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Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Jerusalem: Simon Sebag Montefiore

Jerusalem

The Diary: Simon Sebag Montefiore

By Simon Sebag Montefiore
FT.com / Life & Arts - Published: January 28 2011 22:03 | Last updated: January 28 2011 22:03
Jerusalem has always driven people mad: the Jerusalem syndrome is a madness caused by the disappointment of finding that the real, messy, chaotic, angry place is not the Celestial Holy City of the imagination. One hundred visitors a year – mainly Christian pilgrims – go insane and are committed to the Kfar Shaul Mental Health Centre. Many emperors, conquerors, leaders, Jews, Muslims and Christians have, in their way, succumbed, losing touch with reason when it comes to Jerusalem.

In 2000, the British Journal of Psychiatry described the syndrome as a “psychotic decompensation ... related to religious excitement induced by proximity to the holy places of Jerusalem”. The study warns tour guides to be aware of the danger signs in their groups and these include: an obsession with taking baths; compulsive fingernail/toenail clipping; preparation, with aid of hotel bed linen, of toga-like garb, always white; screaming; ranting; procession to shrines and delivery of sermons there. Even writers about Jerusalem have been known to suffer bouts of the syndrome: my wife Santa thinks we’ve all been suffering from it in our house. She is very glad my book Jerusalem: the Biography is out.
. . .
On the subject of family, it is tempting to write Jerusalem’s astonishingly dramatic history as a succession of massacres and conquests but cities are really created by families over centuries. I found myself researching an epic family saga of dynasties – royal, aristocratic and sometimes obscure.
When I am in Jerusalem I always stay in either the American Colony Hotel in the Palestinian neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah or the Mishkenot Sha’ananim, the guesthouse beside the Montefiore Windmill. Sir Moses Montefiore founded the Montefiore quarter and windmill (a real one he exported from Kent) in 1860, the beginning of the expansion of the Holy City from within its walls to create New Jerusalem’s Jewish and Arab suburbs. It was thanks to this great-great uncle that I wrote my book: indeed our family motto is “Jerusalem”. He founded the Montefiore quarter for poor Jews but it was so dangerous to be outside the city walls that, initially, its inhabitants crept into the city to sleep.
During the 20th century, the King David Hotel was built almost next door. During the Arab Revolt of 1936-38, “the Montefiore” area came under Arab attack; during 1948, Arab irregulars tried to storm it while the British, based around the King David Hotel, fired on Jewish forces and blew the top off the Kentish windmill. Now it’s one of the loveliest parts of the city outside the walls, the site of the city’s literary festival.
The American Colony has a parallel history: a mansion built at almost the same time but by the greatest Arab family, the Husseinis. Rabah Al-Husseini, its owner, sold it to a sect of American evangelist millenarians, the American colonists led by the Spafford family. They had settled there in 1888 to prepare for the apocalypse but became a much-loved Jerusalemite institution. Later they converted the house into a hotel: in 1948, Bertha Spafford, the founder’s daughter and now a Jerusalemite matriarch, tried in vain to prevent an Arab ambush, launched from the hotel grounds, of a Jewish convoy of ambulances. In the 1990s, the Oslo peace talks started there.

Read the rest of the article online at FT.com

FT.com / Life & Arts - The Diary: Simon Sebag Montefiore


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