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Jerusalem: The Biography by Simon Sebag Montefiore, a Book review

Vivid, dramatic detail of the holy city and its citizens

War and religion is a match made in heaven. They make us believe that there is a reward waiting for us on the other side and it is only going to be possible if you do what they ask you to do. Jerusalem serves as that canvas where dynasties, rulers, statesmen, colonial powers painted their version of a just society using blood as the only colour. It rose to power, it turned to dust, repeatedly.

Before this book entered my life, my knowledge about the city was limited to the ongoing Israel-Palestine conflict. Not being from any of the Abrahamic religions, the history and culture of the city was something I could not relate with. It was my humble quest to understand the present political scenario and find its roots in history. Little did I know what waited for me was multiple accounts of medieval historians, biblical and Islamic stories intertwined into each other so much that separating it from the real factual history was a monumental task in itself.

Jerusalem : source Unsplash

You’d expect that the god’s abode would have made them humble and would make them stay away from polluting it with battles and blood, but no. As I was turning pages after pages a common theme emerged in the pattern of kingdoms and the fate of the city. The greed and power hungry nature of the statesmen and how they showed no mercy in turning the city to dust, killing thousands of citizens, often in the most brutal and grotesque way, all in the name of religion. My question is, if they considered the city to be the holiest of all, why would you even bring lust and greed there in the very first place. From David to Romans to exotic Byzantine empire to blood thirsty crusaders, Islamic caliphate, mighty Persian empires, to ottomans to the more recent establishment of Israel state, all the events found their place in the book.

The fate of the city and the religions practiced over there is often laid at the mercy of the rulers. Some rulers completely banned the entry of Jews and Muslims at some point or the other and some other kind rulers welcomed people of all spheres to practice their own faith. The city saw persecution of Christians by the ancestors of the same rulers who later took upon the very religion. It's like religion isn’t the main reason, the urge to conquer the city and enslave it is the main ideology behind each of the conquests. Wars are dirty, they always have been. What is worse is the absolute hatred and intolerance towards each other to a point that their mere existence is not acceptable. There isn’t any justification for what this city suffered and has been suffering, for there is no guarantee that some frenzy statesman or leader won’t come in future who wouldn’t think twice before demolishing it to ashes just like Titus.

In 1940s the world saw with horror the inhumane torture unleashed upon Jewish populace in Germany, Poland and Austria under Hitler's Nazi rule. Post holocaust it became imperative for a separate state with further got support from the western countries, partly due to political and on humanitarian grounds too. The influx of Jewish people back to Jerusalem and its adjoining land was not without disposition of Arab people. The independence of Israel saw disposed Palestinian population which thereby set the cycle of another violence and multiple wars.

Mysteries of religion are not what the author delved into. His primary purpose was to showcase the political and historical facts and restrict himself to that only. But religion and biblical texts do come up repeatedly mostly in the initial portions only to give a conflicting narrative or to reaffirm the historical data. In the truest sense mythology has it’s one foot in history. The vivid writing style intensified the drama and unraveling of the fate of both empires and Jerusalem. It often feels like the city is built not only on the destroyed monuments of its past forts and temples but also on the bones and blood of its own citizens. The fate of Jerusalem is almost prophesized, it shall not see peace.

Montefiore provides a holistic history of Jerusalem in a chronological manner which becomes mandatory considering the complexities involved. It boggles my mind as to how he managed to fit 3000 years of history of one of the oldest cities of the world into a book and that too without taking sides and providing a very neutral approach. From King David’s reign to the six day war of 1967 to the epilogue that explains the recent events, the book has it all. Jerusalem is a region of conflict and you’d find conflict on every third page that makes it a hard read too but we can’t blame the author for that. There’s so much massacre in the book. Jerusalem is peak non-fiction. It serves as a starting point to the readers who are interested in knowing the history of it and what things led to its modern structure. It lets us know of the conflicting history that is presented to us through medieval historians who have a very visible bias. The author tries to keep the findings neutral without losing the essence. The greed to acquire the land, its citizens and their faith is clearly seen among all those who tried to conquer Jerusalem.


Jerusalem is the universal city, the capital of two peoples, the shrine of three faiths; it is the prize of empires, the site of Judgement Day, and the battlefield of today's clash of civilizations. From King David to Barack Obama, from the birth of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam to the Israel-Palestine conflict, this is the epic history of 3,000 years of faith, slaughter, fanaticism, and coexistence. How did this small, remote town become the Holy City, the 'center of the world' and now the key to peace in the Middle East? In a gripping narrative, Simon Sebag Montefiore reveals this ever-changing city in its many incarnations, bringing every epoch and character blazingly to life. Jerusalem's biography is told through the wars, love affairs, and revelations of the men and women - kings, empresses, prophets, poets, saints, conquerors, and whores - who created, destroyed, chronicled, and believed in Jerusalem. Drawing on new archives, current scholarship, his own family papers, and a lifetime's study, Montefiore illuminates the essence of sanctity and mysticism, identity and empire in a unique chronicle of the city that many believe will be the setting for the Apocalypse. This is how Jerusalem became Jerusalem and the only city that exists twice - in heaven and on earth.

Jerusalem the biography by Simon Sebag Montefiore is published by W&N and to order your copy buy here.


Simon Sebag Montefiore is the author of the global bestsellers 'The Romanovs' and 'Jerusalem: the Biography,' 'Stalin: the Court of the Red Tsar' and Young Stalin and the novels Sashenka and One Night in Winter and "Red Sky at Noon." His books are published in 48 languages and are worldwide bestsellers. He has won prizes in both non-fiction and fiction. He read history at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge University, where he received his Doctorate of Philosophy (Ph.D.).

'The Romanovs' is his latest history book. He has now completed his Moscow Trilogy of novels featuring Benya Golden and Comrade Satinov, Sashenka, Dashka, and Fabiana.... and Stalin himself.

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