Blog-post author, Dr Merav Mack, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, IL.
Some reflections following a visit in December 2016 to the exhibition “Jerusalem 1000-1400: Every People Under Heaven” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA (26 September 2016– 8 January 2017).
“What is Jerusalem? Or where is Jerusalem?” are the opening words of art critic Jason Farago when reviewing the exhibition: “The real city and its eternal image bleed into each other“ he explains. Suitably, he entitled his article Jerusalem Rebuilt in New York’s Green and Pleasant Land.
The exhibition is overwhelming in its scale and achievement, a project that takes place once in a life time. Over a period of several years the curators painstakingly selected and assembled in New York a great number of items, borrowed from all Jerusalem’s communities, and thus telling a story of cultural richness; a history of multiple narratives, told from as many angles as possible.
When I entered the exhibition hall I found the iconic images of Jerusalem displayed all around. Photographs of the Dome of the Rock projected on great screens. There were no modern maps to guide the visitors to the city or its various parts. I couldn’t help thinking that this was intentional as the subject of the exhibition was not just the physical city but its image.
The thousand-year-old question resurfaces; what matters more, Earthly Jerusalem or Heavenly Jerusalem. The eschatological city of the end of days and the temporal city are blurred in the Jerusalem Exhibition. While the city is represented with numerous archaeological artefacts, books, maps and images, many are fantastic and have little to do with the real city.
As I walked through the exhibition I wondered how many thousands of people made their pilgrimage to Jerusalem through the Met in New York City. Complementing our discussions in London I thought that a visit to the museum’s exhibition is a little bit like the medieval, arm-chair pilgrimage.
The first room of the exhibition was dedicated almost exactly to our subject, the travellers to Jerusalem: “The Pulse of Trade and Tourism”. The focus of the room instead of crusade, repentance, pilgrimage or devotion was merchants’ travels, their monies, commodities and souvenirs, as well as a few maps and charts. A recently discovered hoard of golden coins from Caesarea stood right the entrance.
Matthew Paris, Marino Sanudo and William of Tyre are the three wonderful manuscripts selected for this room, as well as a traveller map in Arabic, with no distinction between real travellers and armchair ones (e.g. Matthew Paris). In another room I found the beautiful bird’s eye-view of Jerusalem by Bernhard von Breydenbach (The Metropolitan Museum, 19.49.3), next to a Muslim pilgrimage certificate from the year 1433, combining Persian inscriptions and iconographical representation of the holy sites. A beautiful pictorial circular maps of Jerusalem was included – this copy from the Hague manuscript of the Gesta Francorum is probably the most famous among them.
In the catalogue (but sadly not at the exhibition) was the image from Liber peregrinationis by Riccoldo da Monte Croce (BNF MS Fr. 2810) of pilgrims at the (imagined) Holy Sepulchre.
The catalogue’s articles, like the exhibition, focused primarily on souvenirs and relics, tourist experience and the material aspect of their journey – specifically on items the travellers brought back home. The question of what knowledge pilgrims brought with them (in the form of books, drawings or maps), what libraries they encountered along the way and what they acquired in the East remain for us to explore.
The second hall focused on The Diversity of Peoples and included a large number of manuscripts, “a little unusual for a Met exhibition”, remarked one critic. Visitors queued to look and study the manuscripts carefully. I found this room particularly inspiring.
The emphasis of this hall (and the exhibition as a whole) is the richness of Jerusalem’s population, its languages and traditions. Here I found manuscripts that learned travellers could have found in medieval Jerusalem at one point or another (if allowed into the monasteries were they were kept, and if indeed they possessed knowledge of the locally spoken and written languages).
Karaites and Rabbinical Jewish manuscripts, Samaritan, Georgian, Syriac, Greek and Arabic, alongside manuscripts in Ge’ez and Armenian. Copies of the Gospels and the Qur’an were included as well as non-religious texts.
Let me conclude by listing these items, which may be of particular interest to visitors to this blog.
Eastern Christian communities
- Armenian Gospel copied by Nerses the abbot in 1321 in Jerusalem (Library of Congress).
- Georgian Menologion – written by the founder of the Holy Cross George Prokhorus 1038-1040 at the monastery of the Holy Cross. Before founding the monastery he was a monk at the Great Laura of Mar Saba. (Bodleian Library).
- Four Gospels from Mar Saba (Princeton).
- Syriac Breviary from St Mary Magdalene & St Simon the Pharisee, 1138 Jerusalem.
- Armenian canon tables written after 1187 with a scribe’s note of his sadness of the fall of J-m to Saladin and prayer for its recovery. (Walters Art Museum).
Latin and mixed communities
- Missal of the Holy Sepulchre ca. 1135-1140 (BNF, Paris), with a mixture of Latin and Armenian pagination, demonstrating cooperation between a Frankish calligrapher and an Armenian-speaking illuminator.
- Melisende’s Psalter (BL Egerton MS 1139).
Karaite and Rabbinical manuscripts in Jerusalem before the crusades
After the bloody conquest of Jerusalem in 1099 Jewish survivors were ransomed and exiled to Ascalon then Cairo (Fustat). Manuscripts were ransomed too, including the famous Aleppo Codex.
- A page from the Aleppo Codex.
- Daniel al-Qumisi, Commentary on Psalms (late 9th, early 10th century). JTS New York. Cat. 36a, p. 94. Hebrew.
- Abraham al-Basir – Responsa, 11th century. Arabic. JTS (MS 3448).
- Yefet ben ‘Ali translation and commentary (10th century). A prolific writer, translator (Hebrew to Arabic) and biblical commentator, his manuscripts were copied numerous times.
Jewish travelers in the Middle Ages
- Maimonides Plan of the Temple (Bodleian, MS Poc. 295).
- Letter requesting funds to ransom captives (JTS MS 8254).
- Yehuda Halevi (JTS).
- Al-Ghazali’s Ihya (Revival of the Islamic Sciences) from the museum of Islamic art in Doha (this copy was not copied in Jm). Cat. No. 43, p. 100.
- Al-Busiri’s Qasidat al-Burda (Ode to the Mantle) copied in Jerusalem by a Persian calligrapher Muhammad al-Fruzabadi al-Shirazi in 1361. He lived and taught in Jeruusalem between 1358 and 1368. (NLI Yah. Ar. 784).
- A few copies of the Qur’an were included in the exhibition. One by Muhammad ibn al-Bulaybil al-Hijazi was copied in Jerusalem in 1390 (British Library).
- Nur al-Din’s qur’an: a beautiful copy whose pages can found in various museums. The Met had 2 pages from Dallas (Dallas Museum of Art – ex. Keir collection VII 3 and 4).