The city of Jerusalem has long been home to Jews who live there and those of us who don’t. It has remained a city of yearning and a bastion of hope throughout years of turmoil. This was especially evident during the Middle Ages as illustrated in the new exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art titled: “Jerusalem 1000-1400: Every People Under Heaven.”
The showcase, which seeks to portray Christian, Islamic, and Jewish faiths while unraveling “the various cultural traditions and aesthetic strands that enriched and enlivened the medieval city,” opened to the public on September 26 and will close on January 8th. The exhibit consists of several grey rooms, soft lighting, and gleaming display cases filled with ancient artifacts of the time. With video projections of Jerusalem today reflected on the walls, visitors can compare the current state of the city to the time of the Middle Ages.
The medieval period was an especially rocky time for the Jews in Jerusalem. They lived under the Fatimids for almost one hundred years, before being brutally slaughtered by the advancing Crusaders. They later returned under the rule of Saladin, only to be persecuted when the Mamluks rose to power. When the Jews were scattered all over the world, they shared one thing in common: a persistent desire to return.
The Jewish objects featured in the museum magnify this concept. One only has to glance at the Jewish wedding ring from Germany topped with an ornate temple, symbolizing the lost Beis Hamikdash. Or examine a Haggadah from Barcelona that proclaims: “Next year in Jerusalem.” Or even take a look at the seal of Tsemach from Old Cairo, inscribed with the words “Jerusalem the Holy City, may it be built soon.”
Unfortunately, for museum-goers eager to see many more similar Jewish artifacts, disappointment awaits. While the exhibit features over 200 works from 60 lenders worldwide, they are predominantly Christian and Muslim. With a plethora of crosses, Qurans, pottery, maps, artwork, globes, and capitals, the Jewish objects are mostly confined to a few sacred books.
Of course this has been a source of much criticism and debate. With the Jewish connection to Jerusalem already being questioned via the notorious UNESCO vote, it does not help matters to be vastly underrepresented in the exhibit. Many have countered that Jews were a minority in Jerusalem, and did not produce a lot of art to be featured. Still, the absence was clearly felt and has left a negative impression on many Jewish visitors.
Perhaps anticipating this view, the curators dedicated a wall to featuring “The Absent temple,” stating: “Even with no Temple to visit, Jewish pilgrims flocked to medieval Jerusalem. They came to mourn the destruction of the Temple and pray that it would one day be rebuilt.” Near the wall, is a video playing on a loop of Jerusalem born author, Ruby Namdar, who speaks about the temple. “One of the things that we have to remember when we talk about the temple is that it was a place of immense beauty where humanity looks its best,” he explained. “When you walk into a place that was so beautiful, so tasteful, so grand, it felt like the gates of heaven were opened.” He continued to state that he felt that the absent temple is not just a Jewish symbol, but a universal one. For some museum visitors who felt that they didn’t get to see much Jewish artifacts, a universal symbol was not what they wanted to hear.
Overall, though there are few Jewish objects, the ones that are featured are beautiful and worth the trip to see in person. For those who will not have the chance to visit the exhibit before its closing on January 8th, take a look at some of the photos of the Jewish artifacts displayed.