Bling and Beauty: Jerusalem at the Met
Long before Jerusalem’s skyline was punctuated by high-rises and cranes, the Holy City was already a crowded place. One of the wonders of Second Temple Jerusalem, as the rabbis tell it, was that despite the throngs of pilgrims, “No one ever said to his fellow: ‘The place is too cramped for me to lodge in Jerusalem.’” Jostling for space among a sea of visitors one recent Sunday afternoon at the Met’s fall blockbuster, Jerusalem 1000–1400: Every People Under Heaven, I could have benefited from just such a miracle.
The front cover of the museum catalog is an eschatological Jerusalem scene that paints a diverse, dense urban space: Black, brown, and white people sporting turbans, togas, gowns, or just their underwear sit on stoops, converse on street corners, and cavort in the trees. The 13th-century lectionary (a selection of the Gospels to be read in church) from which the image is taken was composed in Syriac, one of many languages and scripts used in polyglot Jerusalem. Medieval eyewitness accounts frequently commented on the town’s confusing babel, and multilingual phrasebooks gave visitors the confidence to ask locals anything from “how much does it cost?” to “woman, let me sleep with you tonight.”