Jerusalem, The Biography – Simon Sebag Montefiore
We take some things for granted in this world, the sea, the colour green, that there are men, that there are women, that some countries are Christian, that some are Muslim, that others are Jewish. Perhaps there is no other way to take these things, certainly better than to be constantly amazed (‘look at that grass, isn’t it green, isn’t it weird!’ etc.). Perhaps there is a middle ground to be struck, a happy nexus through which we can appreciate that things, though not exceptional, are very lovely and to be cherished. Too many other words that we might apply to them are too far from correct (at least in relation to their literal meanings) such as ‘wonderful’, ‘magnificent’, ‘extraordinary’, to be applicable across so wide a spectrum of objects as those which are, for example, green. One thing which has, at least in my life, held this pervasive and often neglected place, threadbare through use and taken entirely for granted, is the city of Jerusalem. I cannot say when I first became aware of its existence. I know that my father’s family is from a small town from which you can see the mesh fencing dividing Lebanon from Israel and that for a long time, at least in the lush home counties greenery of my upbringing, to cross the threshold from that town in Lebanon to anywhere in Israel was psychologically and physically impossible not least for being anathema to what I understood were my family’s beliefs (about which I was, incidentally, wrong).
Crossing that threshold, therefore, captured me with a special interest, an illicit pleasure for several years following my discovery of its existence. For some time I had gone to church as a child. My parents even dallied with Sunday school which to my relief was shelved, along with the riding lessons, after one session. I had had religious education at school consistently from the age of three however. I had been in a nativity play and attended carol services. I went to chapel four times a week during term time and took theology at A-level as well as a history module specialising in the Crusades. To say that Jerusalem, in a form other than the hymn, should have played a pivotal role in my understanding of the world, or at least the academic life I lived in adolescence, is an understatement. Somehow it did not. I knew there was a temple. I knew that there was a mountain. I had a feel for the climate. I had no feel for the people. I had no feel for the place. I knew there were olive trees. I knew there were guns and fences. I did not anticipate the raw insecurity that pervades modern Jerusalem. I had not thought I would be searched on the doors of restaurants. I had not thought I would drink in the gardens of a hotel, first bombed by Jewish militants. That is all to say, I did not know what to expect yet I had studied Jerusalem and part of its history or histories relating to it and events surrounding it in one form or another for over half of my education.
Enter Simon Sebag Montefiore (let’s call him ‘SSM’). Jerusalem, The Biography, is one of the most engaging books I have ever read about a city. The choice of biography as a medium in which to tell it is sublime. This is history in the writing, history in the making: history told with a clear, resounding voice. Perhaps one reason that I had not learnt a great deal about Jerusalem (aside from my own lack of application) is that its history is so rich that some days and weeks can barely be encapsulated in a book, let alone a chapter, let alone a paragraph. Yet SSM has mastered the subject. Describing the fall of the Masada Fortress to the Romans in April 73AD following a three year siege, a harrowing tale of literally suicidal bravery, driven on by the premise that “we long ago my generous friends resolved never to be servants to the Romans nor to any other than God Himself” after which, SSM notes coolly: “each man killed his wife and children; ten men were chosen by lot to slay the rest until all 960 were dead.” There is a dark and vivid precision to his account of this place, a precision so often lost in the religious, cultural and outright cultish attitudes with which it seems often to be approached.
What SSM demonstrates, aside from a towering control of style and of fact, is that it is not the history that is off-putting, that it is not reading that is off-putting, it is the form, it is the style, it is the presentation that is off-putting. If readers do not wish to read history, it is first the fault of the writer, then the fault of the reader, never the fault of the history. Why we do not have more histories in the bestseller lists is a simple question to answer, we do not have enough historians whom people wish to read. The qualities of Jerusalem, The Biography transcend literary or narrative skill, transcend the writer’s command of the facts, the quality of Jerusalem, the biography that impels the reader to read it is its sheer life affirming exuberance seconded only by the calamitous importance of Jerusalem to the world, the Middle East and in my case to me. Those are the qualities for which we should search as readers, support as readers, commend to others as readers and aspire as writers. The difficulty of achieving what SSM has achieved: the popular, the pervasive, the excellent, combined in one book and read by a great great many readers is so unusual that it is fitting that such rare quality is here applied to a unique place like Jerusalem. The qualities of Jerusalem, the book, much as like Jerusalem, the place, are those of transcendence, of survival. To survive excess. To survive treachery. To transcend religious, political and cultural divides. To be part of the fabric. To be threadbare, beautiful, unnoticed. In short, that is, to endure.