BOOK REVIEW

by Asmahan

Jerusalem is the universal city, the capital of two peoples, the shrine of three faiths; it is the prize of empires, the site of Judgement Day and the battlefield of today’s clash of civilizations. From King David to Barack Obama, from the birth of Judaism, Christianity and Islam to the Israel-Palestine conflict, this is the epic history of three thousand years of faith, slaughter, fanaticism and coexistence.

How did this small, remote town become the Holy City, the center of the world and now the key to peace in the Middle East? In a gripping narrative, Simon Sebag Montefiore reveals this ever-changing city in its many incarnations, bringing every epoch and character blazingly to life. Jerusalem’s biography is told through the wars, love affairs and revelations of the men and women kings, empresses, prophets, poets, saints, conquerors and whores who created, destroyed, chronicled and believed in Jerusalem. As well as the many ordinary Jerusalemites who have left their mark on the city, its cast varies from Solomon, Saladin and Suleiman the Magnificent to Cleopatra, Caligula and Churchill; from Abraham to Jesus and Muhammad; from the ancient world of Jezebel, Nebuchadnezzar, Herod and Nero to the modern times of the Kaiser, Disraeli, Mark Twain, Lincoln, Rasputin, Lawrence of Arabia and Moshe Dayan.

Drawing on new archives, current scholarship, his own family papers and a lifetime’s study, Montefiore illuminates the essence of sanctity and mysticism, identity and empire in a unique chronicle of the city that many believe will be the setting for the Apocalypse. This is how Jerusalem became Jerusalem, and the only city that exists twice in heaven and on earth.


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I came to this book as an Arab reader, growing up with songs, poems, and books written about beloved Jerusalem, but never have I come across a book offering such a luxurious detailed and honest view and at such a scale! Written with remarkable neutrality and taking us through the diverse and rich history of the most disputed and news making region in the world! This comprehensive, and unpatronising treatment of Jerusalem’s past is neither overwhelmingly scholarly to gloss over the gory (and fascinating) details, nor too hurried as to miss out important facts. Simon Sebag Montefiore combines the rare talent of total political and cultural understanding with a great and most eloquent narrating skill!

“Jerusalem, the Biography” is a new sort of History, written as a biography, through the people who made Jerusalem, starting with King David and ending with Barrack Obama, over a span of 3000 years. Each section is about a person who, made, destroyed, believed in, or fought for Jerusalem, some are ordinary people, some are monsters and dictators. There is massacre, siege, blood, violence, but also beautiful poetry.

Jerusalem in the 1920s

The story of Jerusalem, is truly (as the author expressed) the story of the world, as well, of the Middle East, of religion, of holiness, of empire! I was thrilled to read about one of the greatest philosophers, the Arab historiographer “Ibn Khaldoon”, about Suleiman the Magnificent, Caliph Muawiya, Saladin Dynasty, Druze princess and angelic voiced Singer “Asmahan”, the Hashemite (Sherifian) Dynasty, and most exciting to read was some poignant poetry by Nizar Qabbani.

One can read it as an adventure story, or as an explanation of why the Middle East is what it is today, I felt infused with great knowledge, one that I could never acquire if I read a thousand books. The book offers correct answers and honest background of many of the issues of the region today such as, Israel vs. Palestine, America vs. Iran, written without an agenda, and with remarkable impartiality. And I must not forget the most fascinating details over the Apocalypse-the End of Days.

To fit such a swathe of history into a 650-page-turner is a bit of an art form in itself. The book also offers wonderfully informative illustrations and photographs, family trees, and even maps.

I thoroughly enjoyed three of Simon Sebag Montefiore’s previous books (or rather masterpieces), but this has to be my most enjoyable read of a history, I have no words to do the author nor the book justice, well-paced and absolutely gripping, this book is a treasure -trove, and I highly recommend it for all readers of different faiths, political, cultural backgrounds, well versed in the Middle East or not.

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