In 11th-Century Jerusalem, Pilgrims’ Progress


Among the many antique manuscripts illuminated in gold leaf, the ornamented glass lamps, the bejeweled canisters and the intricately carved pillars highlighted in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibit on medieval Jerusalem, there is a brass pot, handsome in its simple shape, dating back to the 11th century. It was used for making a signature mix of lentils, raisins, olive oil and bread that was served to pilgrims of all faiths who visited the Cave of Patriarchs in Hebron, usually on their way to Jerusalem.

The Muslim keepers of the Cave prepared the stew and served it, in the hospitable tradition of the Patriarch Abraham.

Speaking at an opening of the exhibition, “Jerusalem 1000 – 1400: Every People Under Heaven,” Thomas B. Campbell, director of the Museum, described Jerusalem during this period as a site of “productive coexistence.” With its diverse population, the city was also a place of artistic creativity, through times of peace and war, Campbell said.

The exhibition showcases many objects of great beauty, but the lentil pot speaks particularly to genuine coexistence.

The 200 featured works of art come from 60 lenders around the world; some pieces have never before been shown outside of the walls in which they have been housed for centuries. The works of art, including many books and manuscripts, span 12 languages and nine alphabets.

At the entry of the exhibit, a large wall text informs viewers, “A kind of Jerusalem fever gripped much of the world from about 1000 to 1400.” Among the thousands making their way across three continents to the Holy City were Jews, Christians and Muslims, merchants, pilgrims, poets, scholars, adventurers and warriors. Still to this day, the intensity of feeling — the “fever” of the city — affects visitors, and what is now known as “Jerusalem syndrome” sends a surprising number of modern-day pilgrims to hospital emergency wards around the city, after they are found dressed in makeshift biblical garb, delivering sermons to passers-by, proclaiming themselves to be the Messiah.

The first section deals with more-earthly concerns, and depicts the city as a marketplace, a crossroads of trade, with goldsmiths next to chicken vendors, and all sorts of religious items available as souvenirs for pilgrims. On loan from the Israeli Antiquities Authority in Jerusalem is a recent find: handfuls of gold coins from a cache of 2,600 24-karat dinars and quarter-dinars found in February 2015 in Caesarea. At the time, a large house might cost 150 dinars, so this coin treasure points to the great wealth circulating in the area in the 11th century.

Also glistening is an 11th-century gold bracelet with the word “Baraka,” or blessings, woven into the intricate filigree work and to a gold pendant or amulet in beautiful condition, made in Syria or Egypt. It looks like a tiny mailbox for prayers, with an inscription calling for prosperity and happiness. The curators believe that the pendant is in such good condition that it might have been buried for safekeeping during some crisis. The pendant, along with the bracelets, are lent by the al-Sabah Collection in Kuwait.

Nearby is an early map (from about 1240) on parchment of the Holy Land, prepared by a Benedictine monk at the University of Cambridge who had never traveled to the Middle East. A work for other armchair pilgrims and explorers, the map features fine calligraphy and drawn images of trade routes, ships, camels and the imagined architecture and monuments, with foldout flaps extending the pages.

One large-format Koran, written in Egypt or Syria in 1346 and luxuriously illuminated in gold, is open to Sura (chapter) 54, which translates, “The hour draws near, the moon is split,” a text hinting at the Day of Judgement, when according to Islamic tradition, all will be brought to Jerusalem.

There are astrolabes, decorated glass vessels, pilgrimage certificates, ornate pencil cases, icons, textile fragments, marble carvings, lamps and lanterns used in sacred spaces (one, from the Dome of the Rock, is inscribed “God is light of the heavens and earth, from the Koran) and, reminding viewers of the bloody backdrop of the Crusades, daggers, swords and scenes of carnage.

A letter from Maimonides in Judeo-Arabic, written in Egypt in 1170, asks for donations to help ransom captive Jews, specifically those taken by the Crusader king Amalric of Jerusalem during a siege the previous year. While written by a secretary, the letter includes his signature.

The Temple, destroyed by the Romans in 70, is depicted in its absence. The curators point out that Jewish pilgrims, who flocked to Jerusalem to mourn the loss of the Temple, would first circle the city, offering prayers around the walls, concluding at the Gates of Mercy. Two 14th-century machzors, or High Holiday prayer books, are open to imaginative depictions of the Gates of Mercy, with architectural gates framing Hebrew text. The opening and closing of these gates are invoked in the prayers of Yom Kippur.

I saw this exhibit the day after Shimon Peres died, and a few days after hearing Jerusalemite Alice Shalvi, winner of the Israel Prize, speak at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun with a sense of optimism and hope about the people of the Middle East getting along – if only they had the opportunity to know one another as ordinary people. Video interviews throughout the exhibition feature individuals from many different backgrounds, all articulate lovers of their city, several echoing those hopes, even if reservedly so.

Bilal Abu Khalaf, a third-generation textile merchant in the Old City who sells fabric for rabbis’ brocade gowns, priests’ vestments and Muslim garments, enjoys when people of different faiths come in contact in his shop. Hagai Netzer, a project manager involved in repairing and improving the urban fabric of the Old City, says, “For me, it’s very moving to put another stone in the long, long history of Jerusalem.”

And Father Eugenio Mario Alliata, the friar who oversees the collections of the Franciscan community observes, “You know, Jerusalem, it is called the Holy City, but it is really made a Holy City only if we are a little bit holy in it.”

The accompanying book, “Jerusalem 1000 to 1400: Every People Under Heaven,” edited by Barbara Drake Boehm and Melanie Holcomb (The Met, Yale University Press) is stunningly illustrated and printed, with essays by scholars from many backgrounds, including David Kraemer of JTS on “Maimonides and Jerusalem” and Avinoam Shalev on “Terra Miracula: Blessed Souvenirs from the Holy Land.”

Boehm and Holcomb point out that elements of medieval Jerusalem are “hidden in plain sight” in the Old City today, like the decorative arches, grand medallion and columns assembled as part of the Fountain of the Inspector, on Al-Wad Street.

Throughout the exhibit are large photos taken in the Holy City today, that appear as windows or gates into its neighborhoods and vistas. In the final gallery, “The Promise of Eternity,” the photos are of olive trees, historical symbols of peace, flourishing in their natural settings.

This last section features a quote by Judah ha-Levi (1075-1141), “Can we have hope or certainty in East or West or anywhere but in the one land full of gates that face the open gates of Heaven?”

Jerusalem 1000 – 1400: Every People Under Heaven” is on view at the Metropolitan Museum, 1000 Fifth Avenue, Manhattan, through Jan. 8.