Mystics tell us that there is the earthly Jerusalem — the one we see, the one whose stones we walk and that tower above us, the one that smells of spices and meat and burning diesel fuel, the one whose streets are filled with the precise sounds of so many languages that they merge into a babble of vowels and a jagged army of consonants.
At the center of the earthly Jerusalem is the Temple, which is holy, and inside it is more holy, and at its core is the holiest of all places on earth. The Temple, even its outside, even its ruined Western Wall, and even more its interior, is a magnet, pulling everyone and everything toward it.
Above it is the heavenly Jerusalem. The ideal one, the idealized one, the one whose stones never are stained with blood.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s new exhibit, Jerusalem 1000-1400: Every People Under Heaven, displays art and artifacts that experienced that magnetic tug. Some of the objects in the exhibit are from Jerusalem, and others are about it. Some are the homely aides to real life as it was lived there, frayed pieces of textile and crumbling documents; some are large chunks of columns and architectural details; some are crosses, crucifixes, and reliquaries, and some, the most glorious part, are lavishly, lushly, spectacularly illustrated books, Bibles and Korans and psalters, still thick with paint and sparkling with gold.
Jews, Muslims, and Christians lived in Jerusalem, sometimes peacefully, sometimes not. More than 11 languages were spoken, and written in nine alphabets. History happened; the crusades were a brutally violent nightmare imported from Europe. And life continued.
The exhibit begins with a look at trade. At the dark room’s center, glistening under sharp, focused light, artfully arranged to look casually tossed, a pile of gold coins gleams. No matter what else was going on in Jerusalem, and no matter which visitors from whatever far-flung corner of the world might be touring, the city’s merchants always would take care of business. They’d keep the city’s pulse going.
Nearby, an astrolabe, also made of gold, the GPS of its time, includes many disks, with lettering in Latin and Arabic, each showing the way to a different destination. Each has Jerusalem at its center.
Jerusalem was a crossroads for just about everyone, and it showed. According to the exhibit, Persians, Turks, Greeks, Syrians, Armenians, Georgians, Ethiopians, Indians, and all sorts of Europeans found their way there, and left their mark. Books and other records show that.
Among the treasures is a letter from Maimonides, written, we are told, by a secretary but signed by the Rambam himself, urging readers to contribute toward ransoming Jews taken captive by Amalric, a crusader king, in 1169. This letter is not one of the exhibit’s more visually stunning objects — in fact, it is among its least visually striking — but the idea that Maimonides signed it — that Maimonides was a real person, with a real hand, that could hold a real pen — somehow is astonishing. It is also deeply moving.
There is also a map of the Temple made to Maimonides’ specifications. It’s clear and easy for a modern eye to read, and it shows the way the holiness increases as the space becomes more and more interior.
Next to the map, an illuminated page from Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah beckons. It’s beautiful. The word “Avodah” — service — overarches in nearly tactile gilt. The sky into which the Temple at its center reaches is a deep patterned blue, and the grass on which it stands is a deep flowered green. There are two pedestals, one on either side, and a figure is standing, doing something, at each one. It is a lovely pastoral scene.
But wait. The figure on the left is roasting — what? Something big. And the figure on the right — what is he doing? He’s slitting an animal’s throat. Oh.
It’s the Avodah. The sacrifices. It is, after all, the Temple.
And it was a time of terror.
Later, the exhibit acknowledges the terrible war in which the crusaders conquered Jerusalem and slaughtered all Jews and Muslims in it. From 1099, the First Crusade, until Saladin reconquered Jerusalem in 1187 and allowed the Jews to trickle back, the city was Judenfrei.
There is another illumination in the exhibit that makes the horror clear. It’s a beautiful piece, at first, and straightforward, full of men in armor, apparently just standing there. But then the viewer’s eye is caught by the red, and then by more red, and then you realize that it’s blood. Throats are being cut, heads are being removed, bodies are being used as sword-holders. It is terrible.
During the entire period, though, even during the worst of it, pilgrims came to Jerusalem. Some of them were Jews.
It is only much later, centuries later, that the Western Wall, the Kotel, became the cynosure for Jewish pilgrims, the exhibit’s research associate, Elizabeth Eisenberg, said. Ms. Eisenberg, who is a doctoral candidate at NYU’s school of fine arts, has worked on the exhibit for three years. A Stern College graduate, she focused on the Jewish materials.
“Instead of the Western Wall, the focus of pilgrimage was the Mount of Olives, on the eastern side of the city,” she said. The fervor that drew many of the pilgrims was messianic — it was a time of many failed messiahs — “and the Jewish pilgrims would circle the city, say a prayer at each of the gates, and end at the Gates of Mercy, at the Mount of Olives.”
Because it’s hard to match the medieval gate names to what we know now, it’s hard to know exactly where they started or in what direction they went, she added.
The prayers would be a site-appropriate amalgam of other prayers and psalms, she said; when they ended they’d say another, and then look down at the Temple Mount and say “amen.”
The idea came from Psalm 48, which among other things is an ode to the city; verses 13 and 14 instruct “Walk about Zion, and go round about her; count her towers. Mark well her ramparts, traverse her palaces; that you may tell it to the generation following.” So the pilgrims did walk around Zion, and those who returned safely home did tell the story.
Pilgrims came from all over, Ms. Eisenberg said. Early in the period, it seems that they came mainly from Arab lands; later, they came from Europe. Although the crusaders routed Jews from Jerusalem, still, their travels meant that there would be many more ships going across the Mediterranean, and Jews took advantage of the opportunity.
The last section of the exhibit is about hope. Because it’s about hope in Jerusalem, it is about eternity. Because it’s about all the peoples who lived in Jerusalem, it encompasses many faiths, and because it’s in an art museum, it’s beautiful.
Next to the stunning Muslim and Christian illuminated manuscripts and religious objects, which include a jaw-droppingly lovely psalter, ravishingly illuminated and encased in delicately carved ivory covers for a powerful woman wonderfully named Melisende, who was the Frankish-Armenian Queen of Jerusalem — there are Jewish illuminations of some of the ritual objects used in the Temple. The Temple, of course, was long destroyed by the year 1000 — that happened in 70 CE — so all of this was wishful thinking, embodied in gold leaf that shimmers in the artful light.
At the very end of the exhibit, a large jeweled shrine, a very big golden box studded with huge stones and set under bright lights so it cannot hide, shows that even Jerusalem, the city where heaven and earth meet, is not free of vulgarity. It is a startlingly gaudy place to leave the Met’s paean to the earthly Jerusalem, but perhaps it is fitting. One of the main points of the exhibit was how full of life, of variety, of experience, and of expression Jerusalem was. It included gory death and bloody war as well as the highest spiritual aspirations.
It was a real place. Go learn more about it at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The exhibit will be open until January 8.