This article was first published in the February 2011 edition of BBC History Magazine
Benjamin Disraeli summed it up when he wrote: “The view of Jerusalem is the history of the world.” A city with dozens of names and innumerable suitors, Jerusalem has been possessed or coveted by virtually all the great empires of Europe and the Middle East. It has been hotly contested by the three major monotheistic religions for over a millennium and its status continues to be a major obstacle to an Israeli/Palestinian peace agreement.
According to the Bible, King David chose the site of Jerusalem as the capital of his Jewish kingdom in around 1000 BC. Over the following centuries it was regularly invaded, notably in 586 BC by the Babylonians who took the Jewish population into captivity, only for them to be allowed to return in 538 by the Persians who had conquered Babylon. The Jews then had to contend with both Greek and Roman power. It was the latter who initiated the lengthy Jewish exile, sacking the city in AD 70 and incorporating it into the Roman empire.
The death of Jesus in Jerusalem in the early first century ensured the city became a place of veneration for the growing Christian faith. By the seventh century it became associated with Islam as well and was captured by the Muslim caliph Omar I in 638. The city was held by a series of Islamic dynasties until the picture was further complicated by crusader attempts to secure the city, beginning in the late 11th century. For the next 150 years Jerusalem switched between Christian and Muslim control. From the mid-13th century it was dominated by the Islamic Mamluks who were themselves overcome by the Ottoman Turks, also Muslims, in 1517.
The British captured Jerusalem in the First World War and, through the Balfour Declaration, supported the idea of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Thirty years later the UN partitioned the country. Jerusalem too was divided In the aftermath of Israel’s victory in its 1948 War of Independence. Then during the Six Day War of 1967, Israel seized the remainder of the city and continues to administer it to this day.
For Simon Sebag Montefiore, acclaimed author of a two-part Stalin biography, writing about Jerusalem has been a long-standing ambition. He has strong family connections to the city (especially through his ancestor Moses Montefiore, who established several Jewish institutions there during the 19th century) and has been a regular visitor since childhood.
Negotiating the various religious angles when putting together a book like this was no easy task. Montefiore accepts that “it won’t please anybody, it shouldn’t please anybody… everyone wants more of their view in it but in the end I have to decide what is correct”. It has been, he admits, a daunting project. Nevertheless he feels that this is a story that deserves to be told.
Why did Jerusalem become such a holy city in the first place?
Jerusalem became holy because everyone else thought it was holy. There’s a great tradition in holiness and again and again we see in Jerusalem somebody commandeering their predecessors’ stories and holiness. The reason why holiness is piled on holiness, passion on passion, imperial desire on imperial desire is that other people have wanted it. There’s a great competitiveness, which you see in different sites in the city. For example the Muslims wanted the Temple Mount because the Jews had made it holy and the Jews had chosen it probably because the Canaanites regarded it as holy.
So there was nothing intrinsic about the location of Jerusalem. Could it have been anywhere?
Yes it could have been anywhere but once it began it couldn’t have been anywhere else. In the ancient world, springs and high places were regarded as naturally holy and Jerusalem had both of those. There are many hints in the Bible that suggest that it was a holy place before David chose it. After that it obviously became the holy place for the Jews. But what really made the difference was the Bible. That collection of books is really a biography of Jerusalem, so when the Bible became the universal text, Jerusalem became the universal city.
Why has Jerusalem had this enduring appeal?
Again, it’s because of the Bible I think. That’s the short answer. Also once it was regarded as the holiest city it gained a strange status as a city everyone felt belonged to him or her. That’s why everyone who went there was dissatisfied with Jerusalem and wanted to remake it. There’s even a special sort of madness for people who are disappointed with the city called Jerusalem Syndrome.
One recurring theme in your book is the tremendous amount of blood that has been shed in Jerusalem. Has this city been fought over more than any other?
There’s been more slaughter, more death and more hate in Jerusalem than in any other city the world has ever known. Overall I think the city has been stormed and fought over around 40 times. Of course the 20th century was brutal but it was actually nothing like as brutal as in previous times. The destructions of the city in 586 BC [by the Babylonians] and AD 70 [by the Romans] must have been terrifying. Virtually everybody was killed.
I begin my book with the siege and fall of Jerusalem in 70, which was worse than the Warsaw uprising or the battle of Stalingrad. It was literally a running massacre for months on end, coupled with starvation and every sort of insanity that you could imagine. The suffering really does read like a modern catastrophe, something from the Second World War. It was so terrible.
Can we attribute this violence to the holiness of the city?
Yes that’s right. The expectation of Jerusalem and belief in Jerusalem is so passionate that people will die for it. In fact, it is a city of the dead in many ways, filled with cemeteries. The dead seem to live there and have an enormous influence in every way in the city. Jerusalem is magical but it is also the most poisonous place on earth because everywhere you look somebody has been murdered or something has been destroyed.
Nowadays the crusades have a widespread reputation of being a terrible act of Christian violence. But considering the long history of bloodshed in Jerusalem, were they really that exceptional?
There’s an endless myth that the Muslims were always the civilised ones and the crusaders were medieval brutes riding out of the darkness of the Dark Ages with no culture at all. Book after book is published repeating the same material about the House of Wisdom, the Abbasid academy founded in Baghdad. But of course when the crusaders came it was 200 years after that and the Muslim world was very much like the Christian one, with great culture but also complete chaos.
The Muslims were ruled by brutish warlords, so actually I regard them as pretty interchangeable. Sources show that the Muslims and Christians were as cultured and brutish as each other.
In more recent times, many Christians in the west have encouraged a Jewish return to Jerusalem. Why have they done this when the city is holy for their faith as well?
From the 17th century there was a return to a literal interpretation of the Bible in Britain. Even fairly secular people such as David Lloyd George or Arthur Balfour were brought up with a love for the Bible, which was basically the Jewish story. So they believed that the Jews should come back to Jerusalem. One of the most bizarre things I realised is that although the 19th-century British empire is regarded as this wonderful, rational force for civilisation, many of its leading players held this evangelical view of the second coming and the Jewish return.
Have there been any instances in Jerusalem’s history when all three faiths lived together harmoniously?
Not many, no. The late Ottoman period was a relatively good time but that was only really because the Jews were being protected by Britain. Before then Jews were tolerated but it was a pretty mean-spirited form of tolerance. They were scarcely allowed access to their own holy place, the Wailing Wall, only having ten feet in front of it to pray in.
In 1229 there was a short-lived peace deal when Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II agreed to share the city with the Muslims. He divided it so that the Muslims had the Dome of the Rock and the Temple Mount and the Christians had the rest of the town. The Jews were banned on pain of death, however, so it wasn’t great from their point of view.
There were also negotiations in 1192 between Saladin and Richard the Lionheart about sharing the city, which again have modern parallels. When you read these exchanges they are reminiscent of Yasser Arafat talking to Ehud Barak in 2000.
Does the history of Jerusalem give any grounds for optimism for its future?
Yes it does. Anyone who says that they know what is going to happen is obviously insane, but there are great possibilities. It could be shared. After all it is only a city. What is important is mutual respect and mutual recognition of each other’s histories. That is one of the reasons that I wanted to write this book, to show both sides to the others.
At the moment there are lots of websites by right-wing Jewish organisations almost denying the Palestinian narrative. There are equally many bloggers and political orders coming out of the Palestinian movement that completely deny any sort of Jewish connection to the city. It is a travesty.
Until those sorts of things are recognised, no peace deal will ever stick, no matter now many times it is signed or negotiated.
Is Jerusalem the most important city in world history?
Well you’re asking someone who is inevitably going to say yes! Of course it’s not the oldest city – far from it, but it has been important in the most continuous way for the longest time.
It is really exciting writing a book about something that is so ancient and yet also so current. Jerusalem is changing all the time. I’m still writing the epilogue because something happens every week.
5 people who shaped a city from biblical times until today
The tyrant king: Herod the Great (73–4 BC)
A Jew with strong Roman connections, Herod was appointed king of Judea by the Senate in 37 BC and ruled until his death. History records him as a bloodthirsty tyrant but he was responsible for magnificent building work in Jerusalem including the reconstruction of the second Jewish temple.
The dome builder: Abd al-Malik (c646–705 AD)
Abd al-Malik was a caliph of the Umayyad dynasty, which governed Jerusalem from the mid-seventh until the mid-eighth centuries. From 685–91 he oversaw the construction of the Dome of the Rock (right), a spectacular shrine on the site where Muhammad is said to have risen to heaven. The dome solidified Islam’s presence in Jerusalem and is its best-known landmark.
The crusading pope: Pope Urban II (c1035–99)
In 1095 Urban addressed a gathering of European notables and called for the capture of Jerusalem by a Christian army. He thus initiated the First Crusade, which succeeded in taking the holy city four years later. Several crusades followed in the 12th and 13th centuries as Christian Europe sought to retain its fragile hold on Jerusalem.
The splendid ruler: Suleiman the Magnificent (c1494–1566)
Sultan Suleiman I ruled the expanding Ottoman empire for nearly half a century. In that time he greatly renovated Jerusalem, which had been captured by his father in 1517. The city’s population increased significantly during his reign and among the new arrivals were Jews fleeing persecution in Europe.
The hopeful soldier: Moshe Dayan (1915–81)
A hardened warrior who wore a distinctive eye-patch, Dayan was the Israeli defence minister who ordered the invasion of Jerusalem’s Old City during the 1967 Six Day War. When reuniting Jerusalem under Israeli control, Dayan said he hoped that the city could be a place where Jews and Arabs would live in harmony.
Simon Sebag Montefiore is an award-winning writer and historian. He is the author of the bestselling Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2003) and Young Stalin (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2007).