John Hinton talks to Simon Sebag Montefiore about his history of the holy city and hair-raising encounters with Kalashnikov-waving mobs Simon Sebag Montefiore is a historian who has made his mark through hard work, superb insight and pacey writing. With his wiry build and keen blue eyes, he is also something of an adventurer, a gentleman journalist in the tradition of Filson Young, who managed to bluff his way into the Royal Navy and fought with Admiral David Beatty on his battlecruiser, Lion, in the First World War.
Simon, now 46, has several lives behind him, including ones as an investment banker and war reporter. As a younger man, life was a little chaotic; his best man at his wedding dubbed him a cross between Woody Allen and Biggles. He is the youngest of four sons. His father, now retired at 86, was a doctor, one of the Montefiore family descended from the Victorian magnate and baronet Sir Moses Montefiore, a Sephardic clan of bankers and partners of the Rothschilds. His mother was descended from many generations of Lithuanian, Polish and Russian rabbis, so he has not a drop of English blood in his veins. He has a high regard for the Catholic faith.
“We’re a Jewish family,” he says, “but we are rather eclectic in fact. In my family we had an Anglican Bishop of Birmingham, Hugh Montefiore, and it’s good to talk to someone from the erald because my first cousins, the Elwes family, are Roman Catholics.” We met at a cafe in Kensington High Street, close to where he lives with his wife and two children. His latest book, Jerusalem: The Biography, soon to be launched in paperback, went straight into the bestseller lists on both sides of the Atlantic earlier this year.
“Jerusalem I especially wanted to do partly because there’s a family connection – my great-great uncle, Sir Moses Montefiore, founded the first suburb of Jerusalem outside the city walls, in effect the new city of Jerusalem. So we’ve always grown up with Jerusalem in our family and I’ve been going there all my life. I’ve always wanted to write a history of the city since I was a child but when I looked around and tried to find a book on Jerusalem it didn’t exist.” Clearly, this was a challenge he felt bound to take on. “There are hundreds of books on the city but only one complete history of the city is in print, the excellent study of theology in Jerusalem [Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths] by Karen Armstrong which is very different from what I tried to do myself. I wanted to write a history which would focus on the people who made Jerusalem as well as the holiness of Jerusalem. So I decided to write it as a biography. The history of Jerusalem is the history of the world, so it was a daunting prospect, an awesome challenge and it almost killed me writing it. In many respects it’s a study of the nature of holiness – why Jerusalem, what made it the holy city? But you can also read it as an entertainment with all its amazing characters. It’s also a saga about families – from the Davidians and the Herodians up to the Montefiores and the famous Palestinian families. It’s a chronicle of bigotry, fanaticism, tragedies and massacres, but also of tolerance, of poetry, of sanctity. The book is written to cover Christian, Jewish and Islamic Jerusalem and I hope it’s enjoyable for all three of the great faiths.” One of the most compelling scenes in the book is the sacking of Jerusalem by the Romans who hacked their way into the city after a prolonged siege, spared hardly anyone, then pillaged and set fire to anything in their path. With a writer’s eye, he says: “It’s important to start with an event that grabs the attention of the reader and is dramatic and exciting – and also contains the key themes of the book. And that was perfect.” He did the same with Young Stalin, his previous big success, in which the swaggering gang leader and revolutionary waylaid a huge haul of Tsarist gold bullion shipment in the Georgian capital of Tiflis, setting the scene with extraordinary detail and clarity. But how did the younger Stalin change so much in later years into the brutal dictator who caused his own people such pain?
“I think there’s a direct line between the two,” he says. “They only seem to us to be different because one is before power and one is after power. Stalin was unusual in that he was not only a man of action but a man of words. Other leaders like Lenin were better writers and thinkers perhaps. If you wanted an article written, you could go to Stalin and he would do that quickly. But if you wanted someone assassinated he could also do that, too. He could do both. That’s why he succeeded.” Does he believe that power is always accompanied by ruthlessness?
“I think it all depends on the system and the society and the environment what sort of ruthlessness is acceptable. In Hitler or Stalin’s case, they won power in an idiom of violence. Violence was totally acceptable, even encouraged. There was no shame in that for them; they even regarded violence as a virtue. Because of our democratic system, hopefully that never becomes acceptable. But when it comes to Jerusalem and religious beliefs, and where people believe they are in possession of the absolute truth, violence is also regarded as acceptable and that’s one of the themes of the book.” And what about the Arab Spring? What does the future hold for Christians caught up in it?
“For Christianity in the Middle East, it’s a huge challenge,” he replies. “The Christian communities are shrinking very fast in all these countries. The Copts are under great pressure now in Egypt, terrified of what will happen if there’s an Islamic fundamentalist supremacy there. Christians are very worried in Syria [that] there’s an ethnic civil war.
“In Jerusalem, the number of Christians is shrinking enormously; when you think it used to be a Christian city once, now there are a comparatively small number. Of course there’s still a huge Catholic presence there, I’m glad to say. And the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is still partly Latin Catholic and Jerusalem still has wonderful Catholic shrines and institutions. But they are all under pressure from rising nationalism and rising Islamic fundamentalism.
“So it’s an uncertain time for Catholics in the Middle East and the Arab Spring is a really dangerous time for Christians across the Near East as well as in Iran, Iraq and Syria.” But, he says, anyone who claims to know what is going to happen has to be cautious. In each of the countries, the advantage lies with the best-organised institutions – the army and the Muslim Brotherhood. The destiny of Jerusalem itself, he thinks, will be decided between Egypt and Syria.
His wife, Santa, is also a writer, the daughter of an old English farming family, the Palmer-Tomkinsons, friends of the Prince of Wales. His marriage was a turning point.
“Santa grounded me,” he says. “I have become very disciplined now. I would never have written the books without her. Definitely the cleverest thing I ever did was to marry Santa.” When the Soviet Union broke up 20 years ago, he left banking and, having studied Russian history all his life, seized the moment for an adventure to Moscow, St Petersburg, Tbilisi, Samarkand and Baku. It was a good move. Everywhere he went he seemed to find himself in the middle of a revolution, the only man able to file an on-the-spot story because most other journalists were holed up in Moscow.
When civil war broke out, he was in Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia demanding: “Take me to your president.” And from the presidential desk, which had the only working phone, he rang his mother to reassure her he was all right, while the dictator was on his balcony, addressing a Kalashnikov-waving mob.
But he wasn’t always lucky. Twice he came close to being killed in derring-do escapades in bandit republics and it sobered him up.
“In these war places,” he says, “you fall into the hands of terrified, terrifying young people with guns, who are likely to kill you out of panic or carelessness or wanton caprice, without ever knowing who you were.
“That is what is depressing: the randomness of death. You realise it is not worth it and you should really come home.” Domestic journalism, though, was never going to offer the same thrill as mixing with warlords. And things on the home front reached a nadir when he was sent to interview a television weather girl. Clearly it was time to get serious. Using the network of contacts he had made in Russia, he started researching his life of Catherine the Great and her lover, Potemkin. Its evident success opened unexplored archives to him for his next book: Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar.
There’s no let-up in his zeal to make history exciting and approachable. And he admits he has a workaholic streak. During his second big Russian book he fell ill with fatigue. After a decade of no exercise beyond wandering round bookshops, he’s taken up boxing to work off his frustrations with reviewers and publishers. “When I’m up, I’m over-exuberant,” he says. “When I’m down, I just wander round on my own. I have no middle space. Santa always knew I would travel a lot and probably finds it a relief to have me out of the house. I am much bettertempered when I travel.” Since the birth of their two children, Lily, aged six, and Sasha, four, Sebag has limited his foreign travel to two weeks at a stretch.
“I miss them, so I get home more quickly now. They are my greatest joy. Because I work at home I probably see more of my children than anyone else I know. That’s heaven, isn’t it?” And he certainly looks and sounds like a happy man.
Jerusalem: The Biography by Simon Sebag Montefiore is priced £25 in hardback and published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson