The Church of the Resurrection, part 6

The Church of the Resurrection, part 6

In 1229, the German emperor Frederick II led the Sixth Crusade to Jerusalem. He persuaded the Ayyubid Sultan Al-Kamil to allow him to be crowned “King of Jerusalem” as part of a peace treaty, and for a brief moment, Frederick might have actually believed he ruled the city.

The reality was that Al-Kamil did not take his treaty with Frederick seriously. Not only that, but Frederick had been excommunicated by the pope so the Latin Patriarch did not even attend the crowning. As soon as Frederick was gone, Al-Kamil simply disregarded all of the stipulations of the treaty and returned to life as it had been before his arrival.

Al-Kamil’s family would have to tend to its own issues. His successor As-Salih Ayyub, fearing the soldiers of his own Kurdish relatives, turned for protection to a special slave army known as the Mamluks. The Mamluks overthrew the Ayyubids in 1250, and they took control of Jerusalem as part of their territory. They controlled the city until 1517.

In 1520, a young, intelligent and ambitious man named Suleiman became the Sultan of the Ottoman Turks. His father had united much of the Muslim world under Ottoman rule, including Jerusalem. Suleiman took the opportunity to restore Jerusalem’s significance.

Suleiman envisioned Jerusalem as a place of peace for Muslims, Jews and Christians. He opened the gates of his newly walled city to all forms of Christians. When French king sent a request that all the churches that had been converted to mosques be returned to the Christians, Suleiman very diplomatically stated that Sharia law forbid this while assuring Louis that all existing Christian sites would be respected.

In 1536, Suleiman’s builders began work on new walls for Jerusalem. He ensured that all of the Christian holy sites, including the Church of the Resurrection, were inside the walls. Although his motivations are unknown, it was clear that Suleiman understood the necessity of protecting the city and its sites. When he discovered that the builders had failed to include Mount Zion, which had a number of Christian holy sites, he had them executed.

Because Suleiman was attempting to protect all religions, he had to allow all forms of Christianity access to the city. This meant that Greek Orthodox and Franciscans would have to co-exist and share the Church of the Resurrection. This was an uneasy situation. The Franciscans controlled the Church. All of the masses were said by Franciscan friars, and only the Franciscans remained in the Church year-round.

But the Franciscans were a mendicant order. Their financing and supplies came almost exclusively from western Europe. The Orthodox, on the other hand, had considerable experience dealing with the Ottoman Turks and other Muslims.

Over the next two hundred years, the Franciscans carried out a number of projects in the Church. They rebuilt the Edicule – a small building inside the Anastasis which housed the remains of the actual tomb of Jesus. They continued on as best they could, rotating teams of ten men inside the Church every three months. The doors were kept locked except during Holy Week, so these men lived lives of considerable discomfort.

They held on until 1757 when, through a carefully orchestrated coup, the Orthodox expelled them. Bribing the local kadi (judge) to support them, over a thousand Orthodox clergy and laity descended on the Church on Palm Sunday. The friars barricaded themselves inside the Church, but the mob broke through and physically hauled them from the Church. The Franciscan Custodian protested, as did the French king Louis XV, but the Orthodox had spared no expense in bribes up and down the bureaucracy.

The Franciscans were still permitted inside the Church, but they no longer controlled it. This honor passed to the Greek Patriarchate of Jerusalem.

The Ottoman central authority, the Sublime Porte, issued an order known as the Status Quo, which established a division of the Church among six groups: the Franciscans, the Greek Orthodox, the Syriac Orthodox, Armenians, the Coptics, and the Ethiopians. Everything, down to the number and locations of candles was established.

No end of controversy has broken out because of the Status Quo. Perhaps the most remarkable of all of these controversies erupted in 1852. The ruler of France, Napoleon III, demanded that the Latins be allowed to repair the secondary dome (or cupola) that had been built by the Crusaders back in the 1100’s. The Turks initially seemed in favor of the idea, but the Russians threatened to invade the Ottoman empire if they granted this right to the Latins. They understood that under Turkish law, if someone repairs a structure, it becomes theirs. The Porte began discussing what to do, and the impatient Russian Czar Nicholas I invaded Ottoman territories.

The French were then put in a difficult position. Together with the English, they feared that if the Russians defeated the Turks, they would be in a position to take much of Eastern Europe, so they declared war on the Russians and found themselves allies. They managed to stop the Russians, and the Status Quo was then codified into international law as part of the Treaty of Paris in 1856. The war they fought is known as the Crimean War, and among other things it gave us Florence Nightingale and the Tennyson poem “The Charge of the Light Brigade”.

Ironically, even as the Russians were invading Ottoman territories, the Porte had drafted a resolution that affirmed the 1757 Status Quo and denied the French request. Since the Treaty of Paris then affirmed the Porte’s decision, the war basically accomplished nothing.

During all of this, the Church itself was repeatedly damaged and patched by fires and earthquakes. In 1847, the Roman See established a Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem which had been trying to foster cooperation among the competing sects.

With the Ottoman empire on the wain and the 20th century dawning, the Church of the Resurrection was crumbling.

And would continue to do so into the 21st century. But there is hope, and that will be the subject of my next post.

The Church of the Resurrection, part 5

The Church of the Resurrection, part 5

We have been looking at the history of the Church of the Resurrection from the time of its construction to the present day, and in the previous post, I wrote about the destruction of the Church by the Mad Caliph, Al-Hakim. Today, we will see how the church was transformed by the coming of the Crusaders – western Europeans who conducted “armed pilgrimage” to Jerusalem in the last years of the 11th century.

Whoever wishes to save his soul should not hesitate humbly to take up the way of the Lord, and if he lacks sufficient money, divine mercy will give him enough.

Brethren, we ought to endure much suffering for the name of Christ – misery, poverty, nakedness, persecution, want, illness, hunger, thirst, and other difficulties of this kind, just as the Lord said to His disciples: ‘You must suffer much in My name,’ and ‘Be not ashamed to confess Me before the faces of men; verily I will give you mouth and wisdom,’ and finally, ‘Great is your reward in Heaven.’

According to an anonymous contemporary, this is how Pope Urban II called the nobles of Europe to the cause of the First Crusade. The “way of the Lord” was simple – free the Christian holy lands and the Christian Roman Empire in the East from the Muslim invaders. Pray at the Church of the Resurrection, and you would receive absolution of all sins.

Urban gave this speech in 1095 at the Council of Clermont, in response to a letter written by the Byzantine Roman emperor Alexios I Comnenus. Alexios had written the letter to Robert the Count of Flanders, with the hope of Robert sending some kind of military assistance to him. Alexios was dealing with the invasion of the Muslim Seljuk Turks who had swept down into Anatolia from the east and now controlled the most  fertile areas of the empire.

Why Alexios wrote to Robert is a mystery, and why Robert chose to give the letter to Urban is equally unknown. But somehow the letter got to Urban, and he used it as the basis of a call to arms for all of Europe. Over the next four years, around 35,000 armed men would leave western Europe and trek over land first to Constantinople and then to Palestine.

Against all odds, this army found themselves outside the walls of Jerusalem in June 1099. Genoese mariners cannibalized their ships, docked at Jaffa, to construct siege engines, and on July 15, the walls were breeched and the European soldiers poured into the city. One of the crusaders, Godfrey of Bouillon rushed to the site of the Church of the Resurrection. There, on July 22, he had himself declared Advocatus Sancti Sepulchri, and not “king” as his fellow Crusaders wished to style him. William of Tyre writes that Godfrey refused to wear a crown of gold in the city where Christ had worn a crown of thorns. (His brother Baldwin, who succeeded him the following year, had no problem wearing the crown of gold and was declared “King of Jerusalem.”)

The Crusaders held Jerusalem for just under a century. During that time, they made massive changes to the Church of the Resurrection.

The Crusaders’ Basilica

The Crusaders’ Church

Among the many changes, the Crusaders walled in the open courtyard, unifying the existing chapels and domed the area, creating a Katholicon or central area. They added a romanesque bell tower and created a new entrance on the southern side of the new construction. It is this facade that visitors see today.

Under one of the chapels, they found an old cistern, which they decided was the site of the finding of the True Cross and built a chapel to St. Helena (Constantine’s mother). They built elaborate spaces everywhere they could.

The Christian inhabitants of the city had been expelled by the Muslims during the siege, and the Crusaders therefore installed their own clergy in the Church, renaming it the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. They established a Latin patriarch in the city as well.

(They also converted the Dome of the Rock into a church, and converted the al-Aqsa Mosque into the headquarters of the Knights Templar because they believed it was the temple of Solomon.)

Inevitably, the Crusaders lost control of Jerusalem in 1187 when the city surrendered to the armies of Saladin. Saladin negotiated a right of passage for Christians, and the Church was reopened to Christians, both Latin and Eastern, in 1192. Unfortunately, the walls of the city had gone through both the Crusader siege and Saladin’s. They were crumbling wrecks, and they were not repaired; but that was okay because the Muslims and Christians came to a sort of status quo in the city.

That is until 1244 when a group of Turkish mercenaries known as the Khwarezm passed by on their way to Egypt. The Khwarezm sacked Jerusalem, just because it was available. They did considerable damage to the Church and took most of the treasures stored inside.

The Ayyubid Sultan, Malek-Adel quickly dashed off an apologetic letter to Pope Innocent IV. In the letter, he promised the Church would be secured against such ransacking in the future. He placed control of the keys in the hands of two Muslim families, the Nuseibeh and Judeh, who would only open the doors for the proper authorities. That did not stop the Europeans from declaring the Seventh Crusade, but the Crusaders never got anywhere near Jerusalem. (The Nuseibeh still hold the keys, albeit to only one door.)

Instead, the Latin presence in Church fell to the Order of St. Francis of the Franciscans. In 1335, the Franciscans took up a position in the Chapel of the Apparition inside the Church. Just seven years later, Pope Clement VI made them the Custodia Terrae Sanctae or Custodians of the Holy Land. They joined the Greeks, Georgians, Armenians, Syrians, and Ethiopians in the care of the Church.

Over the next five hundred years, these groups would compete for control of the Church, with the Sultans granting almost annual rulings on which group was responsible for what. The Franciscans held custody of the interior until 1757.

And that is the subject of yet another day.

The Church of the Resurrection, part 4

The Church of the Resurrection, part 4

This is part 4 of a series of posts on the history of the Church of the Resurrection. In a previous part, we saw how the Church was badly damaged during the brief period when the Sassanids controlled the city (614-622 CE) and then the period of relative peace after the Muslims took the city in 637 CE. After a brief diversion to consider the Dome of the Rock, we are back on track.

Abu ‘Ali Mansur Tariqu al-Hakim became the Fatimid caliph when he was only eleven years old. His father died in 996, probably of complications from gall stones, and Al-Hakim inherited the throne. He was an erratic person, to put it simply.

According to the Crusader historian William of Tyre, Al-Hakim’s mother was a Melkite Christian.  According to the Muslim chronicler al-Musabbihi, he was healed by the help of a Christian sage. Either way, Christians played an important role in Al-Hakim coming to power. Some people might have felt gratitude to the followers of Jesus for this, but to Al-Hakim (at least according to William of Tyre), this was a mark of shame. He despised Christians.

In 1004, Al-Hakim made it illegal to observe the Christian feasts of Epiphany and Easter. The following year, he banned the use of wine (along with all other alcoholic beverages), making it illegal to observe the eucharist. But this was nothing compared to what came next.

Pilgrims who went to the Church of the Resurrection during the early period of Muslim rule (637-1009) reported that during the Easter Vigil, there was some kind of illuminated miracle known as the Descent of the Holy Fire. According to tradition, when the church was in darkness during Holy Saturday, a blue light would emerge from Christ’s tomb under the Anastasis. It would eventually form a column of light, from which worshipers would light candles from the fire.

Al-Hakim took great exception to this miracle. To him, it was leading people away from Allah. In 1009, against the recommendations of his advisors, Al-Hakim ordered that the Church of the Resurrection be completely dismantled. Yahya of Antioch, a Christian doctor who was alive at the time, wrote, “They seized all the furnishings they found in the church and completely destroyed it, leaving only those things whose destruction would have been too difficult. They also destroyed Calvary and the church of St. Constantine and all that was located within its confines, and they tried to destroy the sacred remains.”

The only parts of the Church to survive the destruction were the walls of one side of the Anastasis. The rest of the Church was broken down and, according to Yahya, even the rock of Calvary was destroyed.

In the years that followed, Al-Hakim would make forced converts of many Christians. Then, almost abruptly he reversed his policies. He allowed Christians and Jews to return to their faiths and even to rebuild their churches. The Druze began to revere him as something supernatural. Some chroniclers think Al-Hakim began to see himself as an incarnation of Allah, which might have contributed to his tolerance of Christians.

Then in 1021, he went for a walk and simply never returned. Some believe he was killed, and others believe he just walked away. For whatever reason, at age 36 the Mad Caliph disappeared and his son Ali Az-Zahir became Caliph. Az-Zahir immediately set about appeasing the enraged Byzantine Christians, opening negotiations with them to rebuild the Church of the Resurrection.

It was not until the reign of Constantine IX Monomachos that a rebuilding campaign got under way in 1043. The patriarch of Constantinople, Nicephorus, led the rebuilding project which consumed tremendous amounts of money but only managed to clear the rubble of the previous buildings and rebuild the Anastasis. The basilica was not rebuilt. Instead, several chapels were built around the site. The Christians consolidated their holy sites into several chapels, spread over a large, paved area.

Just half a century later, the emperor Alexios I Comnenus would send a letter to a Norman noble, Robert of Flanders that would launch the First Crusade and transform the fate (and architecture) of the Church of the Resurrection forever.

The Church of the Resurrection, part 3

The Church of the Resurrection, part 3

The previous post made a passing reference to the building of the Dome of the Rock which still sits on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. The construction of this shrine and the remaking of the Temple Mount as a Muslim holy site is significant enough that we should consider it before continuing the story of the Church of the Resurrection.

Abd Al-Malik ibn Marwan became the fifth Umayyad Caliph in 685 CE.  He is considered by some to be one of the greatest rulers of the Muslim world because he provided the Muslim world with a single, unified currency, won a series of wars against the Byzantine Romans, and made Arabic the state language of all Islamic lands.

Despite all of the successes of his reign, Al-Malik’s caliphate did not have a very good beginning. After the death of the first Caliph Muawiyah in 680 CE, the Muslim world descended into five years of chaos known as the Second Fitna. His father Marwan I was one of several claimants to the caliphate who received at least some support among the Arab tribes, but when he died in 685 CE, Al-Malik inherited the caliphate.

Al-Malik had to unify Islam, which was a hefty task. When he assumed the caliphate, a rival caliph (Abd-Allah ibn al-Zubayr) had the support of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. The holy city of Mecca would not come under his control until after a seven-month siege in 692 CE. Thus it was that Al-Malik found himself involved in massive construction projects in Jerusalem.

To Islam, Jerusalem is Al-Aqsa – the far away place. Atop Mount Moriah (the Temple Mount), Muhammed was said to have ascended to heaven during his “Night Journey.” A generation before, Caliph Umar had constructed a small prayer house on the proposed site, and it was here that Al-Malik was headed.

The city was largely unchanged from the days when the Christians had surrendered it to Caliph Umar, and its central feature was the Church of the Resurrection – about half a mile from Al-Aqsa.

What did Al-Malik think of this great Christian shrine dominating the holiest city he ruled. For Al-Malik, the Church of the Resurrection had to be contested by a Muslim shrine of even grander scope. According to the 10th century Muslim geographer Al-Maqdisi:

Caliph Abd al-Malik, seeing the greatness of the martyrium of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and its magnificence, was moved lest it should dazzle the minds of Muslims and hence erected above the Rock the dome which is now seen there.

In Jerusalem, as in the world, the Muslim monument must overshadow the Jewish and Christian sites. For Al-Malik, far from Mecca, this was a necessity for the continued expansion of his faith.

To rival the Anastasis, he began construction of a dome of similar but slightly larger proportions. In essence, Al-Malik’s engineers copied and improved upon Constantine’s Anastasis rotunda. Everything about the dome, called Qubbat as-Sakrha in Arabic, was meant to rival the Christian church.

  • While the Anastasis rises above the rock of Jesus’ tomb, this new dome would rise above the Foundation Stone. This stone, part of the bedrock, was revered by Jews and Muslims – albeit for very different reasons.
  • If the Anastasis commemorated Christ’s resurrection, the new Dome commemorated both the creation of the world and its final judgment.
  • The Anastasihad Golgotha in its courtyard. The new Dome would have a smaller dome – Qubbat al-Silsila – where the righteous and wicked would be divided in the end times.
  • Near the Anastasis was the Martyrium – Constantine’s great basilica. Across the open courtyard of the Al-Aqsa was a new mosque which would dwarf the basilica.

In every way, the new complex was bigger and better than the Christian site to its west.

Al-Malik did not live to see the completion of his Al-Aqsa complex. He died in 705 and the finishing touches were added by his son Al-Walid. It did not really matter, however, because in 692 Mecca fell and with it fell all of Al-Malik’s rivals. The Second Fitna was over, and he spent the last thirteen years of his caliphate focused on other matters.

Jerusalem and its new shrines were not considered terribly significant once Mecca and the Qaaba were in Umayyad hands. Still, the Church of the Resurrection was no longer the most prominent site in Jerusalem, and the similarities between the two structures were not lost on pilgrims who journeyed there.

Just one last historical curiosity. In 746 and again in 1033, both the mosque and the dome were damaged by earthquakes which seem to have had no effect on the Church of the Resurrection. Isn’t that interesting?

Next time, we look at the “Mad Caliph” and the actions that ultimately led to the Crusades.

The Church of the Resurrection, part 2

The Church of the Resurrection, part 2

In my last post, I talked about the construction of the original basilica and rotunda built on the site of Jesus’ burial and resurrection. Those buildings were built in 337 CE and stood unmolested until 614 CE. What happened next is probably one of the worst things you have never heard of.

In 476 CE, the last Roman emperor in the west was deposed. He was a child, a puppet really, and his overlord – a German army commander named Flavius Odoacer – chose to dispense with this entire idea of emperor. He sent the imperial purple to the emperor in the east, Zeno, and asked only that he be recognized as “King of Italy.” Zeno, weakened from internal conflict, could not oppose Odoacer’s will and recognized him as king. For a short time under emperor Theodosius I, the Roman Empire would rule Italy again, but western Europe was no longer the land of the Romans. It became the land of new, rising German powers, and both Romans and Germans would shortly have their hands full with another force – Islam.

Before the rise of Islam, however, the eastern Romans had to deal with the Sassanids of Persia. This rival kingdom had risen from the ashes of the Parthian Empire at about the time Constantine was consolidating his power, around 300 CE. The Sassanids had been the Romans only real rivals for three hundred years, and the two powers watched each other uneasily.

In 502 CE, a century of violence and border conflict broke out between the Sassanids and the eastern Romans. (Historians call the eastern Romans the “Byzantines”.) War raged until 591 when the Roman Emperor Maurice II negotiated a peace with the Sassanid Shah Khusrau II. Their peace was sealed with Khusrau’s marriage to Maurice’s daughter.

Just when things looked peaceful, however, one of Maurice’s generals named Phocus led a coup d’etat and assassinated him. Khusrau was enraged, and he launched a series of attacks on Roman holdings all over the eastern Mediterranean. The Jews, who had lived under Roman oppression for centuries, revolted and under the leadership of Benjamin of Tiberius and Nehemiah ben Hushiel, joined the Sassanid cause.

In 614 CE,  combined Persian and Jewish army surrounded the Christian city of Jerusalem which was not defended by an army but by civilians and clergy. After only twenty-one days, the city fell and the Persians handed the city to the Nehemiah ben Hushiel and the Jews.

Nehemiah was a heavy handed ruler, and he was not popular with the Christians. They rebelled after just a couple months, and they killed Nehemiah and his “council of the righteous”, dragging their bodies through the streets before throwing them from the city walls.

Khusrau’s general Sharhbaraz’s reaction was swift. He retook the city and he gave the Jews permission to kill the Christians on site. According to the historian Antiochus Strategios, a reign of terror ensued and 57,000 Christians were killed. Another 35,000 were captured and sold into slavery. The Jews, believing the relic of the True Cross to be the Staff of Aaron, tortured clerics until they revealed its location. They took the True Cross and sent it to Khusrau as a thank you gift.

The Jews’ barbarism mortified Khusrau. He abandoned his Jewish allies to the Byzantines, who sought out an alliance with a little known but rising force to the south, the city of Medina and its ruler – Muhammed. Muhammed dreamed of a journey to Jerusalem, and his forces joined the Byzantine Romans in expelling the Jews from Palestine.

The Christians swept down into Judea in 622 CE and retook the city of Jerusalem. They moved on and eventually laid siege to Khusrau’s capital. His son and successor surrendered the True Cross to the Roman Emperor Heraclius, who returned it to Jerusalem in 630 CE.

During these multiple battles, sieges and riots, the Church of the Resurrection had been severely damaged. Heraclius restored it, but he had to turn his attention quickly to another rising threat – Islam and the Arabs.

While Heraclius had been fighting the Sassanids, his ally Muhammed had been unifying the warring Arab tribes. With them unified, Muhammed led his armies against the Romans at the Battle of Mu’tah. This was the first of many engagements, and by 637 CE the Muslim armies sat outside an undefended Jerusalem. This time, they were not allies but conquerors.

The 10th century historian Eutychius of Alexandria writes that the patriarch of Jerusalem Suphronius surrendered the city of the Fatimid Caliph Umar Ibn Al Khattab. Islam offered the both Christians and Jews limited freedom of religion under the al-Dhimma, and so for the first time since 70 CE, both Christians and Jews lived and worshiped in Jerusalem.

According to the Muslim chronicler al-Waqidi, after surrendering the city, Suphronius took Umar on a tour of the city. Umar asked to see the holiest site of the city, and Suphronius took him to the Church of the Resurrection. While there, the call for noon prayer was heard. Suphronius invited Umar to pray in the portico of the church, but Umar refused. To show his respect for the Christian site, Umar crossed the street and prayed there instead. It is the site of the current Mosque of Umar.

File:Umar Mosque,Jerusalem123.jpg

The Mosque of Omar, as seen from the courtyard of the Church of the Resurrection

In 691, the Caliph Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan toured Jerusalem and was appalled to see that the Christian Anastasis was the tallest structure in the city. The Anastasis was constructed over the rock upon which Christ had been resurrected. On top of the temple platform, stood the rock that Muslims believe is the foundation stone – the place of both original creation and final judgment. Al-Malik ordered a dome like the Anastasis, to be constructed over the rock on the temple platform.

So, by the year 700 CE, Jerusalem was dominated by two domes – one Christian and one Muslim. The two would have stood above all other buildings in a city of probably no more than 10,000 people, surrounded by only light fortifications.

For the next 300 years, this was the state of things until the reign of Abu ‘Ali Mansur Tariq al-Hakim, known forever to Christians as “Hakim the Mad Caliph”.

But his story is for another day.

The Church of the Resurrection, part 1

The Church of the Resurrection, part 1

Modern Jerusalem is quite a sight. It is a city of three-quarters of a million people, covering 48 square miles of Judaean hills. Every year, nearly 10 million tourists and pilgrims come to the city, so the city sprawls over a much greater area than would be required by the population. The air is full of the sounds of construction, with new hotels and office buildings going up all over the place.

It is hard to imagine that in the time of Jesus, this city had a permanent population of probably no more than 80,000. Like today, pilgrimage often swelled the population to many times that number, but these were temporary visitors who stayed for a couple of weeks and then returned to their homes throughout the region. There were also soldiers, both Roman and local, who were permanently stationed in the city.

During the early phase of the great Jewish-Roman War (66-73 CE), perhaps as many as half a million Jewish rebellions took up positions behind the walls of the city. Their presence taxed the city to the point that there were rumors of cannibalism. Every Jew in the city was slaughtered by the conquering Romans. Josephus says 600,000 bodies were carried out of the city and burned. The city walls were overthrown. The Temple was torn apart, brick by brick.

The site remained empty for sixty years until the emperor Hadrian chose it as the site of his new trade city in southern Syria-Palaestina. He called his city Aelia Capitolina, and on the top of the temple mount, he constructed a shrine to the god Jupiter Capitolinus. To the north, he built a temple to Asclepius, near a pool reputed to have healing powers. To the west, at the corner of the two main roads and on the site of an old quarry from the days of Herod, Hadrian had a temple to Venus and Love constructed.

The temple to Asclepius was a sort of hospital that all Roman cities had. It was built on a site reputed for healing properties, but it had not real political significance.

The first temple to Jupiter was an insult to the Jews, who since their temple was destroyed had to pay a half shekel tax to the cult of Jupiter, known as the Fiscus Judaicus. It was built on the site of the temple, sitting on the massive platform and dwarfing the city. It was an idealized version of the Area Capitolina in Rome, the most important temple of Jupiter.

The third temple, the one to Venus, however, was an insult to a sect of Judaism which had broken off and was following the teaches of  Jesus of Nazareth. They revered this site as the location of Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection.

Two centuries later, the emperor Constantine embraced the Christian faith. His biographer, Eusebius of Caesarea reports that local Christians were quite confident of the location of Jesus’ resurrection under the temple to Venus. When the site was excavated, Constantine’s engineers found a burial cave and a crucifixion site.

For it had been in time past the endeavor of impious men (or rather let me say of the whole race of evil spirits through their means), to consign to the darkness of oblivion that divine monument of immortality to which the radiant angel had descended from heaven, and rolled away the stone for those who still had stony hearts, and who supposed that the living One still lay among the dead; and had declared glad tidings to the women also, and removed their stony-hearted unbelief by the conviction that he whom they sought was alive.

This sacred cave, then, certain impious and godless persons had thought to remove entirely from the eyes of men, supposing in their folly that thus they should be able effectually to obscure the truth. Accordingly they brought a quantity of earth from a distance with much labor, and covered the entire spot; then, having raised this to a moderate height, they paved it with stone, concealing the holy cave beneath this massive mound. Then, as though their purpose had been effectually accomplished, they prepare on this foundation a truly dreadful sepulchre of souls, by building a gloomy shrine of lifeless idols to the impure spirit whom they call Venus, and offering detestable oblations therein on profane and accursed altars. For they supposed that their object could not otherwise be fully attained, than by thus burying the sacred cave beneath these foul pollutions.

Unhappy men! they were unable to comprehend how impossible it was that their attempt should remain unknown to him who had been crowned with victory over death, any more than the blazing sun, when he rises above the earth, and holds his wonted course through the midst of heaven, is unseen by the whole race of mankind. Indeed, his saving power, shining with still greater brightness, and illumining, not the bodies, but the souls of men, was already filling the world with the effulgence of its own light.

Nevertheless, these devices of impious and wicked men against the truth had prevailed for a long time, nor had any one of the governors, or military commanders, or even of the emperors themselves ever yet appeared, with ability to abolish these daring impieties, save only that one who enjoyed the favor of the King of kings.

And now, acting as he did under the guidance of the divine Spirit, he [Constantine] could not consent to see the sacred spot of which we have spoken, thus buried, through the devices of the adversaries, under every kind of impurity, and abandoned to forgetfulness and neglect; nor would he yield to the malice of those who had contracted this guilt, but calling on the divine aid, gave orders that the place should be thoroughly purified, thinking that the parts which had been most polluted by the enemy ought to receive special tokens, through his means, of the greatness of the divine favor. As soon, then, as his commands were issued, these engines of deceit were cast down from their proud eminence to the very ground, and the dwelling-places of error, with the statues and the evil spirits which they represented, were overthrown and utterly destroyed. (Vita Constantini, Book 3, Ch. 26)

Constantine’s engineers cleared the site and he ordered the bishop of Jerusalem, Marcarius, and a prefect named Dracalinius to construct a church on the site. He wrote, “It is fitting that the most marvelous place in the world should be worthily decorated.”

The burial cave had been filled in with rubble, which the engineers carried off site and disposed of. The overhanging limestone was cut away to provide open access to the burial place, and a great dome – the Anastasis or “Resurrection” – was constructed over it. This dome or rotunda was supported by twelve pillars, representative of the twelve apostles. Surrounding it was an open courtyard, with the site of the crucifixion nestled in a southern corner.

Basilica of Maxentius and Constantine in Rome

East of the courtyard rose a massive Roman basilica, probably similar to the Basilica of Maxentius and Constantine, which Constantine had completed in 312 CE. This was the standard building format for an imperial building, and it transferred well to the construction of a church. The difference was that while apse of the Basilica of Maxentius and Constantine housed a colossal statue of Constantine, the Basilica in Jerusalem would be a celebration of Christ.

Eusebius describes the new basilica in Jerusalem, called the Martyrium, in some detail. It was enormous compared to the current Church of the Holy Sepulcher, possibly as much as 400 feet long and 150 feet wide (60,000 sq ft), stretching to the main road.


Constantine’s Church of the Resurrection

You can see an excellent animation of the site on the site of the Franciscan Custodians of the Holy Sepulcher. It may not be entirely accurate (for example, Eusebius makes it pretty clear that the Anastasis was not enclosed), but it gives you a sense of scale.

This complex, with the Martyrium and Anastasis, became the holiest site of the Christian Church. Pilgrims would journey from far and wide to worship there, especially during Easter. In 614, however, it would be heavily damaged in one of the most tragic events you have probably never heard of.

But that’s a story for another day.

Nineveh, that Great City

Nineveh, that Great City

Our family is reading the book of Jonah, and we are considering God’s grace to the people of Nineveh, and today we read Jonah’s words after the people of Nineveh repented.

O LORD, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster. Therefore now, O LORD, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live. (Jonah 4:2-3, ESV)

Have you ever wondered why Jonah was so upset that God chose to hear the pleas of the people of Nineveh? He seems downright outraged that God was not going to destroy these people. Before we judge him, we should recognize that if we were in Jonah’s shoes, we probably would have felt the same way.

Jonah lived in a small Galilean town called Gath-hepher just a couple miles north of Galilee, sometime in the mid-8th century BCE (2 Kings 8:14). In his day, Galilee was a very unstable place. The Arameans and Assyrians encroached into the region quite often. The Israelite monarchs, safe in their mountaintop citadel of Samaria, did little to help their northern people so the people of Jonah’s homeland were often dealing with raiding parties or placating invading armies. Brigands and slavers were not uncommon.

The young men who could fled to the Phoenician port cities and became traders and sailors. Those who did not were pressed into Assyrian military service – at first by their Israelite kings and then directly by the Assyrians.  The Assyrian kings Shalmaneser III and Sennacherib both boasted of large numbers of Israelite soldiers in their armies.

When not taking off the strongest and best sons of the Israelites, the Assyrians were raping and pillaging. They were considered a barbaric people by everyone, which is an impressive statement indeed when everyone included people who sacrificed their own infants to their gods.

God asked Jonah to go to the heart of the Assyrian empire, the capital city of Nineveh. The enormous walled city (7.5 mi around and 1,900 acres in area) was the central city of a larger urban area, contiguous with three others – Nimrud, Karamles and Khorsabad. These four cities dominated a triangle of fertile land between the Tigris and Zab Rivers, near the modern city of Mosul, Iraq.

Region of Nineveh

Each of these cities were about half the size of Nineveh, and the entire capital region required three days to cross (Jonah 3:3). The population of the greater metropolis was probably 600,000-1 million people, spread out over an irregular area roughly forty miles north to south and running fifty miles along the two rivers.

The region itself would have been dominated by the military. The Persians would later divide the region around their capitals by the types of soldiers who trained there – horse lands (bet-sishi), chariot lands (bet-narkabti), and bow lands (bet-qashti). The Assyrians probably did much the same thing, since they were the first power to employ a professional army and their model became the template for the later rulers.

Nineveh was the epitome of the enemies of God. Not only was it the capital of the Assyrian Empire, but it was also the home of the people who were raiding and pillaging northern Israel. Nineveh was anti-Israel central.

It was clear, even in Jonah’s day, that the Assyrians had designs on the land and trade connections that Israel possessed. Internal struggles slowed the Assyrian expansion, but inevitably they would gain their strength and continue. This is exactly what they did in the reign of Tiglath-Pileser III (ruled 745-727 BCE) and his immediate successors Shalmaneser V and Sennacherib. Less than twenty years after Jonah’s journey to Nineveh, the resurgent Assyrians under Sennacherib would devastate Israel and lay siege to the Judean capital of Jerusalem.

So, it is easy to understand Jonah’s hesitance to comply with God’s orders. These people were not good people. They were terrifying, awful people.