I just spent a lovely day at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York where I saw not just one but two exhibits related to the Holy City. Before you even reach the really amazing "Jerusalem 1000-1400: Every People Under Heaven" and its dazzling display of artifacts that attest to the vibrant exchange of wares and ideas that made 11th to 15th century Jerusalem a caleidoscope of medieval civiliations from Paris to Gujarat and beyond, you can step into a small and serenely monochromatic exhibit of photographs that Auguste Salzmann took of Jerusalem in 1854.
The contrast between these two Jerusalems could not be starker. Where curators Melanie Holcomb and Barbara Drake Boehm show a living city (then and now), Salzmann meticulously recorded walls, gates, sites, and places, with no human being or trace of human activity in sight, excepting the archaeological remains of bygone eras. Salzmann's images document an important moment in the life of the city, just before the end of the Crimean War, after which Jerusalem began to grow and develop at a pace not seen, well, since the Mamluk times documented in "Every People Under Heaven." Only after 1856 did Jerusalem become, once again, the vibrant multi-national and multi-cultural metropolis it once was.
"Every People Under Heaven" is compelling for many reasons. The curators are to be commended for avoiding the two most obvious and at the same time most misleading ways of presenting the medieval city, namely, chronology and religion. By grouping their material by themes such as trade, patronage, drumbeat of war, etc. instead, they are able to show shared values, exchange of goods and ideas, and common concerns of the various people of that age, including Armenians, Georgians, Samaritans, Karaites, Rabbanites, Syriac, Coptic, and Ethiopian Christians, Frankish knights and emperors, Ayyubid and Mamluk sultans, and the many scribes and savants who left behind pilgrimage accounts, letters, prayerbooks, hymnals, travelogs, treatises, holy texts, and more in many languages and scripts and the artists who illuminated them; not to forget the artisans and craftsmen who produced the beautiful glass and earthenware, brass and precious metal and other material objects, assembled in this stupendous and yet lucidly annotated and accessible exhibition. The show juxtaposes the historical material with a few well-chosen brief video interviews that shed light on the organizing themes, as well as images of the Old City today, indicating continuity between the past and the present. A beautifully produced catalogue documents this extraordinary effort to do justice to such a complex cultural phenomenon.
The exhibition has been reviewed in the New York Times and in the New Yorker. But you should go and see for yourself.