Jerusalem of the 14th century was a city of many contradictions: a holy city imbued with symbolic significance, venerated by all three religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and yet a peripheral city of little political and administrative importance; a provincial town, ruled from Damascus or Cairo, far from the main commercial and military roads and from the postal road of the Mamluk state, and yet a center of culture and pilgrimage of international appeal. Memories of her exalted past and hopes for a redemptive eschatological future established Jerusalem as a ‘center out there’, or even as the omphalos – center of the world, an iconic landscape, treasured and important in spite of her lowly status in worldly matters. Her unique position at the heart of the three monotheistic religions kept Jerusalem well connected to centers across seas and deserts. Few places could compete with the diversity of her population, with the linguistic variety and range of liturgies sung there. Her peripheral position notwithstanding, Jerusalem was an immigration destination for scholars, both Muslim and Jewish, as well as a pilgrimage goal for all three religions.
The Mamluks, who had only recently become Muslims, were eager to turn Jerusalem into a proclaimed Islamic town and devoted energy and resources to building religious institutions – madrasas (religious schools), zawyias (sufi lodges), ribats and khanqahs (Sufi hostels). Muslim Jerusalem as we know it today was created in the Mamluk era. Side by side with their religious zeal, however, the Mamluks were aware of the economic advantages to be gained from the minorities that lived amongst them, and they usually (although not always) refrained from harassing Christian and Jewish communities.
Although the most significant literary products of the period were created elsewhere – in Cairo, Damascus or in the great European centers – the dramatic and sometimes spectacular encounter with the sacred also called for literary activity. This activity was mainly, but not solely, engaged in by foreigners – pilgrims, wayfarers, guests for shorter or longer periods, members of the Muslim majority as well as the Christian and Jewish minorities. Many of their works reflected the Jerusalem experience. Among these is an example of the traditional Muslim literature of praise – fada’il al-Quds (Merits of Jerusalem), still alive in the 14th century, in spite of the severe criticism of Jerusalem veneration by the great scholar Ibn Taymiyyah (died 1328). Muslim visitors to the city came mainly for religious refinement – to study at the feet of the renowned masters who taught in the city’s magnificent madrasas. Some returned home satisfied, others were disappointed. Most of the teachers were also pilgrims who came to the city for a few years, to study and live in close proximity to the sacred. Many took upon themselves modes of ascetic life, thus themselves becoming pilgrimage attractions. Noticeable among these were the Sufis, whose ascetic manners became a prominent feature in the texture of Jerusalem.
The same transient nature characterizes the cultural activity of Christians and Jews. In a period when Christian crusading plans and dreams of re-conquering Jerusalem were fading, a constant stream of pilgrims visited the city, increasing its religiously heterogeneous nature. Although pilgrimage accounts – Itineraria – mainly represent a Western genre, Christian pilgrimage, tolerated by the Mamluks for its economic and political advantages, was an all-embracing experience. Christian writing about Jerusalem (the real city, not the ideal one) comprises mainly pilgrimage accounts that became more elaborate and detailed in this period. Many of them give voice to the new experience of the city as determined by the Franciscans, who in the thirties were nominated by the Pope as custodians of the holy places. From their headquarters on Mount Zion, they guided and assisted European pilgrims, orchestrating their visit as a religious drama enacted on the ‘original’ historical stage. To the Holy Land, the Franciscans imported their deep devotion as well as their strength as cultural mediators, placing great emphasis on the life and suffering of Christ as a mortal, and especially on his Passion, as a basis for meditation and imitation. The pathos that became a distinctive component of devotion, art, and literature, is reflected in pilgrimage accounts of the time, such as Libro d'Oltramare by the friar Niccolò of Poggibonsi. Beginning in the late fourteenth century, pilgrims followed ‘the circuit’, a route that, for ages to come, was the standard pilgrimage path in Jerusalem. An extreme expression of the emotional outburst caused by Jerusalem, an early case of the ‘Jerusalem syndrome’, is found in the Book of Margery Kempe (1413). Although written when Margery was back home and not penned by the pilgrim herself, the Book’s Jerusalem chapters describe pilgrimage as a mystical experience. Margery followed in the footsteps of Bridget of Sweden who had visited the holy places several decades earlier (1373). The topography of Jerusalem and its spiritual meaning were already rooted in Christian culture to such an extent that around 1357, John Mandeville was easily able to fabricate a travel account from existing books, and, during three days in 1358, Petrarch managed to compose an armchair pilgrimage account as a guide for a friend on his way east. Through pilgrims and for them, Jerusalem also joined the European atonement system of quantified holiness. To their descriptions, pilgrims such as Niccolò of Poggibonsi added a detailed list of indulgences gained in each place, for is there a place on earth closer to heavenly mercy than Jerusalem?
Jews formed part of the cultural texture of their surroundings. Jewish travelers from Oriental countries followed the Muslim Ziara routes to visit places of veneration, while the same routes that led dozens of Christian travelers to Jerusalem were followed by European Jews – pilgrims, immigrants, merchants and refugees. Most notable is a group of European (Ashkenazi) Jewish scholars, probably refugees from the Black Death and the subsequent anti-Jewish pogroms, who immigrated to Jerusalem in the late forties and established a religious academy (Yeshiva) there. Consequently, for a while, Jerusalem became a center of Jewish learning and a meeting place for Jews from East and West.
While the legal and administrative documents written in the city reveal the tissue of everyday life, the cultural impact of the Jerusalem aura was filtered through the gaze of others. In the fourteenth century, just as in the present time, some sang its praises while others lamented its lost glory.