Jerusalem: The Biography
Chronicling the world's holiest city
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Captain Monty Parker, a veteran of the Boer War and descendant of English aristocracy, is another one of Montefiore’s great finds. Convinced that he could unearth the Ark of the Covenant in a cave south of the Temple Mount, Parker raised money worldwide for his fruitless endeavor. His contentious excavations culminated in a hasty seaborne retreat. At his heels were angry Arab mobs, under the impression that Parker was fleeing to Europe in possession of the Holy Grail. Bertha Spafford, a founder of the evangelical American Colony, noted that, “the Parker fiasco came nearer to causing anti-Christian massacre than anything that happened during our long residence in Jerusalem.”Skip to next paragraph
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The adventures and misadventures by the likes of Parker and Wingate are welcome in an otherwise slapdash history of over three millennia condensed into just over 600 pages. Phrases like, “she struggled to control her sons:.... the high priest John Hyrcanus II was not energetic enough, while the younger Aristobulos was too energetic by far” provide little benefit to the general reader when they stand alone as the sole description of the Greek Queen Alexandra’s reign.
Montefiore’s ambitious project suffers at the outset as he desperately chronicles what appears to be every uprising, minor conflict, and mild misunderstanding that occurred in and around Jerusalem since time immemorial. Giving each little more than a sentence or two, it is easy to forget the countless names, dates and general point of the first two thirds of the work.
Thankfully, Montefiore’s writing achieves an entertaining tenor as the 19th century arrives, perhaps because his great uncle, Sir Moses Montefiore, figures so prominently in the land’s increasingly Jewish claims to ownership.
Montefiore’s biography ends abruptly following the Yom Kippur War, after which the author has honored his promise to remain politically neutral.
Although the genealogical trees and various maps that close out the book prove helpful, upon completion there is a bit of the feeling of having eaten a large meal too quickly. For some general readers, the book may feel too long. But for others, “Jerusalem: A Biography” will serve to incite curiousity and may feel more like a starting point.
As for me, my order for Wingate’s biography is already in.
Jackson Holahan regularly reviews books for the Monitor.