Interview: Simon Sebag Montefiore
Having written widely on Russia and the former Soviet Union, including acclaimed biographies of Stalin and Catherine the Great, what made you embark on a history of Jerusalem?
Surprisingly there are virtually no full histories of Jerusalem. There are lots of books on the Israel-Palestine conflict and the Crusades but the only full one in print is Karen Armstrong’s book, Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths (1997). It is an excellent book, but it is a history of the theologies of Jerusalem. I thought we needed a complete history of the city, all its sects, all its characters, all the literature, the religions, the architecture. I wanted to write the history of the city in a new way – not just about the religions, the empires, the buildings, but through the people who made it. Hence it is called ‘the biography’. The history of Jerusalem is, in many ways, the history of the world and so this is a hugely ambitious book. But I have worked very hard to make it accessible to everyone, all readers.You can read it as a study of faith, empire, identity, or you can also read it as a blood-spattered and scandalous saga, an entertainment starring all the greatest characters of world history from Churchill and Caligula to King David and Barack Obama. The task of researching and writing it almost killed me.
Jerusalem is the most contested city in the world. Were you concerned about the reaction the book might provoke?
Yes and it was very stressful dealing with that. I had to get it right: my aim was firstly to be totally unbiased and impartial between Israelis, Palestinians and all the other peoples and sects, too, from Protestants to Armenians to Ethiopians. Then it had to be both academically correct and sound but also readable by anyone who is interested in the excitement of the greatest story ever told or who enjoys a saga or who is interested in how the Middle East developed to the present day, with the Arab Spring, the truth about the Israel-Palestine conflict, all of that. I hope it is all here, but you can see why I was so stressed. I barely slept for three years thinking about it. I am very relieved that it is written and finished and out.
How did you research the book?
The usual way. By reading primary sources, academic research, scholarly debate, discussions with scholars and politicians, visits to many places in Jerusalem and archaeological digs.
You draw on your family’s own papers? What is your connection to Jerusalem and what did those papers reveal?
My great, great uncle Sir Moses Montefiore, a Victorian baronet and philanthropist, was a fascianting character. In 1860 he built the Montefiore Cottages and Windmill, the first suburb outside Jerusalem’s city walls which, along with the Arab suburbs built soon afterwards, became the new modern city. I looked at his materials and others, too, from within the family and they are in the book and very interesting. In 1917, for example, some Montefiores suppported the Balfour Declaration, while others campaigned against it. And the Montefiore connection has lasted up to today. I have been visiting the city since my childhood and our family motto is simply ‘JERUSALEM’.
You make the point that Jerusalem is two cities: one on earth, one in heaven. How does one write the history of a heavenly city?
Good question. Any history of this place is both mythology and vision and facts. As a historian I am interested in the facts but the myths have also helped create the facts, so this has to be a history of both. The mythology includes the faith and that involves the heavenly city that is ever present in this book, as real and as vivid in its way as the stones of the actual city. But, as you suggest, everything about this book was hard to write and research and get right. It is definitely the greatest challenge of my professional career.
What do you mean when you say that ‘the story of Jerusalem is the story of the world’?
Jerusalem is the centre of world history, the desire of every great empire, the venue for where God meets man, the prize and fascination of so many titans of world history, its destiny so often decided far away, in Moscow or Manhattan or London. In Byzantine and Crusader times it was believed to be the actual centre of the world and today it is again central to all the great world conflicts and issues. That is why its history remains so important, so exciting and so essential to our understanding of the world.
- Middle East
- North America
- South America
- Central America
- Early Modern
- 20th Century
- 21st Century
- Economic History
- Environmental History
- Historical Memory
- Science & Technology