I really don’t think this book lives up to its hype, but I did work my way through roughly 3/4 of Simon Sebag-Montefiore’s epic Jerusalem, The Biography. It is a very uneven and, at times, curiously flat read. It is also (perhaps inevitably)  littered with sweeping statements and an over-reliance on just afew partisan scholarly perspectives. This was especially frustrating when it came to plumbing the huge depths and breadths of biblical and archaeological scholarship. But there were clearly some gems and insights. And so thought I’d share just one or two.

From the author’s preface, here is a nice encapsulation of one of the miracles of Israel: the simple fact of their existence after the torrid experiences the people had endured.

Such cataclysms usually led to the vanishing of peoples. Yet the Jews’ exuberant survival, their obstinate devotion to their God and, above all, their recording of their version of history in the Bible laid the foundation for Jerusalem’s fame and sanctity. The Bible took the place of the Jewish state and the Temple and became, as Heinrich Heine put it, the ‘portable fatherland of the Jews, the portable Jerusalem.’ No other city has its own book and not other book as so guided the destiny of a city. (p xx)

It is interesting, though, how polarising this ancient book can be in academia – and how polarised the explanations for its existence. First you get a little passage like this – which presents the issue as a simple matter of alternatives: blind faith or intelligent enquiry. Reductionism yet again…

To the believer, the Bible is simply the fruit of divine revelation. To the historian, this is a contradictory, unreliable, repetitive, yet invaluable source, often the only one available to us – and it is also, effectively, the first and paramount biography of Jerusalem. (p16)

And then a fascinating, but contradictory comment later on (which appears to undermine precisely the point he was making of the bible’s historical unreliability).

Fortunately, however, the Dark Age was over: the inscriptions of the empires of Egypt and Iraq now illuminate – and often confirm – the furiously righteous pontifications of the Bible. (p30)

Oh well. Small points, and hardly central to the book’s narrative – but it was frustrating when at various points he cut a swathe through all kinds of honest study and research.

Tissot: The Flight of the Prisoners (from Jerusalem)

But as I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about Babylon recently (more on that in a future post perhaps), I did enjoy this nice little section about what it might have been like for the Israelite exiles of the 8th Century as they arrived in this pagan capital of the known world.

The exiles from Judah found themselves in a city that made Zion look like a village. While a few thousand lived in Jerusalem, Babylon boasted a quarter of a million in a metropolis so majestic and hedonistic that the goddess of love and war Ishtar was said to tiptoe through the streets, kissing her favourites in the inns and alleyways.

Nebuchadnezzar stamped Babylon with his own aesthetic flair: grandiose gigantism tinted in his favourite colour, divine sky-blue, reflected in the canals of the mighty Euphrates. The four towers of the Ishtar Gate were faced with blue-glazed bricks, illustrated with bulls and dragons in yellow and ochre, leading int o the city’s triumphal boulevard, the Processional Way. His palace, in his words an ‘edifice to be admired, a gleaming sanctuary, my royal abode’, was decorated with towering lions. Hanging gardens embellished his summer palace. Honour Babylon’s patron god Marduk, Nebuchadnezzar raised a ziggurat, an immense seven-storey, stepped tower with a flat top: his Foundation Platform of Heaven and Earth was the real Tower of Babel,its many languages reflecting the cosmopolitan capital of the entire Near East. (p42)

There were lots of other intriguing little details:

  • For instance, I’d had no idea that there were still around 1000 people living in Israel today who claim descent from the Samaritans (p52) – they apparently still make an annual Passover Sacrifice on Mount Gerizim
  • The Roman Emperor Augustus paid for a daily sacrifice to be made at the Jerusalem temple. Then when his right-hand man Agrippa arrived in the province, he made a sacrifice to Yahweh of 100 oxen in the Temple. The Jews were so impressed that they gave him a procession laid with palms. This was one reason that some (including members of King Herod’s family were given the name Agrippa). (p52)
  • When Julian the Apostate (Constantine’s nephew) rejected his uncle’s Christian imperial legacy, he asserted his difference by assiduously supporting Jews over Christians. He even rebuilt the Jerusalem Temple, not just as

a mark of tolerance but a nullification of the Christian claim to have inherited the true Israel, a reversal of the fulfilment of  the prophecies of Daniel and  Jesus that the Temple would fall, and a sign that he was serious in the overturning of his uncle’s work. It  would also win the support of the Babylonian Jews during his planned Persian war. Julian saw no contradiction between Greek paganism and Jewish monotheism, believing that the Greeks worshipped the Jewish ‘Most High God’ as Zeus: Yahweh was not unique to the Jews.’ (p150)

  • Another theme was the desire to assert dominance through architecture –  whether it be the Byzantine emperors wanting to outstrip Solomon (as Justinian claimed with the Hagia Sofia in Constantinople in AD537) or Abd al-Malik did with the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem in AD691/2.

Sebag-Montefiore attempts a mammoth task – and there are real qualities to his book. But its scope is so huge that it is inevitable for it to fail to be as comprehensive or balanced as it could/should have been. But then, it is probably quite impossible for anyone to be balanced about a city like Jerusalem. It is a city uniquely with its own book – but whether we like it or not (and many really don’t) that is the Bible, not this urban biography!

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This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Mark Collinson

    Coincidentally, I’m also reading it, and up to the 14th century. One gets lost in all the Asian names, and the countless times Jerusalem changed hands… Amazing that up to only 100 years ago, there were European families who still held on to title of King (or Queen) of Jerusalem.

    I enjoyed the footnote about the ‘American biblical scholar, James Fleming’ who when inspecting the wall around the Golden Gate fell into a tomb, but the city authorities cemented it up before he could find out who as in there. The same Jim Fleming did our guided tour of Israel and Palestine and is both a linguist, bible scholar and archeologist (he has doctorates in all three areas) and opened up as many of the joys of the city as one can take in.

    Though a bit perambulatory, this is a must read for anyone who wants to understand the current middle east question, in order to appreciate how history influences today’s politics.

    Sadly, the barbarity we see on our television screens is nothing new, and, despite our so called advancement as human beings the atrocities of the 20th century do not appear to any less than those of previous centuries. We still need redeeming.

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