The Church of the Resurrection, part 8

The Church of the Resurrection, part 8

Wouldn’t it make sense to tear down the decrepit and untended Church of the Resurrection that had stood for over 800 years?

The Franciscans entertained that idea in the 1930’s. They contracted Antonio Barluzzi to design a new, magnificent temple. His resulting design, published in 1940 was sweeping, contemporary and enormous.

Of course there was no chance it would ever be built. It would have required completely discarding the Status Quo and it would have given the Latins a greater control of the sacred site. It would have also required the demolition of nearly a third of the Christian Quarter.

On top of that, Barluzzi was a Fascist and by 1940, Europe was at war. The British would not allow it, even if the Orthodox churches had agreed.

But, under the terms of a treaty between Mussolini and Hitler, had Rommel’s Afrika Korps succeeded in taking Egypt, then Jerusalem probably would have fallen to the Axis Powers. In the hands of the Italians, the Status Quo would have certainly been abandoned and the new church built. Think of the history that would have been lost.

By the end of the war, it was clear Jerusalem would pass to the Jordanians and they would never approve the project.

(As a personal note, I find Berluzzi churches to be garish and unattractive, so I for one am glad that this particular church was never built.)

The Church of the Resurrection, part 7

The Church of the Resurrection, part 7

At the dawn of the 20th century, a Church of the Resurrection had stood on the same site for nearly 1700 years. The building that presently occupied the site was an amalgamation of a Byzantine complex, Crusader additions, and contentious projects. The positions of the various factions inside the church had been established by a firman of 1853 and then codified into international law in the Treaty of Paris.

It is hard to understand today just how impoverished Jerusalem was under the Ottoman Turks. At the time of the 1853 firman, the city was home to less than 20,000 people. In his 1867 book Innocence Abroad, Mark Twain estimated the population at around 14,000 while the official 1851 census gave a much larger number of 25,000.

One thing was certain. The Ottomans had mismanaged the site. Everywhere, Jerusalem was falling apart. Atop of the Temple Mount, known now as the Haram al-Sharif or Sacred Place, the Dome of the Rome sat decaying on an all but abandoned overgrown platform.


The Dome of the Rock as seen in 1875

Although in slightly better condition, the Church of the Resurrection was also in a state of disrepair. The warring factions inside the Church and in the world at large had robbed the site of most of its external funding.

View of the Anastasis rotunda from the south. You can see the minaret of the Mosque of Umar to the right and the Crusader bell tower between the rotunda and the minaret.

The best thing that ever happened to Jerusalem was the decline of the Ottoman Turks in the 19th century. As their central government weakened (and you might remember that the English and French had to protect them from Russia in the Crimean War), the Ottomans released their strangle hold on Mediterranean traffic. As a result, it was much easier for travelers to get to Jerusalem  – a fact that brought people like Mark Twain there.

The weakened Turks had allowed various European powers to have diplomatic access to Jerusalem, and it was under these auspices that early archaeologists began to arrive and work in the city. Men like Edward Robinson and Charles William Wilson came to the city and began to uncover all kinds of interesting things.

Academic interests paralleled another movement that focused on Israel generally and Jerusalem specifically – Zionism. European Jews, constantly the targets of pogroms and unfair laws, began to migrate to Jerusalem. At first, it was a trickle but by the 1880’s, they outnumbered both Muslims and Christians in the city. After the Ottomans lost control of the city in the wake of World War I, the trickily became a stream.

In 1931, on the brink of World War II, there were 51,000 Jews living in Jerusalem, more than half of the population. Most lived outside of the Old City, as defined by Suleiman’s walls. They built a new city, known as West Jerusalem. When the Jewish state of Israel was declared in 1948, Jerusalem was declared the capital.

Then in 1967, the Jews took over the Old City. An Israeli flag flew from the top of the Dome of the Rock before the Israeli Knesset (Parliament) handed the Haram back to the Jordanians as a religious site. In 1980, the Israeli state officially annexed all of Eastern Jerusalem, but there is still no official international recognition.

What happened to the Church of the Resurrection while all of this was going on?

The 1853 firman had been meant to be a temporary measure, but with the long, slow decline of the Ottomans, the arrangements of the Church became something of a back drawer matter. The British and French secretly met and made arrangements for the division of the Ottoman territories, and in 1917 these lands were mandated to them by the League of Nations.

The various factions inside the Church petitioned the British Mandate to update the status quo. The Protestant British, unwilling to step into a religious matter that did not pertain to them, simply restated the 1853 firman. To deal with the situation, they established an Antiquities Department which would ensure the upkeep of the holy sites of all religions, but would not have executive authority.

Mark Twain visited the Church in the late 1860’s and told about his pilgrimage in a book The Innocents Abroad. He described the Church this way:

When one stands where the Saviour was crucified, he finds it all he can do to keep it strictly before his mind that Christ was not crucified in a Catholic Church. He must remind himself every now and then that the great event transpired in the open air, and not in a gloomy, candle-lighted cell in a little corner of a vast church, up-stairs
–a small cell all bejeweled and bespangled with flashy ornamentation, in execrable taste.

Twain uses the word gloomy half a dozen times in describing the interior of the Church, and he makes it plain that he does not approve of it in the slightest. Every inch of the building was covered with some kind of memorial or relic – including the tombs of both Adam and Melchizedek. To Twain, it is a sad commentary and a sad place. It is pretty apparent from his description that the church was relatively well-maintained, even if “in execrable taste.”

Sixty years later, the Church was in terrible condition. This is how one British pilgrim described the Church’s state in 1927:

The condition of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is deplorable. Probably there is no church or cathedral of any importance in the whole world that is so hopelessly shabby. (Anonymous, “The Diary of a Pilgrimage”, Church Times, August 26, 1927)

Although still revered, the Church of the Resurrection simply did not get that much attention. The disrepair of the place was known around the world. It was quite literally falling apart. There were massive cracks everywhere. The ceilings were sooted and falling in. And then, things got worse.

In the afternoon of July 11 1927, an earthquake hit Palestine. A number of holy sites were severely damaged. The first people on the site of the Church of the Resurrection, however, could not find any reason to be concerned. Although many other places were piles of rubble, the only damage the Church seemed to have seen was the caving in of the smaller dome over the katholicon.


A picture of Jerusalem after the 1927 earthquake.
The Dome of the Rock is in the background.

Various projects of renovation were presented, and in 1930 each faction inside the Church began work to repair the building. Unfortunately, they quickly discovered that the Church needed far more extensive and comprehensive repairs than any of them could handle. The delicate balance of the medieval arches required considerations beyond anything available to the people on site.

That balance, however, have been disturbed by eight centuries of progressive deterioration and the 1808 fire, not to mention twenty-three recorded earthquakes. No real consolidation or conservation had ever been carried out. Apart from the visual evidence, common sense dictated that the stability of the building was likely to be seriously compromised. (Raymond Cohen, Saving the Holy Sepulcher, p 41.)

In 1933, the great British architect and conservator William Harvey journeyed to Jerusalem to conduct a full survey of the site. His findings, published in 1935 by Oxford University Press, were beyond daunting.  On the first days of his survey, he informed the Antiquities Department that the entire structure was “structurally in imminent danger.”

Such was the in-fighting and squabbling of the various groups inside the Church that they refused to listen to Harvey even though stones were actually falling from the ceilings to smash to the ground in the midst of worshipers. The Greek Orthodox retained two experts who demonstrated the the satisfaction of the clerics that Harvey’s survey was inconclusive. The Franciscans brought in an Italian architect, Luigi Marangoni, who actively detested Harvey and simply refused to agree to any of Harvey’s reports. Whatever Harvey said, Marangoni attempted to refute.

At every turn, the conservation effort was thwarted and the Church continued to fall apart – literally, as the exterior walls slowly continued to lean outward under the weight of the roof.

Nothing would be done until 1965, thanks to a remarkable man named Vasileos Papadopoulos who, in 1957 became Patriarch of Jerusalem.

And his story will be next.

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.

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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.