Jerusalem's Three Unauthorized Portraits

New Books Take Divergent Approaches to Famed Holy City

Three Times Holy: Three books take very different approaches to the divisive history of Jerusalem.
getty images
Three Times Holy: Three books take very different approaches to the divisive history of Jerusalem.

By Jo-Ann Mort

Published November 20, 2011, issue of November 25, 2011.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

Jerusalem: The Biography
By Simon Sebag Montefiore
Knopf, 688 pages, $35

Jerusalem, Jerusalem: How the Ancient City Ignited Our Modern World
By James Carroll
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 432 pages, $28

Columbus and the Quest for Jerusalem
By Carol Delaney
Free Press, 336 pages, $26

A Google search for Jerusalem brings more than 13,000 news hits in less than 0.17 seconds. But the city that many people think they know bears little resemblance to the place itself. Jerusalem lives in the past and present simultaneously, which makes figuring out its future so frustrating and difficult. Simon Sebag Montefiore states it like this in his excellent new book, “Jerusalem: The Biography”: “Jerusalem is the house of the one God, the capital of two peoples, the temple of three religions and she is the only city to exist twice — in heaven and on earth.” A British historian, Montefiore is also the great- great-nephew of Sir Moses Montefiore. The elder Montefiore founded Jerusalem’s Mishkenot Sha’ananim neighborhood around the iconic windmill, where Jews settled first in 1860.

These three recent books about Jerusalem are highly uneven, approaching Jerusalem from an array of disciplines, including religion, history, anthropology and literature.

The Montefiore book, written with an accessible narrative, is the most important among them, and it makes for a good addition to the many books about the city. James Carroll’s book includes intriguing arguments, but the reader must dig for them within a book that is frustratingly scattered. Cultural anthropologist Carol Delaney’s book about Christopher Columbus’s search for gold in order to fund a Christian recapture of Jerusalem is important for what it says about Jerusalem in the popular imagination, since the book is more supposition than fact.

From what began as a tiny walled village on a hill in 5000 B.C. where ritual sacrifice was once a noted practice, Jerusalem is both the most populous Palestinian city and a city that is at the heart of Jewish identity in history and in religion. This puts it at the core of the divide between Israelis and Palestinians in the ongoing struggle for two states. Christians, too, stake their claim to the city where Jesus lived and taught, and for centuries the city has been captured and recaptured by those who want to lay claim to it for each of the three religions. The problem, though, is daily life. “Jerusalem today lives in a state of schizophrenic anxiety,” Montefiore rightly states. His writing is clear and engaging as he makes the historic case for the claim to Jerusalem by Jews, Muslims and Christians alike.

Jerusalem has been conquered and re-conquered for 3,000 years, by the Romans, Saladin, the Ottomans, Napoleon — even the Albanians and Russians got into the act — all the way up to the British Mandate, leading to the eventual division of the city with rule on the East by Jordan and the West, after 1948, by Israel. 1967, which forms the coda of the Montefiore book, changed all that with Israel’s capture of East Jerusalem and what is known as the Holy Basin, the tiny plot of land that includes the remnants of the two Jewish Temples known as the Western Wall, the Temple Mount and the Al Aqsa Mosque along with the rest of the walled-in Old City. This cluster of holy real estate is what all the fighting is about; the rest of the city is practically postscript.

For 3,000 years, Jerusalem, in the midst of all the bloodletting, evolved into a metaphor for longing and perfection as much as into a real place. As Carroll, a former Catholic priest, chronicles in his book, the city has provided a gleaming future on a hill for everyone from the ancients to American pilgrims and British poets. Carroll’s documenting of Jerusalem in the literary and religious imagination is the most interesting argument in his book and would have made a terrific stand-alone essay or smaller book.

What would a book about Jerusalem in the imagination be without an evocation of William Blake’s poem about Jerusalem? “And did those feet in ancient time / Walk upon England’s mountains green….” Ironically, Blake placed Jerusalem “among the dark Satanic Mills” of England’s industrial era, in a poem that became an anthem of the British left, with Jerusalem as a metaphor for a just society: “I will not cease from Mental Fight, / Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand: / Till we have built Jerusalem, / In England’s green & pleasant Land.”


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Is boredom un-Jewish?
  • Let's face it: there's really only one Katz's Delicatessen.
  • "Dear Diaspora Jews, I’m sorry to break it to you, but you can’t have it both ways. You can’t insist that every Jew is intrinsically part of the Israeli state and that Jews are also intrinsically separate from, and therefore not responsible for, the actions of the Israeli state." Do you agree?
  • Are Michelangelo's paintings anti-Semitic? Meet the Jews of the Sistine Chapel: http://jd.fo/i4UDl
  • What does the Israel-Hamas war look like through Haredi eyes?
  • Was Israel really shocked to find there are networks of tunnels under Gaza?
  • “Going to Berlin, I had a sense of something waiting there for me. I was searching for something and felt I could unlock it by walking the streets where my grandfather walked and where my father grew up.”
  • How can 3 contradictory theories of Yiddish co-exist? Share this with Yiddish lovers!
  • "We must answer truthfully: Has a drop of all this bloodshed really helped bring us to a better place?”
  • "There are two roads. We have repeatedly taken the one more traveled, and that has made all the difference." Dahlia Scheindlin looks at the roots of Israel's conflict with Gaza.
  • Shalom, Cooperstown! Cooperstown Jewish mayor Jeff Katz and Jeff Idelson, director of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, work together to oversee induction weekend.
  • A boost for morale, if not morals.
  • Mixed marriages in Israel are tough in times of peace. So, how do you maintain a family bubble in the midst of war? http://jd.fo/f4VeG
  • Despite the escalating violence in Israel, more and more Jews are leaving their homes in Alaska to make aliyah: http://jd.fo/g4SIa
  • The Workmen's Circle is hosting New York’s first Jewish street fair on Sunday. Bring on the nouveau deli!
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.