Jerusalem — The Biography
One member gave a rave review about the recently released paperback, Jerusalem — The Biography, by Simon Sebag Monteffiore.
It begins about 3,000 years ago, when King David captured a small mountain stronghold in Canaan and set up a city that covered about 5 hectares and housed around 1,200 people. It ends with the Israeli occupation of the city in 1967, after the Six Day War.
No occupation of Jerusalem has lasted for any great historical length of time — and as the author suggests in his epilogue, the present occupiers are definitely on shaky ground.
It’s a gripping book packed with fascinating and grisly details, as it follows Jerusalem’s history that was, and still is, one of betrayal, looting, rape, massacre, sadistic torture, fanaticism, persecution, corruption, hypocrisy and spirituality. None of the occupiers — be they Hebrew, Roman, Byzantine, Arab, Crusader, Ottoman, Albanian, Christian or Zionist — have been anything but bloodthirsty.
Israeli intellectual Amos Oz says of Jerusalem: “The city has been destroyed, rebuilt, destroyed and rebuilt again. Jerusalem is an old nymphomaniac who squeezes lover after lover to death before shrugging him off with a yawn. She’s a black widow who devours her mates while they are penetrating her.”
It’s a brilliant historical read but the fainthearted should be aware that slaughter abounds in each chapter — sometimes on every page.
Hanoi, Biography of a City
A second group member brought up a biography closer to home, William Logan’s Hanoi, Biography of a City, which is in constant demand by historians, architects, urban planners and sociologists.
It’s a scholarly book and is a multidisciplinary survey within a historical framework, supported by maps, illustrations and photos. It traces the growth of the city from the lengthy Chinese imprint, through the French colonial half-century, the brief Japanese occupation and the transformation during post-American War reconstruction.
The last two chapters deal with the supercharged growth since Doi Moi, the impact of the charge into capitalism and overheated building booms, and the need to preserve a lot of the city’s unique architectural heritage.
Istanbul: Memories and the City
One group member came from a more literary perspective and held up Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul: Memories and the City. It’s Pamuk’s childhood memoir of a city that is far more varied and exotic than any of its European counterparts. It is written in a painterly way and presents elegant miniatures of scenes piled upon eloquent scenes.
It’s got loads of photos and is an amazing portrait of a city at a mid-century crossroads, as it came to terms with Westernisation and being part of Europe while balancing tradition and Islam. Parmuk loves his city and presents it, warts and all.
It’s the type of book that you read more than once, and if you’ve ever been to Istanbul, it will stir up your travel bugs to get back for a while and re-explore the Bosphorus. If you plan to go to Turkey soon then it will make you drool with anticipation. It’s that good!
The Epic of Gilgamesh
Our lover of antiquarian artefacts and history lets us into the secret of Gilgamesh — the epic poem telling the story of Uruk, now a ruin in southern Iraq that was used by the US Army as target practice during its recent invasions.
The poem — the oldest book in the world, chiseled into stone tablets — has been translated by David Stephen Mitchell and titled The Epic of Gilgamesh. It’s the creation legend of the ancient Mesopotamian city of Ur, telling of the young giant Gilgamesh and his quest for immortality — which like most of such quests is doomed to heroic failure.
Mitchell tells the story like a modern action film that, as it unfolds, has similarities to other creation stories. For example, there are Garden of Eden and great flood scenarios. Mitchell has translated other epics such as Tao Te Ching and the Bhagavad-Gita with the same contemporary verve.
A reviewer, Ray Olsen, says that Mitchel understands the poem to be overarchingly concerned with self-discovery and acceptance, while also appreciating that humans are mortal, hence less than the gods, but also capable of love, and thus greater than mere gods.
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