Jerusalem is the holy city," writes Simon Sebag Montefiore, "yet it has always been a den of superstition, charlatanism and bigotry ... the cosmopolitan home of many sects, each of which believes the city belongs to them alone."
Jew, Christian and Muslim alike feel compelled to rewrite its history to sustain their own myths. "A hundred patients a year," Montefiore notes, "are committed to the city's asylum suffering from the Jerusalem syndrome, a madness of anticipation, disappointment and delusion." The 3,000-year conflict provides a terrible story, which he tells surpassingly well.
Montefiore takes the history of the old city, right from its beginnings as a fortified village through every conquest or occupation — Canaanite, Israelite, Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, Macedonian, Seleucid, Roman, Byzantine, Ummayad, Abassid, Fatimid, Seljuk, Crusader, Saracen, Tatar, Mamluk, Ottoman, British, Jordanian and finally Israeli.
Rival places of worship were destroyed and new ones constructed with the stones of earlier buildings. Populations were slaughtered or sold into slavery, then later replaced by new waves of immigration. Montefiore's book, packed with often grisly detail, is a gripping account of war, betrayal, looting, massacre, torture, fanaticism, feuds, persecution, corruption, hypocrisy and spirituality.
Before going back to the earliest times and King David, Montefiore begins with the sack of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple in AD70 by Titus. Jerusalem was packed with refugees and pilgrims for Passover. After his victory, 500 Jews a day were crucified until the Romans ran out of wood. Some survivors were sold into slavery; others were held back to die in the circus, fighting each other or wild animals.
Titus's destruction of Jerusalem did not start the diaspora but it certainly focused yearning on the lost city and the destroyed Temple. Sixty years after Titus, emperor Hadrian faced another, far better-led Jewish revolt. In fact the Jewish population was to rise and fall over the following centuries, depending on the whims of the conquerors and on outside events.
With the decision of emperor Constantine in the fourth century to impose Christianity on both the eastern and western empires, Judaism faced a new challenge. But in the seventh century, Islam, the third monotheistic religion, was also drawn to Jerusalem. The Christians surrendered Jerusalem without a fight and the Jews especially welcomed the tolerance of their new masters.
The easygoing Umayyad dynasty was replaced in a massacre by the austere Abassids, who lost interest in Jerusalem just at the time when Christian Europe, led by Charlemagne, looked towards the city. It was not, however, until the end of the 11th century, following the persecutions of Caliph Hakim and the massacre of pilgrims, that Christian kings began to think of reconquering Jerusalem. In 1099, the first Crusader army took Jerusalem with appalling slaughter.
The Kingdom of Jerusalem, with fluctuating fortunes, lasted until Guy de Lusignan, the husband of Queen Sibylla, marched out in 1187 towards Galilee led by the True Cross to fight the great Saladin. Jerusalem soon fell and those of its population who could not afford a ransom were sold into slavery or the harem.
Other crusades followed. In 1228, the holy Roman emperor Frederick II Hohenstaufen reached the holy land and exploited the divisions among Saladin's descendants. After secret negotiations with the sultan Kamil, he occupied Jerusalem but gave the Muslims complete rights over the Temple Mount. His tolerance, enforced by the leader of the Teutonic Knights, Hermann von Salza, was a rare event in Jerusalem's history. But in 1244, Christian Jerusalem fell for the last time until General Allenby's army defeated the Ottoman Turks in 1917.
By the time of the First World War, both Jewish and Arab nationalism had begun to develop. The Jews suffered from rising anti-Semitism in Russia and Western Europe while the Arabs grew restive under the yoke of the Ottoman empire.
The necessities of war in the Middle East encouraged the British to make promises to the Arabs that they had little intention of keeping while philo-Semitism in Lloyd George's cabinet led to the Balfour Declaration, raising Zionist aspirations. Zionists persuaded themselves that Palestinian Arab and Jew could live happily alongside each other. But the secular and socialist idealists of the first waves of immigrants were very different from the hardliners who came later.
In 1920 riots broke out in Jerusalem, when 60,000 Arabs protested against the Balfour Declaration. And by 1936, three years after Hitler's rise to power, there were 100,000 Jews in Jerusalem, with only 60,000 Christians and Muslim Arabs. Then the Arab revolt began. The grand mufti of Jerusalem backed it, splitting the Arab community, and fled abroad, where he later sought support from Hitler. Jewish paramilitary groups fought back. Neville Chamberlain reversed the Balfour Declaration as the British struggled to control Palestine.
Montefiore's narrative is remarkably objective. One might quibble with certain details but it is a reliable and compelling account, with many interesting points.