Jerusalem: The Biography

Anyone who lives in Jerusalem – or who is fascinated by this fascinating city I get to call home – would be well-advised to read this book by Simon Sebag Montefiore.

The book is, as the title suggests, a biography of Jerusalem – told through the stories of many of the fascinating characters who have either ruled over the city, lived in the city, or in some way had a major influence on the city over the last 3,000 years, starting with King David.

Besides all the great historical figures you would expect to find in a book about Jerusalem – King David, Herod, Jesus, Hadrian, Justinian, Saladin, Baldwin, Suleiman, Allenby, Ben Gurion, etc., — there are many less well-known figures who are fascinating in their own right. Lots of great tidbits about the city, lots of great quotes. For what must be one of the most religious cities in the world, the elite in Jerusalem has apparently generally had a complex and lively sex life, many details of which are also shared. A few tidbits I enjoyed:

  • Theodora, Justinian’s mistress, described as “Starting as a pre-pubescent burlesque showgirl, she was said to be a gymnastically gift orgiast whose specialty…”
  • Here’s a tidbit that would make a great trivia question: Which four religions each ruled over Jerusalem in turn during a single 25 year period? The answer: Christian, Zoroastrian, Jewish, and Muslim. Can you figure out when?
  • Khidr, who sounds like an Islamic Elijah – eternally young with a white beard.
  • Some of the stories of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher are totally unreal. Arnulf the patriarch banished the Greek Orthodox patriarch and clergy from the church, and when he couldn’t find the main section of the True Cross, and the Greek priests wouldn’t tell him where it was, so he had them tortured: “a Christian torturing Christians to procure the Life-Giving Tree of the Lamb of God.” Another time, 400 pilgrims were killed in a stampede on Easter.
  • Crusader nicknames for themselves and others: “Baldwin the Little,” “Fulk the Repulsive,” “Zangi the Sanguine” (who described himself as “Fighter of the Jihad, tamer of atheists, destroyer of heretics”)
  • “No travelers are as evil as pilgrims to Jerusalem” (quote from before the Crusades, and the Crusaders did not improve the reputation of pilgrims).
  • One of the relics that was held in Jerusalem for a time was “The Holy Prepuce.”
  • Maimonides letter to Saladin’s nephew “On Sexual Intercourse” advising him on techniques that will help him maintain an erection
  • Suleiman – the builder who transformed the city, building the walls that still stand today – never actually visited Jerusalem
  • The real story behind the graves next to Jaffa Gate – not nearly as exciting as the legend I’ve been telling visitors for years, although still a bit of a mystery
  • Disraeli’s description of the Arabs – “Jews on horseback.”
  • Melville’s observation: “No country will more quickly dissipate romantic expectations that Palestine particularly Jerusalem.”
  • The first mayor of Jerusalem was Yusuf al-Diya al-Khalidi. He may have been the only mayor in modern history who led a cavalry expedition as part of his official duties.
  • Bertha Spafford’s comment “Jerusalem attracts all kinds of religious fanatics and cranks of different degrees of derangement.”
  • A Dutch countess who designed a mansion to house the 144,000 ransomed souls of Revelation 7:4.
  • “No two cities have counted more with mankind than Athens and Jerusalem.” Winston Churchill
  • Herzl: “When I remember you in days to come, O Jerusalem, it won’t be with delight. The musty deposits of 2,000 years of inhumanity, intolerance, and foulness lie in your reeking alleys.” The Western Wall, he thought, was pervaded by “hideous, miserable, scrambling beggary.”
  • The story of the oud-player Wasif Jawhariyyeh… “Witnessing everything and knowing everybody, from the Jerusalemite grandees and Ottoman pashas to Egyptian chanteuses, hash-smoking musicians and promiscuous Jewesses, useful to the elite but not quite of it, Wasif Jawhariyyeh started to write a diary at the age of seven that is one of the masterpieces of Jerusalem literature.” (Unfortunately, not yet available in English translation).
  • Description of 19th century pilgrims: “The quantity of wine, cognac, and arak consumed would appal most English. And the drunken dancing would be rather foreign to Jesus!”
  • Monty Parker, British adventurer with “expensive tastes and minimal income” who was run out of town after an outrageously expensive and unsuccessful hunt for the Ark of the Covenant.
  • The singer Amal al-Altrash apparently was popular with the British officers: “It was said if you were her lover it was impossible to be lonely in her boudoir, where you were liable to find one general under the bed, one in the bed, and [General Louis] Spears dangling from the chandelier.”

I have many more passages I highlighted, but that gives a good sample. The book is well-written, meticulously researched, and definitely a fun read. And of course living here, we keep adding on to the legend that is the city at the center of the world.

Barry Leff

Rabbi Barry (Baruch) Leff is a dual Israeli-American business executive, teacher, speaker and writer who divides his time between Israel and the US.

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