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Jerusalem the Golden: Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu and his undivided capital (Sebastian Scheiner/AP)

To the educated British mind, mention of Jerusalem generally conjures up, at best, impatience with the apparently intractable problem of reconciling two equal and rival claims to the city, Jewish and Arab; at worst, fury at a presumed "occupation" by Israelis who have no right to claim it as their capital at all.

Such people would doubtless be amazed to learn that, some 10 centuries before the birth of Christ and 17 centuries before the birth of Mohammed, the city of Jerusalem was created by King David as the capital of the united kingdom of Israel and Judea. The Jews were in fact the only people for whom the land of Israel was ever actually their national home.

And the Arabs knew it. "Who can contest the rights of the Jews to Palestine?" the then mayor of Jerusalem, Yusuf Khalidi, told the Chief Rabbi of France in 1899: "God knows historically it is indeed your country" — even though, he added, the problem was that now there were others living there too. Those others were only there, however, because of the extraordinary impulse to conquer and possess this tiny piece of land — and above all, the prize of prizes at its heart, Jerusalem.

For after the Jews were finally driven out by the Romans in 70 CE, a myriad of different peoples and dynasties piled in to conquer it: Persians, Byzantines, Arabs, Ummayads, Abbasids, Fatimids, crusaders from all over Christendom, Seljuks, Kurds, Mamluks, Mongols, Albanians, Ottomans and (in 1918) Britons. (The one name that does not figure in this great procession is the Palestinians — for no such people ever existed.)

Accordingly, as Simon Sebag Montefiore illuminates in his impressive "biography" of this most transcendent, mysterious and unique city, all these civilisations are embedded in its ancient stones like geological strata. What he brings out is that, from the start, Jerusalem was a global obsession. Peoples, religions and civilisations fought over it, conquered it and were in turn conquered. It was seen, quite simply, as the centre of the world, the hinge between heaven and earth. And   everyone wanted to possess it.

On the face of it, this was extraordinary. For Jerusalem was hardly propitiously situated — devoid of seas or rivers, a mere lump of barren rock in the middle of the desert. Throughout the centuries it was often desperately poor and squalid.

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sd goh
April 3rd, 2011
7:04 AM
The best book that has caught my attention so far for this year, totally riveting, almost encyclopaedic in its wealth of information, nary a dull chapter or moment and what beautiful photos! But carnage seems to be the leitmotiv throughout, or at any rate the earlier chapters....dismemberment, bisection, disembowelment, decapitation and other such horrors. Besides, truly, a great gem of a book to adorn one's little library at home. But the 'biography' title - another is N.Ostler's "A biography of Latin" -- seems to be the trend these days. I thought 'biography' refers to the life story of a person ie. a human.

February 27th, 2011
11:02 PM
Jerusalem looks like a good and informative read. Thank you for this review. I am no Philo semite nor anti I wholeheartedly agree with Melanie Philips views on Israel's plight. I enjoy her writings but it is clear she still has not cleansed herself fully from the dread disease of socialism.It is this philospohy which is causing the most to endanger to Israel from within as well as without as well as the rest of the West. What is all this CE common era progressive nonsense in this review.

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