For any stable genius who is, like, really clever but has not considered all the complexities of – to take an example at random – the US recognising Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Jerusalem: The Biography is a good place to start. There is, one would imagine, enough sex and lewd talk in this wide-ranging and often racy volume to keep anyone interested, bigly. Jerusalem is a city claimed by three religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – and is also a city of massacre, fratricide, matricide, patricide and general misery. Roman emperors, Egyptian pharaohs, Assyrian kings, assorted Greeks and religious zealots of every possible stripe fill the pages. It requires a firm guiding hand, and Montefiore takes thousands of years of ancient history at a structured gallop, while not forgetting a crucial element in a book of this size: humour. The asides, footnotes and picture captions are often airily brilliant. For instance, we learn that ‘Constantine the Great was no saint – he murdered his wife and son – but he embraced Christianity and transformed Jerusalem’. This conforms to a pattern: virtually no-one who has played a part in the city’s extraordinary development gets away clean. Few hands are as dirty as Herod’s – even if there is no evidence that he slaughtered the innocents at Christmas: ‘It is ironic that this monster should be particularly remembered for the one crime that he neglected to commit.’ As you would expect from a destroyed, rebuilt (repeat numerous times) city, there are finds everywhere. I didn’t know that 666, the number of the beast, is ‘probably a code for Nero’*; nor had I heard of the troublesome priest Arius, who ‘departed this world in a fecally explosive incident’. In other words, I’m afraid, Arius literally shat himself to death. But there are worse ways to go, as Montefiore makes clear: beheading, being torn apart, drinking molten gold, bisection, dismemberment and, of course, crucifixion. During the Roman siege of AD70, 500 Jews were being crucified every day in the hills around the city so ‘there was scarcely room for any more nor trees to make them’. In short, the nightmares of Hieronymus Bosch and the Chapman Brothers, made flesh.
*It’s rather complicated