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.”

Given the city’s significance as the metropolis of monotheisms, it comes as no surprise that the jealous desire to possess Jerusalem has, from time immemorial, displayed a religious sheen. Montefiore informs us that the very word “theocracy” was coined by Josephus to describe the Jerusalem of the Second Temple period. In charting the paroxysms of violence that have seized the Chosen City, Montefiore’s book (much like James Carroll’s recent Jerusalem, Jerusalem) serves as an atlas that maps its central place in the geography of apocalypse. One illustration of stubborn and religiously inspired possessiveness may stand in for the rest. Montefiore quotes an exchange of letters between two warriors who battled each other for the city at the close of the 12th century: “Jerusalem is for us an object of worship that we could not give up even if there were only one of us left,” Richard the Lionheart wrote to Saladin. “Jerusalem is ours as much as yours,” the sultan replied, “indeed it’s even more sacred to us.”

Montefiore’s narrative becomes particularly vigorous when it threshes out the ways Jerusalem, as a place terrestrial and celestial both, fixed itself in the Western imagination. The fixation did not cease with the Crusades. On leaving Spain for his great expedition, Christopher Columbus wrote to his royal benefactors, “I propose to Your Majesties that all the profit derived from this enterprise be used for the recovery of Jerusalem.” Montefiore also helpfully tells us that Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem in Nottingham, which claims to be the oldest pub in Great Britain, dates from Richard the Lionheart’s Third Crusade in 1189. Most far-reaching of all has been the American fixation on a city that has always seemed filigreed by a sense of its own exceptionalism. After they crossed the Atlantic, Puritans wished to build a new Zion—“a city on a hill,” to use John Winthrop’s celebrated phrase. William Bradford stepped off the Mayflower and said, “Come let us declare in Zion the word of God.”

Each era had its own style of possessiveness. Beginning in the 19th century, Jerusalem became once more not only a magnet for pilgrims in search of salvation or penance, but also the object of intense imperial ambition. The major European powers each sought a foothold, and Montefiore gives us a litany of royal visitors, many of whom left a building or two behind in the cityscape. Crown Prince Frederick of Prussia and Franz Joseph of Austria both came in 1869. (Hapsburg emperors would use the title King of Jerusalem until 1918.) From the Romanovs, the city hosted Grand Duke Konstantin Nikolaevich (who came in 1859) and Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich (1888). Rasputin, adviser to czars, came in 1903 and again in 1911. Not to be outdone, Britain sent the Prince of Wales and future Edward VII (1862) as well as the future George V (1882).

On rare occasions, meanwhile, the city’s possessors attempted to share their prize, but the failed attempts only magnified Jerusalem’s essential un-shareability. Richard’s offer of a partition to Saladin was rebuffed. In 1799, Napoleon issued a remarkable “Proclamation to the Jews” from his headquarters, a couple of dozen miles west of Jerusalem:

Bonaparte, Commander in Chief of the armies of the French Republic in Africa and Asia, to the rightful heirs of Palestine—the unique nation of Jews who have been deprived of the land of your fathers by thousands of years of lust for conquest and tyranny. Arise then with gladness, ye exiled, and take unto yourself Israel’s patrimony.

Turned back by the Ottoman warlord Ahmet Jazzar Pasha, Napoleon beat a retreat to Egypt before he could deliver any such gladness.

A hundred years later, at the end of the 19th century, Theodor Herzl imagined a capital that would transcend possession: “We shall extra-territorialize Jerusalem so that it will belong to nobody and everybody,” the Zionist visionary proposed. (“It shall be exalted above the hills,” Isaiah had prophesied of the city, “and all nations shall flow unto it.”) During the First World War, Sir Mark Sykes and his French counterpart François Georges-Picot proposed internationalizing Jerusalem under the control of France, Britain, and Russia. The Zionists, led by Chaim Weizmann, agreed, but to no avail. In the end, David Lloyd George, the wartime prime minister, ordered General Edmund Allenby to conquer Jerusalem as a “Christmas present for the British nation.” In December 1917, after British planes dropped bombs (and on one occasion, opium cigarettes) on the last Ottoman positions, Allenby delivered—and strode through Jaffa Gate to receive the city’s keys from Mayor Hussein Husseini. One member of Allenby’s entourage that day, T. E. Lawrence, called it “the supreme moment of the war.” Lloyd George proved no less delighted: “The most famous city in the world,” he declared, “after centuries of strife and vain struggle, has fallen into the hands of the British Army, never to be restored to those who so successfully held it against the embattled hosts of Christendom.”

Yet another proposal to share the city came in 1947, when the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine drew up a partition plan that would place Jerusalem under the international trusteeship of a U.N. governor. David Ben-Gurion accepted the idea, the Arab Higher Committee rejected it, and war followed. After the war of 1948, in which Israel was born, Jerusalem increasingly became a rallying point of anti-Zionism. Undeterred by the fact that no Muslim empire or dynasty had ever made Jerusalem its capital—even a regional or provincial capital—Yasser Arafat called the armed wing of Fatah, the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade. This militant group, named after the mosque on the Temple Mount, carried out dozens of suicide attacks during the al-Aqsa intifada. In 1981, the Ayatollah Khomeini inaugurated an annual Jerusalem Day, which in recent years has given a platform to Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to declare his fervent wish that “the occupation regime over Jerusalem should vanish from the page of history.” 

“All roads in our part of the world,” Jordan’s King Abdullah warned last year, “all the conflicts, lead
to Jerusalem.”

Like the best of Jerusalem’s chroniclers, from Josephus in the first century to William of Tyre in the 12th, Montefiore has an emotional attachment to his subject. His ancestor, Sir Moses Montefiore, a Jewish member of the English gentry knighted by Queen Victoria, visited the city seven times and gave it its first neighborhood outside the walls of the old city. Throughout his account, Montefiore joins emotional attachment with scholarly erudition. And he draws on a remarkably wide range of sources, including the works of the Ottoman travel writer Evliya; the letters of Monty Parker, a treasure-seeking English aristocrat; the diaries of the Jerusalem oud player and aesthete Wasif Jawhariyyeh; and the memoirs of Lawrence of Arabia, the British governor of Jerusalem Sir Ronald Storrs, and the Arab Legion commander John Glubb. Some of these are used to riveting effect in Montefiore’s depiction of Mandate Jerusalem, with its demimonde of courtesans, charlatans, aristocrats, and Russian priests who proved to be KGB colonels, as well as proud Palestinian families such as the Khalidis (experts in Islamic jurisprudence) and Nusseibehs (custodians of the Holy Sepulcher).

Pull back the camera from Montefiore’s series of portraits in miniature, and the lasting impression you get is of a many-named city—alternately godforsaken and God-intoxicated—handed off in a relay race of civilizations. Jerusalem is a place of no obvious strategic significance that resists the possessiveness of its earthly would-be masters and glints with immortality.

Benjamin Balint, a resident of Jerusalem, is the author of Running Commentary: The Contentious Magazine that Transformed the Jewish Left into the Neoconservative Right.