Jerusalem has been chosen and sanctified by God, trodden by His feet, honored by angels and frequented by every people under heaven.
Beginning in about the year 1000, Jerusalem captivated the world's attention as never before. Why did it hold that focus for the next four centuries?
A kind of Jerusalem fever gripped much of the world from about 1000 to 1400. Across three continents, thousands made their way to the Holy City—from Jewish, Christian, and Islamic traditions alike. Generals and their armies fought over it. Merchants profited from it. Patrons, artists, pilgrims, poets, and scholars drew inspiration from it. Focusing their attention on this singular spot, they praised its magic, endowed its sacred buildings, and created luxury goods for residents and visitors. As a result, the Holy City shaped the art of this period in significant ways.
Dramatic circumstances, including natural disasters, political turmoil, intense religious fervor, and an uptick in world travel, brought new attention to the city. In the 1030s, the Fatimid caliph who ruled over Jerusalem forged an agreement with the Byzantine emperor to rebuild the Holy City after a series of earthquakes and the malfeasance of his predecessor. In 1099 European Christians achieved their improbable dream of conquering Jerusalem. In the wake of their bloody victory, they created glorious buildings and works of art for nearly a century. In 1187, the military leader Saladin (1137/38–1193) retook the city and rededicated its Islamic sanctuaries. In the late 1200s through the 1300s, Mamluk sultans blessed with stable reigns promoted the city as a spiritual and scholarly center.
Throughout these years, 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.
What delighted me most was the sight of the bazaars—long, vaulted streets extending as far as the eye can reach.
Often understood as the crossroads of the known world, Jerusalem enjoyed an exceptional position as an economic hub, fed by the influx of religious pilgrims, adventurers, and merchants of many faiths, coming from Italy, India, and lands in between.
Many eyewitness accounts reported on the hubbub of the city's streets. Near the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, goldsmiths worked in curious proximity to the chicken vendors. Shopkeepers of different religious traditions and speaking different languages often worked side by side. Visitors marveled at Jerusalem's impressive covered marketplaces and the variety of their wares. Within the renowned triple suq (market), one section was dedicated to spice merchants, another to vegetable vendors, and a third to traders in silk and cotton.
For Christians, a visit to Jerusalem was commemorated by a souvenir. These included religious wares—perhaps a painted icon, a relic secured inside an enameled glass vessel, or just locally produced items made sacred by contact with a holy site. Whether worldly goods or mementos of the fabled East, countless souvenirs made it home to friends and family. Many objects from the city's markets, however, confound efforts to distinguish the owners' identities, let alone their ethnic or religious heritage. These works bear witness both to astute merchants who catered to a broad client base and to the similar taste of wealthier customers, no matter their background.
Trade and travel between Europe and the Holy Land provided common cause and afforded peoples from different worlds the opportunity to meet through the shared language of commerce.
Voices of Jerusalem: A Textile Merchant in the Old City
Jerusalem's streets were never empty of strangers.
No visitor failed to notice the rich mix of people on the streets of Jerusalem. Its astounding variety occurred across multiple dimensions: religious, linguistic, ethnic, and cultural. Both longtime residents and recent immigrants claimed heritages of extraordinary diversity, while visitors, whether pilgrim or merchant, soldier or student, traveled to the Holy City from every part of the known world.
Jerusalem is often described as a city of three faiths, a truism that underestimates its religious complexity. No religion was in fact monolithic, and the city's artistic and intellectual culture benefited from the distinct perspectives and rivalries that often emerged from various sects. Among Jews, for example, Karaites and Rabbanites debated matters of religious law. Shi'a and Sunni Muslims prevailed at different moments. Nuances of doctrine and questions of allegiance split Christians into a dizzying number of distinct sects, and
Jerusalem boasted churches for many of them.
If anything could be said to connect the many religious communities that held Jerusalem dear, it was a shared reverence for the written word. All fundamentally understood themselves as "people of the book." Books written in, brought to, or sent from the Holy City thus exhibit an astonishing range of languages and styles. This reverence for books and the cultivation of scholarship went hand in hand. The city's many madrasas, yeshivas, and monasteries made the city something of a college town, with a steady stream of students and scholars always coming and going.
Voices of Jerusalem: A Scholar in Search of the City's Hidden Archives
If you are worthy to go up to Jerusalem you should observe the following procedure: If you are riding on a donkey, step down; if you are on foot, take off your sandals, then rending your garment say: "This our sanctuary was destroyed."
The Holy Temple was once Jerusalem's most imposing structure. A vast complex that housed the Ark of the Covenant, it was built to be the sanctuary of God himself. Though destroyed in the first century, it remained the focus of Jewish devotional practice both locally and from afar. Scholars analyzed its every feature and artists imagined its lost majesty.
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. Their prayers largely took place not within the city but around its walls. They made a circuit of the city's gates concluding at the eastern Gates of Mercy, built over an ancient gateway to the Temple. There they might scratch their names and prayers into the stone. They then ascended the Mount of Olives, the historic site where it is believed that the Divine Spirit will return at the time of Redemption. This significant spot east of the city afforded the best vantage point from which to gaze upon the Temple platform.
The Mount of Olives also figured in religious celebrations for the local Jewish community. There, they gathered in worshipful song, honored their benefactors, and prayed for the well-being of family and friends.
Voices of Jerusalem: A Writer Inspired by the Absent Temple
Every day in Hebron, bread and lentils are distributed to the poor, whether they are Muslim or Jewish or Christian, and this is done in honor of Abraham.
With Jerusalem as the ultimate goal, pilgrims of all religions first paused at a number of other sites in the Holy Land. Some visits overlapped—like those to the Tomb of the Patriarchs at Hebron. Others were unique, such as the Christian attraction to places described in the Gospels, including Nazareth, where Jesus's birth was first heralded, and Bethlehem, where he was born. Jewish pilgrims visited the tombs of esteemed ancestors—silent monuments to their history in the Holy Land. Muslim pilgrimages in the Holy Land might be undertaken in addition to or as part of the hajj to Mecca.
Where sites became sacred, artistry followed. As in Jerusalem itself, sanctuaries were built, ornamented, embellished, and endowed by patrons and recorded in pilgrims' writings.
Voices of Jerusalem: A Host to Pilgrims and Travelers in the Holy City
God has conferred remarkable glory in arms.
Intimately bound with the belief in Jerusalem's sanctity was the ideology of Holy War. From the 11th to the 14th centuries, esteemed and learned men used the city as a lure, an excuse, a trophy, and an inspiration to wage battle in the name of God against those perceived as infidels.
With the blessing of the Pope and the example of biblical forebears in their minds, Crusaders came from Europe to claim Jerusalem as rightfully theirs. Their first campaign ended in 1099 with the merciless slaughter of the city's inhabitants—Muslims, Jews, and fellow Christians. By the mid-12th century, the military leader Nur al-Din (died 1174), employing the language of spiritual struggle (jihad), rallied the region's Muslim communities against the Crusaders with a call "to uproot the unbelievers," who had taken over Jerusalem.
Art was often drafted into service of these ideals, subtly stoking sectarian violence through jeweled tones and glittering gold surfaces. Masterpieces celebrated the conflict over the Holy Land and made heroes of combatants, while minimizing their bloodstained work of destruction. As such, art became as complicit as oratory. It encouraged the hesitant and affirmed for the overeager the grim necessity and valor of war.
The Europeans said: This is our Church. We love this place, we are bound to it. Here is the place for ornament and decoration, the pictures and the sculptures—the lions and the lion-cubs—the columns and slabs of marble.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre was the culmination of any Christian's trip to Jerusalem. Within the walls of this church, known to Eastern Christians as the Church of the Resurrection (or Anastasis), are the sites where the faithful believe that Jesus was crucified, taken down from the Cross, buried, and rose from the dead. Nearly destroyed in the early 11th century, the church was restored in 1048 by the Byzantine emperor, then dramatically rebuilt and refurbished by Europeans in the 12th century.
The church resounded with different languages of prayer: Greek, Latin, Armenian, Syriac, Georgian, Coptic, and Geez. Images in sculpture and mosaic blanketed the medieval interior, creating a sanctuary peopled with holy figures to greet the faithful. Far from passive tourists, Christian pilgrims responded to the space in a variety of ways—taking its measure with lengths of string, reading its inscriptions, kissing the pavement, and even carving small crosses into the stone walls.
Voices of Jerusalem: A Priest on Managing Access to the Holy Sepulchre
The Dome of the Rock is a great building and a work of art.
At the southwest corner of the great esplanade that overlooks Jerusalem stands the Dome of the Rock, unique in design and magnificent in scale. It enshrines a natural rock outcropping mammoth in size, variously understood as the site of Abraham's sacrifice, the location of the tabernacle in the Temple of Solomon, and the point of departure for the Prophet Muhammad's Ascent to Paradise. Octagonal in plan, it is a building of gemlike richness. Its mosaics, flowering and leafy as a garden in full bloom, were often said to surpass all others. It was further embellished with doors of teak, columns of marble, carpets of silk, and candles of ambergris.
Nearby stands the Aqsa Mosque, the city's great mosque. Inside, a parade of marble columns with sculpted capitals led toward a magnificent minbar, or pulpit. One proud Jerusalem native, writing in the 15th century, declared there to be "no other mosque in this world where one lights so many lamps."
Everyone proclaimed the beauty of these buildings, even non-Muslims. One 15th-century Jewish woman named Stella declared their stones to be "radiant and pure as the very heavens." Christians went so far as to incorporate them in their own sacred landscape, referring to the Dome of the Rock as the Temple of the Lord and the Aqsa Mosque as the Temple of Solomon.
Voices of Jerusalem: A Conservator on Preserving Islamic Heritage
You are like unto the rose, O Jerusalem, and like unto the lily, O Jerusalem; In your footprints, O Jerusalem, I run, my heart consumed with love, O Jerusalem.
Good works, charity, and prayer are central tenets of all the religions that revere Jerusalem, and these virtues possessed a special luster when done in, or for, that city. Jewish teaching maintained that prayer should be directed toward Jerusalem, and Muslim writings asserted that a good deed done in the Holy City equaled one thousand deeds performed elsewhere.
The city benefited materially from its privileged status. Patronage was manifested in various ways, from imposing architectural structures to precious works of art enriching interior spaces, to endowments supporting charitable activities. One did not need to live there to feel its pull. Jerusalem's streets included many a building commissioned from afar; its churches, mosques, synagogues, schools, and libraries possessed works sent by devotees who never set foot inside its walls.
Certainly the most visible patrons were the city's rulers—emperors, kings, caliphs, sultans, queens, and princesses—but its culture of philanthropy encouraged a wide spectrum of donors, with even the lowliest seeking opportunities to give. The city was enhanced not only by the largesse of resident ladies and merchants but also by scholars, pilgrims, and the abiding presence of its many religious communities.
Voices of Jerusalem: A Friar on Artistic Patronage in the Old City
Can we have hope or certainty in East or West or anywhere but in the one land full of gates that face the open gates of heaven?
The sanctity of Jerusalem depends as much on its proximity to heaven as on its biblical past. This is the city believed to be the closest point to the skies, the place on earth where the Messiah would appear, where humankind—living and dead, faithful and infidel—would be gathered and judged, where the final battles would be waged, and from which the Heavenly City would emerge triumphant. Whatever their differences, Jews, Christians, and Muslims hold that Jerusalem serves as the meeting place of God and humanity, the gateway to heaven, and the terrestrial threshold of the eternal world.
No matter the form, art that seeks to represent the Eternal Jerusalem invariably offers a feast for the eyes. This is an art of dreamlike beauty, born of hope and often tinged with a sense of foreboding about the end of time.
In the following videos, hear reflections from some additional residents of Jerusalem on the city's unique character.
Voices of Jerusalem: An Architect on Repairing the City's Ancient Churches
Voices of Jerusalem: A Professor on the Intellectual Life of the Aqsa Mosque
Voices of Jerusalem: A Construction Manager on Maintaining the City's Ancient Roads
Al-Qazwini (1202–1283). "The Archangel Israfil," from 'Aja'ib al-Makhluqat (The Wonders of Creation and Oddities of Existence), late 14th–early 15th century. Egypt or Syria. Opaque watercolor and ink on paper. British Museum, London. © The Trustees of the British Museum