The biography of a city: Jerusalem

S. Sebag Monefiore, Jerusalem: the biography, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London 2011.

Jerusalem: The biography by Simon Sebag Montefiore was one of those books that had been in my reading list for months, literally months, before I decided to read it. This has much to do with the material size of the book: 406 pages with some images, but not that much, densely written. Also, a history book: not a novel, not something that makes your imagination wander. It looked pretty tough.

But I took all my courage and started to read it, one Sunday afternoon, and I just loved it.

The book is the story of Jerusalem: not of Palestine, or of the Middle East. It is not the story of the Jewish nation, nor the story of the Palestinian, of the Muslims or Christians that inhabited the city and its area through time. It is the story of a city, as simple as that. It is the city the real main character, not its inhabitants.

But anyway, there are many reasons why I loved the book, and I feel I should strongly suggest it to anyone.

Franz Hogenberg: Hierosolyma, urbs sancta Iudeae, totiusque Orientis longe clarissima, qua amplitudine ac magnificentia hoc nostro aevo conspicua est. Amsterdam, 1657.

It is difficult to write a book about Jerusalem, for anyone: the city is not only the holy city for the three monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christendom, and Islam, but it’s “the cosmopolitan home of many sects, each of which believes the city belongs to them alone.” It is easy to indulge in personal idiosyncrasies when writing an account of a city that ideally ‘belongs’ to everyone.
It must be even more difficult in the case of the author: Simon Segab-Montefiore has close links to the Jewish past of the city, yet, these links, though emerging here and there, are not preventing the author to give a clear, objective account of the city and its history.
Throughout the book it is hardly possible to determine the author’s judgment: all appears to be treated equally.


No ambiguity in using terms and definitions. It is always clear what the author is referring to: Palestine, Israel, Jerusalem…and so on. This is something that should be taken for granted: confusion in terms frequently mirrors personal biases. Throughout the book, the author is very clear when using terms and when naming places.


My history professor would refuse to give lectures about the ‘70s. His reason was quite simple: he used to say “during the ‘70s I was attending high school first and university. I was very politically involved: I’ll never be able to examine the period with the objectivity needed from an historian.” I don’t know the more profound reasons of Sebag-Montefiore to decide to end the book with the Six-Day War: in the preface of the book, he says it is because after that, nothing has changed much. After that episode, the configuration of the city has remained pretty much the same. I would like to think that after that moment, we enter into a period that more or less is contemporary, and it is hard to treat it as objectively as the rest of the history of the city.


The book covers an immense period of time: from the very beginning of Jerusalem as a fortified village, from the first millenium b.C., and leads the reader to its various phases, down to the 1960s, with an epilogue partially covering the present. What emerges is an uninterrupted story, with no abrupt timeshifts. The story of the city runs seamlessly from the reign of Canaan to the Israelites, the Babylonians, the Persians, the Romans, the Byzantines, the Umayyads, the Abbasids, the Turks…each period is presented as deeply connected to the one that precedes it, and to the one that follows. One travels from the Babylonians to the British Mandate in such a natural way that history looks like unfolding before one’s eyes. Yet, the history is never presented as pre-determined: every passage has a cause, and a result. The ups and downs of history are always determined by choices: sometimes deliberate, sometimes thoughtless. This is again a very important feature for a book on the Holy City: a city that has always been claimed to belong to one religion or another, one sect or another. Pre-determination, fate, and God’s have almost always been present in the narratives of Jerusalem: Sebag Monefiore writes a real history, where causes and effects are tightly and rightly linked.


The book delivers what it promises: the story of a city, Jerusalem. Reading the book we see the city changing, developing, shrinking, expanding, a city sometimes thriving with life, sometimes deserted and torn apart.

The real character of the whole book is the city itself and one can really feel that it is the city what really counts for peoples, religions, and sects. The city seems to live its own life, to survive through times for its own sake while on the surface men are living parallel lives, claiming their spot in a city that belongs to no one, yet to everyone.


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