Sit Lionel Gust served as District officer for Jerusalem in the 1920s during the British Mandate. After a detailed study of the Christian Churches there, he sadly reported thus: "The history of the Holy Places is one long story of bitter animosities , in which outside influences take part in an increasing degree, until the scenes of Our Lord's life become a political shuttlecock and the cause of international conflict."
Sixty years later, Con Coughlin, an experienced foreign correspondent who has spent many years in the Middle East, has reached much the same conclusion. In his highly readable account of "the most intense and impossible city on earth", Coughlin has probed deep into the city's past and present, and the news he has brought back is deeply depressing, for all that he tells it so well.
His researches have brought him into contact with distinguished archaeologists on the track of the mysterious Jebusites, whose god Shalem may or may not have given the city its name before "the invasion of the Hebrew terrorist David 3,000 years ago", as a hate-sheet he discovers puts it.
But if the events of three thousand years ago are still arousing rage, what hope can there be that Arabs can come to terms with the foundation of Israel in 1948? Arabs still call this al-Nekbi, the catastrophe. Men like Rehovarn Ze'evi, leader of the extreme Moledet party, tell Coughlin: "The Arabs have twentyone countries, so they can go and live there".
The author's journey has brought him also to the griefstricken but proud father of Majdi Abu Wardeh, the suicide bomber who boarded a Number 18 bus in Jerusalem in February 1996 and blew up himself and 22 others into pieces. His faith may hold that he has become a shaheed, a martyr who will live in paradise with 70 virgins and rivers of milk and wine. But his action also marked the beginning of the end of the Middle East peace process. The hopes so bright with the Oslo accords in 1993 now lie in ruins.
What more can one expect, Coughlin seems to tell us, from a city in which the West's three great religions grind together like vast tectonic plates? Jerusalem is a city which boasts two Chief Rabbis, two Grand Muftis, and three Patriarchs, for the Latin, Armenian and Orthodox Christian Churches. And none of them can agree about anything.
One of the virtues of this book is that it does not neglect the Christians. Their numbers may have shrunk to 12,000, but this has not prevented them from squabbling for so long that it took 70 years to agree on a new roof for the Holy Sepulchre. Even so, the roof bears no cherubs, since a cherub acceptable to all could not be found.
It took the Oslo peace accords to bring the representatives of the three Christian rites together in a common appreciation of the igolden city. "For Christianity, Jerusalem is the place of roots, ever living and nourishing", their first joint statement in centuries said. But even this led to trouble. The churches were unable to refrain from urging that the city be placed under international control, a move condemned by one official as "more damaging to Israel than the entire inrifiada".
Coughlin also diligently tracks down the Christian Zionists, an enthusiastic group who believe that the ingathering of Jews into Israel presages Christ's second coming. The view goes back to 1585 and the Englishman Thomas Brightman, but is now prosecuted by the likes of brother David and Sister Sharon, who wear the Star of David intersected with the Cross.
The author tries to tread an even path, but is unable to conceal how far his sympathies are with the Arabs and against Israel's zealots. His narrative is peppered with Israeli grotesques, such as Ehud Olmert, the Mayor of Jerusalem, who "bristles with self-importance" and wastes millions of pounds celebrating the 3,000th anniversary of his city on the wrong date.
Coughlin has a keen eye for the comical, too. He devotes several pages to explaining how at Jerusalem's 1996 election, the Israelis insisted that Palestinians residents could not vote in regular ballot boxes. Instead, being deemed to be foreign residents, they were required to vote in post-boxes, with horizontal slots, to underscore the contention that these were postal votes. The Palestinians objected. A compromise was found. Voting went ahead with strange receptacles with slots placed at a 45-degree angle to the top. If only all Jerusalem's problems were so tractable.
Christopher Lockwood is Diplomatic Editor of The Daily Telegraph.