Christianity and Islam: Jerusalem in the Middle Ages (1)

By: Alick Isaacs


The failure of the Bar Kochba revolt was followed by a fierce Roman reaction. This period, known in Jewish history as the "Age of Destruction" delineates, for many historians, the end of the second Temple period. This is when the Jews lost hope of soon rebuilding the Temple. Judaism was able to survive due to the Pharisees and the concepts introduced in Yavne which by now monopolised the administration of Jewish law - Halacha. The process of Pharisaic domination reached its peak at the end of the second century when Rabbi Yehudah Hanassi compiled the "Mishna"; the work which became the ultimately authoritative written down version of the oral law. The Mishna was universally accepted and still is to this day the basis of Jewish law.

During the fourth century, the Roman Empire underwent a dramatic change which was to deeply affect the history of Jerusalem. Constantine the great brought about the recognition of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Byzantine Empire, whose capital was now in Byzantium or "Constantinople". The events which led up to Constantine's recognition of Christianity are difficult to reconstruct since the historical references are clouded by a rich supply of folk stories which glorify and celebrate the circumstances of Constantine's conversion. One story describes a vision which he saw on night in his camp before battle. Constantine saw a flaming cross and heard a Divine voice which promised him victory in battle if his men march into the field bearing the sign of the cross. Constantine rose from his bed and rushed frantically through the camp instructing his soldiers to mark the sign of the cross on their shields. The subsequent victory, according to the story, convinced Constantine of the truth of Christianity.

There are many Christian stories of Constantine's virtues and yet there is no concrete evidence of his having accepted the faith himself. But, clearly during the period of his rule, Christians, who had spread their faith among the pagans of the Roman empire, now enjoyed a majority position in that empire. For the first time since the destruction of the Second Temple, Jerusalem was ruled by a people who considered it holy. The impact of this change was immediately felt both in the city itself and with regard to the status of Jerusalem in Christianity. For example, from the fourth century on, Christian Byzantine rule precluded Jewish access to the holy city.

1. Jerusalem in Christianity 
Prior to the acceptance of Christianity by the Byzantines, Jerusalem was an abstract symbol in Christianity. The physical city where Jesus had preached and spent his last days; the place where he had been tried and Crucified; was of no special significance to the early Christians. The physical nature of Jewish ritual, the Temple rites in particular, had been replaced by a form of abstract inner spiritualism. Similarly, Jerusalem was an etherial concept; a dominion in the heavens. The city itself was not a focus for pilgrimage and was not specially designated as a place of prayer.

The "conquest" of the Byzantine empire by Christianity brought the physical Jerusalem into Christian hands. Along with this came a new attitude to the holy city which was now a more tangible religious symbol. The sites where scenes of the New Testament had taken place were now sanctified; first among them Golgotha, the site of the crucifixion.

Here in 332 CE The Church of the Holy Sepulchre was built by the Empress Helena, the mother of Constantine. The "Christianisation" of the city of Jerusalem marked the fulfillment of Jesus's prophecy that "no stone would remain unturned from the Temple". On account of Jesus's words the destruction of the Temple was perceived as punishment for the rejection of Jesus by the Jews. The Temple mount became a deep anti-symbol in Byzantine Christendom. It was to be preserved in its pitiful state as a pile of rubble and was to serve as visible testimony to God's punishment of the Jews. In its place the "New Temple" was built on the site of the new sacrifice; that of Jesus on the cross. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre which stood on the Mount directly facing the ruins of Herod's Temple, embodied all the holiness and glory which had once been bestowed upon Moriah.

The city of Jerusalem now became a symbol of the removal of God's favour from the Jews and its inheritance by those who adhere to the Christian faith. Jerusalem, which in the days of the Temple was the focus of Jewish pilgrimage on the "foot" (or pilgrimage) festivals, was once again a site where pilgrims yearned to pray. Christian pilgrims came from all over the empire to visit the Holy sites and to pray in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Many new churches sprung up around the city and Jerusalem grew and prospered, pampered by the new attention which Byzantium was lavishing upon it. Jews were now granted access to the city only on one day of the year. On the ninth day of Av, the day when Jews commemorate the destruction of the Temple, they were permitted to enter the city, wearing sackcloth and ashes to mourn their humiliation. In the "shade" of the magnificent structure standing on the Golgotha, they weeped over the broken stones of the ruined Temple. Their pathetic presence in the city on this day reaffirmed the statement which the city itself now symbolised.

2. The Middle Ages - The Age of Faith 
The Medieval period is often referred to as the "Age of Faith". The role of religion and its centrality to every aspect of life was perhaps intensified during this period, but faith itself was not unique to the Middle Ages. Why then this name? The "Age of Faith" is the period when the map of the world was defined by faith. From the Seventh century onwards, the two "empires" which dominated the world were no longer defined by territory, as had been the Assyrians; Babylonians; Persians; Greeks and Romans who came before. The empires were empires of faith.

The "Age of Faith" is the age of the conflict between Christianity and Islam. From the time of the rise of Islam through to the signs of modernity when religion began to relinquish its role as the predominant force governing the passions of man, the world was divided into "Christendom" in the West and the empire of Islam in the East. As was the case in antiquity, Jerusalem was once again caught in the cross-fire.

3. Jerusalem in Islam 
Islam, the new monotheistic faith which evolved during the first half of the 7th century, inherited many symbols from its monotheistic predecessors. Among them, the city of Jerusalem was sanctified in Islam as the "stairway to heaven". This was the sight where the father Abraham had been tested and where he had been commanded to sacrifice his son, the father of the Arab people Ishmael. It was from here that Mohammed the Prophet ascended to heaven and it was here that he received the law.

The 17th sura of the Quran states "Blessed be Allah who made his servant go by night from the Holiest Mosque to the Furthest Away Mosque." Islamic tradition (Hadith) explains that Mohammed was called away by Allah (The One God) to go on a night journey. He was magically transported on a winged horse (Al Buraq) from Mecca (The holiest mosque) to Al Aksa (The furthest away mosque) in Jerusalem. It was on the Temple Mount (Haram al Sharif) that Mohammed prayed with the six prophets:

  • Adam; Noah; Abraham; Moses; David and Jesus; and it was from the Rock on the top of that mount that he finally ascended to heaven.

In Mecca Mohammed had courted the support of the Jews for his new faith and had conceded to praying facing the holy city as the Jews were accustomed. His efforts to include the Jews amongst his early supporters were to no avail. But the centrality of Jerusalem as an Islamic symbol remained. After Mohammed's failure to spread his faith amongst the people of Mecca, he set out on the 'holy war' to bring his message to the pagan people of the Arabian Peninsula and the far East. In 638 CE, six years after the death of the prophet, the Islamic armies reached the gates of Byzantine Jerusalem. The city fell and so began a period of Islamic rule which was to continue almost uninterrupted through till the 20th century.

The Muslim conquest of Jerusalem was soon to change the physical appearance of the city. Jerusalem, was for them, as it had been for the Byzantines, a symbol of God's favour. The city, the "stairway to heaven" was made to express that favour. Jerusalem was to become an architectural expression of God's preference for Islam over the other faiths. In 692 CE Abd El Malik built the Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount. Moriah was once again reinstated as the focal point of the city.

The destroyed Mountain blossomed with new life as the new Temple, the Moslem shrine, was built. With a Dome of almost identical proportions to that of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the golden top of the shrine on Moriah outshone the silver roof which stood on Golgotha. The magnificent building, with its eight walls and gates representing the eight doors to heaven, looked triumphantly on the six walled church which stood on the facing hill. The city of Jerusalem which ranks only third in the "sanctitometer" of Moslem cities was made to express the triumph of Muslim truth over Christianity. The Mount which Jesus had prophesied would remain in ruins was now rebuilt and splendid. For the Jews of Jerusalem this was perhaps something of a victory too.

4. The First Crusade 
The conquest of Jerusalem by the Moslems was an outrage to the Christian West. More than the military defeat which the Byzantines had incurred, the theological implications of this conquest were felt by the Christian Kingdoms of Europe in the 11th century. The dominance of the holy city by Moslems was a as troubling an expression of God's will in the eyes of Christians as it was a confirmation of his preference in the eyes of Moslems. It was therefore essential to conquer the city in order to reassert the correct order in God's world. Pope Urban II, who instigated the First Crusade, gave as his primary motive for calling the Crusade the argument that it was inconceivable for the Holy city and the site of the suffering of Our Lord to be held in the hands of the infidel. He promised atonement for sin and restoration of worldly goods to all men who would answer the call to redeem the city.

The response was perhaps fanatical. The whole of Western Europe was on the move. Thousands of men, noblemen and simple folk alike, left their wives and children to set off for Jerusalem. Lay preachers insighted intense Messianic fervour which stimulated violent fury embedded in deep religious conviction. The force and the enthusiasm of this movement united European Christendom. Kings, Dukes and Barons, from England, France and Germany fought side by side against the common enemy. The Catholic Church reached new heights of political power. Europe, which had been floundering in Barbarism and economic regression, ruralisation and despondency had been given a noble cause. The execution of the Crusade was carried out with a passion unprecedented in European history.

On the road to Jerusalem, the Crusaders encountered the Jewish communities of the Rhineland. They called out "Why rush to Jerusalem to conquer the infidel when here he lives among us". With the same fury and passion with which they left their homes, they massacred the Jewish communities of Mainz and Speyer. The violent affirmation of Christian truth which they set out to achieve at the expence of the Muslims in Jerusalem was first directed at the Jews. The symbol of the destroyed Temple was recreated as the Synagogues of Western Europe were burned down with Jews locked inside them. Astonishingly, the Jewish chronicles which document these events chose to hallow the Jewish martyrs by telling remarkable tales of heroism most of which describe acts of religious suicide.

In 1099 the Crusader armies reached Jerusalem. They marched around the city blowing trumpets reenacting Joshua's conquest of Jericho. Thus they reaffirmed their God given right to hold the city. But, the walls didn't come tumbling down. They attacked the city, building bridges across the moats which surrounded the walls with wood from the ships which they brought with them from the port in Jaffa. They pounded at the walls of the besieged city, first burning with fiery arrows the ropes which coated the walls so as to absorb the blows of the battering rams. They broke through and massacred everyone inside. The Jews of the city were rounded up into the synagogue and burnt alive. So much blood was spilt that the rivers of it which flowed through the city's streets reached the ankles of the horses.

5. Crusader Jerusalem 1099-1187 
After the victory of 1099 Jerusalem, once again in Christian hands, became the capital of the Crusader Kingdom. Baldwin I became the first king to sit on his throne in the city since Herod. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre was refurbished and rededicated. Here the light of the altar was rekindled by a miraculous fire which rained down from heaven asserting God's favour and pleasure at the rededication of his Temple on Golgotha. The Dome of the Rock and the As Aksa Mosque which stood on the Temple mount were converted into Churches: Templum Domini and Templum Solomon. The Temple Mount was no longer barren as it had been in the days of Byzantine rule. The symbol of the inheritance of the Jews by Christianity was now less compelling than the subjucation of Islam in the face of Christianity. The Moslem Shrines were now subservient to the victorious faith. Jerusalem now became a tangible symbol of Christian dominance in the struggle between the two "empires of faith".

Christian pilgrims rushed to Jerusalem. Churches were built and Knightly orders were established to care for the needs of the many visitors. The Teutonic Order protected German pilgrims; the Knights of St. Lazarus cared for the lepers; the Templars patrolled the holy sites and the Hospitalers provided hospitality for the needy. The Crusader kingdom spread and gradually extended its boundaries within the holy land.

6. Saladin 
The period of Christian dominance in Jerusalem was short lived. In 1187 Saladin, the founder of the Ayubbid dynasty reconquered the city. He allowed Christian residents of the city free passage out, in return for a ransom fee. Again, the fee was more than a source of revenue. In Moslem tradition the paying of this tax was symbolic of the superiority of the recipient in the eyes of God. The city was once again converted into a Moslem city. Christian buildings and Churches which had been built by the Crusader kingdom were now deliberately converted into Mosques shrines and Madrassas (houses of study). Thus the architecture of the city of Jerusalem was made to make a theological statement. This spot, the stairway to heaven, the umbilical cord of the earth, the seam line between the empire of Mohammed and the kingdom of Christ will express the divine truth to all who behold it. Thus came to an end a short interval of Christian rule in the city. Despite many many attempts no Christian was to conquer the city until General Allenby walked through the Jaffa Gate in 1917. But by that time, things were already very different.



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14 Jun 2015 / 27 Sivan 5775 0