So – where was Jesus really crucified? An Easter mystery!

Back in 2012, I visited the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem – a real hotch-potch of a church on different levels and sprawling over a large area. Within its ancient walls dating back to the first Christian Roman emperor Constantine is the reputed site of the crucifixion.

But not everybody agrees.

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The crypt of the Holy Sepulchre

Every year, thousands of pilgrims trudge up the Via Dolorosa – as I did – following the last footsteps of Jesus to his place of death. The cobbled road is punctuated with all those familiar sites – such as the point at which he fell and where his face was wiped.

And it all ends up in the Holy Sepulchre. Within the church you can venerate the spot at which the cross was erected and also the tomb of Jesus.

It’s all rather convenient, a sceptic might think. What a happy accident to have both these sacred places under one roof. And the discovery of the location of the crucifixion and the tomb were made by the Empress Helena, mother of Constantine, on a state visit to Jerusalem in the fourth century AD. In fact, Helena just found one miraculous biblical item after another during her stay.

But there are problems. Was the crucifixion really carried out within the city walls? Wouldn’t it have been more likely for grim executions to be conducted outside the gates, by the local rubbish tip for example, away from the houses of local citizens? You have to consider that the bodies were normally left to rot and be picked at by animals for days afterwards. Did people really want to see that outside of their window?

Tomb
The  Garden Tomb – the real site of Jesus’ burial?

Also, where is the skull-shaped hill of Golgotha?

This question led some Christians in the nineteenth century, mainly Protestants, to pick a spot for the crucifixion outside the city walls near a tall mound that does appear to have a skull-like appearance. It’s just north of the Damascus gate. They also alighted on an old tomb nearby as the final resting place of the Messiah – the so-called Garden Tomb.

Now, some critics have argued that this theory has more to do with Protestants having no control over any part of the church of the Holy Sepulchre. Even today, that church is divided between the Roman Catholic, Coptic, Ethiopian, Syrian, Armenian and Greek orthodox churches. They occasionally fight each other in turf wars over who controls which bit of the church – and they’re certainly not letting the Protestants get a look in.

All I can say is that while I adore the Holy Sepulchre, it’s not a convincing site for the crucifixion. However, the Knights Templar thought it was and their churches all over Europe replicated the circular design of the Holy Sepulchre. I’m sure many of you will feel that the symbolic significance is more important than the reality. But some of you may not. So what is the truth?

When you approach the site of the crucifixion at the Holy Sepulchre, there can sometimes be scenes of deep religious ecstasy. You may think I was a bit naughty doing this but on my old iPhone (so apologies for the grainy quality), I filmed some Russian nuns showing their devotion in 2012 before the place where Jesus was executed by the Romans.

The Templars, hidden treasure and the Dead Sea Scrolls

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Two Bedouins discovered the Dead Sea scrolls

In 1947, two Bedouin shepherds were herding their flock on the rocky and steep slopes near Qumran by the shores of the Dead Sea in modern Israel. The area is pockmarked by caves and a goat disappeared inside one of these black holes. One of the shepherds threw a stone after it to tease the animal out but instead heard a sound like breaking pottery.

The shepherd had made one of the greatest archaeological finds of the 20th century. In several large stone jars, hidden away two thousand years ago, were sacred scrolls that included a version of the Old Testament written down a thousand years before the oldest version in existence in 1947.

Qumran
Qumran today

A mysterious community had taken root at Qumran building a town on the mountain face with purification baths, a library, aqueduct and houses. It had fled what it saw as the decadence and evil of Jerusalem around 150 BC.

Initially, its hatred was directed at the High Priests of the Temple in Jerusalem and their Greek overlords – the Seleucid Empire. These people, the community believed, were already damned. God had decided who to save and who to throw into hell fire. The community at Qumran didn’t need salvation through church sacraments or goodly deeds in life – they already knew they were part of God’s elect.

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Jerusalem priests – doing well under Roman rule

The Seleucids gave way to the Roman Empire and the priests of the Temple shamefully collaborated with the Romans for their own personal gain, power and prestige. The High Priest and Roman governor worked in hand in glove. Puppet Jewish kings like Herod Antipas were more than happy to be cyphers for Roman imperial rule in return for a glittering lifestyle.

Many Jews yearned for the return to the self-government they briefly enjoyed between the collapse of Seleucid rule and the arrival of the Romans – the period of the Maccabean revolt and the Hasmonean dynasty. And in 66 CE, the Jews rebelled against imperial control in a bloody insurgency that took over five years for the Romans to crush.

Roman vengeance was cruel and without mercy. The Temple in Jerusalem, the very place that Jesus was said to have expelled the money lenders, was ransacked for all its treasures. And then the building was torched and demolished. It would never rise again. The glory of the Jews – the most holy place to them – was reduced to rubble and ashes.

The Romans even celebrated their theft of the Temple treasury on an arch in Rome – the Arch of Titus. You can still see soldiers proudly carting off their booty that some conjecture included the Ark of the Covenant.

Back in Qumran, the community of ascetic Jews that had lived there for over two hundred years would have been very aware of events in the big city. They had been looking forward to an apocalyptic end of days that would end the rule of darkness and bring forth the rule of light. Those who were evil – Romans and Temple priests – would be damned. But the community of Qumran would be saved and resurrected.

copper-scrollFast forward to 1952 and archaeologists were finding more and more scrolls in the caves. They came to believe that the community, realising the Romans and fleeing Jewish refugees were coming in their direction, began to secrete their sacred knowledge into dark and unseen places.

Hastily, they hid their precious scrolls. Possibly, they were also helping to spirit away treasure from the temple in Jerusalem as Roman forces swarmed over it. Could it be that the ascetic community of Qumran helped the priests they hated in Jerusalem to hide the sacred vessels?

In 1952, archaeologists discovered a copper scroll. All the other scrolls had been made of papyrus or animal skin but this scroll was etched into metal. It was clearly intended not to rot or be chewed away by insects. The information on it was vitally important.

The copper scroll detailed the hiding place of a vast treasure in gold and silver. Look under the third step at such-and-such building and you will find a strong box with this amount of talents in gold…the scroll read. One hiding place after another was listed.

Many scholars believed it was referring to treasures taken out of the Temple before the Romans arrived and placed in over sixty locations. This raised the tantalising prospect that all over modern Israel and Jordan are the most spectacular finds waiting to be discovered.

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The Romans celebrated looting the Temple on the Arch of Titus in Rome – you can still see it!

Others argued that the community was leading people of the future on a wild goose chase for objects that did not exist at all. And certainly, treasure hunters have been consistently disappointed ever since. But it’s hard to imagine a community facing the arrival of Roman legions set on decimating them in an act of bloody imperial vengeance would waste their last moments on earth etching a hoax into a copper scroll.

A Templar related theory posits that there was a second copper scroll. This one was hidden under the Temple in Jerusalem for future generations to discover. And, the theory goes, when the Knights Templar began digging under what they believed to be the Temple of Solomon, they discovered this scroll. The wealth they were then able to unearth at multiple locations formed the basis of their fabulous wealth.

For many Israelis today, the thrilling prospect of finding the sacred items of the destroyed Temple would herald the prospect of rebuilding it. However, one can imagine the political storm that would create.

Spain and Portugal – battle ground between Islam and Christianity

Say the word “Crusades” to many people and they automatically think of the Holy Land, Syria and Egypt. The wars between Christian knights and Muslim warriors are seen entirely as a violent confrontation that took place only in the Middle East. Our rather narrow and misleading view is coloured by the continuing instability in that region. In fact, the Crusades were a much bigger affair.

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The Great Mosque of Cordoba built by Abd al Rahman in the 9th century – Muslim ruler of modern Spain and Portugal

Indeed the Crusades extended far beyond modern Syria, Lebanon, Egypt and Israel. Up in north east Europe, the Teutonic Knights fought both pagans and Russian orthodox Christians. Meanwhile in south-western Europe – the Iberian peninsula to be precise – saw initially small Christian kingdoms fight a large flourishing caliphate that at one point in the eighth century CE stretched into southern France.

So how exactly did Muslim rulers come to be in charge of the Iberian peninsula?

Well, in the year 711CE the armies of Islam were invited into modern Spain to take sides in a dispute between rival Visigoth nobles. These were the descendants of the Germanic tribes that had overrun Roman Hispania three centuries earlier. Seeing the stretch of fertile land before them, the Umayyad Muslim generals could scarcely believe their luck. And the Visigoths duly crumbled before their gleaming scimitars. Over the next sixty years, the Umayyads set about subduing the entire peninsula – what we now call Spain and Portugal.

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The medieval cathedral in Porto from where a crusade was launched to take modern Lisbon from its Muslim rulers – an undertaking covered in my book Quest for the True Cross

This invasion would have a huge impact on this part of the world. Cities like Cordoba and Seville came to be regarded as an integral part of a caliphate that stretched all the way to Damascus and Baghdad. The only parts of the Iberian peninsula not taken were the north west, which was less economically attractive and more remote, and the harder to conquer bits of the Basque country. Otherwise, every major urban centre and most of the land fell to the caliphate.

For the next seven hundred and fifty years, the Muslim domains would be pushed back bit by bit. New Christian kingdoms gradually formed in the north like Leon, Castile, Aragon, Navarre and Portugal forcing the Emirate of Cordoba to yield its cities to the Cross. This story of prolonged warfare is fascinating and one I touch on in my book Quest for the True Cross. I take my protagonist, Sir William de Mandeville, from the killing fields of the Holy Land to the siege of a great and glorious city called Al-Usbuna.

Al-Usbuna is modern day Lisbon. In 1147, it was a Moorish city with a Muslim governor, a great mosque and a maze of streets called the Medina where the ordinary people lived. It’s hard to believe that the capital of modern Portugal was part of the Umayyad caliphate and had to be conquered by a large crusader force including many Knights Templar. Even today, the northern Portuguese often refer to their southern Portuguese fellow countrymen as “arabs”.

In my book, I draw on a contemporary account of the siege translated from the Latin – The Conquest of Lisbon – which details how the city, after over four  hundred years of Muslim rule – came to be besieged by a Christian force. Even though my book is a work of fiction, it does include many key details of that siege and you’ll get a real flavour of how the Crusades were fought in Spain and Portugal to an ultimately successful conclusion.

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From a Roman to a medieval tower

In the Middle Ages, the ruins of old Roman forts were often built on top of to create medieval castles. One great example of this is the so-called Multangular Tower in York, constructed when the city was called Eboracum by the Romans and visited by emperors as distinguished as Septimius Severus and Constantine.  The latter was particularly known in York as his father had been governor of the province.

If you look at the photos I took on my visit below – you’ll notice that the bottom half of the tower has smaller stones and lines of red bricks one associates with Roman forts.  Then above you have the addition of arrow slits from the medieval period.  The walls would probably have fallen into a certain degree of decay in the centuries immediately after the Romans left but wars with Scotland in particular, meant that the medieval city had to re-fortify later on.

Multangular Tower Multangular Tower Multangular Tower Multangular Tower Multangular Tower

A very ancient map of Jerusalem

What a history Jerusalem has experienced.  At the time of Christ, it was ruled by the Roman Empire and continued to be governed from Rome and then Constantinople until the year 637CE when Jerusalem surrendered to Arab, Muslim armies.

At the time the Muslim caliphate took the city, its defeated Roman rulers had long converted to Christianity and Jerusalem was one of the five patriarchates that dominated the religion: Rome, Constantinople, Antioch, Alexandria and Jerusalem.

In the town of Madaba – now located in Jordan – a Christian church constructed a map of the world, as it was known in the sixth century CE, using two million mosaic tiles – and of course it placed Jerusalem at the centre.

The depiction of Jerusalem is very clear and you can make out the church of the Holy Sepulchre (sacred to the Templars) and the central colonnaded Roman street or “cardo”.  I was in Madaba a month ago and took these photos of the map, which is on the floor of the church and has been partially destroyed over time.

 

Why the crusaders stormed a Roman temple

It was the height of the crusades in the 12th century AD and the Atabeg (Saracen ruler) of Damascus spotted a building that was ideal to convert into a fortress – the remains of a Roman temple to the goddess Artemis in the long deserted city of Jerash.

It had been one of the ten cities in the Decapolis during the Roman empire and hugely wealthy. But the decline of the empire and a series of earthquakes left just some beautiful ruins, which are still there today.

During the Roman period, the temple of Artemis had dominated a city compared to Antioch in grandeur. It was completed in AD150 and opulently decorated. However, the decision by the emperor Constantine to convert to Christianity followed by the emperor Theodosius demanding everybody adopt the new faith – saw the temple gradually stripped of its adornments and marble.

There are remains of two kilns from the Theodosian era (late 4th century AD) that were set up on the steps of the temple to break down its building materials. These were then used for new Christian churches in Jerash.

However, rejecting the pagan Gods for Christ did not favour Jerash. It succumbed to earthquakes and economic decline and by the time of the crusades, it had become a ruin ruled over by the Muslim caliphate. The Atabeg of Damascus converted the temple of Artemis into a fortress but it was then stormed by the crusader king of Jerusalem Baldwin II who burnt it down.

Underneath the temple, there are still very dark rooms under the main platform which I was allowed to go and see. Bit too dark to film in I’m afraid. My guide informed me (and challenge him if you know better) that the Templars and crusaders stored wealth in what was a very secure place.

Anyway – here are some photos and a video!

Temple of Artemis Temple of Artemis

 

 

 

 

The biblical city of Gadara – my visit

I have just returned from a ten day visit to Jordan – a country with an amazing history sandwiched between Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Over the next few blog posts, I’m going to share the incredible places I visited.

My first stop was the remains of the biblical city of Gadara by the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee where Jesus is said to have cured two demoniacs – transferring their madness to swine.

It was one of ten cities grouped by the Romans into the so-called Decapolis. They’d been inhabited since the neolithic and bronze age but it was under the rule of the Greek Ptolemaic and Seleucid empires, founded after the death of Alexander the Great, that these cities flourished.  I’ll be sharing with you my visits to other cities within the Decapolis in future blog posts.

The Romans gave the Decapolis a degree of autonomy and introduced all the hallmarks of Roman civilisation including the obligatory amphitheatre. The one at Gadara was made of basalt – creating a black structure. As Rome declined, the city became part of the Byzantine empire and then the Islamic caliphate. Its fortunes were finally sealed when a huge earthquake destroyed it in the year 749AD. As we’ll see, this natural catastrophe smashed many Roman cities in the region – and they didn’t recover.

Here’s a gallery of images of the amphitheatre. What I loved about it was that it hadn’t been lovingly restored – in fact, bits are propped up with wood as you can see. Local kids were sleeping rough under its arches. But more than other ruins, I could really sense the presence of the Romans who once lived there enjoying the theatre on a warm summer evening. The site is now called Um Qais – enjoy.

Um Qais amphitheatre Um Qais amphitheatre Um Qais amphitheatre Um Qais amphitheatre Um Qais amphitheatre Um Qais amphitheatre Um Qais amphitheatre Um Qais amphitheatre Um Qais amphitheatre Um Qais amphitheatre

Bits of a Roman bath in a medieval English church

Sometimes a historical site can be initially very confusing and making sense of it requires a little bit of detective work. I was in Leicester – in central England – last week. It’s a city that was hugely important in the Middle Ages and was a major town when the Romans ruled the province of Britannia.

So – in the pouring rain, I came across a chunky bit of masonry dating back to the Romans. It’s a thick, brick section of wall called the Jewry Wall. However, it has absolutely nothing to do with the Jews and wasn’t a boundary wall. In the eighteenth century, historians thought it was a temple to the god Janus. It wasn’t. In the nineteenth century, the Victorians decided it was a city gate. It wasn’t. Then it was believed to be the city’s Roman forum even when it was becoming increasingly clear that the wall was actually part of a bath complex.

So why was it called the Jewry Wall?  Especially as Leicester’s Jewish population was expelled by Simon de Montfort in 1231, during the Templar era. It’s now thought the term is a corruption of the word ‘jurat’ – these were the senior politicians in the medieval era who held their council meetings near the wall. It is claimed on Wikipedia that buildings of unknown origin were attributed to the Jews in the Middle Ages – I’ve no evidence to support this assertion.

Next to the wall is a church to Saint Nicholas. I walked in and was immediately confronted by two windows in the nave that looked very Roman. In fact, they date to the Saxon period – around 880AD. But the masonry was part of the original Roman bath and was simply transplanted into the church – by the looks of things, mimicking the original positioning.

It’s a strangely laid out church with a Norman tower and some questionable changes made in the early nineteenth century when a wall of the nave was demolished and replaced by a brick arch. The church authorities actually wanted to demolish the entire church but didn’t have the funds.

The Roman "Jewry" wall
The Roman “Jewry” wall
The Roman baths now excavated and the medieval church
The Roman baths now excavated and the medieval church
Nineteenth century arch
Nineteenth century arch
A Saxon window made from Roman bricks
A Saxon window made from Roman bricks
Nineteenth century arch and Saxon window
Nineteenth century arch and Saxon window

Cyprus and the Knights Templar – a grim Easter anniversary!

coin of Guy of Lusignan, Cyprus
Coin of Guy of Lusignan, Cyprus 

The Mediterranean island of Cyprus is now racked by a financial crisis.  Demonstrators have taken to the streets in their thousands as savers have been forced to hand up to as much as 10% of their savings to bail out the bankers. Little wonder that bankers are extremely unpopular.

But it won’t be the first time that Cypriots have raged against bankers on the island. Back in 1192, the Knights Templar were in control of Cyprus having bought it a year earlier from Richard the Lionheart.  He in turn had taken it from the Byzantine empire, the eastern Christian remnant of the Roman empire that was notionally, though not always, on the crusader side against the Muslim Saracens.

King Richard was busy trying to defend the mainland crusader states and so when the Templars offered to buy it off him, he seized the chance. And of course the Templars had the money to make good on the deal. They were not only first class soldiers – but also first class bankers. It may have been a primitive form of finance that they operated, but it was advanced for the age. The Templars issued an early form of travellers’ cheque to their customers allowing them to go on crusade without having to take all their bullion around with them. Templar preceptories operated a bit like high street banks where nobles could pop in and cash a cheque to keep them going far from home.

But bankers have never been loved. And the locals soon got weary of these warrior monks – cum – bankers running their island. There weren’t many Templars present, as few as twenty according to some accounts. The islanders had spent centuries staving off Saracen attacks plus they were religiously and culturally more affiliated to Constantinople than Rome. Add to that the Templars would have been trying to recoup their investment quite aggressively by extracting whatever wealth they could from Cyprus. Templar books needed to be balanced in order to pay for crusading in outremer.  Needless to say, these Latin Christian crusaders  soon outstayed their welcome.

Concerned at rumblings of revolt, the Templars retreated within their garrison. There were reports that the Cypriots were planning to massacre the knights on Easter Day, 1192.  So, after regaining their courage, the Templars stormed out of their castle and embarked on a wholesale massacre of anybody they met. This isn’t exactly the finest hour in the history of the Knights Templar – but it happened. The killing quelled the rebellion and an uneasy peace returned. But shortly afterwards, the Templars sold Cyprus on to Guy de Lusignan – who you will recall from the movie Kingdom of Heaven – had just lost the kingdom of Jerusalem to Saladin and his Saracen armies. So he needed somewhere to rule.

Here is Guy de Lusignan fighting Balian in the director’s cut of Kingdom of Heaven.

Tough being a woman in the Middle Ages

Women as warriors helping to defend the city f...
Women as warriors helping to defend the city from attack. 

In her excellent book Medieval Women – Oxford University research fellow Henrietta Leyser uncovers some astonishing nonsense that people believed about women in the medieval period. She also finds that women could exercise real power and influence but they really had to climb a mountain of very odd prejudices.

It seems Aristotle has to take a big part of the blame. The great Greek philosopher was hugely influential at the height of the Middle Ages. Having been dead for nearly two thousand years that was quite an achievement. Not only was he Alexander the Great’s tutor – he was a massive misogynist. Aristotle just didn’t like women. And that seems to have chimed with another big influence in the medieval period – the Roman doctor Galen. Both Galen and Aristotle wrote some complete nonsense about females that remained unchallenged until the modern era.

Galen believed that men and women both produced “seed” for reproduction. Male seed was precious but female seed was dangerous. In fact, as Leyser notes, women had to purge themselves of “excess seed” through menstruation. Or if that didn’t work – lots of exercise! If they didn’t expel the overproduced seed, these wretched women might find it difficult to breath and suffer from a condition called “uterine suffocation”. One academic in the fourteenth century even described how a midwife could assist in unwanted seed removal – but I’m going to spare you the details!

Pliny – another Roman – was also influential and he issued dire warnings about the effects of menstrual blood. Apparently, it could turn wine sour, make crops barren, fruit fell from trees, bee hives died and dogs who tasted it got rabies! If, heaven forbid, a man was silly enough to have intercourse with a menstruating woman then the child was likely to have red hair (a bad thing it would seem) and go down with leprosy (definitely a bad thing).

An older woman who was still menstruating could “poison” a child in its cradle just by looking at it. The vapors from below exuded through her eyes to whatever she was looking at. So concerned were clerics in the thirteenth century about the evil effects of periods that they even debated whether the Virgin Mary could possibly have ever menstruated. With deep regret, they were forced to conclude that she must have done.

Bust of Aristotle. Marble, Roman copy after a ...
Bust of Aristotle.