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‘This book was for me to read’

Simon sebag montefiore talks to Antara Das on how he makes history and research ‘edible’ in his exhaustive book on Jerusalem - Jerusalem The Biography.

books Updated: Jan 27, 2012 18:55 IST
Antara Das, Hindustan Times

Jerusalem The Biography, the latest book from historian Simon Sebag Montefiore, is 522-pages long (prologue and epilogue included). The exhaustive maps, family trees, acknowledgements, footnotes and bibliography easily add up to another 150 pages. “I did not sleep for three years while writing Jerusalem,” Montefiore tells me in Jaipur while attending the literature fest, the picture of a man pleased with both the effort and the outcome. There are very few comprehensive accounts of the restive, conflicted history of Jerusalem that talk of the poets and the prophets, the conquerors and the whores who made this city. “This was written for me to read,” he says, his red and white sneakers quite in sync with the bright colours of the courtyard of Diggi Palace.

Montefiore’s previous books, non-fiction except one novel, have largely drawn on Russia. In 1991, as the Soviet Union fell apart, he quit his job as a banker to travel in that part of the world. “I worked as a war correspondent, reporting for various publications from Georgia, Chechnya and South Ossetia. Once, he almost got killed and realised that he “did not want to die that way”. But the exertions bore fruit in getting him close to people who could open up invaluable archival resources for him, laying the groundwork for books such as Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar and Catherine the Great and Potemkin.

The centrality of Jerusalem (or “colossal power” as Montefiore puts it) owes to its ‘holiness’. He means the three Abrahamic religions but I must have looked a little startled, because he immediately says, “well, not for the Indians or Chinese, sorry about that”. The book covers a wide expanse, right from the reign of King David through the Byzantine era and the rise of Islam, the Crusades, the Ottoman empire right up to the present day Israel-Palestine conflict (including references to the Arab Spring). It goes chronologically, but to make it “edible” (and boost popular reading), Montefiore has divided the book into “small little bits, which function as independent characters”. “It is something even my mother can read,” he says.

Jerusalem lacks geo-strategic significance and is but a city located on a remote, dusty mountainside. But there has been tremendous conflict over every part of it and Montefiore’s mission has been to get “as close as possible to the historical truth”. The discussion turns to the extensive research, and how that raw data was marshalled. “Well, first you have to totally penetrate the subject matter, conquer all the debates and challenges and get the academic view correct. Then you must decide what you want to cover,” he says.

Montefiore, who has been visiting Jerusalem since he was a child, always wanted to write about the city. In the book he writes about his ancestor Sir Moses Montefiore, a frequent visitor and a philanthropist who was knighted by Queen Victoria and was among the first to build outside the Old City. But Jerusalem is no closed chapter, nor has the final word been spoken on the city. At a public session held during the festival, Montefiore had said that the “only way to have peace (between the Israelis and the Palestinians) is by recognising each other’s narratives”. He tells me later that if necessary, he will update his book, though the “last 50-60 years is but a small period in the history of Jerusalem”.

As “a city of both heaven and earth”, Jerusalem has had a turbulent effect on outsiders (mainly Christian pilgrims), resulting in a special form of insanity known as the Jerusalem Syndrome. It is caused by the “disjuncture between the conceptions of holiness and the actual messiness”, between those who, according to Montefiore, cannot reconcile the ‘celestial’ with the ‘terrestrial’.

First Published: Jan 27, 2012 18:55 IST