Metropolitan Museum of Art, 335 pp., $75.00 (distributed by Yale University Press)
The exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art “Jerusalem, 1000–1400: Every People Under Heaven” has risen to the challenge of portraying a remarkable period in the history of a most unusual city. Between 1000 and 1400 Jerusalem lived many lives. In 1000, it was a provincial city, governed from Cairo by Muslim rulers. Then the unexpected happened. Between 1099 and 1187, Jerusalem fell into the hands of foreigners from the distant West, known to us as Crusaders, but usually known to their Middle Eastern neighbors as “Franks”—Firanghi.
In 1187, the city returned to Muslim rulers. But these rulers were, in many ways, as much outsiders as the Franks had been. They were not Arabs, but Turks and Kurds—self-made men of the sword who had risen to power in the turmoil that had followed the Seljuq Turkish infiltration of the Middle East from 1050 onward. Indeed, the Mamelukes who would govern Jerusalem in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries were warrior-slaves recruited from all regions. They were as diverse as the French Foreign Legion. One of the most successful Mameluke generals was even a former member of the Teutonic Knights. Faced by such rulers, the average inhabitants of Egypt and Palestine could well have asked themselves if the knights had ever gone home.
Yet throughout this kaleidoscope of regimes, the life of Jerusalem continued. The Met exhibition has recaptured for us the vibrant commercial and cultural life that persisted through so many political and religious changes. The opening room of the exhibition concentrates, with unabashed zest, on this theme. The first thing we see is a pile of bright gold coins minted in Egypt, and discovered in the port of Caesarea in 2015. The gold in these coins came from the gold-rich rivers of sub-Saharan West Africa. For the very first time in history, Muslim caravans had conquered the Sahara desert (an ocean of sand as formidable as the Atlantic) that lay between West Africa and the Mediterranean, releasing a stream of precious metal into the Islamic world.
The elites of all regions and religions floated on this bed of shared opulence. In the same room, a bronze platter bears the coat…
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