The Church of the Resurrection – Links

We have filled the last three weeks looking at the Church of the Resurrection (also known as the Church of the Holy Sepulcher). Hopefully, the story of this revered but often neglected site gives us a little bit of perspective on the difficulties faced by the Church in all its various manifestations.

  1. Constantine and the Ancient Building (330-614)
  2. The Persian Wars and the Rise of Islam (614-692)
  3. Sidebar on the Dome of the Rock (685-692)
  4. The Mad Caliph Destroys the Church (1019-1042)
  5. The Crusader Church (1042-1187)
  6. Turkish Control and the Status Quo (1187-1856)
  7. The Earthquakes and Conflicts (1853-1965)
  8. Barluzzi, Italy, World War II (1933-1947)
  9. Restoration at Last (1965-1997)

We haven’t exhausted this subject, and I might return to it at a later date.

The Church of the Resurrection, part 9

The Church of the Resurrection, part 9

The fetters of the status quo account for the state of dirt and dilapidation which is characteristic of many parts of the building. (Archer Cust, The Status Quo in the Holy places, 1925)

When the British conquered Jerusalem in 1917, the Turkish governor fled – taking with him over 400 years of documents concerning the Status Quo of Christian holy sites. He also took the Greek patriarch, Damianos.

Damianos did not care for the British, and he absolutely insisted that the Status Quo be maintained. At every turn, efforts to repair the damage from the 1927 earthquake and the cumulative effects of centuries of patching were blocked. Over the next twenty years, Damianos and his successor Timotheos resisted any efforts to care for the Church of the Resurrection on the grounds that they would grant privileges to the Latins.

The problem lay in Ottoman law, which unlike British common law, did not allow for the possession of a religious site. The site was instead subject to waqf, a kind of endowment that provided for the use of a site by a religious group but specifically prohibits ownership. In a complicated, and not completely understood, arrangement, many of the Christian holy sites throughout Israel had been placed under a kind of waqf law, which was what necessitated the Status Quo and all the firmans on who could do what and when.

The British had difficulty interpreting the waqf, partially because all of the official Ottoman documents were missing and partially because they simply did not understand Ottoman law. On top of these issues, both the French and the Vatican took issue with the British control of the Holy Land, since Great Britain was a Protestant nation. Distrust and bureaucratic stalling delayed any attempt to repair the Church. The difficult task of governing the troubled region actually contributed to their surrender of their League of Nations mandate in 1948.

While confusion reigned, architects and clerics bickered, and the British were paralyzed. With their mandate expiring, the rule of the city and all of its holy sites passed to King Abdullah bin al-Hussein of Jordan.

Abdullah had been an ally of the British during World War I and had been appointed the Emir of Transjordan under the British Mandate. An educated and world-wise moderate, Abdullah attempted to control the excesses of all of his constituent groups, including the Christians.

His father Hussein had been the Sharif of Mecca and briefly declared himself the king after rebelling against the Ottomans in 1916. The Saudis put this to an end in 1924, and Hussein was forced to leave the Saudi kingdom. He joined his son Abdullah in Transjordan, and he was buried in Jerusalem.

Abdullah saw himself as the Sharif of Jerusalem, just as his father had been the guardian of the sacred sites of Mecca and Medina. So, when the Mandate ended in 1948, Abdullah wished to protect the city from extremists. He ordered troops into the city, and they fought both the Jews and the Arab extremists who were led by Mufti Mohammad Amin al-Husayni.

If the Mufti was allowed to establish a Muslim Palestinian state, the region would descend in to chaos. Equally, Abdullah did not want such a volatile group under control of what was going to emerge as the Jewish state of Israel. Originally, he had hoped to be able to create an autonomous Jewish canton within his kingdom, but the Jews refused to accept anything short of full independence.

Abdullah walked a delicate balance, fighting the Israelis and absorbing the Palestinians into his kingdom. In the end, Abdullah wound up with possession of the West Bank and the Old City of Jerusalem. This possession included the administration of the decaying Church of the Resurrection.

One of Abdullah’s most significant contributions to the protection of the Church came in 1949. During the evening of November 23, a fire broke out in Anastastis rotunda. Thanks to the concrete coverings put in place during an earlier attempt at restoration, the fire was restricted to the dome itself and did not spread to the rest of the Church.

The day after the fire started, Abdullah was on site. He called a meeting of the leaders of all the communities. It was the first time that a sovereign had invited the leaders of the faith communities to actually meet and discuss the care of the Church of the Resurrection. Although the meeting accomplished nothing and the communities continued to bicker, at least they were bickering across a table.

(It is mind-boggling that no one thought of this until 1949! As amazing as it sounds, when William Harvey was surveying the building in the 1930’s, the other communities never thought of having their experts meet with him. They sent his reports all over the world without considering that a face-to-face meeting might lead to a quick resolution.)

Sadly, Abdullah was shot dead by a Palestinian extremist in 1951 while attending afternoon prayers at the Al-Aqsa Mosque. His son Talal served as king for a year, but he was forced to abdicate and Talal’s son Hussein became king. Hussein would rule Jordan for the next forty-seven years and make it one of the most stable and moderate states in the Middle East.

With Hussein on the Jordanian throne, the Church of the Resurrection was still decaying. What was needed was a moderate Orthodox patriarch who would work with his Arab king, the European-dominated Franciscans and the other Eastern communities in the Church. Timotheos died in 1955, and the patriarchal throne remained vacant for two years.

Ultimately, the moderate Vasileos Papadopoulos was affirmed as Patriarch Benedict I, and he immediately set to work finding a compromise that would be amenable to all parties. For nearly thirty years (1961-1980), Benedict took the lead in massive restorations of the Church.

Benedict had served as what might be considered the Chief Financial Officer of the patriarchate. He had important financial connections to the national government of Greece, who had been on the side of the victors in both world wars and with the demise of the Ottomans, was now more prosperous than any time in its history. He won a narrow election against Demianos’ nephew and was the first patriarch not from the island of Samos in over a century. Clearly, things were going to be different under his rule.

Living in the shadow of the 1956 Suez War, which had heightened opposition to European involvement in the region (which included the Israeli state), Benedict met with Patriarch Athenagoras I of Constantinople and both encouraged the other Orthodox communities to find common ground and unity with each other and the Roman Catholics.

The Greek government began budgeting to match the contributions of the Greek Church. The Jordanians likewise got behind the project, which they saw as the continuation of the work of King Abdullah but also as a way to block Soviet power (the geopolitics of the Church are always confusing).

Benedict fought through obstacle after obstacle for nearly a decade. In the wake of their enormous losses in the second World War, the Latins were willing to guarantee the status quo. All the major parties signed an agreement for the work in 1958, over thirty years after the earthquake.

Eventually, a Dominican friar named Charles Coüasnon was chosen to lead a restoration team that included representatives of all the faith communities. Work finally got underway in 1959 although it did not begin in earnest until the 1960’s.

The continued work required a strong hand. Benedict was constantly seeking out funding for the work and resolving conflicts. His contribution was so significant that when he died in 1980, the parties immediately fell to squabbling again and it took another seventeen years before they could agree how to remove the scaffolding around the Anastasis rotunda.

It is hard to believe that a project that was begun when my father was still in elementary school (in 1959, he was 7) was still lingering when I traveled to Israel as a college student (in 1997, when I was 20). But that is the story of the Church of the Resurrection almost since it passed into the hands of the Crusaders in 1099.

There is so much more that could be written about the Church. I haven’t even touched on so much of significance, but after three weeks of posts exclusively on this topic, let’s put it aside for a while.

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.