Jerusalem: The Biography

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Simon Sebag Montefiore



"I want to show a city of continuity and co-existence, a hybrid metropolis of hybrid buildings and hybrid people," writes the author, surprisingly perhaps for a scion of one of Britain's most famous Jewish families with strong ties to Jerusalem over generations.

It's a successful challenge to the Zionist claim that Jerusalem has been the undivided capital of the Jewish people for 3,000 years.

The author more than legitimises Islam's equal claim to the city with his unambiguous celebration of the Dome of the Rock as Jerusalem's crowning architectural achievement: "It ranks as one of the most timeless masterpieces of architectural art: its radiance is the cynosure of all eyes wherever one stands in Jerusalem. It shimmers like a mystical palace rising out of the airy and serene space of the esplanade which immediately became an enormous open-air mosque, sanctifying all around it. The Temple Mount became instantly (it was completed in 691/2) - and still remains - a place for recreation and relaxation. Indeed the Dome created an earthly paradise that combined the tranquillity and sensuality of this world with the sanctity of the thereafter, and that was its genius."

There is even an implication that we have here an honourable successor to Solomon's Temple. This, of course, was the intention of the early Islamic rulers in their choosing of the site. The calculated and recorded agreement with Jewish disbelief in Christ as the son of god is recorded in inscriptions inside the Dome itself.

Yet when it comes to Solomon's Temple, there is hesitation in the author's stated determination to separate facts from legend. True, he concedes the "pagan" context of the David and Solomon stories, acknowledging, in passing, that their "sacred" makeover came centuries later with the Bible writers. But he is uncharacteristically flippant here and sometimes seems to want to hang on to the Solomon fable. The debate about the origins of Judaism has reached a fascinating stage, flying in the face of Zionist claims. It should not have been unloaded onto the occasional remark and paragraph.

When respected Israeli archaeologists like Israel Finkelstein are making a powerful case that the so-called United Monarchy of David and Solomon never existed, and hence never had Jerusalem as its capital, a serious history of Jerusalem must properly explain what their argument is. When a Palestinian scholar like Basem Ra'ad shows in his book Hidden Histories how the Dead Sea Scrolls expose the complex polytheism, rather than monotheism, at Judaism's origins, the Dead Sea Scrolls deserved rather more than one footnote in Jerusalem: The Biography.

Still, this is an endlessly fascinating and often entertaining book. Despite this criticism, the reader is guaranteed to learn much and be better equipped to understand the political crisis in Jerusalem as it reaches its zenith.