his/her lineage. Thanks to this agile structure, the reader can chose to go directly to the chapters of his primary interest or just follow the sequence, and easily find himself reading every single page, captured by the flowing of the events and propelled by the light of new curiosities. Montefiore’s style is dense, measured, and so pleasantly fluid. He is able to masterfully depict the characters that troubled and made Jerusalem thrive like a painter; with but 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).

Jerusalem is vividly described in its evolving features, the great architecture constructions (made, as it happens, recycling the material of the 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 (who often ended up slaughtered), 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, 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. In short, Jerusalem: The Biography is almost the perfect book.

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