The Magazine

City of Faiths

What Jerusalem means to the world.

Oct 24, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 06 • By BENJAMIN BALINT
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In the encounter between writer and city, there is a certain distance of perspective—neither blurringly close nor loftily Olympian—at which the urban subject comes into sharpest focus. In this well-proportioned narrative history of Jerusalem, Simon Sebag Montefiore pulls in close and trains a microscope on the lives of the more or less representative individuals who built, occupied, and razed this most storied of cities, and on the families—the Davidians, Herodians, Maccabees, Umayyads, Fatimids, Hashemites, and Husseinis—who forged it.

Pen and ink drawing of the Old City of Jerusalem

Taking in a thousand years of Jewish rule, 400 of Christian control, and then 1,300 years of Muslim governance, Montefiore, a British historian of Catherine the Great and of Stalin, divides Jerusalem into nine parts: Judaism, paganism, Christianity, Islam, Crusade, Mamluk, Ottoman, Empire, and Zionism. Each is built up by means of a kind of “eminent Jerusalemites” style. In the parts that treat antiquity, this means telling the sweeping story of each epoch through small-bore portraits of Jerusalem’s prophets, kings, empresses, and conquerors. As he approaches the present, where sources are richer, Montefiore also uses the city’s more marginal characters as the shuttles that weave his tapestry together.

The closeup approach throws into stark relief the possessiveness aroused by a city Montefiore calls “the desire and prize of empires.” By the time Jesus arrived, the city had already been invaded or conquered, in turns, by Israelites, Philistines, Jebusites, Assyrians, Persians, Greeks, Macedonians, Maccabees, and Romans. Like many hungers for possession, the insatiable obsession with Jerusalem too often destroyed the object of desire, and Montefiore by no means shies from ghastly, blood-soaked descriptions of sieges and sacks, persecutions and plunders. In one typical scene, he follows the 10,000 Tartar horsemen who clattered into the city in 1244 and disemboweled priests in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

And although this phoenix city has been razed and resurrected innumerable times, it has not always been clear whether its possessors destroyed Jerusalem—or the other way around. Amos Oz, a 20th-century son of the city, has called it “an old nymphomaniac who squeezes lover after lover to death.” (Jewish literature, from Jeremiah to Oz, characteristically refers to Jerusalem in the feminine.) Either way, before the death throes set in, each of the city’s possessors invented its own terms of endearment, like a lover naming the beloved. Jewish literature gives Jerusalem 70 names, including Zion, Salem, Moriah, Ariel, Neve Zedek (habitation of justice), Bethel (the house of God), Harel (the divine mountain), and simply Ha-Maqom (the Place). The Romans, wishing to wipe the slate clean, called it Aelia Capitolina. Islam has 17 names for the city, including al-Quds (the holy) and al-Balat (the palace).

In mundane microcosm, the proliferation of names still marks nearly every corner of Jerusalem. To this day, the old city’s main northern gate, the modern version of which was built by Suleiman the Magnificent, is the source of frequent and historically fraught confusion between tourists and the taxi drivers who ferry them around. Hadrian called it Neapolis Gate; Jews referred to it as Shechem Gate, after the Hebrew biblical name for Nablus. For centuries, Christians called it St. Stephen’s Gate, after a martyr stoned to death by Jews (but now, to make matters more confusing, Lion’s Gate is called St. Stephen’s Gate). Arabs designate it as Bab al-Amud, or the Gate of the Column, after a Roman victory column that once graced it. And the Ottomans gave it the name Damascus Gate.

Jerusalem has acquired less flattering names, too, especially in modern times. Chateaubriand, whose Itinerary from Paris to Jerusalem (1811) was a huge bestseller, called Jerusalem the “deicidal city.” Flaubert pronounced it “a charnel house surrounded by walls, the old religions rotting in the sun.” Aldous Huxley called it “slaughterhouse of the religions.”