I had two biographies of cities sitting on my shelf and chose this one to read first (before one on London). It’s an interesting project, especially considering the limited source material during particular eras (especially early ones). To what extent is it okay to use the Bible as an historical source (even if it is the only one available)? It was pretty interesting to hear some big names (Lawrence of Arabia, Suleiman, Herod and even Jesus) presented as human beings. Granted, things became a bit more interesting as the book progressed and Montefiore brought more names I’d heard of, mostly Jewish ones, to light.
The writing can get a little flippant at times, and there’s perhaps too much attention to the sexual habits of leaders. The descriptions of people also seemed repetitive. (If I read the phrase ‘aquiline nose’ one more time, I was going to scream.) There are parts that felt Biblical – as in, ‘This somewhat crazed tyrant from X begat that somewhat crazed tyrant from Y.’
I felt the absence of a thesis – that there has been much fighting for, blood shed in, and reverence for Jerusalem, I have no doubt (though I hadn’t ever heard of Jerusalem Syndrome). Is the point here to explain the history of the current conflict? Why it’s so complicated to disentangle? I think a stronger, more explicit argument would have made some of the sections easier to bear. Is the argument that the story of Jerusalem is the story of the world? I didn’t have to read ~550 pages to agree with that.
To be fair, though Montefiore does have a dog in this fight (some of his relatives are prominent in the book), he comes off as neutral, even detached. There are no pure heroes here.
If nothing else, peruse the book for its stunning photographs. They’ll make you want to visit.