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Jerusalem: The Biography

No other city of the world has been at the center of history for four millenia.

Abraham almost sacrificed his son Isaac there (Gen. 22).

Adoni-bezek lost his thumbs and big toes right before being buried there (Judg. 1:6-7).

David established it as his new capital after becoming king over both Judah and Israel (2 Sam. 5).

Solomon built the temple there (1 Kgs. 5-8) which lasted for four hundred years.

Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon in 587 BCE destroyed the city, including Solomon’s temple (2 Kgs. 25).

The saga of Jerusalem continues into the New Testament and beyond.  Simon Sebag Montefiore’s 650 page Jerusalem: The Biography (2011) retells the city’s fascinating story over the course of almost 4000 years.  Readers will learn about the corrupt and incestuous family of the Herods (three of which appear in the NT) and the tragic destruction of the city in 70 CE by Titus.  Montefiore recounts the nations and empires who ruled and fought over Jerusalem: the Byzantines, the Persians, the Umayyads, the Abbasids, the Fatimids, the Crusaders, the Ottomans.

I wish I had read this book before visiting Jerusalem in the spring of 2014, but reading it has helped me remember and process my trip in retrospect.

The style is academic (40 pages of endnotes, 20 pages of bibliography and a 20 page index, all in small font), but the writing is quite readable, filled with stories (Abd al-Malik’s construction of the Dome of the Rock completed in 691 CE) and entertaining details (Jerome, the Latin translator was not particularly pious).

Montefiore’s background is Jewish, but his take on the New Testament is sympathetic, even though he clearly doesn’t write as a Christian. I’d be curious to hear what Muslims think of the book.

I found it particularly interesting in areas that I don’t know much, but wish I did (the Maccabees, the Herodians, early Muslim history). I still haven’t finished the book, but I’m about to arrive at the Crusades (about 1000 CE), where I expect to be enlightened about many things.

I have one major problem–the names get quite confusing, even overwhelming at times, so I have found myself frequently flipping back a few pages (“Who is this guy?”  “When did they take over the city?”). But that may be inevitable for a tale of this magnitude.

I’ll point out a few minor, nit-picky problems (because that’s the sort of guy I am, ask my family).

1) David’s lament over Saul and Jonathan (2 Sam. 1) is not formatted poetically (p. 26), which makes it less understandable and harder to appreciate.  Always format poetry poetically, not like prose.

2) He calls the Jehoiakim the brother, instead of the son of Josiah (p. 46).  OK, this part of Judah’s history is really confusing and 99.9% of his readers are going to miss this one.  I wrote an article on Jehoiakim for the Baker Illustrated Bible Dictionary (see also “Other Books“).

3) He misspells Absalom as “Abolsom” (p. 204).  I mean, come on, that’s not even close.

Despite, the name confusion, and the minor flaws, I’d highly recommend it.  If you love Jerusalem, history, and good non-fiction, it’s a great read.

The book was not given to me, I bought it at Costco.




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