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The best books on Jerusalem

recommended by Simon Sebag Montefiore

Jerusalem: the Biography by Simon Sebag Montefiore

Jerusalem: the Biography
by Simon Sebag Montefiore


Jerusalem is one of the most beautiful cities in the world and a place of longing for three faiths—and yet we know it mostly as a place of strife and conflict. British historian Simon Sebag Montefiore, author of Jerusalem: the Biography, recommends books that capture the historical ups and downs of this ever-changing city, but also its vitality, including its irresistible cuisine.

Interview by Benedict King

Jerusalem: the Biography by Simon Sebag Montefiore

Jerusalem: the Biography
by Simon Sebag Montefiore

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Before we get to the books, could you tell us when you first visited Jerusalem and how you came to write a book on the city?

I’d always wanted to write a book about the history of Jerusalem, but I didn’t feel quite ready to do it until this book. I started going to Jerusalem when I was very young, when I was about four or five. My parents took me and we used to go every year. My earliest real memories of the place are from the early 1970s. This book really was the result of 30 years of visits to Jerusalem.

My family’s connection to Jerusalem played a part in writing the book. Moses Montefiore, who was a Victorian magnate, founded the New City of Jerusalem in 1860, around the city walls of the Old City. So, we had a family story linked to the city from the start.

When you say Moses Montefiore founded the New City, does that mean that, essentially, everything outside the Old City was started by him?

Yes. It obviously grew massively, but he started it. In 1860 he built some cottages outside, which then became the Montefiore Cottages, which then became the Montefiore Quarter. That expanded into the New City, which you see today, which is huge—not huge compared to London, but a pretty large city.

I hadn’t realised how big Jerusalem is. Its population is over a million, isn’t it?

Yes, the municipality in its widest sense is, but the centre of the city is still small compared to mega-cities. It’s nothing like London, Tokyo or New York. But they keep expanding the municipality, which is why it’s as big as it is.

Let’s get on to the books. The first book is The Storyteller of Jerusalem: The Life and Times of Wasif Jawhariyyeh 1904-1948. Tell us a bit about this book and why you’ve chosen it.

I think this is the most extraordinary book about 20th century Jerusalem. It’s not very well known and the English translation has only recently come out. It’s the story of a lute player, Wasif. He is a character who bestrides the first fifty years of 20th century Jerusalem. He’s a Palestinian, who partied with the Ottoman elite during World War I and then, later, in his diary, bore witness to the increasing hostility and tensions that beset the city, right up to the outbreak of World War II, through that conflict and up to the War of Independence, when Israel became independent—the Nakba of the Palestinian people.

The reason it’s such a wonderful diary and such a wonderful book is because he has such joie de vivre. He’s a musician. He’s a playboy and he parties. So you see a Jerusalem in this book which we’re just not used to. So often, we see a rather solemn Jerusalem, where you can only imagine everyone just praying and hating each other. He showed a completely different Jerusalem where there was playfulness. There were orgies, there were mistresses. There was a lot of sex going on.

“The modern Jerusalem that we see today is probably the greatest it’s ever been as a city”

It also brings to life a Palestinian world that you just never see. Jerusalem’s history is completely dominated by either the Jewish or the Palestinian national narratives. But he’s outside both of them. I really recommend this book to anybody who’s interested in the city and in the life of the city. It worked perfectly for me because in Jerusalem, I was trying to show not just the series of massacres, wars and conquests, but also a city that had music and food and dancing and love affairs and all that.

I recommend it to everybody. It dazzles in its depictions of the different eras of Jerusalem, especially the Ottoman era, and the early 1920s, when the city was dominated by these Palestinian aristocratic families, the notable families, who are partying a lot. A lot of them are playboys and they’re all having love affairs. There are affairs with Jewish women and Arab women. There’s a great mixing.

And do you get a sense of the city changing over that period, or is the extraordinary thing about it that Wasif’s life just goes on as usual for the entire duration, despite the surrounding chaos?

It changes so much. That’s the strange thing about Jerusalem and one of the reasons why it is such a fascinating subject. When you see Jerusalem on CNN or the BBC, it’s the holy city of three faiths. It’s the centre of the Middle East and a centre of war, conflict and tragedy.

But, actually, Jerusalem has changed so much throughout its history. And the Jerusalem that Wasif starts writing about, of the early 1910s, of World War I and the early 1920s, is a very small, elegant city. It’s very different to that BBC/CNN city and not yet scarred by conflict. Of course, the city suffered a lot in World War I, but Wasif records a very different city. The Ottoman city was completely different from the city of the British mandate that came afterwards. And that was different from the city of 1948.

He records about three or four different evolutionary periods of Jerusalem, which are all completely different from each other. That’s his genius. It’s certainly the greatest diary of Jerusalem life of the last few hundred years.

Before we move on, is there an obvious reason why he was writing this diary?

No. He was an artistic character. He loves people and music and food. He likes girls and boys, which meant that he had access to everything in Jerusalem. He was interested in pleasure as well as nationality, identity and religion. In that sense, it’s a celebration of life that ends in the tragedy of the Nakba, which he describes in great detail. And, because we’ve known him since the early years of the century in a different world, you sympathize with him. It’s beautifully written. It’s a masterpiece and I don’t think he was even necessarily writing it for publication.

He was an aesthete who loved life and culture and was interested in how people lived and how he lived and the things he’d seen. It’s hard to rave about it enough. When I first discovered it, when I was writing Jerusalem, I was just delighted by it and charmed, too. I’d love to have known him. He was a one of the great Jerusalemites and yet most people have never heard of him, even those who are fascinated by the Arab-Israeli conflict. Maybe we can change that with this conversation.

Let’s move on to A Tale of Love and Darkness by Amos Oz, who is definitely much better known than Wasif. Tell us about this book. Is there some time overlap between Amos Oz and Wasif?  They were both in Jerusalem in the 1940s, but having rather different experiences.

Yes, they overlapped a lot. In my book I use them both and cross over from one to the other in the narrative. They were both there at same time and they were literally on opposite sides of the line sometimes. No one’s ever heard of Wasif, but Amoz Oz is celebrated as one of the greatest writers of the 20th century, quite rightly.

This book is just a joy. It’s beautifully written. It’s a memoir, not a diary. It’s written much later and he’s looking back over his life. He wrote a lot of novels, but this is, I think, his best book by far.

His real name was Klausner and he was born in Jerusalem, but much later than Wasif, in 1939. He was a boy growing up in the 1940s, when Wasif was already a man way past his prime. But if one wants to understand what happened in Jerusalem in the first half of the 20th century from both sides, from two very artistic, unbigoted, open-minded, sensual men, these are the two best books to really follow the story. That’s what makes these two essential reading.

What does Amos Oz say about the city itself? I got the sense that he found Jerusalem quite claustrophobic as a young man and left for more liberal Tel Aviv.  Is the city that he paints and the city that Wasif paints fairly recognizable as the same city?

Amos Oz came from what you might call the Ashkenazi bourgeoisie, not exactly the elite, but they were very well educated and very well connected to the Revisionist Zionist Herut party. They came from Lithuania originally and they were very cultivated. He described Jerusalem as a beautiful nymphomaniac, who crushes people between her thighs and swallows men.

Wasif saw Jerusalem as a city that was a centre of life. Amos Oz saw it very differently. He saw Jerusalem as suffocating and narrow-minded, a sort of vampiric city. He saw the religion as destructive, the nationalism as a bloody curse and everything about Jerusalem—its holiness, its greatness, its historical reputation, the mythologies, everything about it—as a terrible curse on its people. So, you’re right. He just couldn’t wait to get out of Jerusalem. He went to a kibbutz and then to Tel Aviv. But in the 1940s, as a little boy, he was a witness to the war of 1948.

“Oz… saw Jerusalem as suffocating and narrow-minded, a sort of vampiric city”

When I was writing my book I saw him and talked to him a lot about Jerusalem. He was a totally charming and delightful person and very funny. He said the only way to make peace in Jerusalem would be to take the Western Wall and the two mosques on the Temple Mount and put them all in Sweden for 100 years until everyone in Jerusalem had made peace.

Given what Amos Oz said to you, is it possible to feel comfortable in Jerusalem, if you’re not religious?

Yes, it is possible, because if you like history or you’re fascinated by variety, hybridity and the merging and rivalries of cultures, and you like watching people; if you’re an observer of humankind, then Jerusalem will be one of your great joys. But it is a very suffocating city. It’s filled with hate and with religious people of different sorts. There used to be a saying in Ottoman times that ‘there’s no one so evil as the citizen of a holy city.’ They meant that the people who lived in Jerusalem were monsters of avarice, trying to screw money from every single visitor, especially pilgrims, who are, of course, particularly naive and easy to trick. And that’s still true today. You can see that everyone in Jerusalem is furious all the time. And there are a lot of mad people. Holy cities are very strange places.

Oz’s book gives you a strong sense of that, does it?

Yes, it really does. He understood it. He was not religious at all and his family weren’t religious. They were secular Jews, but on the right politically. They were a very distinguished family. But Oz foresaw a lot of what happened. He was a Zionist. He believed in Israel and he believed in Jewish independence and the Jewish right to a nation and a state. And he always hoped that it was possible to share the country and the city. And he was ready to do that.

When did he die?

A couple of years ago. He read my book for me before it was published.  He was very kind, warm and generous. His life was not without tragedy. His mother committed suicide. Then he went to live on a kibbutz and adopted the name Oz.

Let’s move on to The Jewish War by Flavius Josephus. This doesn’t have anything to say about the 20th century but might have some role explaining it.

Yes. I think this is probably the greatest history book of all time, or one of them—up there with Herodotus and Thucydides, but the lesser-known of the three. The vividness of the writing, the research and the knowledge is so deep and so powerful. It’s a towering masterpiece.

Josephus was really one of the first war correspondents, too. He was actually a general in the Jewish revolt in 66, against the Romans. He went to Rome and met the Emperor Nero and Nero’s wife. Then he took part in this revolt against Nero and the Romans. Then he defected to the Romans, was imprisoned and was going to be executed when a Roman general called him in and said, ‘You’re going to be killed.’ And Josephus said, ‘Wait, I’ve had a vision. I’m going to tell you something. You’re going to be emperor.’ And the Roman general, Vespasian, said, ‘Wait a sec! Let’s keep this guy alive.’

“There have been many Jerusalems and it is always changing. What seems ancient and constant is, in fact, often new and different”

Months later he actually did become the emperor, the founder of the Flavian dynasty. So he called out Josephus and Josephus became a Roman collaborator. They put down the Jewish revolt and stormed Jerusalem. He was there in the entourage of Titus, the future emperor, and saw the destruction of Jerusalem. His account of it is amazing, but what’s also amazing is that he knew Vespasian and Titus. He also knew the leaders of the Jewish revolt and the family of King Herod—one of the five kings of that name.

He ended up living in Rome as a friend of the royal family. He actually interviewed everybody and knew everything. And when he wrote the story of the Maccabees and the Herods, he was talking about families he knew well. He’s one of the great historians of all time, I would say.

And does he describe the destruction of the Temple?

Yes, he describes it in detail. The account of it is just astonishing because he loved the Temple. He loved Jerusalem and he prayed there as a religious Jew when he was a young man. He trained for the priesthood there. He knew it inside out. Herod the Great had built this amazing Temple. It was a huge building, so great that, when you approached Jerusalem, as you came over the hill, if the sun was falling on it, it looked like it was made of a mixture of gold and snow. It shone and was enormous, like a mountain. And Josephus saw it destroyed in front of his eyes. He said that when the flames reached a certain height all the great stones cracked and that the noise could be heard all the way across the river Jordan.

He said he knew it was the end of Jerusalem, but of course, it wasn’t the end of Jerusalem. Amazingly, Jerusalem has been destroyed twice and has been rebuilt each time and has come back. It’s had many different iterations and facets.

Did the destruction of the Temple mark a clear break in the history of Jerusalem? It never got rebuilt, so that must have affected the role of Jerusalem in Judaism?

There are two answers to that question. First, the more holy sites are destroyed, often the more sanctified they become. Because religiosity and holiness are all about having a history and a lineage, if you like, the more suffering there is the better. The destruction of a holy site is like a monumental version of martyrdom. There were two destructions of Jerusalem: in 586 BC by Nebuchadnezzar and then by Titus in 70 AD, the one that Josephus saw. Both only served to make Jews regard Jerusalem as even more holy than before, because the ruins were even holier than the building.

But the other answer to your question is that modern Judaism, modern Christianity and later Islam all came about partly because of the destruction of the Temple in 70/71, because Jerusalem could no longer be the old religion based around the Temple and sacrifice outside the Holy of Holies, the way it had been up to that point. After the destruction, it became a religion that was based on the Torah, which was the law and the old books of the Bible. It became a sort of movable Jerusalem for Jewish people. They always loved Jerusalem, but they couldn’t always be there. That was how modern Judaism came about. The Judaism that we know today is very different from Temple Judaism.

“There used to be a saying in Ottoman times that ‘there’s no one so evil as the citizen of a holy city’”

Similarly, during the siege, a small Jewish faction, known as Christians or Nazarenes—followers of Jesus Christ, then led by a relative of Jesus—fled Jerusalem and divided themselves forever from the mother religion. It was really the beginning of Christianity as a totally separate religion. Then, 630 years later, when Muhammad started to preach the third revelation from God, he said that this was made possible because Judaism had been destroyed in 70, with the destruction of the Temple, which had made possible the second revelation, Christianity. He said Islam was the third. So, in many senses, the modern world was created by that siege.

Which leads us quite nicely into the next book, which is the Bible. Tell us why you need to know the Bible to understand Jerusalem.

The Bible is the biography of Jerusalem. Nothing less, nothing more. My book is called Jerusalem: The Biography, but the Bible is the real biography of Jerusalem, up to the death of Christ. If you’re religious, you regard it as the word of God. But if you’re a secular historian like me, you really regard it as a library of different works, written at different times, by different people, with different aims and different target audiences. And, providing one realises that, and you try to work out which bits are written by whom, and roughly when, then it’s a very useful historical source—provided you realise that it’s extremely unreliable for the reasons I’ve just explained.

It’s absolutely essential for someone writing about early, ancient Jerusalem. But, more importantly, modern Jerusalem has been made by people reading the Bible. That really started with the Protestant Reformation, when Luther returned to the scriptures and cut out the priesthood of the Catholic Church.

People who read that book, including Oliver Cromwell and a series of English and Scottish elders, divines, politicians, statesmen and evangelicals, looked towards fulfilling the prophecies and that included the return of the Jewish people to Jerusalem, which had to happen before there could be the second coming of Christ. Out of this emerges the history of Zionism. And this is one of the reasons why Zionism actually happened.

Cromwell actually readmitted the Jews to England, after they had been expelled in the 13th century, precisely for that reason, didn’t he—to effect their conversion prior to the second coming?

That’s basically right. Cromwell was a Puritan statesman who believed in the second coming of Christ and believed, having carefully read the Bible, that it could only happen when the Jews had returned to Jerusalem. There would then be an apocalypse, the end days, a terrible battle, the Jews would be converted, or probably massacred, and then Christ would descend. All of this was to take place just outside the Golden Gate of Jerusalem and on the Mount of Olives opposite.

“Modern Jerusalem has been made by people reading the Bible”

So, they had to get the Jews back to Jerusalem. If you jump forward to Victorian times many of these great Victorian Christians—like the Earl of Shaftesbury—all believed that this had to happen. Even when you get to the World War I leaders, like Churchill, Balfour and Lloyd George, even though they weren’t particularly religious—they were really secular—they were brought up by people and educated by people who believed that the Jews would return to Jerusalem. That was the background to the Balfour Declaration, which gave the Jews the promise of a homeland in Israel.

And actually a lot of the Christian support for Israel and Greater Israel in the United States comes from evangelical Protestants who have precisely the same sort of vision, right?

Exactly. It’s the same people who are now big supporters of Israel in America. And, of course, Donald Trump’s base was hugely evangelical and many of those people support his moves to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. It’s hugely influential and this is all due to the Bible.

The Bible was originally written as a collection of books. It then had a long history as the great book of Western civilization, but with the Reformation it actually became a literal guide and changed the destiny of the Holy Land itself and of the city of Jerusalem. It’s the most fascinating story and the most influential book of all time, along with the Quran.

The Bible can be a difficult book to get into, both in terms of enjoying it and in terms of knowing where to start. Are there, say, two or three particular passages you’d point people to that talk about Jerusalem? 

I like the fact that the Bible talks about Jerusalem in many different ways. One way it talks about Jerusalem is as a beautiful woman. We were just talking about Amos Oz’s nymphomaniac Jerusalem. All my favourite passages in the Bible about Jerusalem are about Jerusalem as a woman. It’s always about its ‘height’. At ‘its height’ Jerusalem is a beautiful princess in silks and scarlet robes. She’s the most beautiful woman in the world. At her death, at Jerusalem’s death, she’s a woman cast out, wearing rags, struggling to survive. I was very inspired by that as I wrote my book.

Obviously, there’s an enormous amount of action in Jerusalem. My favourite passages are about David and Solomon. You also have the Passion of Christ, which is pretty astonishing, and is there in four versions.

Let’s move on to the final book, Jerusalem by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi. Why this one?

I just wanted something slightly different. At the beginning I was talking to you about how I wanted to see Jerusalem as a city of music, food, sex and happiness, and not just of massacres, sieges and wars.

This is the book. Ottolenghi has written it with a Palestinian co-writer, Sami Tamimi. It is just wonderful. It’s one of my favourite books. It’s full of delicious, delightful things. But more than that, it’s about Jerusalem’s food and its eclecticism, its hybridity and the syncretism of the different sorts of food that you find. There are Yemenis, Germans, Palestinians and Turks. There are Georgians and Armenians. I could go on. It is the universal city.

The book is very much a Sephardic Jewish/Arab combination. Ottlenghi is of Italian-Jewish descent himself. Sami is his business partner and is Arab. They founded Ottolenghi together. I love the restaurants here in London. There’s Armenian food in the book as well as, obviously, the Jewish/Arab and traditional Muslim food. It’s got everything and it really reflects modern Jerusalem, the international city. Ottolenghi is an amazing character. He’s done so much for bringing together Jewish and Arab culture.

Are the recipes reasonably easy to handle for an amateur chef like me?

No. They’re not. They’re quite complicated. The chicken is always with things like caramelised onion and cardamom rice. There’s fish with harissa and rose. The salads are always incredibly complicated. They always have walnuts in them and beetroot. Pistachios are used quite a bit. It’s pretty sumptuous stuff. But it’s appropriate for Jerusalem.

The book is just great to read. You can just open it anywhere and it will have one of these amazing dishes. I love Arabic food. Yotam and Sami are a great double act. I think they met in London twenty or thirty years ago. They were both from Jerusalem and they got together and created this little empire. I think this book is up there with Josephus and the Bible as a great Jerusalem book.

With these huge modern suburbs that dwarf the Old City—in terms of size, anyway—is the city in danger of losing some of its old character? Is the Old City in danger of becoming a centro storico or does the spirit of Old Jerusalem spread through the suburbs?

There are so many Old Jerusalems. Jerusalem is ever evolving and so I don’t think anything’s been destroyed in that sense. Some old neighbourhoods have been destroyed, some have been rebuilt, some have been restored beautifully. And nothing can really spoil the amazing Temple Mount, which has the two great mosques on it—the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa—and then has the wall of Herod’s Temple around it. Nothing can beat the beauty of that—that really is ancient.

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But then, how much of the rest of the old city is that ancient? Most of it was built in the late 19th century by Britain, Russia and Austria-Hungary. Its antiquity is a bit of an illusion. Most people think the walls are very ancient, but most of the walls were built by Suleiman the Magnificent. So they are no older than Hampton Court and most of the buildings within the Old City are late 19th century. They are no older than Chelsea.

When was the Church of the Holy Sepulchre built? Is that 19th century?

No, that really is old. It’s very interesting. Originally there was a Roman temple there. The first version was built by Constantine the Great in the 320s and 330s. Then it was rebuilt by the great female ruler of Jerusalem—one of the great women of Jerusalem—Melisende, who built it in the Romanesque style during the Crusades. She was the daughter of King Baldwin II of Jerusalem. That was built in the 1130s or 1140s. But the rest of the churches and all the hostels are Victorian.

When people like Montefiore went there and when Disraeli visited Jerusalem in the 1820s, it was literally half-empty. The Old City was half-filled with prickly pear bushes and sand and there was almost nothing in it at all. There were only about 2,000 people living in Jerusalem. They were living amongst these amazing buildings like the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the mosques and a few other buildings. But a lot of it was empty. That’s why from the 1860s onwards, suddenly the Great Powers descended on Jerusalem and started to build massive buildings, which you can see there now. That’s how it has filled up.

This is what I was saying at the beginning. It’s a good circular way of approaching Jerusalem. There have been many Jerusalems and it is always changing. What seems ancient and constant is, in fact, often new and different from what one expects.

Under the Ottomans it had no administrative or political importance at all? It wasn’t at the centre of a province, or anything?

No, because it was ruled from Damascus. At other times it was ruled from Acre, including during the Napoleonic period. But most of the time it was incredibly minor. But it was conquered in 1517 by Selim the Grim, the amazing Ottoman conqueror, who really changed world history. In one campaign he conquered Jerusalem, Mecca, Medina, Cairo and Damascus. It was very important to the Ottomans that Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem—the three holy cities—were treated well. His son, Suleiman the Magnificent, spent an enormous amount of money on Jerusalem. He never went there, but he built the city and the city walls. There were no walls there at the time. They had been destroyed in the 13th century, at the end of the Crusades, when Jerusalem was little more than a monumental village.

Suleiman did more to build Jerusalem than anyone except David and Solomon, Constantine the Great and a few others. But after about two or three reigns the Ottomans started to lose control of the provinces of their empire and Jerusalem was ruled by corrupt pashas. It was basically neglected and, by the late 18th century, it was empty and very neglected. A few Jews lived there, but not many Turks or Palestinian Arabs. It was in a very bad way. It was restored by the great western powers and the huge pilgrimages that started in the 19th century. Jerusalem is constantly changing and there were many periods when it was neglected by Islam and Christianity. And very few Jews could afford to live there and those that did, did so in great poverty. So it’s ever-changing.

The modern Jerusalem that we see today is probably the greatest it’s ever been as a city, but obviously, tragically, it’s very divided. Although, frankly, whatever you think of Donald Trump, it already was the capital of Israel. He was just recognising something that had already happened.

Interview by Benedict King

November 30, 2020

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Simon Sebag Montefiore

Simon Sebag Montefiore

Simon Sebag Montefiore is a prizewinning historian and novelist whose bestselling books have been published in over 48 languages. His works of history have won prizes in the United Kingdom, United States, France, Austria and Italy. His interview with us is about the best books on Jerusalem, and his own books have been recommended on Five Books many times. His own favourites are his works of historical fiction—the three books, starting with Sashenka, that make up his Moscow trilogy.

Simon Sebag Montefiore

Simon Sebag Montefiore

Simon Sebag Montefiore is a prizewinning historian and novelist whose bestselling books have been published in over 48 languages. His works of history have won prizes in the United Kingdom, United States, France, Austria and Italy. His interview with us is about the best books on Jerusalem, and his own books have been recommended on Five Books many times. His own favourites are his works of historical fiction—the three books, starting with Sashenka, that make up his Moscow trilogy.