History, Medieval History

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.


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