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.
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.