Jerusalem, Israel: the Complications Part II (Christianity)

The digs I obtained in the Christian Quarter were somewhat spartan.  By this I mean that I was sleeping on a roof.  The heat in the morning burned my face and cooked me in the sleeping bag that the cold nights demanded.  Even if I had somehow survived unmolested by weather until half past eight in the morning, the sound of every church in the city trying to out-bell-ring one another is enough to wake the legions of the dead buried on the Mount of Olives (the idea there is that the closer you are to the Temple Mount the sooner you’ll be resurrected on Judgement Day, so presumably those guys are the light sleepers).

The view makes up for it though.  Those blue domes there are the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the holiest site in Christendom as the traditional site of the death and resurrection of Jesus.  The spire to the right is the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, interesting as one of the few Protestant sites in Jerusalem.  The city itself is a beautiful maze of little churches, mosques, side alleys and souks, and the Sepulchre rises above them all, challenged only by the Dome of the Rock.

So naturally I went to have a look.

You can barely move.  This is probably the least crowded section of the Sepulchre, and waiting for the crowd to part to the point where you could see the subject matter took a long time.  This stone is supposedly the site where the body of Jesus was laid and dressed for burial, although I’m fairly certain that this is a later reproduction (the original was destroyed after the Crusader period when Turkoman horsemen razed the city during a dynastic war).

To be fair I’m part of the problem.  The holy sites of Jerusalem are overrun with people like me, staring at holy sites to which they have little or no affiliation, getting in the way and taking photographs willy-nilly.  Frankly, it is impossible to have any sort of religious experience in Jerusalem.  At least I have the decency to turn the flash off.

I suspect a number of them are here to see what I, shamefully, found myself wanting to see:

Yes, that is indeed police and IDF trying to control a brawl between various monastic sects (in this case Greek and Armenian Orthodox).  This has been going on for pretty much ever.  The control of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is split between them, as well as the Syrian, Coptic, Catholic and Ethiopian Churches, and violence has been flaring between them for pretty much as long as the Christian presence in Jerusalem.  The Ottomans made this worse during their 400-year rule by using the sects as pawns in geopolitics, a process not helped by the myriad of capitulations they signed during their 200-year decline.

When, for example, they needed to curry favour with France, the Catholic Franciscans would find themselves on top, with access to more of the church and priority of services.  When Russia needed to be befriended it would be restored to the Greek Orthodox, whose interests the Russians defended as their excuse to intervene in Ottoman affairs.  Every major European power found some Christian order in Jerusalem that they could support for the same reason.  Sebag-Montefiore, whose book on Jerusalem deserves its best-seller status, notes that the British, excluded from this game through Protestantism, elected to use the impoverished and routinely assaulted Jewish population as their pawn from the 18th century.  (This sort of thing was further complicated by the title of King of Jerusalem.  The kingdom having fallen in the late 13th century, anyone with a passing relation to any of the monarchs had a claim, and pretty much every significant Catholic monarchy styled themselves so at some point.  To this day the full honours of the King of Spain include ‘King of Jerusalem’).

As Ottoman power waned, the factions realised that they could shift the  order themselves by beating up the people above them in the pecking order, and whilst this rarely changes things these days it doesn’t stop them viciously defending their own privileges: fights have begun because a monk from one faction sweeps a step ‘belonging’ to another.  The ‘status quo’ that the monk in the BBC article refers to is this breathtakingly precise division of the main holy sites in Israel and Palestine (the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem has exactly the same problem), where any collective action requires full agreement from all stakeholders, which can take decades.

So yes, welcome to Jerusalem.  Everyone wants a piece, or, more specifically, someone else’s piece.

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One response to “Jerusalem, Israel: the Complications Part II (Christianity)”

  1. Gerry says :

    Great stuff – current reportage in a historical context – cool

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