NiteTalk: Simon Sebag Montefiore Writes the Biography of Jerusalem

Jerusalem UK Resized

Of all the cities in all the world, none is more savagely storied as Jerusalem. Built and rebuilt by some of histories most enduring names, and destroyed and re-destroyed by at least as many just as infamous, the Holy City has seen more slaughter than perhaps anyplace else on earth. In Jerusalem: The Biography (Knopf, $35), British historian Simon Sebag Montefiore manages to encompass this bloody and wondrous story in its epic entirety. Hear how when Books and Books brings the man to Temple Judea this Thursday.    

Why Jerusalem? There are many books dealing with parts of Jerusalem history (especially Jesus, the Crusades and the Israel/Palestine conflict), but there are virtually no full histories of its full history, so there is a huge gap in the market. The reason there are so few though is that it’s such a vast and complex subject. A history of Jerusalem is a history of the world, told through not just the theology, the politics, the literature and the architecture, but especially through the people who made the city -- emperors, conquerors, poets, prophets, whores and princesses. Hence it’s called The Biography.

It’s based on vast scholarly research, but I wanted it to be readable by everyone, accessible to everyone, and enjoyable by all. That is a challenging, insanely daunting idea. Then also my family helped found the modern city outside the old walls and I’ve been visiting Jerusalem all my life, so I had a personal reason to write it too.

Are these the same Montefiores for whom the Quarter is named? Yes, they are.

Did your first visit to the city affect you in the same way it did Moses Montefiore? Yes, absolutely. When Moses Montefiore visited for the first time in the late 1820s he was a rising financier and British gentleman, but he found himself and his Judaism there and became an Orthodox and practicing Jew. Whatever titles he received, however grand his social circle with its kings and dukes, he always proudly wore his yarmulke and was respected for it.  I am very proud to be related to such a man. And though I’ve never been as devout a Jew as he was, I love Jerusalem with equal passion.

Why do you think Jerusalem has continually been plagued by so much utter devastation? Holiness is exclusive and intolerant by its very nature, so each faith, each conqueror wants total possession, otherwise they’re threatened by the Jewish passion for the city (as,for example, were Nebuchadnezzar and Titus).

How hard was it to not be brought down by the constant slaughter and destruction? Jerusalem is a story of slaughter, fanaticism,  bigotry and vulgarity, but also of exquisite beauty and grace, sanctity and poetry. You can read the book as a saga of great conquerors, prophets, whores, kings, poets, empresses and dynasties, but also as a scholarly study of holiness, identity empire and nationalism. I think the book has both sides.

What do you see for the city’s future? I think they should move the holy places brick by brick to Scandinavia until everyone has learned to live together. Seriously, I could imagine a shared happy city in the future or I could imagine a terrible destruction by fanatics -- or i could see a city in which nothing much changes for decades to come.

Simon Sebag Montefiore talks Jerusalem Thursday October 27 at Temple Judea. For more information log on here.

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