British author and historian Simon Sebag Montefiore comes from a family whose motto “Jerusalem” is not only etched in history books, but was also carved into his ancestor Sir Moses Montefiore’s four-poster bed. It is surprising therefore to learn that writing about the city’s history was not his original intention for the book that became, “Jerusalem: the Biography, a fresh history of the Middle East.”
In an interview with The Times of Israel, the author talks about his own personal Jerusalem, the transformation from journalist to author/historian, and his ongoing interest in Russian history.
Sebag Montefiore has been coming to the Holy City since he was a young boy and knows it intimately.
“I particularly love walking around the Old City, the author says in a telephone in interview from his Kensington home in London. “I like to show the special places tucked away. For example, I love the Little Wall (hakotel hakatan) — the bit of the Western Wall that appears later up, a bit up the hill. I love the Golden Gate.”
Another great haunt of his is Mishkenot Sha’ananim. Today it is an upscale residence for writers, but it was originally built as an alms house by Sebag Montefiore’s great great uncle Sir Moses Montefiore.
Generations of Israeli schoolchildren were brought up on the story of how Montefiore established the first Jewish neighborhood outside the Old City walls.
“I love it there — the Montefiore connection is lovely and it is becoming better and better, now it has become a press club and it’s in such a good location.”
Yet the author is far from bleary eyed when it comes to looking at the city in the bleak light of day. In his 2011 book and BBC documentary, as well as outlining the numerous battles, massacres and bloodshed that have taken place there, Montefiore writes of the inevitable anti-climax that greets visitors.
“Every dreamer of Jerusalem, every visitor in all ages from Jesus’s Apostles to Saladin’s soldiers, from Victorian pilgrims to today’s tourists and journalists, arrives with a vision of the authentic Jerusalem and is then bitterly disappointed by what they find, an ever-changing city that has thrived and shrunk, been rebuilt and destroyed many times,” he writes.
Has the city left the author disappointed too?
“I actually love Jerusalem — I’ve always been in love with Jerusalem, and I’ve always wanted to write this book, so for me it’s not been disappointing. The city is boundlessly gripping, endlessly fascinating, so to me it’s just one of those place that I’m always captivated and dazzled by.”
At the same time, Sebag Montefiore admits that Jerusalem “has become quite a depressing place to be. It doesn’t have the fun that other places have, the exhilarating parts. [...] There is a darkness about Jerusalem. It’s dark [...] ,it’s become an angry place — and that’s a great shame.”
The question over the future of the city was central to his ancestors, and remains so the author. Although he chooses to end the book in 1967 with “the last conquest of Jerusalem,” the author muses about the Old City’s future in the epilogue.
“I’m so conflicted about it, because on the one hand I think Israel in some ways has actually managed it well. If you compare it admittedly to a rather low standard — Israel has actually run it in a much more fairer way than the British did. But on the other hand, I’m tired of people buying Jerusalem for possession. I think if there was real a possibility of peace on the table, it would be worth compromising the Old City — but only if it was a real eternal peace deal that satisfied everybody — and that isn’t on the table at the moment.”
“I don’t think Jerusalem should be controlled 100% by religious people of any denomination, sect, or religion — even my own,” Sebag Montefiore adds.
Yet surprisingly, a biography of the city so close to his heart and ancestry was not Sebag Montefiore’s initial idea when it came to writing about the Middle East.
“My first idea was to write about the Saud and the Hashemite families, to write a double biography. [...] I was at school at Harrow with some of the Hashemite princes who I’m friendly with, so there was a possibility of maybe having some access in Jordan.
“But when I looked into the Saudi Arabian possibility, I realized that the book would have been an Arab ‘Game of Thrones.’ There were so many kingdoms that those two families had. So when I looked into the Saudi family, I would have had to get access to some of the very old princes who know the stories of the founder of the kingdom — and it was just impossible. I was never going to get to speak to some of those people. So I made a new plan. It’s still a brilliant idea, I wish that someone would do it.”
Sebag Montefiore has a wide range as an author and a historian, molded by his travels. In his 20s, he deliberately upped himself off the aristocratic conveyor belt that took him seamlessly from one of the world’s top public schools to the hallowed halls of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, where he read history and received a PhD, and then onto a career in the city as a banker.
Instead, Sebag Montefiore boarded a flight to the Caucasus to become an intrepid war correspondent.
“I was in Grozny, in Karabakh, in all these places, Georgia, Ossetia. And it was a very exciting time,” says the author. “At that time, I had no kind of organized life whatsoever, living from war to war really and reporting from a war zone.”
“The experience was liberating,” he admits. “It was just exhilarating after having had such a protected life in London — boarding school and all that. It was great to be completely free, liberated, and be in a place where it doesn’t matter what you are, somewhere where your education was irrelevant. It was also very intense. You had wild love affairs. Every day was like a lifetime, when you are in that kind of situation.”
But war coverage carried substantial risks, and Sebag Montefiore admits to incidents that came too close.
“I had a few things happen to me, especially in Grozny and in the Karabakh war, in Armenia and Azerbaijan, where I really was frightened. I nearly got killed a couple of times. That really scared me, actually.
“I realized then that I wanted to do something that would last, and I really wanted to write these history books. And I came home and I changed. I gave all that up that, really. I decided to write books instead.”
Today, Sebag Montefiore writes both fiction and non-fiction, all rooted in history.
“I much prefer writing fiction,” he admits. “History books for me are very hard work, very serious.”
His latest book is the novel “One Night in Winter,” set in 1940s Stalinist Russia. It’s a whirlwind thriller-love story set to reach the US in May, teetering between the classrooms of Pushkin-adoring teenagers in an elite Moscow school, and the psychologically chilling Stalinist interrogation cells.
“I actually feel, having written history books about Stalin, that the Stalinist novel ["One Night in Winter"] is closer to the real thing than I’ve ever written before. He’s a fascinating character, Stalin. He’s Tony Soprano, he’s like a gangster boss, but he’s also deeply intelligent, subtle, complex,” he says in a video posted on his website.
When prodded about his next project, Sebag Montefiore admits somewhat bashfully that he was was looking forward to indulging two of his “passions”: fiction-writing and Russian history:
“I am planning another novel, a third in the series after ‘Sashenka’ and ‘One Night in Winter.’ But right now, I’m working on the history of the Romanov dynasty, which is fun. That will be my next big book”.
For now, Montefiore is finishing off a TV series filmed in Istanbul. In the future, he says he wants to return to write more about the history of the Middle East. In the meantime, whenever he comes to Jerusalem he says he now gives tours for his friends.
“It’s great fun,” he says “when we’re out and walking around, with a copy of ‘Jerusalem.’ ”