Jerusalem | Simon Sebag Montefiore

Summary of: Jerusalem: The Biography
By: Simon Sebag Montefiore


Embark on a riveting journey through time and uncover the captivating history of Jerusalem, as depicted in the book ‘Jerusalem: The Biography’ by Simon Sebag Montefiore. Discover the importance of this holy city in the context of world history, religious conflicts, and socio-political events. Gain insights into the origins of its name, the early inhabitants, and the multiple layers of its rich cultural heritage. Explore how rulers like King David, Solomon, Saladin, and many others have shaped the city’s narrative through the ages. Immerse yourself in the timeless stories of Jerusalem, its people, and the events that have transformed this city into one of the most significant and contested places on Earth.

Early History of Jerusalem

Learn about the early history of Jerusalem from ancient Egyptian texts up to the building of the first temple by King Solomon. While the Bible offers some history, archaeology and other ancient texts are necessary to verify events. People inhabited the region as early as 5000 BC, and the first texts attributed to a Jerusalemite date back to 1458 BC. The first Hebrews arrived about a century later and struggled for over a century until the Philistines defeated them and stole the Ark of the Covenant. David would later defeat the Philistines and unite the tribes of Israel to retake the Ark and build the city’s first temple.

The Rise and Fall of Jerusalem’s Temples

The Temple Mount in Jerusalem was home to two temples, the first built around 900 BC. The temples were known as sites of divine communication, housing the Ark of the Covenant, until the Babylonian warlord Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the first temple in 587 BC. However, from the ashes of destruction emerged a new era for the Jews. The destruction of the first temple marked the beginning of modern Jewish tradition, as the Jews began to define themselves and write the first books of the Bible while living in Babylon. Eventually, the Jews returned to Jerusalem and built a new temple on the same site, which marked a new era of strict Judaism and reconstruction.

Jesus and the Turbulent Political Climate

The Roman takeover, the death of Herod the Great, and the resulting turmoil set the political stage for the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus warned the people of an imminent apocalypse and referred to himself as the prophesized Messiah, leading to his crucifixion. Guards were stationed near Jesus’s tomb, but many archaeologists believe that his followers retrieved his body and started the Nazarenes sect. They continued to practice Judaism, praying at the temple for the next 30 years.

The Fall of Jerusalem and Rise of Christianity

The apostle Paul played a crucial role in the transformation of a Jewish sect into Christianity, preaching to Gentiles and facing persecution by the Romans. Meanwhile, turmoil within the Roman Empire led to a destructive crackdown on Jerusalem, resulting in massive casualties and the end of the Temple. Despite this tragedy, the Jewish faith persisted, and the teachings of Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai laid the foundation for modern Judaism. The fall of Jerusalem was also noted by the prophet Muhammad as a sign of God’s disfavor towards the Jewish people.

Jerusalem’s Religious Transformation

The transformation of Jerusalem from a Jewish city to a center of Christianity during the Roman Empire is explored. The banning of Jews from the city, the construction of Christian structures and the repression of other religions are detailed.

Jerusalem, previously a Jewish city, was transformed into a center of Christianity during the Roman Empire, culminating in Emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity and the renaming of the city as the holiest place on Earth. The ban on non-Christian services, including banning Jews, resulted in the destruction of the Jewish holy group that had been praying on the Mount of Olives. Helena, Constantine’s mother, played an integral part in Christian history by locating the “true cross,” erecting the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and enforcing the dominance of Christianity in Jerusalem. Empress Eudocia allowed Jews more access to the Temple Mount on holy days, but anti-Jewish policies continued to be enforced in later centuries. Justinian and Theodora’s reign saw the repression of other religions, including forced baptisms of Jews. While Jerusalem’s religious transformation had started with Constantine’s religious awakening, the city became a center of Christianity by destroying all other religious centers, enforcing a global Christian Empire.

Conquests of Jerusalem

The Roman Christian Empire’s mistake of spreading itself too thin left Jerusalem vulnerable to conquests. The Persians were the first to conquer Jerusalem in 614 AD, with the help of 20,000 Jews. However, after three years, the Shah exiled all the Jews. The Byzantine Christians, ruled by Emperor Heraclius, then retook control and brought the true cross back to the Holy Sepulchre. Around the same time, in 610 AD, Muhammad was visited by the Archangel Gabriel, who told him that he was the chosen messenger and prophet of God. Muhammad’s initial followers established Islam’s first Mosque in Medina and had Jewish allies at first. But the pressure to convert people and save them from the approaching judgment day increased, leading to the beginning of Jihad. After Muhammad’s death, Omar peacefully negotiated the Byzantine Christians’ surrender of Jerusalem in exchange for access to the holy city.

Jerusalem’s Turbulent Past

The first Muslim dynasty brought freedom and unity to Jerusalem by building the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa Mosque. However, the city’s sense of peace would eventually come to a bloody end at the hands of Crusaders. Pope Urban II ordered the violent campaign of the first Crusade to liberate the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and cleanse the land of infidels. Despite not being well-trained, the united Christian soldiers scaled the walls of Jerusalem and massacred the trapped population due to the Muslim opponents’ in-fighting and personal disputes. The piles of heads, hands, and feet that littered the city’s streets marked the end of an era.

Saladin’s Capture of Jerusalem

Saladin, a talented Muslim leader, captured Jerusalem in 1187 after defeating the Crusader armies in a desert battle. Saladin took the king of the city, Guy, as prisoner and negotiated for Jerusalem’s capture without a massacre. Saladin received 220,000 dinars of ransom money and released the majority of the Jerusalemites. With Saladin in control of Jerusalem, future Crusades became inevitable. Richard the Lionheart of England and Philip II of France led the Third Crusade, which ended with Richard nearly single-handedly capturing the city of Jaffa. Following a treaty, signed in 1193, Christians were given access to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. A few decades later, the Roman Emperor Frederick II launched the Sixth Crusade and negotiated a deal with Sultan Kamil, which gave Frederick Jerusalem and Bethlehem, and clear access to the sea, as long as the Muslims remained in control of the Temple Mount.

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