“Jerusalem, 1000-1400: Every People Under Heaven” is a new exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It is divided into several spacious galleries, each showcasing artifacts that shine a light on a different facet of life in the city, from “The Pulse of Trade and Tourism” to “The Drumbeat of Holy War.” It is elegantly designed, thoughtfully curated, and immensely pleasing. And it should leave every decent person with this simple sentiment: Fuck this godawful town.
I do not mean this as an empty vulgarity or a cheap provocation. I’m myself the descendant of pious Jews who settled inside the Old City’s walls some centuries ago, and reverence for Jerusalem is in my cellular matter, as, I suppose, is true for all believing Jews. But the Jerusalem we revere, the same Jerusalem the exhibition captures so well, is not a city: It’s an idea, and a very bad one at that.
You don’t have to try too hard to understand it. Just think of the poor howlers driven mad by their brief visits and moved to wrap themselves in linen and spit out half-digested prophecies until some kind stranger comes and drags them away. They do so because they suffer from a bout of existential confusion: Arriving in the city and finding it caked with the soot and sorrow of millennia—visiting in 1856, Herman Melville, unmoved, wrote in his diary that Jerusalem looked at you “like a cold gray eye in a cold old man”—these sufferers bridge the dissonance between their observations and their aspirations by imagining that they’re walking the streets of some heavenly realm and that God, their tender friend, is never far away.
We diagnose these tortured souls with Jerusalem Syndrome, but judging from the exhibition it’s safe to say that we’re all, to some extent, symptomatic. In crisply lit display cases, sparkling against the Ikea-gray walls, are inanimate testaments to 400 years of lunacy: the effigy of a young man of the d’Aluye family, the third generation of his clan to leave the Loire Valley and seek eternal glory by marching to claim Jerusalem for his Lord; the beautiful watercolor of the Archangel Israfil, red as a gaping wound, believed by Muslims to be the one heralding all creatures to Jerusalem for one final showdown to end all time; the golden Jewish wedding ring depicting fantastic beasts holding up the long-destroyed temple. All are proof that to visit Jerusalem, then as now, is to become adept at seeing what’s not there and what likely will never be.
Not that you’d come to such dreary conclusions from reading the exhibit’s catalog copy or watching the cheerful interviews with Jerusalem’s colorful residents that adorn the galleries’ large halls. This is the Met, after all, and like the bien pensants who support it, attend its exhibitions, and review them in the right magazines, it can arrive at no other conclusion than the one that airily praises an effortless sort of cosmopolitanism while paying little attention to how the vast swaths of others, unenlightened and unwashed, choose to live life. “Throughout these years,” pips one piece of copy, “the city was home to more cultures, faiths, and languages than ever before. As the site of both conflict and coexistence, it inspired art of great beauty and fascinating complexity.” That’s true; it also inspired the slaughter of 1.7 million people, give or take, in the time period covered by the exhibition alone, a carnage that is altogether imperceptible from the illuminated manuscripts and pretty things on display at the Met.
Of course, an institution devoted to the accumulation and presentation of beautiful objects needn’t necessarily worry about the immense suffering amid which these rare objects were forged. Only the most sour Stalinists, the kind who huddle on college campuses these days and scratch at their intersectionalities, would sacrifice aesthetic pleasures on the altar of steelier and mirthless abstractions. But if you aim to capture the essence of a city, the least you can do is try to glide past the platitudes and onto some deeper plane of understanding.
The objects themselves, ironically, do just that, working slyly against their curation and telling a much more interesting story than the anodyne one stenciled in neat letters on the wall. It’s a story that is, to quote Melville’s judgment of Jerusalem yet again, “half-melancholy, half-farcical.” It’s a story of people who flocked to Jerusalem to transcend the world, and then got there and realized that, for mortals, transcendence just wasn’t in the cards. It’s a story of centuries of pilgrims hurrying to ascend the Gates of Mercy unto Heaven and then dying sad and violent deaths and leaving behind them only broken, lovely relics. It’s a story of so many people who believed one town to be divinely blessed because it was easier than believing that every town is divinely blessed, that every mountain is near to God, that every home is as thick with holiness as the most exalted temple or church or mosque.
Because we’ve never learned this lesson, we still fight over Jerusalem. And because we fight over it still, it remains a perpetual fascination: The Met, you can be sure, could mount an updated version of the very same exhibition 700 years from now and change little, save for the specific details of the stuff on display. It’s because Jerusalem is our greatest Grand Guignol: Too small and too promised, it’s the stage for macabre bloodshed and little else. To focus intently on the jewels and the tumblers and the trays that wealthy merchants offered for sale, as the exhibit’s first gallery does, is to sit at the theater and watch no one but the usher.
And yet Jerusalem, as it always does, has the last say. Without meaning to, the Met has done what no empire could: It has erected the purest manifestation of Jerusalem, a city finally empty of all people, finally free of puny distractions like breakfasts and parking and love affairs and lives lost, finally free to be what it has always truly been, an idea better expressed by things than by people. It needn’t be divided any longer: Its inhabitants are all projections on a screen, and its Via Dolorosa leads only to the gift shop.
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Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.