Jerusalem the Golden: Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu and his undivided capital (Sebastian Scheiner/AP)
To the educated British mind, mention of Jerusalem generally conjures up, at best, impatience with the apparently intractable problem of reconciling two equal and rival claims to the city, Jewish and Arab; at worst, fury at a presumed "occupation" by Israelis who have no right to claim it as their capital at all.
Such people would doubtless be amazed to learn that, some 10 centuries before the birth of Christ and 17 centuries before the birth of Mohammed, the city of Jerusalem was created by King David as the capital of the united kingdom of Israel and Judea. The Jews were in fact the only people for whom the land of Israel was ever actually their national home.
And the Arabs knew it. "Who can contest the rights of the Jews to Palestine?" the then mayor of Jerusalem, Yusuf Khalidi, told the Chief Rabbi of France in 1899: "God knows historically it is indeed your country" — even though, he added, the problem was that now there were others living there too. Those others were only there, however, because of the extraordinary impulse to conquer and possess this tiny piece of land — and above all, the prize of prizes at its heart, Jerusalem.
For after the Jews were finally driven out by the Romans in 70 CE, a myriad of different peoples and dynasties piled in to conquer it: Persians, Byzantines, Arabs, Ummayads, Abbasids, Fatimids, crusaders from all over Christendom, Seljuks, Kurds, Mamluks, Mongols, Albanians, Ottomans and (in 1918) Britons. (The one name that does not figure in this great procession is the Palestinians — for no such people ever existed.)
Accordingly, as Simon Sebag Montefiore illuminates in his impressive "biography" of this most transcendent, mysterious and unique city, all these civilisations are embedded in its ancient stones like geological strata. What he brings out is that, from the start, Jerusalem was a global obsession. Peoples, religions and civilisations fought over it, conquered it and were in turn conquered. It was seen, quite simply, as the centre of the world, the hinge between heaven and earth. And everyone wanted to possess it.
On the face of it, this was extraordinary. For Jerusalem was hardly propitiously situated — devoid of seas or rivers, a mere lump of barren rock in the middle of the desert. Throughout the centuries it was often desperately poor and squalid.