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Jerusalem: The Biography, by Simon Sebag Montefiore, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, RRP£25, 638 pages

The Jerusalem Jesus wept over, prophesying that “not one stone shall remain” of its temple, was a wonder of the earth. The Jewish historian Josephus wrote that “at the rising of the sun” the temple courts and gates “reflected back a very fiery splendour and made those who forced themselves to look upon it to turn their eyes away”. This was the building that the Roman general Titus destroyed in 70AD, prompting the beginning of the end of Jerusalem as the exclusive home and holy of holies of the Jewish people.

Josephus described in hideous detail the Roman sacking of the city, the suicides, the gruesome scenes of putrefying bodies fed upon by packs of dogs and jackals, the thousands of Jews crucified in absurd postures – so many that the Romans ran out of trees. Yet the destruction and carnage would be rivalled and exceeded a thousand years on by the Crusaders, who were encouraged by Pope Urban II to retrieve the “Holy Places” held by Islam since the seventh century. One eyewitness recorded how “the knights hacked a path across the crowded esplanade” of Jerusalem’s mosque, built on the site of the razed temple, “killing and dicing through human flesh until they rode in blood up to their bridles”.

Yet not a shot was fired in 1917 when “Bloody Bull” General Allenby, British commander-in-chief in Palestine, alighted from his horse and took possession of Jerusalem for Britain’s empire. Jerusalem had become a scruffy backwater. Lawrence of Arabia, also present, saw just “a squalid town” of brothels. But back in London, prime minister Lloyd George proclaimed grandiosely that “the most famous city in the world, after centuries of strife and vain struggle, has fallen into the hands of the British army never to be restored to those who so successfully held it against the embattled hosts of Christendom”. Lawrence predicted a short-lived triumph.

The diplomatic background to Allenby’s occupation was the notorious Balfour Declaration, which favoured “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people”. The rights of “non-Jewish communities”, the Arab Palestinians, were mentioned as a vague afterthought. Today’s Arab-Israeli conflict owes much to that declaration and Britain’s subsequent 30-year mandate over Palestine and occupation of Jerusalem. “Strife and vain struggle” were to return to Jerusalem with a vengeance as the Jewish settlers fought both Arabs and the British to establish an Israeli state. In Jerusalem, Simon Sebag Montefiore tells this modern story with clarity and admirable impartiality for a writer whose Jewish family were important actors on the 20th-century Jerusalem scene. But the background to Jerusalem’s perennial woes – religious, ethnic, political – can only be grasped in the light of the preceding 3,000-year history of the city deemed by the three religions of the Book to be the holiest of shrines and the site of Judgment Day.

Jerusalem is an extraordinary achievement, written with an imagination and energy that threatens to mesmerise and exhaust the reader at the same time. The sheer superabundance of condensed historical episodes, attended by collapsing walls, internecine punch-ups and blood-curdling carnage, pile up and press down on each other like the prodigious archaeological detritus of the city itself. Taking his cue from the Arab historian Ibn Kahldun, who wrote that “dynasties have a natural lifespan like individuals”, Sebag Montefiore sees the story of Jerusalem as “biography”. The notion is just, for the resulting impression is of a unique borderline personality, with an irrepressible capacity for love and hatred; an aptitude for poetry, prophecy and the sacred; with no lack of the grotesquely profane. Take this sixth-century Jerusalem denizen, symbolic of the holy city’s seamier side: Theodora, mistress of the eastern emperor Justinian. Starting, we are told, as a “pre-pubescent burlesque showgirl, she was said to be a gymnastically gifted orgiast whose speciality was to offer all three orifices to her clients simultaneously. Her nymphomaniacal party piece was to spread-eagle herself on stage while geese pecked grains of barley from the ‘calyx of this passion flower’.” And if the breathless manic pace is at times like a Keystone Kops movie, the pervasive sense of nervous hilarity is a godsend: for the accumulating calamities would otherwise tend towards despair.

The long memories of bloodshed and lost birthrights, punctuated and primed by rival religiosities, are crucial ingredients of a saga that reveals the consequences of faith made tangible in the physical locale of holiness. The stone claimed by Jews as the foundation stone of the Jewish temple is also believed to be the spot where Jesus, and later Mohammed, departed for heaven. Identity underpinned by localised ownership is everything; and dispossession equals millennia of longing and loathing. Witness the internecine feuds between Christian denominations within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where rival Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Coptic priests brawl routinely over their outlandish proprietorship of a few square yards. When a hapless monk recently moved a chair a few inches, trespassing on a jealously guarded precinct, he was beaten with iron bars by rival prelates.

Small wonder, at the culmination of this extraordinary book, Sebag Montefiore cites a solution proposed by the writer Amos Oz. “We should remove every stone of the Holy Sites and transport them to Scandinavia for a hundred years and not return them until everyone has learned to live together in Jerusalem.” Vain hope. In the meantime, it is the determined aspiration of extremist Zionist Jews and Zionist Christians, who hail mostly from America, to expel the Muslims from the Temple Mount, which they have held for 1,300 years. The Jewish Zionists seek to rebuild Herod’s Temple and reinstitute animal sacrifice (special cattle are being reared to this end). The Christian Zionists believe that, according to Biblical prophecies, they will be prompting the Second Coming and the separation of the just and the unjust.

Sebag Montefiore does not rule out a bid to invade the Temple Mount. His prediction for the consequences, against the background of a nuclear-armed Middle East, is laconic as it is terrifyingly feasible. “There is always the possibility that extremists could destroy the Temple Mount at any moment, break the heart of the world, and convince fundamentalists of every persuasion that Judgment Day is nigh, and the war of Christ and Anti-Christ is beginning.”

Read this book.

John Cornwell is author of ‘Newman’s Unquiet Grave: the Reluctant Saint’ (Continuum)

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