Slouching Toward Jerusalem


I’ve been fascinated by the Crusades for several years now.  Not surprising, I suppose, given my basic interest in the times and places where two cultures touch (or in the case of the Crusades, whack at) each other and change.   I’ve read accounts of what the Crusades looked like from the Muslim perspective. (Barbarian invaders who didn’t take enough baths).  I’ve been fascinated by the changes in Europe that made the Crusades possible. (Do not underestimate the impact of the steel-tipped heavy plow and the horse yoke.)  I’ve spent a lot of time on the innovations the Crusaders brought to Europe.  (Don’t get me started.)  I even toured a Crusader castle in Turkey with My Own True Love, who’s pretty fascinated by the Crusades himself.

But until recently I hadn’t given much though to the place that stands at the very heart of the Crusades:  Jerusalem.  I “knew”, in a fuzzy general knowledge sort of way, that Jerusalem was a sacred city for Judaism, Christianity and Islam.  That was enough.

Until, of course, it wasn’t.

When a recent assignment forced me to think about Jerusalem in a more detailed way, I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to start with Karen Armstrong’s Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths or Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Jerusalem, the Biography.  I choose history over theology pretty much every time.  But Montefiore’s book, which traces the history of Jerusalem from the time of David through the Six-Day War, looked like a dense concrete block.

I flipped a coin.  History prevailed. (Here’s where I need to say something like “don’t judge a book by its cover”, or at least not by how many pages it has.)

Jerusalem, the Biography may be long, but it’s also fast-paced and smart. Montefiore’s stated goal is “to show that Jerusalem was a city of continuity and coexistence, a hybrid metropolis of hybrid buildings and hybrid people who defy the narrow categorizations that belong in the separate religious legends and nationalist narratives of later times.”  He more than succeeds.  Montefiore weaves together stories I thought I knew into a larger framework that illuminates them in ways I didn’t expect. Over and over I enjoyed a flutter of recognition, followed by “wow, I didn’t know that”. The book is full of vivid characters: familiar, unfamiliar, and unexpected. (I had no clue that Cleopatra had anything to do with Jerusalem.  Did you?)

(Montefiore is also is a master of the miscellaneous tidbit.  For example:  the emperor Vespasian introduced public lavatories to Rome.  Today, public lavatories are still known as vespasianos. i don’t know about you, but I find this kind of stuff irresistible.)

Between big revelations and fascination tidbits, my library copy was stuffed with Post-it notes by the time I reached the end of the book.

Plenty of intellectual roads lead to Jerusalem. If you’re slouching, marching or just moseying along on any of them, Jerusalem, the Biography would make a good travel guide.  But don’t say I didn’t warn you. You’re going to want your own copy–or a lot of Post-its.


  1. Public Toilets and Heads of State on July 19, 2011 at 6:48 am

    […] those of you who are reading along know, I recently learned that public toilets are called vespasianos in Italy, after the Roman emperor Vespasian, who […]

  2. A Crusade by Any Other Name…. on September 8, 2011 at 9:00 pm

    […] As I believe I’ve mentioned, I’ve been reading seriously about the Crusades for several years now. I am well aware that the term “crusade” derives from the red cross worn by warriors who had “taken the cross”. If pushed to choose a side, I’d back the cultured Muslims against the barbaric “Frankish invaders” any day. But I’m also a product of my time, my place, and my education. In my head, it’s the Crusades. Or at least it was until an expatriate Arab Christian from Lebanon pointed out the obvious. Thanks, Mr. Maalouf. I needed that. […]

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