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.