Books History

War, Splendor, Hope: Simon Sebag Montefiore’s “Jerusalem: The Biography”

The Roman historian Pliny the Elder wrote that Jerusalem was “by far the most celebrated city in the East.” First century Jerusalem was a glistening city of marble and gold, the Herodian Temple dominating the skyline and reflecting the rays of the sun, and the city was a sprawling metropolis and not an underpopulated dirt village like some people think. Of all the cities that dominate Western consciousness, Athens and Rome, in particular, Jerusalem probably outshines even them and has the gaze of three religions as well as critics of those religions.

Contrary the critics of the Abrahamic faiths, Jerusalem was a city of splendor and far from a dung heap. In fact, Jerusalem was the city of the East prior to its destruction in 70 A.D. by Titus Flavius and the Roman and Syrian auxiliaries that sacked the city and burned the Temple. Only after this traumatic event did Alexandria and Antioch, then later Constantinople and Baghdad, take their places as the centers of learning and civilization in the Near East. The story of Jerusalem’s triple religious inheritance, its splendor and destruction, its importance and over exaggerations, is the life—“biography”—that Simon Sebag Montefiore tells.

Characteristically, the introduction begins with the event that shaped Jerusalem forever: Titus Flavius’s storming of the city and slaughter of the Jews trapped inside during peak pilgrimage season.

It is appropriate that Montefiore starts here. For many people unfamiliar with the history of Jerusalem’s swings in conquest and restoration, the Roman destruction of Jerusalem is widely known. This event sets the tone for Montefiore’s “biography” of the many lives of Jerusalem.

Jerusalem was initially a small city built atop the Canaanite hills by a small Canaanite community. This small town, really, was conquered by the Israelite-Judahite warlord and king, David, which set the foundation for its development under his son, Solomon, who constructed a large temple during his reign. Davidic Jerusalem grew in prominence through the vicissitudes of history, eventually becoming an internationally important city that Egyptian, Assyrian, Babylonian, and Persian sources all acknowledge and even admire.

As we know, Jerusalem’s history is one of conquest, restoration, (re)building, conquest, (re)building, restoration, etc. The growth of Jerusalem, ironically, comes through its history of conquest. Davidic Jerusalem came about by the Judahite conquest of the small Canaanite town on the hills, eventually becoming that international city in the Levant before its conquest by the Babylonians. After the exile, Jews rebuilt Jerusalem under Cyrus the Great’s protection. The restoration of Jerusalem after the exile eventually led to the city’s growth before its conquest by the Greeks. The Maccabees eventually restored Jewish rule over the city and the Herodian dynasty began rebuilding the city and created the majestic Herodian Temple of Jesus’s time that won the praise of Pliny.

Jerusalem, at its height in 70 A.D., rivaled Rome as the second greatest city in the world. During peak pilgrim season, hundreds of thousands people resided in the city. Then it was destroyed by the Romans and sank into the dusty city on the hill. Roman Jerusalem became Christian after the conversion of Constantine and the pilgrimages of Helen, Constantine’s mother, who began constructing new churches across the city.

Christian Jerusalem fell to the Arabs after Muhammad’s death. The Umayyads began constructing the Muslim iteration of Jerusalem, with the construction of the Dome of the Rock. Then came the Crusading era, Frankish nobles and their soldiers conquered the city in 1099 and established a synthetic kingdom blending European, Greek, and Arab aesthetics into their kingdom before being expelled by Saladin and the Arabs once again. Arab Jerusalem was then besieged and rebuilt by the Ottomans, creating the multiethnic city that we still have today. After the allied armies led by the British and Australians captured the city in World War I, modern Jerusalem’s growth to its modern reality began to emerge. The final stage of the city’s life is under Zionism.

In 1947, the UN recognized the partition of British Palestine into a Jewish and Palestinian state. The Israeli War of Independence was then waged as Arab countries invaded to stop the sovereignty of Israel. This war led to a divided Jerusalem with West Jerusalem run by the Israelis and East Jerusalem, including the Dome of the Rock, protected by Jordan. The defining moment of modern Jerusalem is the Six Day War which saw Israeli forces capture the Temple Mount, Dome of the Rock, and East Jerusalem, expelling the Jordanians and leading to de facto Israeli control. It is here that Montefiore’s biography ends.

Of particular interest to readers might be Crusader Jerusalem under Queen Melisende. Due to anti-Christian prejudice in the homelands of Christianity, contemporary Arab-Islamic sympathy by elites, and Hollywood films portraying the Crusades as barbaric, Montefiore details the nuances to twelfth century Jerusalem. The Crusaders, at times, were undeniably barbaric—like when they conquered the city in 1099. But so too were the various Arab-Muslim warlords like Zangi of Mosul, a warrior Atabeg who indulged in masochistic pleasures. “[T]he modern idea, promoted in Hollywood movies and in the backlash after the disaster of the 2003 Iraqi war, that crusading was just an opportunity for enrichment with sadistic dividends, is wrong.” Outremer Jerusalem became the next epoch of Jerusalem’s development after Constantine and Helen and the Umayyads. The renovations of the city, the creation of its many shrines, the Outremer synthesis of Roman, Byzantine, and Arab aesthetics, created much of the modern look of Jerusalem today: “Melisende embellished Jerusalem as both Temple shrine and political capital, creating much that we see today.” Being well-read in biblical studies and Islamic history (two subjects of my collegiate education), I was actually surprised to learn that Crusader Jerusalem isn’t a relic of the past but an integral moment in the city’s current form. While Saladin recaptured Jerusalem and fought off Richard the Lionheart during the Third Crusade, the roots of modern Jerusalem owe as much (if not more) to Outremer Jerusalem as to Umayyad Jerusalem.

In the kaleidoscope of characters who dot Jerusalem’s history, Montefiore is also able to overturn recently cherished myths. It is often said, for instance, medieval Spain under Islamic rule was a flourishing tolerant kingdom. Not really. Maimonides, the famous Jewish philosopher and doctor, fled Muslim persecution from the newly inaugurated Almohad dynasty ruling southern Iberia which led him to Egypt. It is also said by some pseudo-intellectuals that the Ottoman Empire should be seen as guilty for the troubles of the modern Middle East, after all, they ruled it for almost 400 years before its dissolution after World War I. But Ottoman Jerusalem was hardly the sectarian city it has become today, or the broader sectarian Middle East for that matter. Joseph Nasi, a Jewish doctor, was Sultan Suleiman’s right-hand man.

After the defeat of the Kingdom of Jerusalem and the decline of Saladin and the Mamluks, Ottoman Jerusalem does bear a strong role in the creation of modern Jerusalem prior to reestablishment of the state of Israel.

Despite the fact that war and rebuilding is the theme of Montefiore’s work, there are also moments of hope and tolerance scattered throughout Jerusalem’s 3,000 year history. As Montefiore closes, “It is now one hour before dawn on a day in Jerusalem. The Dome of the Rock is open: Muslims are praying. The Wall is always open: the Jews are praying. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is open: the Christians are praying in several languages.” It is clear that Montefiore’s hope, as is the hope of many, mostly intellectuals and the elite, is that this pluralistic and multi-religious city remains that. Yet as the history of Jerusalem also reveals, the want for singular domination is always a threat; but one of the ironies of this less than savory part of Jerusalem’s history is how singular domination also helped produce the splendor of the city that remains, in its own unique ways, “the most celebrated city in the East.”

Jerusalem: The Biography
By Simon Sebag Montefiore
New York: Vintage Books, 2012; 650pp.


Hesiod, Paul Krause in real life, is the editor-in-chief of VoegelinView. He is writer, classicist, and historian. He has written on the arts, culture, classics, literature, philosophy, religion, and history for numerous journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and the Politics of Plato, and a contributor to the College Lecture Today and the forthcoming book Diseases, Disasters, and Political Theory. He holds master’s degrees in philosophy and religious studies (biblical studies & theology) from the University of Buckingham and Yale, and a bachelor’s degree in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University.


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