You Must Read—Jerusalem: The Biography

The politics of the outside world would always reflect back onto the religious life of Jerusalem… [Page 309]

9780307280503Few places in the world conjure up images in the minds of people across the world quite like Jerusalem.  For well over a thousand years, and for some populations even longer than that, Jerusalem has been a beacon for faith.  The reasons for this focus is somewhat murky and Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Jerusalem: The Biography tries to tease that out.

Arranged chronologically into epochs that correspond to the dominant ruling group, the book looks at history through the extremely localized lens of the city itself.  This is not a larger narrative about the Crusades or religion or empire, but rather a look at those and many other concepts as they relate directly to one city over the past two millennia or so.

As it stands, the history of Jerusalem is ridiculously complex.  At different times it was a city under the control of far flung empires.  At different times the city was Christian or Muslim or Jewish or pagan or whatever someone who was the strongman at the time decided would be the dominant faith.  When you read about this polyglot history of ownership, it is odd to think of the significance that has been bestowed upon the city by so many religions.  In particular the world’s three major religions all find something that is of utmost importance to their faith in Jerusalem.  How much better would the world be off if so much religious fervor was not concentrated in one place?  Would the Middle East be such a contentious place if that were so?  I wonder…

The book reads like a “great man” history, which is derided by many academics because it ignores the suffering and contributions of so many people who do not hold positions of official authority.  Even through my academic history career I did not subscribe to this criticism.  Sometimes the story must be told through the eyes of the movers and shakers who shape events to their wills.  All too often through time these same people happened to be men who held official positions of power.  It’s a fact that no amount of revision can eliminate.  To ignore the contributions as somehow less significant is a massive bias.

Throughout the book I kept thinking about the movie Kingdom of Heaven.  Forgetting the theatrical cut for a moment, which was a complete narrative disaster when compared with the director’s cut, there is a scene toward the end that explains everything.  When asked by Orlando Blooms Balian “What is Jerusalem worth?”  The recently victorious Saladin replies “Nothing.”  After walking away Saladin turns and says, “Everything!”  Although ridiculous the scene illustrates the central tension of Jerusalem.

Although much of the recent Parts Unknown episode in Jerusalem took place in the West Bank or the Gaza Strip,  you get a sense of what Jerusalem means to so many people just by watching the people who swirl around the host.  It’s also evident that the emotions run so high for so many people that any hope of a “clean” solution is impossible.

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