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Jerusalem: The Biography, by Simon Sebag Montefiore


“Jerusalem: The Biography” reads more like a history textbook than a novel. As a historical reference text, I think it’s a good resource. It’s not a novel, and it shouldn’t be read like a novel. Once I realized this, I started to appreciate the content. However, I kept Wikipedia open at my side in order to understand many of the religious and historical terms. There was a lot of content with little background, so I used Wikipedia to establish context that I was missing. To help myself understand Jerusalem’s history, I also created a timeline of significant events, given below.

I was surprised by the amount of blood, war, death, scandal, prostitution, and suppression that characterizes Jerusalem’s history. Throughout history, the three Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) have fought over possession of the Holy City. Although these religions are in constant conflict with one another, they all agree on one important fact: the existence and omnipotence of God. However, these religions differ greatly in their interpretations of God’s Word and Jesus’s existence. These differences have caused holy wars fueled by religious fervor. In many ways, Jerusalem is the center of the world, and whoever controls Jerusalem, controls the world. Jerusalem’s importance is unquestionable.

Jerusalem Timeline

Judaism is Born

3,500 - 5,000 BC : earliest existence of Jerusalem

1,000 BC : King David conquers Jerusalem

970 BC : Solomon succeeds David as King of Israel

966 BC : Solomon begins construction of the Temple. The Temple was assembled off-site so that no noise was heard at the site of construction

957 BC : The Temple is completed

930 BC : Solomon dies. Jeroboam rules the Northern Tribe, Israel. Rehoboam rules the Southern Tribe, Judah, and Jerusalem.

Assyrian Empire

727 BC : Assyria conquers Israel and Judah, but not Jerusalem. King Hezekiah successfully repels an attack from the Assyrians, which was led by Sennacherib. To prepare for the attack by Sennacherib, Hezekiah built a tunnel so that the Jerusalemites had water during the Assyrian siege (2 Chronicles 32:2-4 and 2 Kings 20:20), and he built a massive wall to protect Jerusalem. The existence of both these structures has been confirmed by archeological efforts.

Hezekiah’s son, Manasseh, succeeds him as King. Manasseh turns the Temple into a center of idol worship, prostitution, and child sacrifice.

643 BC : Manasseh dies.

Babylonian Empire

587 BC : Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians begin to siege Jerusalem. The Babylonians worshipped Bel-Marduk

586 BC : Nebuchadnezzar successfully overthrows Jerusalem and burns the Temple. He also deports the Jews to Babylon

Persian Empire

539 BC : Cyrus and the Persians conquer Babylon. The Jews are allowed to have religious freedom, after being suppressed by the Babylonians

Darius succeeds Cyrus as the Persian emperor

515 BC : The Temple is rebuilt, and dedicated for the second time, by Zerubbabel. Compared to Solomon’s Temple, this second Temple was disappointingly modest.

444 BC : Nehemiah appeals to the Persian King, King Artaxerxes, to rebuild the wall around Jerusalem. Nehemiah is appointed Governor of Jerusalem to complete the task

Ancient Greece

336 BC : Alexander the Great becomes King of the Macedonians. Macedon was the dominant state of the Greeks. He conquers the Persians and rest of the known world, making the Greek culture universal

323 BC : Alexander the Great dies. Ptolemy seizes control of Egypt

301 BC : The Ptolemies conquer Jerusalem

223 BC : Antiochus III The Great becomes King of the Macedonians. He conquers Jerusalem and allows the Jews to practice semi-independently. Joseph the Tobiad rules Jerusalem.

175 BC : Antiochus IV Epiphanes succeeds Antiochus the Great as King of the Macedonians and Greeks. Antiochus Epiphanes was also known as the Madman.

167 BC : Antiochus Epiphanes conquers Jerusalem. He entered the Holy of Holies, stole artifacts from the Temple, and demanded the Jews to worship him as god. He also tried to eradicate the Jews completely, eliminating the Sabbath and killing anybody who continued to practice Judaism.

164 BC : Judah the Hammer, a Maccabean, conquers Jerusalem. He fought on behalf of the Jews to protect them Hellenism. The Jewish holiday, Hanukkah, honors Judah for removing the Greek gods from the Temple and re-purifying the Temple.

161 BC : Judah Maccabee dies

Roman Empire

63 BC : Pompey (aka Magnus the Great), the Roman emperor conquers Jerusalem. He appoints Hyrcanus as the High Priest and Antipater as the Minister. Like Antiochus IV, Pompey enters the Holy of Holies. But unlike Antiochus IV, Pompey did not steal anything

49 BC : Julius Caesar defeats Pompey and becomes the Roman dictator. Hyrcanus remains the High Priest and Antipater remains the Minister. Antipater has two sons, Phasael and Herod the Great. Thus, Antipater is the Father of Herodian Dynasty.

44 BC : Caesar is assassinated. Octavian and Mark Antony become co-rulers of the Roman Kingdom.

The Jews despised Herod and Phasael, and drove the brothers out of Jerusalem. Herod flees to Rome, where Octavian and Antony support him and name him King of Judaea. Antigonus, a Maccabean, becomes High Priest in Jerusalem. Herod marries Mariamme, a Maccabean princess. His marriage into the Maccabean family causes long-lasting conflict.

38 BC : Antony and the Romans capture Jerusalem, on behalf of Herod. In return, Herod sends the last Maccabean King to Antony, who beheads the Maccabean.

32 BC : Octavian wins the war for the world by defeating Antony and Cleopatra, and he becomes the sole Roman emperor. Herod, a charismatic leader, befriends Octavian (aka Augustus) and Augustus’s military general, Marcus Agrippa. Caesar Augustus and Marcus Agrippa support Herod.

Mariamme, Herod’s wife is accused of poisoning Herod with a love potion. Therefore, she is killed. In response, Herod kills Mariamme’s mother, Alexandra, the Maccabean Queen.

23 BC : Herod the Great builds a new Palace and citadel inside Jerusalem. The Citadel has 3 towers: the Hippicus, the Phasael, and the Mariamme

20 BC (circa) : Herod begins construction of a new Temple. He wants the Temple to rival Solomon’s Temple. Therefore, he tears down the Temple built by Zerubbabel and builds a new Temple in its place. Herod’s Temple survived until 70 A.D., when it was destroyed by Titus, and it was the Temple that existed during Jesus’s life.

4 BC : Herod the Great dies. On his deathbed, he was feverish and paranoid. He killed many of his own sons, including Alexander and Aristobulos (2 sons from Mariamme), and Antipater (eldest son from his first wife). After his death, Judaea is divided among 3 of his other sons. Archelaus becomes ruler of Jerusalem.

6 AD : Archelaus was an inept ruler, and Augustus removes him from Jerusalem. Rome chooses to rule Jerusalem itself and calls for a census. The author claims that this census is the one that called Jesus’s parents to Bethlehem.

33 AD : Jesus is crucified

Christianity is Born

37 AD : Saul experiences a theophany and is converted to Paul, the founder of Christianity

66 AD : Jerusalem is in extreme unrest. Nero is the emperor of Rome. Jerusalem is under half-Roman control and half-Herodian control, with Herod Agrippa sitting as the King of Jerusalem. Nero’s procurator in Jerusalem is Gessius Floras. However, Herod is afraid of losing Judaea, so he commands Titus Flavius Vespasianus to conquer Judaea.

67 AD : Titus conquers Galilee, bit-by-bit. Josephus survives Titus’s sieges, and predicts that Titus will become the Roman emperor when Nero dies.

68 AD : Nero commits suicide and Titus Vespasianus succeeds him as the Roman Emperor. Because of his astute prediction, Josephus is freed from prison and assigned to be Titus’s advisor.

70 AD : Titus conquers Jerusalem. He enters the Holy of Holies and destroys the Temple

100 AD (circa) : Josephus dies

117 : Hadrian becomes emperor of Rome

130 : Hadrian seeks to eradicate the Jews. He banned circumcision, prevented them from worshipping at the Temple, and made every effort to abolish Jerusalem. He renamed Jerusalem to “Aelia Capitolna” and Judaea to “Palaestina”, after the Philistines, enemies of the Jews. He killed thousands of Jews with near genocidal vengeance and tried to completely eradicate their existence. Hadrian was hated by everybody, but especially the Jews.

312 : Constantine, the Roman emperor, dramatically converts to Christianity. He conquers the West by defeating Maxentius, and glorifies God for his victory. The Roman tetrarch, Licinius, rules the East.

Byzantine Empire

324 : Constantine defeats Licinius and unites the whole Roman empire. He establishes a new capital city, Constantinople, to serve as a gateway between the East and West. Historically, this marks the beginning of the Byzantine Empire. However, the residents of the Byzantine Empire simply referred to themselves as Romans.

325 : Constantine holds the Council of Nicaea, primarily to establish the correct Christian doctrine for the relationship between Jesus and God. The Council of Nicaea declares that Jesus was both divine and human. It was also decided to restore Aelia Capitolina to Jerusalem.

337 : Constantine dies. The empire is divided among his sons, who agree to continue promoting Christianity.

362 : The Roman emperor, Julian, reverses the Hadrianic and Constantinian laws that suppressed the Jews. He supported polytheism, Hellenism, and state religion. He rejected Christianity. However, Julian gives Jerusalem back to the Jews and attempts to rebuild the Temple, in an attempt to invalidated Jesus’s claims.

381 : Roman emperor, Theodosius, convenes The second of 7 ecumenical councils, the First Council of Constantinople. The Council defined the role of the Holy Spirit, the third entity of the Divine Trinity. Theodosius reverses many of Julian’s laws and restores Christianity.

431 : The third of 7 ecumenical councils, the Council of Ephesus, is held, which creates a schism in Christendom, that is, the Christian World

451 : The fourth of 7 ecumenical councils, The Council of Chalcedon, declares that Jesus was “perfect in divinity and perfect in humanity”, that is, Jesus was a union of two natures.

518 : The Roman emperor, Justinian, spreads Christianity. But he suppresses the Jews and pagans

565 : Justinian dies. He is credited with expanding the Roman empire more than any other emperor, and for constructing the Hagia Sofia, which was said to rival the splendor of Solomon’s Temple

Islam is Born

610 : The Archangel Gabriel visits Muhammad and informs Muhammad that he is God’s Messenger and Prophet. Gabriel tells Muhammad what to write in the Koran. Gabriel reveals himself several more times in the future, and provides additional content for the Koran. Most of the Koran focuses on the Apocalypse, which appealed to his militant Arab followers.

Muhammad revered the Bible and its characters such as David, Solomon, Moses, and Jesus. He preached complete submission to God in exchange for salvation, and he practiced circumcision, fasting, and prayer, but unlike the Christians, he did not believe in the Trinity. Muhammad believed in the God of the Old Testament, but he did not believe in Jesus. He united the Arabian tribes, wrote the Koran, and established his own religion, Islam.

630 : The Roman emperor, Heraclius, persecutes the Jews and forcibly requires them to convert to Christianity. He also known as the first Crusader, because he returned the True Cross to Jerusalem. The True Cross is supposedly the fragments of the cross that Jesus was crucified on.

632 : Muhammad dies. After his death, the Umayyad caliphate is established. A caliphate is a territory under Islamic rule, and its ruler is known as a caliph.

637 : Muhammad’s close affidavit, Omar (aka Umar), conquers Mecca, including Jerusalem, which is mostly just ruins. He builds a mosque on the Temple Mount as a place to worship

644 : Omar dies

685 : Abd al-Malik becomes caliph of the Umayyad Caliphate. He uses his wealth to build the Dome of the Rock, which still stands today and is the centerpiece of Jerusalem. He also collated the Koran into its final form and finished the construction of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, which was started by Omar.

691(2) : The Dome of the Rock is completed. Inscriptions surround the Dome and reject the idea that Jesus was divine. The Byzantines despised The Dome of the Rock and the Islamic dominance that it represented. Today, the Dome defines Jerusalem and is a reminder of Islam’s popularity.

750 : The Abbasid Caliphate overthrows the Umayyad Caliphate, including Jerusalem. For the most part, they neglect Jerusalem, which means that the city is led into chaos

800 : Charles the Great (aka Charlemagne), a Frank, is crowned emperor of Rome by the pope

969 : The Fatimid Caliphate, which claimed descent from Muhammad’s daughter, Fatima, conquer Jerusalem. At this point, Jews, Christians, and Muslims live together almost peacefully in Jerusalem

1004 : The Fatimid caliph, Hakim, persecutes the Jews and Christians in Jerusalem. He kills them and bans their religious holidays

1033 : An earthquake wreaks destruction on Jerusalem

1099 : The Franks conquer Jerusalem in the First Crusade, which was organized by Pope Urban II in 1095. Urban wanted to restore the power of the Catholic Church, and remove Jerusalem from Islamic control. The Crusade was led by Godfrey of Bouillon, and Baldwin was named the first Latin King of Jerusalem. After the successful First Crusade, the Outremer (French for “overseas”) was established. The Outremer was 4 feudal states in the Mediterranean, including the Kingdom of Jerusalem. During the time period after the First Crusade, Usamah Bin Munqidh, who was a prolific contemporary writer, is our primary source of information.

1147 : The Second Crusade is launched by the European powers in order to conquer Damascus, but it fails

1174 : King Amaury dies, and his son, Baldwin IV becomes the new King of Jerusalem. Unfortunately, Baldwin IV had leprosy. He was known as the Leper King, and the movie, “Kingdom of Heaven” is based on this time period.

1187 : Saladin, a Muslim, defeats the Crusaders and conquers Jerusalem

1189 : The King of England, Richard the Lionheart, leads the Third Crusade to re-conquer Jerusalem from the Muslims. The Third Crusade is unsuccessful and Saladin continues to rule Jerusalem. Over the next several years, several other Crusades are launched in order to conquer Jerusalem. These Crusades left Jerusalem demolished and barren

1193 : Saladin dies and the Ayyubid Empire is divided among his sons

1248 : King Louis IX of France launches the Seventh Crusade for Egypt, which included Jerusalem

1250 : The Egyptian Sultan, Baibars, leads the Mamluks to defeat the Crusaders. The mamluks were Islamic slave-soldiers. Baibars demonstrated his strength and skill, and quickly rose through the ranks

Ottoman Empire

1453 : The Ottomans conquer Constantinople

1517 : The Ottoman sultan, Selim, conquers Jerusalem

1520 : Selim’s son, Suleiman (aka Suleiman the Magnificent), succeeds him as sultan of the Ottoman empire. Suleiman believed in the beauty of Islam, and many of the existing sights in Jerusalem, including walls, an aqueduct, fountains, and the glazed tiles on the Dome of the Rock, were constructed by Suleiman. As an Islam supporter, Suleiman did not support Christendom

1566 : Suleiman dies

1590 : The Arabs seize Jerusalem. Jerusalem is in ruins, it’s filthy, and there are many riots in the following years

1798 : The French military leader, Napoleon Bonaparte, conquers Egypt, which was ruled by a mix of Mamluk and Ottoman rulers

1806 : Jerusalem is seen as “heap of rubbish” and it is constantly seized by different groups of rebels

1831 : The Albanians, led by Ibrahim Pasha, conquer Jerusalem

1840 : The British re-claim Jerusalem from Ibrahim and appoint a Latin patriarch to govern the city

1859 : Moses Montefiore, a wealthy British Jewish businessman backed by the Rothschild family, builds the Montefiore windmill in Jerusalem. He also starts many other construction projects, all in efforts to help the Jews, including the construction of Mishkenot Sha’ananim, which was the first settlement built outside of Jerusalem’s walls

1860-1870 : Archaeological interest in Jerusalem grows. The Russians, British, French, Germans, and Americans all wanted to discover archaeological treasures. This also bestirs tourism to Jerusalem

1863 : Abdul Rahman Afandi Dajani was selected to serve as the first governor of Jerusalem. Hereafter, Jerusalem was governed by one of the Families. There would be 6 Husseini mayors, 4 Alami mayors, 2 Khalidi mayors, and 3 Dajani mayors

1897 : Theodor Herzl established Zionism by organizing the First Zionist Congress. He also become the first president of the World Zionist Organization. He believed that the Jews needed their own nation. Thus, Zionism is a political movement for the Jews to return to their homeland in Palestine (present day Israel)

End of Ottoman Empire

1916 : The secret Sykes-Picot Agreement is established, and Britain convinces Hussein to lead the Arabians in the Arab Revolt to overthrow the Ottoman Empire. The British promised to support the Arabs in establishing a unified, independent Arab state. This agreement between Britain and Hussein was recorded in a series of letters, known as the McMahon-Hussein Correspondence. However, the British led by Sir Mark Sykes, and the French led by Francois Georges-Picot, established a secret agreement to partition the Ottoman Empire between Britain, France, and Russia. When the Sykes-Picot Agreement was made public, Arab resentment towards the West was born, since it did not support a unified and independent Arab state.

1917 : The British Foreign Secretary, Arthur James Balfour, writes the Balfour Declaration. The Balfour Declaration was addressed to Lord Rothschild, a wealthy leader in the British Jewish community, and it declared that the British supported a Jewish establishment in Palestine. Although Balfour wrote the Declaration, the Prime Minister of Britain, George Lloyd, was primarily responsible for making the decision

1917 : The British, under General Edmund Allenby’s leadership, captures Jerusalem. Sir Ronald Storrs was appointed as governor of Jerusalem

1919 : The Treaty of Versailles is signed, which ends WWI. France is given Syria and the British are given Palestine, which included Jerusalem

1930 : The first world-class hotel, the King David Hotel, is constructed in Jerusalem. During this time, Jerusalem flourished. Thousands of Jews and Arabs immigrated into Jerusalem, tourism increased, and cultures blended

1936 : Jewish increases peaks this year with approximately 66,000 Jews immigrating into Jerusalem. Against Jewish immigration, fearful of rising Jewish power, and fearful of the English’s support of Zionism, the Arabs retaliate in what was known as the Arab Revolt in Palestine

1939 : The British publish the White Paper, which restricts Jewish immigration into Jerusalem. Furthermore, Hitler declared his Final Solution to eradicate all Jews. The Arab Revolt, White Paper, and Final Solution convinced Jews and Zionists that violence was the only answer

1947 : Resolution 181 is adopted by the United Nations, which ended the British Mandate and partitioned Palestine into independent Jewish and Arab states. Jerusalem would have its own borders, and be an independent state under UN governance. The resolution sought to appease both Zionism and Palestine nationalism. However, the Arabs, who wanted a unified independent Palestine, did not support the plan and immediately revolted

1948 : The British mandate ends, and the chairman of the Jewish Agency, David Ben-Gurion, declares the establishment of the Jewish State of Israel. Truman, the president of the US de facto recognizes the state of Israel, whereas Russia was the first to de jure recognize the state of Israel. The creation of Israel prompts a civil war between Israel and the Arabs, known as the Arab-Israeli War

1949 : Armistice Agreements are signed by Israel and their neighbors, which ends the Arab-Israeli War. According to this Agreement, Israel received the west side of Jerusalem, whereas Abdullah and the Arabs received the east side of Jerusalem. Jerusalem was divided by fences and barbed wire

1951 : Abdullah is assassinated. He is succeeded briefly by his son, Talal. Talal’s reign was short, and he was soon succeeded by his son, Hussein

1953 : Ben-Gurion retires from being the Prime Minister of Jerusalem

1967 : During the Six Day War between Israel and the Arabs, General Rabin leads Israel to victory over Egypt (led by Nasser), Syria, and Jordan (led by King Hussein). For the first time since 1948, the Jews were allowed back into the Old City of Jerusalem and were allowed to worship at the Western Wall


The two halves of Jerusalem are united, and Jews are freely allowed to worship at the Temple Mount for the first time since 70 AD when Herod’s Temple was destroyed. Christians, Jews, and Muslims worship together, not exactly accepting one another, but peacefully ostracizing one another. There have many minor skirmishes and riots, but progress has also been made by establishing several peace agreements with surrounding nations. Although it is possible to partition the settlements surrounding Jerusalem into Arab, Jewish, Palestinian, American, etc. suburbs, it is impossible to divide the Old City of Jerusalem among the different peoples. The Old City, which houses the Dome of the Rock, the Temple Mount, Al-Aqsa Mosque, and the Western Wall, is impossible to divide. It is unlikely that any one group of people will ever be able to claim complete ownership of Jerusalem, that is, until Jesus returns. For us, owning Jerusalem is like owning the Heavens. Only the God of the Old Testament, who is responsible for creating the Heavens can own that prize.

Interesting notes

  • Why are there 2 creation stories in the Bible (Genesis 1:1-2:3 and Genesis 2:4-25)?

  • Why are there 2 flood stories? 2 stories about Jacob changing his name to Israel? 2 stories about the capture of Jerusalem? 2 stories about Goliath?

  • In Judges 1:8, why did the Israelites burn Jerusalem?

  • Our only reference source for this time period is the Bible

  • Most of our known information about the Roman empire comes from Josephus. Josephus was a Temple priest, Israelite general, and historian

  • The history of Jerusalem is full of war, blood, death, scandal, prostitution, suppression

  • 2/3 preconditions for Judgement Day are satisfied: Israel is restored, and Jerusalem is restored to the Jews. The only remaining condition is the construction of the Third Temple

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