Jerusalem, Medieval Capital of the World, Reimagined

Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York exhibits testimony of Middle Age Jerusalem’s rich aesthetic imprint and attachment to Jews, Muslims and Christians.

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Illustration (detail) from The Book of Divine Service From the Mishneh Torah of Maimonides Illumination attributed to the Master of the Barbo Missal.
Illustration (detail) from The Book of Divine Service From the Mishneh Torah of Maimonides Illumination attributed to the Master of the Barbo Missal.Credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Yael Friedman.
Yael Friedman
Yael Friedman.
Yael Friedman

Many moons before UNESCO’s resolution disavowing Jewish ties to the Temple Mount, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York initiated plans for an exhibition that would illustrate, with concrete evidence, the attachment of Jews, Muslims and Christians to the city of Jerusalem in the Middle Ages.

The exhibition, which recently opened, sets out to tell the story of medieval Jerusalem through a medium that can withstand the many political projections on the near-mythical city, including Unesco’s baffling and to many, highly upsetting and baldly political, declaration.

Art, with its physical testimony of the past, may prove the most loyal witness, and also the most beguiling one. The exhibition “Jerusalem 1000-1400: Every People Under Heaven” seeks to reconstruct the city’s incredible history through its aesthetic imprint during its most vivid turn on the world stage, when it was considered both the center of the world and the doorstep to the gates of heaven. Its numerous texts by medieval Jewish pilgrims, including Maimonides, also completely lays bare any suggestion that site shared with the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock is not also a Jewish one.

Jerusalem’s story is one of many cities, its topography testifying to the rise and fall of almost countless conquests. With each new holy warrior laying claim to his promised perch to heaven, the buildings and culture cultivated by the previous inhabitants would be razed. As the city fell into ruins, the stench of death was often present for months. While the human toll is staggering, the destruction of the spaces and objects of everyday life leave one mourning a whole host of lost physical worlds.

And yet, in the Middle Ages the city thrived and seemed to seduce much of the world. While fight for control over the city continued, most notably with the onslaught of the Crusaders, grander dynasties, like the Fatimids, arose, more willing to develop diplomatic ties. This relative openness – and desire to regain control by the Christians – enabled Jerusalem to grow into a cultural crossroads with an incredible range of religious sects, languages and cultures, all within a space the size of midtown Manhattan.

Rather than approach the art of the city at the time of its historical apogee through a sense of scale, the curators have concentrated on the pedagogical power of the well-chosen object. Through 200 artifacts, including jewelry, textiles, manuscripts, maps, pottery, architectural fragments and video interviews with individuals whose lives are devoted to the history of the city, the exhibit dazzles and immerses but does not overwhelm.

The exhibit’s incredible trove attests to the array of individuals who lived or passed through the city’s gates during these years. Most strikingly, books and other texts illustrate the curator’s note that “if anything could be said to connect the religious communities, it was the shared reverence for the written word.”

The impressive collection includes a Book of Kings from Ethiopia (1344), a bilingual Copto-Arabic Book of Prayers (17th century), an Armenian gospel book (1321), the four gospels in Arabic (1336), and an incredible pilgrim’s guide (1486), turned to a page that explains what the Western European pilgrim should expect when he encounters Syrian Christians. According to the caption: “The text perpetuates the long-standing fear among European Christians that Arabic-speaking Christians cannot be trusted, likely to transmit secrets of their co-religionists to their Muslim neighbors.”

The various books and letters most vividly capture Jewish life during those years. Unlike the Muslim and Christian dynasties that pursued their holy wars and took turns ruling, the Jews often lived at the mercy of their gentile patrons, either visiting as pilgrims or as the poorer residents of the city. Maimonides, who visited the city in 1165 after fleeing Spain, would ultimately reach Cairo and serve as Saladin’s personal physician. A 1170 letter from him appeals for funds demanded as ransom for captive Jews in then Crusader-conquered Jerusalem. Another book shows his illustrations of the plan of the lost temple.

More, often surprising, layers to the city’s international cast abound. In one of the videos that enliven this medieval period of a modern place, Nazeer Hussain Ansari talks about the hostel he runs for Indian visitors to Jerusalem, in operation for over 800 years. The attraction for Indians began with a visit from a famous Sufi Indian saint, Baba Farid Shakar Ganj who, according to Ansari stayed there for 40 days. Many Indian pilgrims would soon follow, the site becoming a hallowed Sufi shrine.

Ansari notes that, “Nowadays, with the diversity of India, this place is a guesthouse for all Indians, no matter what their background is to Indians, they’re always amazed with this city. Where else would you walk the same trail that Jesus Christ walked? Where else would you visit a mosque that the Prophet Mohammed ascended to the sky from? Where else would you touch the stone of the Wailing Wall? The holiest place in Judaism? Jerusalem is an amazing city.”

Throughout most of the exhibit, especially the sections dedicated to commerce and diversity, the breadth of the medieval world can be glimpsed in a single object. One 14th-century celadon-glazed ceramic plate from China found its way to Jerusalem through Egypt. A seemingly simple textile with a red print tells a similarly grand tale of geographic cross-pollination: The city’s residents had a taste for printed cotton from western India.

Gold Jewish Wedding Ring Germany, first half of the 14th century.Credit: B. Stefan / Thüringisches Landesamt für Denkmalpflege und

Another marker of medieval Jerusalem fashion, a beautiful gold necklace from the 11th-12th century, has a latticework common to Islamic art but also similar to descriptions of jewels in the trousseaux of Jewish brides.

The exhibit does confront the religious differences of the groups vying for control of the city they believed God intended for them alone. Each religion’s most sacred spaces occupy a significant footprint in the galleries. The “absent Temple,” represented through various texts and drawings; the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, captured in gorgeous capitals; and the Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqsa Mosque, with its ornate gilded glass lamps, provide an incredible physical sense of their import, then as well as now.

In another video, Dr. Theodossios Mitropoulos, an architect for the Greek Patriarchate who oversees the maintenance of church properties in Jerusalem, says “a problem for monuments is the visitors, especially the religious monuments. The visitors touch and kiss the icons. In other places it’s forbidden to do so, but here everything is allowed because the visitors come from all around the world.”

A section of a Koran from the Met's Jerusalem Exhibit. Credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

These may be medieval relics, but they continue to serve a similar stream of pilgrims and tourists. Indeed, the feeling that one can touch history, even if not necessarily the presence of God himself, makes the exhibit and its objects a powerful threading of past and present.

Whether through a connection to a physical and particular past, or a consummation of this type of longing, the exhibit provides a potent tour through the varied and rich world of that medieval city that had a hold on so much of the world’s imagination.

And as Ruby Namdar, a Jerusalem-born author, notes about the “absent Temple” but which can apply to this metropolis’ once central role: “It grew more and more grandiose in the imagination – not just of the Jews, of everybody. I feel it’s preserved in amber of longing and desire I feel that it is a universal symbol. Every person, every culture, can relate to a lost dome of innocence We all have ruined temples.”

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