Holy Sepulchre – unholy row – where Jesus died

You would think that the site of the death and entombment of Jesus (the same church covers both areas) would be a place of quiet contemplation and prayer. You’d be mistaken. For the last hundred years, it’s been a place of factional strife between different Christian groups that claim ownership of their bits of the church and are very territorial about alleged encroachments.

The worst has been a dispute over who owns the roof! As you leave the leave the Via Dolorosa, you enter the Coptic part of the Holy Sepulchre – in fact, you basically find yourself on a flat rooftop with a dome and some monastic cells – only the monks you see aren’t Coptic, they are Ethiopian.  And these Ethiopians have been accused by the Egyptian Copts of having expanded their area of control.  The Copts have even said that the Ethiopians have colluded with the Israeli authorities to grab a bigger share of the Holy Sepulchre – something the Israelis hotly deny.

The BBC has reported on this and has some helpful diagrams of how the church is currently divided up.

I went on the roof to take a closer look and peeked round the Ethiopian church – here’s what I saw.


Dealing with the violent bits in the Bible

I was at a christening two years ago when a priest in an Anglican church read a passage from the Old Testament.  It was the story of how God’s annointed people, the Israelites, totally destroyed a rival tribe taking no prisoners and laying their villages waste.  “It’s an allegorical story of course,” he lisped while I tried to suppress my laughter.

In the crusader era, nobody thought the bloodier passages of the Old Testament were allegorical. On the contrary, they were an object lesson on how to deal with the wicked enemies of Christianity – ie, the Saracens.  For Saracens, read Canaanites and every other tribe that opposed the children of Israel.

However, there have been tender souls throughout the Christian era who have found the violence in the Bible a little hard to handle.  And different solutions to the conundrum have been offered.  In the earliest years of Christianity, there were conflicts between two groups called the Ebionites and the Marcionites.  The former believed Jesus was the fulfilment of the Old Testament prophecies and was essentially a Jewish figure.  The followers of the thinker Marcion of Sinope decided that the Old Testament was such a ghastly, blood drenched text that the Christian god could not possibly have inspired it.  The solution: lose the Old Testament entirely.

In the second century AD, this was fiercely opposed by Origen – who is not a saint because he thought Jesus was inferior to God the father (tut tut in later Catholic eyes).  Along with the fifth century theologian Augustine, he argued that these were illustrative stories.  Sure the Israelites went off and smote people in foul ways that would have landed them in a tribunal at the Hague in our own time….but these tales are simply pointing us towards better behaviour.  So – for example – the Israelites finding and killing five kings in a cave – it’s not what it looks like.  No, the five kings (Origen tortuously explains) are the five human senses which dwell in the cave of our mind.

That didn’t wash with the Enlightenment thinkers of the eighteenth century – including a couple of the Founding Fathers of the United States.  The writer and fervent supporter of the American revolution, Thomas Paine, even said that the god of the Old Testament was so abhorrent that he had little by way of moral virtue.  He should be completely discarded.

In a book out last year called ‘Laying Down the Sword: Why we can’t ignore the bible’s violent verses‘ – Philip Jenkins says it’s pointless trying to ignore the insanely vicious nature of some of the bible.  He argues that the bible is actually more violent than the Koran, it’s just that Christians have gradually eased away from the tribal conflicts that obviously fired up some of the book’s many authors.  Parts of the Old Testament are borderline genocidal and Jenkins asks us to try and look at the Israelites through the eyes of the Canaanites – and imagine how scary they would have seemed.

Several blogs give almost amusing examples of the psychotic behaviour of God.  For example – he leads his people out of captivity in Egypt.  A joyous occasion for the world to be sure.  Unless you happen to be King Og of Bashan and his people whom God took a dislike to and ordered the Israelites to slay en masse not leaving a single person standing.  Expanding in to Palestine, God ordered his people at various times to wipe out entire populations including the citizens of Jericho.  The prophet Samuel instructed Saul to kill all the Amelakites….and he meant all of them.  Men, women, children, babies in arms, herds, flocks, camels, asses, etc   Quite how a camel had offended God is anybody’s guess.

Or how about Isaiah on what should happen to the good folk of Babylon: “All who are found will be stabbed, all who are taken will fall by the sword, their infants will be dashed to the ground before their eyes…”


Why were the Knights Templar formed?

To find the Holy Grail of course!

templar4Well, that’s if you subscribe to the Dan Brown view of things.  But what was the official narrative for the foundation of the Templars?  Michael Haag in his book ‘The Templars’ recounts the standard explanation which I’ll paraphrase from.   Essentially as the First Crusade died down with the successful establishment of the crusader states like Jerusalem and Edessa, many of the Christian warriors packed their bags and went home.  Indeed, there may have been an acute shortage of “Franks” (the Saracen term for all crusaders) from which to recruit armies to defend these new kingdoms.

The best that could be done was to keep the towns well defended but the roads in between were another story.  Saewulf of Canterbury in 1102 detailed how pilgrims who arrived at Jaffa were often subject to attack as they struck out on the road to Jerusalem.  The stragglers or small groups were particular targets of Bedouin nomads.  Pilgrims would more than likely be killed to access the money which was often sewn in to their clothing.

It must have been a rather unpleasant sight for newly arrived pilgrims to traipse along the road to Jerusalem only to find the rotting corpses of other pilgrims lining the way.  Not only were the faithful being set upon by local thieves but they also had to contend with Turkic soldiers from the north and Egyptians from the south.

templar5A Russian pilgrim had noted the activities of Fatimids from Egypt: ‘There are many springs here; travellers rest by the water but with great fear, for it is a deserted place and nearby is the town of Ascalon from which Saracens sally forth and kill travellers on these roads’.

It has been suggested that these attacks had been escalating for quite a while.  It’s important to realise that Christians had been coming to Jerusalem before the crusades and often experienced no difficulty (was a muslim ruler going to choke off an influx of medieval tourists?) while at other times, they were not so welcome.  All depending on the political and religious climate.

In the period after the muslim takeover of Jerusalem from the Byzantine Empire in the seventh century, the Christian pilgrimages to the city continued.  Caliph Umar built the Dome of the Rock and cleaned up the Temple Mount.  And Christians continued to decorate their church including the Holy Sepulchre.  But 100 years before the Templars were founded came the first sign of trouble with Caliph al-Hakim who destroyed the church of the Holy Sepulchre and embarked on persecutions of the Christians.

By the early 12th century, Christians also had to adapt to the emergence of the powerful and expanding Seljuk Turks.   Fresh from beating the humiliating the Byzantine emperor on the battlefield at Manzikert, they were in a bullish and very confident frame of mind.  And they put paid to any expansion plans that the crusaders had in Asia Minor in 1104.   In the demonology of Christendom, the Turks were rapidly heading for the number one slot where they would remain for many centuries.

So, what was to be done to protect pilgrims from desert thugs, confident Seljuks and Fatimids intent on pushing the crusaders out?  Hugh de Payns and his band of knights believed they had the answer when they formed the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon in 1118 to notionally defend pilgrims.  I say ‘notionally’ because you’ll find enough people who will suggest this was a cover for something else.  They were to stop innocent people being raped and killed by brigands.  And with this intent, the Templars began a lively two hundred year existence.

How Portugal nationalised the Knights Templar

Templar artworkAs we all know, on the fateful day of Friday the 13th in 1307 – the pope condemned the Knights Templar and orders went out to round up the masters and knights.  King Philip IV of France pressured Pope Clement V in to banning the two hundred year old military order, which was already on the wane after failures in the crusades in the east.  Jerusalem was lost to the Saracens forever along with most of the crusader kingdoms set up in the late eleventh century and twelfth century.

But the ban on the Order was not enthusiastically embraced everywhere outside of France.  England seems to have dragged its feet and the tortures and executions that characterised the French suppression of the Templars were not present in other kingdoms.  Portugal in particular seems to have felt a debt of gratitude to the Templars – had they not been in the vanguard of driving back the Moors, the muslim rulers of southern Portugal and Spain?

thumb-350-567826Portugal was also a smaller and less wealthy kingdom than France and probably more pragmatic in outlook.  The Templars had been a wealthy Order operating across frontiers – so why not embrace all that talent (and money) in some way?  King Dinis of Portugal set up a new state sponsored organisation called the Order of Christ and duly enrolled the old Templars in to it.  Pope John XXII recognised the new order and it was eventually headquartered in Tomar – where the Templars had been based up to their suppression.

A hundred years later, its Grand Master would be a son of the then Portuguese king.  This man was Henry the Navigator who would instigate two hundred years of Portuguese ‘discoveries’ from Brazil to India and give birth to a vast maritime empire.  The cross of the Order of Christ would be emblazoned on the sails of the caravels that plied the seas from Goa to Salvador.  It’s often been said that Portugal’s mastery of international trade and commerce in this period was in no small way due to the Templar spirit imbued within the Order of Christ.

By the middle of the sixteenth century, the revenues of the Order of Christ were huge.  Four hundred and fifty commanderies oversaw annual revenues of a million and a half livres.  The papacy often believed it had the right to appoint new members of the Order, a move resented by the Portuguese kings who insisted that the Order fell entirely under their control.  Bizarrely, this dispute still rumbles on and on the Vatican website, the Holy See today indicates that it is reticent to appoint new members of the Order even though it would like to.

In other kingdoms, the estates of the Templars often transferred to the Hospitallers or in Spain, they went to the Order of Montesa.

The Ninth Gate – how to make your own devil’s book

Boris Balkan (Frank Langella) shows his 17th-c...
Boris Balkan (Frank Langella) shows his 17th-century copy of The Nine Gates to Dean Corso (Johnny Depp). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If you have never seen the Ninth Gate – Roman Polanski’s mystical thriller set in a world of antiquarian booksellers, then view it.   In a nutshell, a book called ‘The Nine Gates to the Kingdom of Shadows’ exists in three copies only.  Originally written in 1666 by Aristide Torchia and based on a work called the Delomelanicon, a heretical script possibly crafted by Satan’s own hand.  The three copies are held by characters in the movie called Victor Fargas, Boris Balkan and the shadowy Kessler Foundation.  Johnny Depp plays a bad boy of the book world called Dean Corso who is paid by Balkan to find the other copies.  It transpires there are differences between the three books – they are not completely identical – and it’s no pun (well it is actually) to say that the devil is in the detail.  Needless to say that the devil arrives in a very Polanski form….and I shall say no more.

The movie is based on a 1993 book called The Club Dumas and this website helps you to make your own copy of  The Nine Gates to the Kingdom of Shadows – provided you understand the diabolic risks involved.

Here is the trailer of the movie which will flesh out all of the above.   The video is disabled to play instantly – just click on the underlined sentence about watching on YouTube and you will be taken straight to it.

You can still see the movie in parts here but I suspect it may be taken down soon.

This video analyses the esoteric meaning of the Ninth Gate in the book mentioned above.

Eurabia is nothing new – Arab Europe 1,000 years ago

An imaginary flag of a futuristic Islamic Euro...
An imaginary flag of a futuristic Islamic Europe (i.e. = Eurabia) 

In certain American and European newspapers, magazines and chat show hosts – like Glenn Beck – there are claims that Europe is being ‘islamified’ and that very soon we will be living in an entity they call ‘Eurabia’.  Well, I have news for these columnists, shock jocks and blow hards – we’ve been here before.  Parts of Europe were under Islamic rule for centuries and I’m talking about parts of Europe that subsequently became almost a hundred per cent Christian.

Spain and Portugal are the classic examples but Sicily, Greece, the Balkans and even southern France (in the period after the initial invasion of Iberia in 711 AD) were under the sway of Islamic emirs and ruled effectively by the Caliph – first in Damascus and then Baghdad.  The evidence is strongest in the architecture you can still see all over southern Europe but also in the language.  For instance, in Spanish – one can exclaim ‘ojala’.  In Portuguese, the word is ‘oxala’.  In front of a sentence it means ‘I do hope…” and then whatever you hope.  The word is undeniably derived from the Arabic ‘In sa Allah’ – God willing.

From 711AD, Spain and Portugal were mainly under Arabic/Berber Islamic rule.  There’s no ifs or buts about it.  And most of the large cities like Cordoba, Silves, Valencia and Seville were in the parts of the peninsula most effectively controlled by the Islamic authorities.  What is most controversial is that modern scholarship indicates that by 1000AD, most people in what is now Spain and Portugal were muslim.  Whether they were converted or had come over with the invading armies.  And I’m talking about 70 to 80 per cent of the population.

Likewise, Sicily still had a large Byzantine Greek community after it was invaded by the Arabs but by the time the Normans were conquering it in the eleventh century, most of the population was praying in a mosque.

Last year, I went to Cordoba for the first time and it’s simply incredible to see buildings constructed in the ninth and tenth century that were way ahead of anything being built at the time in northern Europe.  The great mosque of Cordoba is the most splendid example of this and was built from the eighth century onwards but more or less completed by 987AD under the rule of Al Mansur.  It’s not difficult to appreciate how the wealth and opulence of the Islamic world must have turned the heads of many Christians in the so-called Dark Ages – a term now largely out of favour.

Here are some photos I took of the Great Mosque in Cordoba and just think to yourself – this was built a thousand years ago…

Inside the columned hall of the Grand Mosque of Cordoba
Gold gate at Cordoba Mosque
Courtyard of the mosque in Cordoba

Why so much blood and gore in Roman Catholic churches in the Latin world?

Porto, Portugal

I’m half Portuguese and for years I’ve watched English friends of mine recoil at the sight of the blood and gore that is to be found all over statues in churches in southern Europe. My great grandmother’s crucifix has pride of place in my study in London and it’s a gore fest. Why is it then that the Latin world loves to see Jesus, the saints and martyrs covered in wounds, cuts and bleeding?

Porto, Portugal

The first thing to say is that at the time of the Knights Templar between the 12th and 14th centuries, it may have also been a common sight in northern European churches. The Protestant Reformation of the 16th century demanded simplicity and a cull of graven images, seen as being sinful as per the Ten Commandments. So an English church in 1150, say, may have had equally gory paintings on its walls subsequently whitewashed during the Reformation.

Click HERE for an article on the discovery of lurid murals in an English church where William Shakespeare was born. While England has got used to a more restrained and buttoned up form of Christianity over the last five hundred years, southern Europe has continued with life sized representations of Jesus and the saints being scourged or executed.

Spain is home to some pretty gory Christian icons and this life sized Jesus was one I discovered in the Roman/medieval city of Segovia.   The same city includes a Templar church built in the shape of the Holy Sepulchre church in Jerusalem.

Christ in death in the church of San Martin, Segovia
A close up image of the same image of Christ