The circular model of the tripartite earth on European mappae mundi revolves on its axis which passes through Jerusalem.
The concept of the Holy City is the Jewish legacy inherited from the Hebrew Bible which draws a convincing picture of the sacred place located at the heart of the world. Ezekiel, the enthusiastic supporter of this view, literally reads God’s lips: "The Sovereign LORD says: This is Jerusalem, which I have set in the center of the nations, with countries all around her".
The Rabbinic Judaism elaborates on the figure of magical axis connecting an array of diminishing physical values with the enhancing spiritual values: Jerusalem to Israel, the Temple to Jerusalem, the Holy of Holies to the Temple, the Foundation Stone to the Holy of Holies. The Midrash Tanhuma Qedoshim claims: "The Land of Israel is at the center of the world, Jerusalem is at the center of the Land of Israel, the Temple is at the center of Jerusalem, the Holy of Holies is at the center of the Temple, the Ark is at the center of the Holy of Holies, the foundation stone stands in front of the Ark, and from the foundation stone the world has been created."
Latin scholars boldly carried on this concept. St. Jerome defines Jerusalem as "the navel of the earth", that is perceived both as the center of the lands and the focal point of its habitable premises: "from the eastern parts it is surrounded by… Asia, from the western parts, by… Europe; from the south… Africa; from the north… by all the nations of the Black Sea. It is therefore situated in the midst of the peoples".
In his speech at the Council of Clermont, Pope Urban II refers to Jerusalem as the focus of the Christian mission, calling it the "navel of the world" and the "paradise of delights". Ignoring the city's contemporary status as one of the Muslim sacred places, the bishop of Rome concentrates on its connection with the tribulations of Jesus: "This spot the Redeemer of mankind has made illustrious by His advent, has beautified by His sojourn, has consecrated by His Passion, has redeemed by His death, has glorified by His burial. In the papal interpretation, the life of Jesus had added a new dimension to the Holy City transforming it from the middle point on the globe to its spiritual center.
During the era of the Crusades, the City of Peace was first reconquered by the militant Church but later fell out of Christian hands. Shocked by this political fiasco, the ecclesiastic leaders were adamant in their belief that the true, eternal Jerusalem had ascended to heaven and would land again following the Second Coming of Jesus. Meanwhile, the believers could adopt the pattern of life in faith. Bernard of Clairvaux compares his monastery to the Eternal City "by whole-hearted devotion, by conformity of life, and by… spiritual affinity".
As a compensation for the loss of terrestrial Jerusalem to the Saracens, the makers of the European T-O charts began to map it at the actual center of the earth, adjacent to the point where the stem of the "T" meets with the crossbar. The city is linked with the sacred history through the Crucifixion on the Hereford world map or the Resurrection on the Ebstorf mappa mundi; both images shown from the bird's view. Alternatively, it is marked with a red dot on the tiny Psalter Map. Any reference to the Muslim control is missing. The Land of the Bible with its ill-defined boundaries, driven out of all proportions, rests in peace (in complete contradiction with the historic context) within its sacred landscape.
The earthly Jerusalem became the terminal of spiritual journeys promoting the handmade manufacture of religious souvenirs with dubious historic value. It is a cosmopolitan city with a dozen sects competing for the attention of gullible visitors. The most exotic group, the Ethiopians, is dubbed "Prester John's Indians". If you are not one of the privileged few, you will be invited to stay in an unfurnished house or a barn, full of dust and foul smells, sleep on dirty straw mattresses, and be content with little water. Check your steps and never approach the mosques on the pain of death. Don't talk to the veiled Muslim ladies: it's even safer not to cast a glance on them. Find out the time of the church service: the bell won't toll as its sound drives the Saracens crazy. Nevertheless, the crowds of pilgrims kept coming.
The center of Christian Jerusalem was associated with a sacred artifact called Compass [a circular place] within the compounds of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. In a contemporary report of Saewulf, an Anglo-Saxon Crusader, written at the beginning of the twelfth century, this medieval relic was linked with Jesus himself who "with his own hand marked and measured the center of the world".
San Severino was shown a foundation rock, deliberately transferred from the Temple Mount to the hill of Calvary (Golgotha), with a crack from top to bottom allegedly formed by the blood of Jesus. This crack marked the mathematical center of the universe.
More suspicious visitors were provided with a "scientific" description of a tall pillar erected at the place of the miracle of a man's resurrection from the dead. This column was devoid of shadow at noon during the summer solstice.
A valorous English knight, Sir John Mandeville of St. Albans, added a psychological element to this puzzle. He insists that a public action unfolding in the downtown draws a wider response than the same activity occurring in the suburbs. Therefore, it is no accident that the Crucifixion was performed in Jerusalem, a vantage point for spreading the news, so it "might be known evenly to all parts of the world."
The critiques appeared in due time. Isidore of Seville didn't dare to slam the popular image, but his encyclopedia places Jerusalem in the center of the Holy Land rather than the whole wide world: "In the center of Judea is the city Jerusalem, as if it were the navel of the whole region".
Felix Fabri, a friar who visited Palestine in the fifteenth century, revered the Holy City as both the spiritual and geographical center. However, he didn't miss a chance to dispute with numerous antagonists who admitted that Jerusalem could be in the middle of the habitable world but not at the heart of the universe.
The passion for the Crusades neither vanished with the fading lights of Acre nor changed prevailing direction. As late as the Age of Discovery, one of its champions, Don Cristobal Colon, considered his highly ambitious Enterprise of the Indies as a preparation for the final assault to release the Mount Zion. Christopher Columbus recalls in his journal about a farewell audience with his bosses: "I urged Your Highnesses to spend all the profits of this enterprise on the conquest of Jerusalem."
In a letter penned during his first voyage, Columbus promises his royal benefactors that if his mission were a success, he would hire a formidable military force of mounted warriors and infantrymen for the liberation of the beloved city: "… in seven years from today I will be able to pay Your Highnesses for 5,000 cavalry and 50,000 foot soldiers for the war and conquest of Jerusalem, for which purpose this enterprise was undertaken."
In his personal notebook, he collects excerpts from Biblical, apocryphal, classical, and medieval authors in support of the twin goals of his enterprise: "the recovery of God's Holy City" and "the discovery and evangelization of the islands of the Indies." In his resourceful mind, the earthly Jerusalem had to be released as the precondition for the coming down of its heavenly counterpart, foreshadowing "a new heaven and a new earth".