- - Friday, November 25, 2011

By Simon Sebag Montefiore
Knopf, $35, 688 pages, illustrated

For much of the past 2,000 years, as Jewish families have gathered around the table for the annual Passover Seder, a now-familiar saying has concluded the liturgy: “L’shana habaah b’yerushalayim,” participants say in Hebrew: “Next year in Jerusalem!”

During the same period of time, many Christians have looked upon that hilly enclave in the Levant and desired to walk “today where Jesus walked,” as the old hymn puts it. Whether it was the Crusaders in the Middle Ages, wealthier travelers in the late 19th century or tour-bus-ensconced pilgrims today, being able to stand in the Old City of Jerusalem has long been a goal for followers of the messianic faith born there, now realized by tens of thousands annually.

Though followers of Islam have a more recent connection to the city, chronologically speaking, only about 1,400 years’ worth, the Muslim ardor for “al Quds,” or “the Holy Sanctuary” as they call Jerusalem, is no less intense. The September 2000 visit of Israel’s then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to the Haram al-Sharif, or Temple Mount, was enough to transform the simmering protests of Palestinians into the second intifada.

With such swirling passions, it’s no surprise that Jerusalem is the center for the affections of millions around the world or that its history is both full and controversial. Simon Sebag Montefiore, a historian and scholar with a direct Jerusalem connection, has managed to distill 3,000 years of chronology and events into just fewer than 700 pages of riveting, if sometimes frustrating, reading.

There can be no doubt that “Jerusalem: The Biography” is what it’s advertised to be: a thorough, comprehensive history of the planet’s most unusual piece of land, sacred to three faiths, epicenter of world history and locus of the longings of many. The academic, the secular-minded reader and the policymaker will all want to read this volume to get a full perspective on the many forces that have shaped its story.

One of those forces is Mr. Montefiore’s own great-uncle Sir Moses Montefiore, a merchant banker in Victorian England who was knighted by Queen Victoria and invested time and money in the re-establishment of a Jewish presence in Jerusalem. However, Moses Montefiore was a bit of a rake: He fathered a child with a 16-year-old servant in Jerusalem when he was 81 years of age.

The book opens and closes with riveting, pulse-quickening scenes. The beginning, a bloodcurdling description of the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 is best read during daylight hours, preferably outdoors, and long before bedtime to avoid nightmares. The Romans who razed Jerusalem were not gentle visitors.

At the end, the careful, precision-executed return of Israelis to Jerusalem during the 1967 Six Day War bristles with the excitement of today’s newspaper headlines. We’re on the Mount of Olives with Israeli paratroopers, for whom approaching the Western Wall was a heroic challenge, versus the simple, crossing-the-Kidron Valley hike one takes today. The long-gone Gen. Moshe Dayan all but returns to life in Mr. Montefiore’s account.

In between, the story, told with panoramic vision and cinematic style, jumps from Jewish to Persian to Roman to Muslim control, mixing in the early followers of Jesus and the later Crusaders. Walking around the Old City, which this writer did a couple of months ago, one realizes that today’s “old” buildings sit on top of stratum after stratum of ruins and history; Mr. Montefiore verbally excavates and shows readers what, literally, is under their feet. A cast of characters far more diverse and diverting than even the ensemble found in wartime “Casablanca” at Rick’s Cafe Americain populates his discussion of 400 years of Ottoman rule.

As with any book on Jerusalem, faith - indeed, three faiths - must play a leading role. Simon Montefiore is “committed” to Judaism, the Evening Standard of London reports, so much so that his wife, novelist Santa Sebag Montefiore (nee Palmer-Tomkinson), converted when they married. His faithfulness doesn’t insulate Judaism, ancient or modern, from criticism in the book. His occasional slights and shots at Jesus of Nazareth and His disciples, especially Saul of Tarsus, the one “born out of season” and known by most as St. Paul, are a bit grating.

Most jarring to some people of faith will be Mr. Montefiore’s assertion that Old Testament “prophets were not predictors of the future but analysts of the present.” This would come as a mild surprise, I believe, to Ezekiel, Isaiah and Daniel, to name just three. While it would be foolish to expect a Christian dispensationalist approach from someone who is neither Christian nor a dispensationalist, one could hope for a tad more understanding. Instead, there’s a kind of grudging acknowledgment some readers of faith might bristle at seeing.

Overall, “Jerusalem: The Biography” tells a story of wonder and great emotion. It’s hardly a travelogue, but Mr. Montefiore’s skills as a virtual tour guide and instructor make a serious reader’s effort highly rewarding.

• Mark A. Kellner has contributed to The Washington Times since 1991. He recently visited Israel focusing on historical and Biblical sites, including extensive touring in Jerusalem.

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