When I first visited Jerusalem 30 years ago, I was shocked, like most people, by the disparity between the myth and the mess. The city which, of all places in the world, is most holy to most people, was a place of chaos and conflict, wire and roadblocks. I was there again last week, and the situation is little better.
But when you come to think about it, why should this disparity be surprising? Religion expresses the difference between man’s reach and his grasp. It is about what can never, until the end of time, be resolved on Earth. So it would be absurd to expect a city on which a faith centres – let alone a city sacred to three faiths – to be all quiet and orderly like Canberra or The Hague. It will be a place whose meaning is too great to bear.
And so it is perfectly logical to sing the Psalms in praise of Jerusalem – no other city has ever had such a songbook – and yet to see what Jesus means when he exclaims: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, which killest the prophets, and stonest them that are sent unto thee…”
Some will reply that the history of Jerusalem is proof of the stupidity of human literal-mindedness: why cannot people see that “the city on a hill” which true religion seeks to build is only a spiritual and not a physical concept? Why fight over tunnels and mounds and narrow passageways? Why seek God in the barren rocks of Judea, and not in your heart?
It is true that the story of Jerusalem gives as many examples of human cruelty, greed, hatred, pedantry, vanity, fanaticism and stark raving madness as the history of anything anywhere. But it is not possible for human beings who, whatever our spiritual condition, exist in this world in a particular time, place and bodily form, to make an absolute distinction between the physical and the metaphysical in the way we think about things.
The three Abrahamic religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – are all inextricable mixtures of the historical, geographical and human with the ideal and the eternal. It matters that King David and Jesus Christ and Mohammed actually existed. It matters that Jews and Muslims do not eat pork, and that Christians’ most sacred rite involves bread and wine. It matters that Sinai and Galilee and Mecca and, above all, Jerusalem are real places. You cannot just decide to forget all these things, or to make them different. Religion is not an abstract theory, though abstract theories support it. It involves the story of people’s actual encounters with God.
Simon Sebag Montefiore understands this. I thought at first that his lack of theological training would make this book superficial, but in fact it makes him exceptionally sympathetic to the city whose story he tells. He is not trying to impose some theory upon it. He just wants to tell the tale of its terrible, beautiful, God-intoxicated, squalid (and surprisingly louche) life.
I recommend, of course, that you read the book from cover to cover (635 pp). There is never a dull page. But a delightful way to get the flavour is simply to read the plentiful footnotes. Here is one: “The oldest pub in England, the Journey to Jerusalem, in Nottingham, dates from Richard’s Crusade.” Another, about the sheet used by the mayor to surrender Jerusalem to General Allenby: “The Arab boy holding the historic bedsheet stuck the broomstick into the ground, but it was purloined by the Swedish photographer. The British threatened to arrest him, at which he surrendered it to Allenby, who gave it to the Imperial War Museum, where it remains.” A third, about the bomb placed by Irgun Jewish terrorists in the King David Hotel in 1946: “One of those killed was Julius Jacobs, a cousin of the author and a British civil servant who happened to be Jewish.”
Story by Charles Moore