Medieval Jerusalem, Harmonious and Dissonant

“Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past,” said Winston, the protagonist of George Orwell’s 1984

Nowhere is this more evident than in the Holy Land and, above all, the city of Jerusalem. Factions of Jews, Christians, and Muslims vie for control of the present land in order to secure its past in each group’s chosen narrative and thereby chart a future aligned with each group's interests. Even within each religion, the struggle for control goes on, as when rival Christian denominations fight over the borders of precious square footage in the Holy Sepulchre.

O’Brien, the interrogator and antagonist of Winston, prods him to explain where the past exists. In written records and in human memories, he says. But is it the case, O’Brien asks, “that the past has real existence? ... Does the past exist concretely, in space? Is there somewhere or other a place, a world of solid objects, where the past is still happening?”

Winston says no, but he’s only half right.

Archaeologists know the truth of Orwell’s chief observation. But they might challenge Winston’s doubt about the concrete reality of the past, the “world of solid objects.” One who controls the present landscape of the Holy Land, for example, has the power to approve or direct its excavation, the layers of contested history underneath the contested surface. Below lie dormant artifacts, waiting to be awakened as characters in a narrative.

What story do we tell of Jerusalem’s past, in order to shape a collective future?

Starting next week, The Metropolitan Museum of Art hosts a major exhibition of artifacts from medieval Jerusalem, a curated world of solid objects. These 200 artifacts from over 60 lenders, some of which have never left Jerusalem, have a story to tell.

That is to say, they are given voice by curation. In New York City, among the most multicultural cities in the history of the world, it is not surprising that the exhibition’s story is neither a clash of civilizations nor a crusade against an enemy. It’s not a war between two religions; and the curators say that even “city of three faiths,” a classic description of Jerusalem, “underestimates its fascinating complexity.” The exhibition’s narrative emphasizes “multiple cultures, faiths, and languages … harmonious and dissonant voices of people from many lands.”

Great variety in close quarters does not need to lead to conflict, prejudice, and violence; thus implies the branding of the exhibit. Rather, “the various cultural traditions and aesthetic strands” of Jerusalem “enriched and enlivened the medieval city.” Granted, the exhibition signals a brief nod to “dissonant voices” from that era, but the emphasis is on “harmonious” relations. The show’s title captures the tenor succinctly: “Every People Under Heaven.” All are welcome, and all are holy.

Along with the exhibition, some fortunate guests will be able to hear actual harmonious voices intone the soundscape of medieval Jerusalem. Schola Antiqua of Chicago, an early music ensemble specializing in medieval and early Renaissance music, will offer two concerts at the Cloisters Museum on October 23. The program for “The Suspended Harp: Sounds of Faith in Medieval Jerusalem” includes calls to prayer from Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditions, along with Jewish cantorial psalms, Christian hymns in Georgian and Armenian, and Sufic devotional music.

While the award-winning ensemble will undoubtedly be in tune, each listener will have to decide whether the “sounds of faith” from Jerusalem evoke a harmonious or a dissonant past.

Michael Peppard is associate professor of theology at Fordham University and on the staff of its Curran Center for American Catholic Studies. He is the author of The World's Oldest Church and The Son of God in the Roman World, and on Twitter @MichaelPeppard. He is a contributing editor to Commonweal.

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