“Rejoice, and give praise together, O ye deserts of Jerusalem: for the Lord hath comforted his people: he hath redeemed Jerusalem. The Lord hath prepared his holy arm in the sight of all the Gentiles: and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God.”
Isaiah 52, 9-10
Occasionally, the written word simply cannot convey what transpires inside us in moments of intense gravitas or emotion. Not because they are inadequate or unworthy – but, rather because too often we are not entirely sure of what we are experiencing ourselves and, therefore, do not know what words to even use. Such was the initial impression I had as I approached, at long last, the threshold of the Holy Sepulchre and tread – as so many had before me – upon the ground where a Godman had bled. It’s a humbling experience – not knowing *what* to say in a particular moment. So many had come to this place as I had, endured hardships and privations I could not even imagine, shifted entire populations, commanded armies, fought ferocious wars, changed history, permanently altered the entire fabric of humanity, all for this place … and, suddenly, there it was – wedged tightly between the incredibly old mud brick buildings, it’s original façade from the 12th Century showing the obvious signs of its incredibly turbulent past, as if to say to me, “Here I am, as I have always been – what else did you expect?” I imagine if I am ever fortunate enough to meet the Godman who died and was buried here in Person, it will probably be a very similar sort of meeting.
|The "pillow arches" above the entrance are a classic feature of the Norman style of Romanesque architecture brought by the crusaders to the Levant.|
It is impossible to escape the history that is locked within the Old City of Jerusalem – primarily because it is all around you everywhere you go within it. A bizarre jumble of buildings and structures from over 2,000 years of human habitation almost mold into each other to create one massive super-structure in which the streets are more like a network of tunnels. Compared to the sprawling and modern Israeli-dominated New City, the Old City is like a time capsule, encased within its walls built in the 16th Century by the Turkish sultan Suleiman, who some called “the Magnificent.” The walls that would have been stormed by the Frankish crusaders have long since vanished – torn down completely in 1219 by the Ayyubid sultan, Al-Malik al-Mu’azzam ‘Isa, who feared that they would only benefit the Latins if they somehow managed to retake the city.
|The Lion Gate of the Turkish walls - located just south and east of where the fighters of the First Crusade first stormed the city in 1099.|
As it happened, the lack of walls ended up benefiting a far worse foe, the Kharezmian Tartars, who completely sacked the defenseless city in 1244 – evidence of which is still visible today in many of the holy sites from the Crusader era. Scorched stonework, walls and vaults stripped bare of the artistic adornment they had once had, and sculpture hacked away at – the legacy of so many faithful who heeded a call to arms and faith and traveled to the edge of the world has suffered much in the centuries since they stopped coming.
However, it is not all lost. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is still one of the finest examples of Latin Crusader architecture left in the Old City.
Others possess it as well – in the Church of Mary’s Tomb at the base of the Mount of Olives (formerly the Church of Mary at Josephat), the Norman style barrel vault goes straight down into the earth in what allegedly was the tomb of the Virgin Mary.
Many noble crusaders were buried here, to include Queen Melisende of Jerusalem. Sadly, nothing of their resting places remains, or, as with so many sites in Jerusalem, they have yet to be uncovered. More personal reminders of the Crusades can be found too. In the keeping of the Franciscan fathers who serve as official custodians of the Latin holy sites is the sword of Godfrey of Boullion, the heroic Defender of the Holy Sepulchre who would not wear a crown where God had worn a crown of thorns. Tragically, I was not permitted to see this relic due to its recent move from the Latin Sacristy of the Holy Sepulchre to a museum that is currently under construction.
Within nearly every church from the Crusading era, one can find thousands of medieval Latin crosses etched into the walls and pillars left behind by pious pilgrims from Europe who had survived the trek to the Center of the World. It is not too hard to imagine that a great deal of these were left by crusaders themselves, perhaps in memory of those they had lost in the hard and cruel fighting they endured over two centuries of ceaseless conflict for the city.
Seeking out other sites from the Crusading era brings one face-to-face with the stark realities of history, both long past and recent. The al-Asqa Mosque that sits across from the much more famous Dome of the Rock, once served first as a palace for the newly established Frankish Kings of Jerusalem and later as the headquarters of the Knights Templar. This site, along with the entire Temple Mount, was strictly off-limits to any non-Muslims, with IDF troopers stationed at all entrances warding others away. The fears of an outbreak of violence, both ancient and modern, was so palpable in the Old City one could almost taste it. While on the surface, the sight of Franciscan friars, Greek and Armenian Orthodox priests, Muslims praying maghrib along with the wailing speakers of the city’s many minarets, Jewish students sporting yarmulkes and payot, and very modern Israeli soldiers all casually strolling the same streets on a daily basis might cause one to think that the words of Isaiah had finally come true. But the peace is an incredibly uneasy and tense peace – even in the short time I was there, a stand-off between Palestinian protesters and the IDF resulted in the death of 12 year old Palestinian boy just outside the Old City from where I was staying. In keeping with the theme of the vast majority of its long and strife-filled history, conflict has yet to leave the Promised Land.
Such scars and ghosts are visible elsewhere as well. I was fortunate enough to briefly visit Bethlehem and the Nativity Church there, located well within Palestinian territory in the West Bank. In the church, originally built in the 4th Century AD by the saintly Empress Helena, one could see the progressive shrinkage of the doors over the following centuries in a desperate attempt to deter marauding non-believers from damaging the site where a God was born as a helpless infant one chilly night two millennia ago to bring peace to men of good will.
Many of the great castles and fortresses built by the men of the West during their attempt to bring peace to the land are virtually all gone – the ruins of a few can still be seen up north, Belvior, Montfort, and Chateau Pellerin. As I flew out over the coast of Tel Aviv, I caught a fleeting glimpse of the ruins of the old coastal city of Jaffa, where Richard I bravely and brilliantly waded ashore to rescue the besieged citadel and once again embarrass the reputation of his nemesis, Salah ad-Din, during the Third Crusade. In many ways, the deeds and works of the Crusaders in Outremer today are much like the buildings within the Old City – absorbed into a vast historical fabric that tells a tale unlike any other in the world. It is a tale of angels and demons, prophets and martyrs, believers and infidels, of inspiring heroism and craven villainy, of awe-inspiring miracles and shocking brutality – it is a tale of all peoples and the God Who once walked among them. That is what one can still find today in the Center of the World. Montjoie - Deus vult.
Author’s Note: My many thanks to all the fans and followers of RCH who have followed along with my pilgrimage. It was a privilege to be able to share my meager findings and even less substantial musings with you all – you and your intentions were all remembered at the Tomb of Christ as promised. I highly encourage all those who may be considering such a venture themselves to do so. The Christian communities in the Holy Land, a few representatives of which I was privileged to meet with personally, are suffering much like they once did in the years before 1099. Pilgrims are often the only source of income these communities have and the maintenance of many of the Holy Sites rely solely on donations left by the faithful. If you have any questions or wish to seek any advice on how best to pursue such a trek, do not hesitate to contact me. I will cease with my writings as make my way home through Normandy and England on my return travels, but will still post pictures or items of interest to our various social media outlets. Thank you again and God bless.
Rand is the co-founder of Real Crusades History and Editor-in-Chief for the RCH Official Blog. See the official website for contact information or reach out to him via the social media outlets for RCH.