Simon Sebag Montefiore’s latest book is an ambitious yet incomplete survey of Jerusalem’s history.  It begins with the Exodus from Egypt and concludes with the reunification of the Holy City under Israeli rule in 1967.  Unlike the author’s magisterial biographies of Stalin, which demonstrated an excellent knowledge of the relevant material and brought to light a myriad of previously unknown facts, the current work largely falls short.

The author’s inadequate grasp of the subject matter is revealed in the early parts of the book.  Montefiore asserts that Jesus is Aramaic for Joshua, when, of course, Jesus is closer to the Greek, not the Aramaic, equivalent.  Another glaring error is Montefiore’s characterization of the (Monophysite) Armenian Apostolic Church as “Orthodox.”

A further issue is the author’s lamentable lack of respect for Christianity and its leading figures.  The intensity of the debate on the nature of Christ between the Monophysites and the mainstream Church is characterized by Montefiore as equivalent to present-day debates on nuclear disarmament and global warming.  The parties to the debate are labeled “Christological football hooligans.”  Saint Jerome, the translator of the Bible into Latin, canonized by both the Catholic and the Orthodox Churches, is derided by Montefiore as a “splenetic” and sex-obsessed curmudgeon.  The subsection dealing with Saint Jerome’s visit to Jerusalem is titled “Jerome and Paula: Sainthood, Sex and the City”—a prime example of Montefiore’s lack of respect for, and knowledge of, Christian history.

On the other hand, his treatment of the rise of Islam is misguidedly obsequious.  First, Montefiore erroneously claims that Islam was “born” in Jerusalem.  (He does admit pages later that, in the Koran, “Jerusalem and the Temple are never actually mentioned.”)  Second, his discussion of Muhammad, whom he refers to as the “Prophet,” is an exercise in politically correct whitewashing.  Montefiore never accords the same respect to Jesus (referred to as a “preacher”).  Yet the Arabian warlord is described as “an inspirational visionary” who “revered the Bible” and had a “charismatic spirituality.”  The genocidal nature of jihad is obfuscated when the author includes “internal mastery of self” as one of two definitions of jihad and claims that the Koran promoted tolerance of infidels.  The bitter fruits of this “tolerance” are tasted today by non-Muslims worldwide.  Equally ridiculous is Montefiore’s assertion that, when the Arabs conquered the Holy Land, they were “happy to allow freedom of worship” to the region’s Christians.  He does however admit that the Umay­yad conquerors referred to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher as “The Dungheap,” and that Abd al-Malik, an early Arab ruler of Jerusalem, decorated the outside of the Dome of the Rock with 800 feet of inscriptions execrating and mocking the divinity of Jesus.

Yet Montefiore cannot gloss over the barbarous cruelty of Jerusalem’s Mohammedan rulers.  Hakim, the unstable Fatimid caliph, is an early example.  This “Arab Caligula” was supposedly the son of a Christian mother and the nephew of two patriarchs.  He commenced his blood-drenched reign by ordering mass arrests and executions of Christians and closing all churches in Jerusalem except the Holy Sepulcher.  After Jerusalem’s Christians celebrated the Descent of the Holy Fire there, Hakim ordered the church’s destruction.  He banned the celebration of Easter and the drinking of wine.  Jews had to wear a wooden cow necklace with a bell to warn Muslims of their approach, and Christians were forced to wear iron crosses.  Synagogues were destroyed as ruthlessly as churches.  At the end of his reign, Hakim wandered the streets of Cairo in a psychotic trance before riding off into the hills one night and disappearing without a trace.  The Druze reportedly revere Hakim as a holy man to this day.

The Mameluke Sultan Baibars who ruled Jerusalem over the two centuries after Hakim was just as vicious toward non-Muslims.  Baibars was a Turkic former slave from Central Asia whose closest advisor was the Sufi Sheikh Khadir.  Contrary to the modern myth of Sufi tolerance, Khadir’s favorite activity was the looting of churches and synagogues and the mass lynching of Jews and Christians—all with the steadfast support of Baibars.  And when Baibars’ spiritual advisor was not engaged in massacres, he “seduced the wives, sons, and daughters” of Mameluke generals.  This proved too much to bear even for Baibars, who ordered his guru’s arrest but spared him from execution.  The Mamelukes made their non-Muslim subjects wear identifying clothing (yellow turbans for Jews, blue for Christians) and were excessively brutal even by Islamic standards.  Baibars liked to entertain Frankish ambassadors seated on a throne surrounded by Christian heads and “crucified, bisected, and scalped his enemies.”

The cruelty of the Islamic overlords of Palestine did not abate in the modern era.  Ahmet Jazzar Pasha was the Ottoman ruler of Syria and Palestine at the time of Napoleon’s ill-fated invasion of the Middle East.  The sobriquet Jazzar is Arabic for “Butcher” and was adopted by Ahmet Pasha as a young man when he served as a hitman and executioner for an Egyptian ruler who converted him to Islam.  Originally, the Butcher was a Christian from southern Herzegovina who sold himself into Ottoman slavery to escape prosecution for a murder.  This wily and cruel ruler is referred to as “The Bluebeard of Acre” by Montefiore for executing seven of his wives at once after suspecting them of treason.  The Butcher had a habit of mutilating his courtiers, from lowly officiants to his head minister, the Palestinian Jew Haim Farhi, whom he left missing his nose, an ear, and an eye.  Some of his victims had horseshoes nailed to their feet, while, in order to scare the local Christians into submission, Jazzar Pasha walled some of them up alive.  But as became typical for Mohammedan rulers, his cruelty and subterfuge did not translate into military prowess, and the Butcher had to call British officers to his aid in order to escape total annihilation by Napoleon.

On a lighter note, the Holy City was host to numerous amusing and fascinating eccentrics, and Montefiore does a splendid job in bringing them to life.  One such character was Warder Cresson, the U.S. consul-general of Syria and Jerusalem in the mid 1840’s.  Cresson was an unstable eccentric who “had been a Shaker, a Millerite, a Mormon, and a Campbellite” and persuaded Secretary of State John C. Calhoun to send him to Jerusalem, abandoning his wife and six children in Philadelphia.  Upon arrival, he explained to the pasha that he came for the coming Apocalypse and the return of the Jews.  After a few years of his manic activity, the State Department dismissed him.  Cresson then converted to Judaism and joined the Sephardic community of Jerusalem, where he became known as “the American Holy Stranger” and seemingly gained some equilibrium.  His American wife commenced a trial in Philadelphia to have Cresson declared insane.  He won his case on appeal and returned to Jerusalem, where he was later buried on the Mount of Olives.

Another eccentric adventurer was the British Captain Monty Parker, a veteran of the Boer War and a charming rogue who was forever rich on schemes and short on money.  A Finnish spiritualist named Valter Juvelius convinced Parker that he knew the location of the Ark of the Covenant and claimed it was buried in a tunnel near the Temple Mount.  Parker assembled “a disreputable crew of indebted aristocrats and military mountebanks” and raised a substantial sum of money from mystic-minded British, Russian, and Swedish aristocrats.  In 1909, the adventurers embarked for Jerusalem, where they bribed every relevant and irrelevant Arab dignitary and Ottoman official and behaved with all the dignity and charm of drunken frat boys.  After suffering such setbacks as flooding and a strike of their hired diggers, Parker and his party decided to dig beneath the Temple Mount itself.  In the spring of 1911, after bribing the Arab sheikh who was the hereditary custodian of the site, Parker and a few companions snuck into the Temple Mount disguised in Bedouin garb and broke up the pavement to reach the tunnels underneath.  The Arab night watchman raised an alarm, and soon the hapless adventurers were running through the streets of Jerusalem pursued by a crowd of angry Muslims and Jews—a display of ecumenical outrage only matched today by the traditionalists’ shared opposition to the “gay pride” parades in Jerusalem.  Muslim agitators spread rumors that Parker stole not only the Ark of the Covenant but the Crown of Solomon and the Sword of Muhammad; a widespread massacre of Jerusalem’s Christians by Mohammedan mobs was narrowly avoided.  Monty Parker barely escaped by boarding a ship in Jaffa; he made several more attempts to resume his search until the Great War broke out.  He lived on until 1962, keeping several mistresses and proudly squandering his significant inheritance.

For all of the weaknesses of this work, Montefiore succeeds with his description of the lively history of the Holy City in the 19th and early 20th centuries and the flamboyant characters who visited or inhabited it.  A discerning reader can discover much of value in parts of the book.  However, the fact that the last decades of Jerusalem’s history under Israeli rule are not covered (probably to avoid controversy) leaves the work incomplete.


[Jerusalem: The Biography, by Simon Sebag Montefiore (New York: Alfred A. Knopf) 688 pp., $35.00]