The best books to help understand Jerusalem

Why am I passionate about this?

I've always loved history and it was the subject I took my degree in. After a career in business I've come back to history. I have an interest in how Britain has shaped our world; it has influenced more parts of the world than any other nation, sometimes for the better, but often for the worse. Jerusalem is the most pivotal city in the world and Britain has played a role in its long history. One part of this history is what led me to tell the story of an incredible British-led expedition to Jerusalem at the start of the 20th century, which sought the Ark of the Covenant.

I wrote...

Raiders of the Hidden Ark: The story of the Parker expedition to Jerusalem

By Graham Addison,

Book cover of Raiders of the Hidden Ark: The story of the Parker expedition to Jerusalem

What is my book about?

This is the true story of an extraordinary adventure by young Edwardian aristocrats to find the long-lost Ark of the Covenant. The men were educated at Eton, had fought in the British military, and socialised with royalty and wealthy Americans. One was related to Winston Churchill and had thwarted an assassination attempt on Queen Victoria, while another helped spark the Boer War. 

A Finnish scholar had convinced them that he had uncovered secret ciphers in the Bible, revealing the Ark’s location. The group headed for Jerusalem on a private yacht, accompanied by a Swiss psychic and a Finnish poet. The story of the Parker expedition includes a deadly curse, bribery, gun-running, riots, and madness. It may sound even stranger than fiction, but it is real.

Shepherd is reader supported. When you buy books, we may earn an affiliate commission.

The books I picked & why

Book cover of Jerusalem: The Biography

Graham Addison Why did I love this book?

Jerusalem has been the most important city in world history because it is sacred to Jews, Christians, and Muslims.

It has been fought over, conquered, destroyed, and occupied countless times over the millennia, and Simon Sebag Montefiore's book attempts to cover this entire historical tapestry, from Jerusalem's earliest times up to the late twentieth century.

He delves into the biblical period, the city's destructions, the Crusades, the Ottoman era, the British mandate, and much more. It is an immense task to try to encompass all the key developments in the city, but this book achieves it as well as possible.

Montefiore sheds light on significant aspects of the city’s history through the details of individuals, making the book highly readable. If you wish to grasp the essence of Jerusalem, this book should be your starting point. 

By Simon Sebag Montefiore,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Jerusalem as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A new, updated, revised edition of JERUSALEM: THE BIOGRAPHY, the wider history of the Middle East through the lens of the Holy City, covering from pre-history to 2020, from King David to Donald Trump.

The story of Jerusalem is the story of the world.

Jerusalem is the universal city, the capital of two peoples, the shrine of three faiths; it is the site of Judgement Day and the battlefield of today's clash of civilisations. How did this small, remote town become the Holy City, the 'centre of the world' and now the key to peace in the Middle East? Drawing…

Book cover of The Storyteller of Jerusalem: The Life and Times of Wasif Jawhariyyeh, 1904-1948

Graham Addison Why did I love this book?

Wasif Jawhariyyeh was a musician and composer belonging to the Greek Orthodox community of Jerusalem who lived in the city during the late Ottoman and Mandatory eras. 

He was acquainted with many of the ruling families in the city and worked within the British administration. This book chronicles his life and provides a vivid depiction of the city throughout the Ottoman and Mandate periods until 1948 when he went into exile. 

The book offers a captivating perspective on the lives of the city's inhabitants during those times and the amalgamation of diverse populations. Jawhariyyeh occasionally reminisces through a nostalgic lens, suggesting that issues between various groups only arose after the British arrival. 

Nonetheless, the book provides an insightful and engaging glimpse into the city's social fabric.

By Wasif Jawhariyyeh, Salim Tamari (editor), Issam Nassar (editor) , Nada Elzeer (translator)

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Storyteller of Jerusalem as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The memoirs of Wasif Jawhariyyeh are a remarkable treasure trove of writings on the life, culture, music, and history of Jerusalem. Spanning over four decades, from 1904 to 1948, they cover a period of enormous and turbulent change in Jerusalem's history, but change lived and recalled from the daily vantage point of the street storyteller. Oud player, music lover and ethnographer, poet, collector, partygoer, satirist, civil servant, local historian, devoted son, husband, father, and person of faith, Wasif viewed the life of his city through multiple roles and lenses. The result is a vibrant, unpredictable, sprawling collection of anecdotes, observations,…

Book cover of A Tale of Love and Darkness

Graham Addison Why did I love this book?

A Tale of Love and Darkness is a beautifully written memoir of Amos Oz’s childhood during the period when the British Mandate was concluding and the State of Israel was being established.

Amos Oz moved to Jerusalem shortly before Wasif Jawhariyyeh departed. The book primarily focuses on his personal experiences, his family, and particularly his relationship with his mother, who battles with depression. These are retold against the backdrop of momentous historical events notably the conflict between the different communities.

By Amos Oz,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked A Tale of Love and Darkness as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Tragic, comic, and utterly honest, this bestselling and critically acclaimed work is at once a family saga and a magical self-portrait of a writer who witnessed the birth of a nation and lived through its turbulent history. It is the story of a boy growing up in the war-torn Jerusalem of the forties and fifties, in a small apartment crowded with books in twelve languages and relatives speaking nearly as many. The story of an adolescent whose life has been changed forever by his mother's suicide when he was twelve years old. The story of a man who leaves the…

Book cover of Under Jerusalem: The Buried History of the World's Most Contested City

Graham Addison Why did I love this book?

Jerusalem has been conquered, destroyed, and plundered throughout its history. Successive conquerors have built on their predecessors, as a result much of Jerusalem’s history is hidden.

This book tells the tale of a century and a half of people digging below Jerusalem to find what is hidden. While many of those who dug were reputable others had ulterior motives seeking either to prove their religious beliefs or their group’s claim to the city or sometimes seeking treasure.

They have and are being used to change the city and this book tells the history of their work and its impact on the citizens of the city. It is a fascinating tale. 

By Andrew Lawler,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Under Jerusalem as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A spellbinding history of the hidden world below the Holy City—a saga of biblical treasures, intrepid explorers, and political upheaval
“A sweeping tale of archaeological exploits and their cultural and political consequences told with a historian’s penchant for detail and a journalist’s flair for narration.”
—Washington Post

In 1863, a French senator arrived in Jerusalem hoping to unearth relics dating to biblical times. Digging deep underground, he discovered an ancient grave that, he claimed, belonged to an Old Testament queen. News of his find ricocheted around the world, evoking awe and envy alike, and inspiring others to explore Jerusalem’s storied…

Book cover of Nine Quarters of Jerusalem: A New Biography of the Old City

Graham Addison Why did I love this book?

This is a new biography of the city that attempts to dispel many of the stereotypes associated with it.

It is written by a British author who is well-acquainted with the city, having visited it for several decades. One of the most commonly held descriptions of the city is that it is divided into four quarters: Jewish, Christian, Armenian, and Muslim.

However, as the title suggests, this book seeks to challenge this notion, which was first described by a British cleric primarily for the sake of visitors. The book delves into the stories of the city's places and people to showcase its true diversity. This includes highlighting smaller groups such as the Dom gypsies (as they define themselves) and Karaite Jews.

Furthermore, the book vividly captures the tastes, flavors, and aromas of the city, allowing readers to develop a genuine understanding of the people of Jerusalem’s old city.

By Matthew Teller,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Nine Quarters of Jerusalem as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'Original and illuminating ... what a good book this is' Jonathan Dimbleby

'A love letter to the people of the Old City' Jerusalem Post

In Jerusalem, what you see and what is true are two different things. Maps divide the walled Old City into four quarters, yet that division doesn't reflect the reality of mixed and diverse neighbourhoods. Beyond the crush and frenzy of its major religious sites, much of the Old City remains little known to visitors, its people overlooked and their stories untold. Nine Quarters of Jerusalem lets the communities of the Old City speak for themselves. Ranging…

You might also like...

Grand Old Unraveling: The Republican Party, Donald Trump, and the Rise of Authoritarianism

By John Kenneth White,

Book cover of Grand Old Unraveling: The Republican Party, Donald Trump, and the Rise of Authoritarianism

John Kenneth White Author Of Grand Old Unraveling: The Republican Party, Donald Trump, and the Rise of Authoritarianism

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Reading was a childhood passion of mine. My mother was a librarian and got me interested in reading early in life. When John F. Kennedy was running for president and after his assassination, I became intensely interested in politics. In addition to reading history and political biographies, I consumed newspapers and television news. It is this background that I have drawn upon over the decades that has added value to my research.

John's book list on who we are, how we’ve changed, and what gives us hope

What is my book about?

It didn’t begin with Donald Trump. When the Republican Party lost five straight presidential elections during the 1930s and 1940s, three things happened: (1) Republicans came to believe that presidential elections are rigged; (2) Conspiracy theories arose and were believed; and (3) The presidency was elevated to cult-like status.

Long before Trump, each of these phenomena grew in importance. The John Birch Society and McCarthyism became powerful forces; Dwight D. Eisenhower was the first “personal president” to rise above the party; and the development of what Harry Truman called “the big lie,” where outrageous falsehoods came to be believed. Trump…

Grand Old Unraveling: The Republican Party, Donald Trump, and the Rise of Authoritarianism

By John Kenneth White,

What is this book about?

It didn't begin with Donald Trump. The unraveling of the Grand Old Party has been decades in the making. Since the time of FDR, the Republican Party has been home to conspiracy thinking, including a belief that lost elections were rigged. And when Republicans later won the White House, the party elevated their presidents to heroic status-a predisposition that eventually posed a threat to democracy. Building on his esteemed 2016 book, What Happened to the Republican Party?, John Kenneth White proposes to explain why this happened-not just the election of Trump but the authoritarian shift in the party as a…

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in Jerusalem, childhood, and Jewish history?

11,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about Jerusalem, childhood, and Jewish history.

Jerusalem Explore 40 books about Jerusalem
Childhood Explore 194 books about childhood
Jewish History Explore 469 books about Jewish history