"Jerusalem, 1000-1400: Every People Under Heaven," at the Metropolitan Museum, is a captivating show of some two hundred objects from the era of the Crusades. There are manuscripts, maps, paintings, sculptures, architectural fragments, reliquaries, ceramics, glass, fabrics, astrolabes, jewelry, weapons, and, especially, books—in nine alphabets and twelve languages. The works, from sixty lenders in more than a dozen countries, express the Jewish, Islamic, and Christian cultures of the time, the three great Abrahamic faiths sharing a city holy to them all, when they weren’t bloodily contesting it. The installation is lovely: rooms in gray and blue are filled with a cumulative haze of spotlights, designed not for drama but for ease of attention; the show, though immense, won’t exhaust you. There are mural-like video projections of the city today and brief video interviews with representative citizens. The ambience is conducive less to learning than to dreaming. This feels right for a history that is incomprehensible without reference to religious passions. I am reminded of Marianne Moore’s description of poems as "imaginary gardens with real toads in them." Jerusalem was then, as it remains for many, as much an idea as a locale. In 2000, the British Journal of Psychiatry reported on about twelve hundred cases, during the previous decade, of "Jerusalem syndrome," in which ordinary tourists were seized by convictions of a sacred mission and made public nuisances of themselves, often by sermonizing at holy sites while clad in hotel sheets


In the introduction to the show’s catalogue, the curators, Barbara Drake Boehm and Melanie Holcomb, tell of meeting with Theophilus, the Greek Orthodox patriarch of Jerusalem. He asked them, "Whose story do you intend to tell?" They answered that they hoped "to tell everyone’s story, and no one’s." And so they have, to the extent possible, with visual evidence from a time and a place roiled by dozens of ethnic and religious constituencies. Most of the objects were not made in Jerusalem, and only a quarter of them are from collections there. But their association with the city isn’t strained; they evince a gravitational tug that was felt, according to Boehm and Holcomb, by people in regions as far-flung as Iceland and India. The show documents the medieval city’s allure in sections entitled "The Air of Holiness" and "The Promise of Eternity," and follows its consequences in "The Pulse of Trade and Tourism"—involving waves of pilgrims and the commerce that served them—and "The Drumbeat of Holy War." Regarding the last section, we are led to reflect on the era’s amplification of the concepts of Christian bellum sacrum—"God wills it!" was the Crusader battle cry—and Islamic military jihad, waged "to uproot the unbelievers," as a Muslim leader declared in the twelfth century.