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The City of God put under the microscope

16 December 2016

Mark Oakley finds contemporary resonances in an exhibition devoted to Jerusalem’s cosmopolitan past

Saint-Bertin Koninklijke Bibliotheek, The Hague

Picture book: a map of Crusader Jerusalem from a picture Bible, tempera, gold, and ink on parchment, late 12th century (Saint-Bertin Koninklijke Bibliotheek, The Hague)

Picture book: a map of Crusader Jerusalem from a picture Bible, tempera, gold, and ink on parchment, late 12th century (Saint-Bertin Koninklijke Bibli...

THE British Journal of Psychiatry reported in 2000 that, over a ten-year period, some 1200 international tourists had been admitted to hospital with “severe, Jerusalem-generated mental problems” brought on by a visit to the Holy Land, in which a fixation on the city of Jerusalem became “pathological”. One form of this syndrome, found in people with no previous history of mental illness, and who recovered on returning home, turned ordinary tourists into an irritating public nuisance as they preached fiery sermons at holy sites, wrapped in their hotel sheets.

Whatever the credibility of the modern syndrome, the organisers of the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art’s autumn exhibition have focused instead on the fact that, from roughly the 11th to the 14th centuries, much of the world was in the grip of a kind of “Jerusalem fever”. During this period, Jerusalem went through many transformations. In 1000, it was a provincial city governed by Muslim leaders in Cairo. From 1099, the city fell into the hands of Western Crusaders, but, by 1187, it was back under a changing Muslim governance of various traditions and nationalities.

Through such turbulent but cre­ative years, Jerusalem was the most earthly of cities: it witnessed immense diversity, and the con­sequent bloody divisions that humans resort to in the search for power and control — especially of what is claimed holy. But it was also the most heavenly of cities, em­­bodying a holy vision that infused and drew the souls of Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike, and, at its best, encouraged them to live, work, socialise, and even worship peaceably with each other. It is, after all, the place where the Jewish Messiah will appear, the city from which the Prophet Muhammad be­­gan a tour of heaven, and the site of Jesus’s death and resurrection.

THE exhibition, “Jerusalem 1000-1400: Every People Under Heaven”, is a celebration of the incredible convergence of interests that Jerusalem inspired. Across three continents, thousands made their way to the Holy City, sited at the centre of their world maps. They came from as far as Scandinavia, present-day China, Spain, and Ethiopia.

While soldiers fought over the city, merchants profited from it. Pilgrims, poets, artists, and scholars from Islamic, Christian, and Jewish traditions found their hearts and imaginations captured there. Vis­itors would sometimes hold mirrors to the sky: believing the city to be situated at the gates of heaven, they hoped for a glimpse of the celestial kingdom.

This is not an exhibition on a grand scale. Here, God is in the detail. You spend more time look­ing down into display cases, study­ing rare illuminated books, coins, enamel work, bits of fabric, and glassware than standing back gasp­ing at large architectural spec­tacles. Brought together from all parts of Europe and the Middle East, the 200 objects on display reveal the in­­credible cross-cultural ingenuity of the period’s commerce, art, and philosophies.

The wealth, piety, and ambition of this complex polyglot city, shaped into a sacred crossroads of human hope, is impressively marked in every room. It succeeds in challen­­ging the stereotype that the mu­­seum’s director, Thomas Camp­bell, identi­fies: “From today’s vantage-point, Jerusalem seems destined to host unending, unre­lent­ing conflict among the three Abrahamic reli­gions that deem it holy: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Sectarian conflict is sadly the easiest tale to spin, but Jerusalem’s history is in fact much more nuanced.”

In preparation for the exhibition, the organisers visited the Greek Orthodox Patriarch Theophilus III of Jerusalem, to tell him of their plans. He asked: “Whose story do you intend to tell?” Reminded of the depth of feeling and history that pervades almost every aspect of life in contemporary Jerusalem, their reply was: “We hope to tell every­one’s story — and no one’s.”

And so we find Jewish prayer-books that voice a deep longing for the lost Temple; and we can scru­tinise Maimonides’s ink sketch of its floor plan, beside a sculptural mini­ature of it on a Jewish wedding ring. We glimpse the majestic Islamic architecture of the Dome of the Rock, and look open-mouthed at the beauty of intricately deco­rated Qur’ans. The books on display here are in nine alphabets and 12 lan­guages.

Various reliquaries and crosses, capital sculptures and chalices testify to the devotion of Christians of every tradition — including Greek, Syrian, Coptic, Armenian, and Georgian — being inspired by the streets and gardens where their Lord suffered and overcame death.

The room “Holy War and the Power of Art” reminds us, too, of the shadow of religion, and of the propaganda that art can dan­gerously promote.

Creativity can feed conflict as well as calm it. In 1095, Pope Urban II called on Christians to liberate Jerusalem from people “absolutely alien to God”, and in 1099 the Cru­sader armies began their ethnic and relig­ious slaughter of Muslims and Jews (as well as of any Christians who got in the way).

The horror is brought home by two enormous steel swords, placed up­­right. One of them bears the sacred monogram of Jesus, showing it to have been originally Christian weaponry; but it also carries a later Arabic inscription, noting that the sword was donated to the armoury of Alexandria, and may have been used by Muslim warriors in revenge.

The French chronicler of the First Crusade, Robert the Monk, was ad­­amant that “God has con­ferred re­­markable glory in arms.” Staring at these hypnotic blades, used in the name of God, brought only a numbing coldness into the space today.


THE day I visited the exhibition in New York, I had been read­ing the papers. They were full of fallout stories after the elec­tion of Donald Trump: church notice­­boards were defaced; Muslim chil­dren were being verbally and phys­ically abused at school; black chil­dren were being told to sit at the back of a school bus; a Washington conference was condemning Jews and promoting white supremacy.

How much of this Trump would wish to be associated with is debat­able, but his election undoubtedly has unleashed, and is encouraging, some dark forces, many of them focused on ethnicity, religion, and the “other” in “our” midst.

It was revealing to stand by one of the display stands and listen to people’s disbelief as they saw what appeared to be an ancient Qur’an of opaque watercolour, gold, and ink actually turn out to be St Luke’s Gospel in Arabic: a translation from 1336, drawn from Greek, Syriac, and Coptic versions of the Bible for Arabic-speaking Christians. It was obviously playing with the easy “post-truth” rhetoric and dichotomies of much Western under­standing at the moment.

A man turned to me: “Wow!” he said. “If we ever needed to learn about this, then now is the time.” The threatened elimination of many Christian communities across the Middle East today, with re­­mark­ably little Western outrage or wel­come to refugees, surely proves him right.

THERE is another sur­prising, but discreet, exhibit at the end of the tour. The account of Muhammad’s night journey to Jerusalem, and then to the heavens, is a central tenet of Islamic belief. Although depic­tions of the Prophet are rare, Persian and Central Asian Muslim artists turned their skill to the event, and six folios from a lavishly illustrated manuscript are on display. In one, in a chamber of heaven, gold and blue and guarded by 70,000 angels, we see Muhammad meeting Isa ibn Maryam, otherwise known as Jesus Christ. They stand close and look at each other with a respectful and benevolent recog­­nition.

It is a portrait that one longs to see translated on earth, as in heaven; and to this end — like so much of this remarkable exhibition — it is a compass that prompts travel in a better and more hopeful direction than that in which many so-called “populist” or “pious” rabble-rousers are currently steering us.

This ex­­hibition is impres­sive. It is also timely.


Canon Oakley is the Chan­cellor of St Paul’s Cathedral, and the author of The Splash of Words: Believing in poetry (Canter­bury Press, 2016).

”Jerusalem 1000-1400: Every People Under Heaven” is at The Met Fifth Avenue, 1000 Fifth Avenue, New York, until 8 January 2017. Phone 00 1 212 535 7710. www.metmuseum.org

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