Two Historical Sites

A road trip to Canada for the holidays allowed us to see a couple of things on our List.

1. Dundurn Castle, Hamilton, Ontario (completed in 1835). The home of Sir Allan Napier MacNab, Baronet, veteran of the War of 1812, lawyer, real estate investor, railway developer, colonel in the colonial militia and opponent of William Lyon Mackenzie during the rebellion of 1837, member of the Legislative Assembly of Upper Canada, and premier of the United Province of Canada 1854-56. As a colonial grandee he built himself a house (designated a “castle”) on the shore of Lake Ontario at Hamilton, where he entertained other such grandees. It’s now run as a museum by the city of Hamilton, and you get to see how rich people lived in the nineteenth century, including up-to-date conveniences like gas lighting, water closets, and bell pulls. Our guide Luke, in period costume, was a delight.

On the grounds is the Hamilton Military Museum, devoted largely to the War of 1812, which I regret to say I know little about. The War has especial relevance to the site of Dundurn Castle, since at the time the British built an ammunition dump there; this later was incorporated into the Castle as a subterranean wood storage area.

2. The Kirtland Temple, Kirtland, Ohio, dedicated 1836. Unfortunately it was closed when we stopped by, but it sure looked pretty amidst all the snow that had fallen the previous evening. This was the first temple built by the Mormons; like the majority of historic Nauvoo, Illinois, it is now in the hands of the Community of Christ (formerly the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints), although like at Nauvoo, the LDS Church has also established a presence in the town. A Community of Christ church sits across the street from the Temple, and a visitors’ center is not far away. These were also closed, but I look forward to coming back someday when they’re open; unlike with a regular LDS temple, non-church members are allowed inside.

The Mormons largely abandoned Kirtland in 1838 in the wake of the collapse of the Kirtland Safety Society.

Saint George and al-Khidr

The formal reason for my trip to the Middle East was that I wanted to investigate the convergence of the veneration of St. George, the fourth-century Christian soldier and martyr, and that of al-Khidr, the revered Muslim wali. That these two figures have, at certain times and places, been identified with each other, despite the traditional animosity between Christianity and Islam, is remarkable. What is really going on? What are the terms of this convergence – does it even exist?

St. George is everywhere in the Middle East. If there are Christian remains, you will find an image of St. George in them. If there is an active Christian community, there is a very good chance that one of its churches will be dedicated to St. George; whatever its dedication, there will certainly be many images of the saint, inside and outside the church building. He is not the only equestrian saint, nor the only military saint, nor even the only dragon slayer, and he was certainly not the only Christian to have been martyred under Diocletian. But somehow people love him the most. I think that one reason is because his dragon slaying is not just visually symbolic, but the illustration of a romantic story about how he rescued a damsel in distress. This sort of thing is always popular. Perhaps more importantly, he is considered a powerful intercessor and miracle worker, something always very important and useful.

Khidr is a somewhat more obscure figure. Although not mentioned by name in the Koran, he is widely identified as the righteous servant of God in Sura 18, “The Cave,” and is charged with instructing Moses. Moses promises to learn humbly and not to question Khidr, but Khidr acts most inexplicably, and Moses cannot help himself. First Khidr bores a hole in the bottom of a boat belonging to some fishermen, then he kills a young boy, and finally he fixes a wall in a town, right after its inhabitants had refused to offer hospitality to him and Moses. With each of these incidents, Moses breaks his promise and expresses disappointed surprise, but Khidr then reveals his reasons: he damaged the boat just enough to prevent it being commandeered by a king, the boy was evil and Khidr killed him so that Allah might give his believing parents a better son, and he repaired the wall because beneath it was buried treasure belonging to two orphans, whose deceased father had been righteous and who would be in no position to defend it should its presence be revealed. The message is that God’s wisdom is beyond human understanding.

Unlike with St. George, I never found anything devoted to Khidr: no pictures, no dedications. People did know who he was. “Khidr,” in Turkish, is rendered as “Hızır,” and I spoke with one man, a Muslim from the area around Sivas, who said that he knew an old man in his village who had met Hızır twice, and who was admired for it. The old man knew it was Hızır because of Hızır’s “bent thumb.” Other people mentioned that Hızır can help people, but it’s more a case of explaining the good luck you might receive. If you’re in trouble, and someone helps you out, you might attribute this to Hızır. (I was reminded of how Grateful Dead fans used to receive “miracles” – concert tickets that they had not made provision for acquiring.)

Since there are very few Christians left in Turkey, there is no longer any question of convergence between St. George and Hızır. The Egyptian scene is somewhat different. Some ten percent of Egyptians are Christian, and the country does not have the same tradition of compulsory secularism that Turkey does – since 1980, Sunni Islam has been the state religion. Furthermore, Egyptian Muslims, perhaps because their own language descends from that of the Koran, seem to know the Koran better than Turks do. When I asked people about Khidr, most of them were able to relate the story from Sura 18, about Khidr’s three successive and seemingly inexplicable actions. When I asked whether Khidr helps people, and whether people offer some sort of thanks to him in return, they were surprised, almost offended. “That’s polytheism!”, one man exclaimed. “We only seek help from God.” Khidr is revered as other prophets are revered, but no one I spoke with admitted to seeking or receiving aid from any of them. “Khidr may have helped people long ago, but not now,” another man explained to me. Thus, despite a list of places allegedly sacred to Khidr that I had compiled from various sources, I could not find a single one that was currently and obviously designated as such. There were no inscriptions, or any people doing things to honor him. I confess I was somewhat disappointed.

But speaking with Christians I heard a different story. In Egypt, in Old Cairo, one finds two churches to St. George – in both places, the Christians claimed that local Muslims did indeed seek help from St. George, whom they called “Khidr.” A priest of the Greek Orthodox Monastery of St. George in Old Cairo said that Muslim women who want to become pregnant will visit the church, and that one can see little plaques in the church in Arabic left by Muslims in thanks for Khidr’s services (although I did not find these and the priest did not have time to show them to me). A sister of the nearby Coptic Convent of St. George said that Muslims will indeed come by – not all the Muslims in Cairo, by any means, but some of the locals from the area will pay the occasional visit to what is designated the convent’s “Chaplet of St. George.” I suppose it helps that certain actions are prescribed here: you can light a candle in front of an icon of St. George, you can touch a cloth roll containing his relics, or, most significant of all, you can be wrapped with the chains that bound him during his martyrdom. I had read about this custom, which dates back at least to the nineteenth century. Allegedly it cures madness or at least headaches, and I could not resist getting wrapped with them myself. In other words, these rituals make it easy for visitors, including any Muslims, to participate in the veneration of St. George.

A similar situation prevails in the Palestinian Territories, where most of the Arabs are Sunni Muslim, but a minority of 1-2% is Christian. The town of Beit Jala, to the south of Jerusalem near Bethlehem, is predominantly Christian, and to the southwest of Beit Jala, in the otherwise Muslim town of al-Khader, is a Greek Orthodox monastery of St. George, complete with a small but handsome church dedicated to the saint. This church is famous in its way: William Dalrymple describes it in From the Holy Mountain (1994), and it once merited a subsection on the entry for St. George on Wikipedia (entitled “Interfaith Shrine,” although the current subsection on “Islamic tradition” does not mention it specifically). These these writings, and others, mention that Muslims come there to pray and offer thanks to St. George, whom they call Khidr. (This would seem to be reflected in the name of the village itself.) I did not get to speak with any of the brothers of the monastery, but I was shown the church by a man in charge of it. He could not speak English very well, although he answered my questions as best he could, and said that yes, Muslims do indeed come by. This church also featured a set of chains (he claimed these ones were the reins of St. George’s horse) in which he had me step through three times and enjoined me to kiss. Of course there were many icons of St. George throughout the church; the most important was a large one displayed behind glass. A three-inch gap existed between the icon and the glass, into which people had deposited petitions and offerings in thanks for prayers answered. Clearly St. George was popular in the area – although I did not see any direct evidence that Muslims venerated him.

The next day, in Beit Jala proper, I had a revealing conversation with a local Christian in the Greek Orthodox Church of St. Nicholas. The current church building dates from 1925, but the site is historic, since it contains a cave that once housed its namesake saint for four years before God called him back to Myra. In 1995, the church was proud to acquire one of the relics of St. Nicholas. Like St. George, St. Nicholas provides miracles: once an old man was commissioned to repair his icon frame, and his light stayed on even though the power had gone out in the city – and even though the light hadn’t been plugged in! “So do Muslims ever ask for miracles?” I asked. “Yes they do,” he replied, “but discreetly – for example, they might ask a Christian to light a candle for their sick son. And yes, in al-Khader, the locals protect the monastery, because they get miracles from St. George there – in fact, they see him riding around on his horse, and fear him.” “Protect?” I asked. “Yes, unfortunately,” he said, “without such local support, Muslim radicals would have destroyed the church long ago.” “But,” I said, “I read somewhere that Israeli oppression brings Palestinians together regardless of religion. Does this not happen here?” “It should,” he replied. “But unfortunately when people get radicalized they don’t think in terms of Israelis, but Jews, and Christians. When people get into the Bible, they withdraw from the world, but when they get into the Koran, they get more materialistic, and lust for power and control.” Obviously a certain sectarian bias might be at work here, but it would seem that, like in Egypt, participating in Christian ritual is something that many Muslims frown upon.

My final church of St. George contained his sarcophagus and is found in the Israeli town of Lod (a.k.a. Lydda), near Tel Aviv. This site has existed since antiquity, and it plays a role in the narrative of both the First and Third Crusades (in 1099 the crusaders returned some relics of St. George to Lydda that they had acquired in Antioch, and instituted a Latin bishopric there; in 1192 Richard the Lionhearted spent six weeks encamped outside the town and may have rebuilt its church, which had recently been destroyed by Saladin). The current building dates from the nineteenth century, and consists of a main nave with a slightly narrower nave to the left. Throughout the church are various “stations” of St. George, including: a chain to try wrap oneself in; a freestanding silver icon in an intricately carved wooden frame; a large icon on the iconostasis (that is, the screen separating the nave from the sanctuary, what in medieval England might have been called the rood screen); the actual tomb of St. George in the crypt; and, in front of the main iconostasis, a stand featuring an icon, some relics of St. George, and a wooden “chalice” holding a glass jar full of oil and a floating tea light (see the photos below). An interesting ritual took place at this stand while I was there: a group of Romanian pilgrims was visiting the church and, one by one, they approached the stand. There, a priest dipped a sort of stylus into the oil, and with it anointed the pilgrims on the forehead, cheeks, chin, and hands. Thus was the power of St. George bestowed on his votaries.

As in Beit Jala, I did manage to speak with a local Christian at this church, who claimed that Muslims have great respect for St. George and that they see him riding his horse around the neighborhood (Lod’s population is about 25% Arab, most of whom are Muslim). But the only evidence I saw here of any Muslim “participation” in the cult of St. George was a Muslim woman who entered the church, took off her shoes as though she were in a mosque, walked into the nave, looked briefly at the iconostasis, and then returned to the door, put her shoes back on, and departed. Given the multiple opportunities to honor the saint in his church in Lod, I can’t say that this seemed particularly meaningful.

So what is going on, really? And whom should one believe? One can understand why Muslims, when asked, would categorically deny that any of them would stoop so low as to participate in Christian religious practice. But one can also understand why Christians would claim that Muslims would participate. What a feather in your cap, if your religion is attractive to others! I don’t think that the Christians were lying necessarily – exaggerating, maybe, but if only a handful of Muslims venerated St. George, their statements about Muslim worship would be true. One possible explanation, according to my Coptic Christian guide at Luxor, is that you can divide people in to three categories: The first are the poorest and least educated, who will do anything they think can help them, without thinking about it too much. The second are in the middle class and educated enough to take their Islam seriously. And the third are the elites, in education and socio-economic status, who don’t take anything religious too seriously. So by this schema, people who pay homage to St. George are uneducated, marginalized, and desperate for miracles, while most other people, i.e. the ones I spoke with, are well versed enough in Islam not to go in for such alternative medicine. This sounds about right.

But are Muslims even venerating St. George? They call him Khidr, after all, a figure from their own tradition. However, they seem to be doing so only in Christian churches. (This convergence was also denied by some of my interlocutors. “Khidr and St. George are far apart,” one man told me. “Khidr is a phantom who goes around as Allah wills it, but he’s not the same as St. George,” said another.) One explanation for this convergence, at least on the West Bank, is that Christians and Muslims have been forced together by Israeli oppression, and that St. George has become a sort of resistance figure for the Palestinians. This may be true for some, although as noted above resistance to Israel is also inspired by radical Islam, which has little time for such syncretism – and it doesn’t explain the convergence between Khidr and St. George that finds in Egypt. Instead, a better explanation was suggested by an Anglican priest I spoke with: we may drive intermediaries out with a pitchfork, but they keep coming back, and if your religion absolutely denies their existence, then you’re forced to use someone else’s. In its way, this operation allows you to keep your monotheism but have your intermediaries too. I would say that such a dynamic also applies to tactile rituals like lighting candles, handling chains, or receiving holy oil: these sorts of actions help satisfy a deep-seated human need, and if they’ve been declared out of bounds in your own religion, you might, if you were so inclined, seek them elsewhere. (This would be especially true in places where Christianity is the religion of a distinct and socially powerless minority, meaning that it is not really a threat.)

If nothing else, it certainly provides contemporary evidence that St. George remains a powerful miracle worker, as he has always been.

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Rather than trying to integrate images into the text, I have placed them in an appendix. (There are 68 images in total).

1. From St. George’s Greek Orthodox Church, Old Cairo.

A sculpture that greets you as you climb the stairs to enter the church, indicating its patron saint.

Inventive typography in a “Hagios Georgios” roundel.

A shrine in the church, containing an icon of St. George.

A close-up of the icon, entirely silver except for St. George’s face.

In the same church: another icon, made entirely of silver, with offerings.

2. St. George’s Coptic Orthodox Convent, Old Cairo.

The courtyard of the convent, with the exterior entrance to the Chaplet of St. George on the left.

A closer view of the exterior entrance of the Chaplet of St. George.

A scanned postcard, showing the interior entrance to the Chaplet of St. George and its seven-meter-high wooden doors.

In the Chaplet, a Coptic icon of St. George, with velvet roll containing relics. Normally this roll is contained in the glass case beneath the icon, although it can be taken out and handled for devotional purposes, as it is here.

A painting of St. George hanging above his chains. A nearby sign reads: “The Persian King Dadynos gathered seventy rulers to put the great martyr St. George on trial. They used all sorts of torturing instruments including a chain to which he was chained. This chain is a cause of blessing because it was put on the body of the martyr and on it his blood ran. We believe that the things that touch the bodies of saints become a blessing as the bible said about Paul, “So that handkerchiefs or aprons were carried a way from his body to the sick and diseases left them and the evil spirits came out of them,” Acts 19:12. This chain is now found in the central compartments of the shrine through it and by faith a lot of miracles have been taking place. It also wrestles with evil spirits also unclean spirits come out of many who are possessed.”

Elsewhere in the chaplet, a mosaic of St. George.

Another mosaic of St. George, this one with a crown of martyrdom being presented by two angels.

3. Various other Coptic icons of St. George. Note how many feature the pitcher-bearing youth riding with him, and Arabic script, indicating the everyday language of the Copts.

Icon of St. George, St. Shenouda’s Church, Old Cairo.

Icon of St. George, St. Shenouda’s Church, Old Cairo. I confess that I am unclear on who the stripped, bound figure near the dragon is supposed to represent.

Icon of St. George, El Damshiria Church, Old Cairo. I like the appearance of the banner in this one.

Icon of St. George, El Damshiria Church, Old Cairo.

Icon of St. George, Abu Serga Church, Old Cairo. I like the brutalist castle.

Postcard: “Icon of St. George, Al Muallaqah [Hanging Church], Old Cairo.”

Postcard: “The ancient icon of the great martyr St. George inside the internal chamber of the antique shrine, 17th century.”

Postcard: “1. A Coptic icon of the great martyr St. George measuring 61cm x 94cm painted on wood – 19th century A.D. 2. A chain to which St. George was tied during his tortures.”

4. From St. George’s Greek Orthodox Church, Al-Khader, Palestinian Territories.

Map showing location of St. George’s church and monastery, al-Khader, in relation to Beit Jala, Bethlehem, and Jerusalem. Google Maps.

The main entrance to the monastery.

A view of the exterior of the church from the courtyard, and a minaret from the mosque across the street.

The monastery courtyard.

The church as one enters it.

A view of the church’s decoration.

The main icon, George killing the dragon, surrounded by scenes from his martyrdom. Note the lamps in front, and the prayers and offerings behind the glass.

A close-up of the bottom left of the icon above: pictures of people being prayed for.

A close-up of the bottom middle of the icon above: valuables left for St. George in gratitude for prayers answered.

A bank of St. George icons.

A Slavic icon of St. George, given in “By Yuri Father and Yuri Junior and Family in 2014.”

A twinned portrait of Saints George and Demetrius. I’m not exactly sure whom Demetrius is supposed to be killing.

Saint George the soldier-saint, with armor, lance, shield – and bow and quiverful of arrows, something I have never seen him depicted with before.

Saints Eudocimus, Sergius, Keladion, and George.

An inventive depiction of the various tortures, and martyrdom, of St. George.

Elsewhere, one final depiction of St. George and the dragon.

5. Veneration of St. George in Beit Jala and al-Khader.

An arch in al-Khader, with St. George and Palestinian flag.

Close-up of the carving on the arch.

Interior of St. Nicholas’s Greek Orthodox Church, Beit Jala, Palestinian Territories.

Icon of St. George in St. Nicholas’s Church, Beit Jala.

Icon of St. George in St. Nicholas’s Church, Beit Jala.

Statue of St. George and the dragon welcoming visitors to Beit Jala.

Roundel of St. George on a house in Beit Jala.

Plaque of St. George on a house in Beit Jala.

Icon of St. George in a workshop in Beit Jala.

Icons of St. George in a workshop in Beit Jala.

6. From St. George’s Greek Orthodox Church, Lod (Lydda), Israel.

Postcard of a watercolor painting showing the church of St. George. The monastery (obscured) is across the street. The El-Umari mosque is in the foreground on the right.

A photograph of the other side of the street, showing the monastery. Note the flags of Greece and of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem (a red cross of St. George with the tau-phi device on it).

The door to the church.

Immediately to the right of the door as one enters, a bank of candles that pilgrims can light.

Behind the pilgrim in the photo, a stand containing an icon of St. George with his parents…

…and “The Holy and Miracle Working Chain of St. George,” which you can pull out and wrap yourself in.

A pilgrim tries on the chain.

Near the chain stand (you can see it on the left in this photo), a carved wooden stand for a silver icon of St. George, with suspended lamp.

A scanned postcard of the icon above.

To the right of the chain stand as you face it, the main iconostasis of the church.

A scanned postcard of the second icon from the left in the iconostasis, showing all the details of the dragon-slaying legend: Jesus is blessing St. George, while an angel crowns him, and the pitcher-bearer rides in his saddle. The princess, her parents (her father holds out the keys to the city in an act of surrendering to the saint), their castle, and other buildings of the city (bottom right) flesh out the picture. This image also shows a collection of votive offerings to St. George (these were no longer on the icon when I saw it).

Backing up from the iconostasis, and just to the right of the silver icon, we find one of the entrances to the crypt.

And in the crypt, we find the shrine of “St. George the Trophybearer.” This site has existed since antiquity although this particular shrine was sponsored by “Patriarch Cyril” – likely Cyril II of Jerusalem, reigned 1846-72. (This is not my photograph – it is a souvenir plaque given to me by Sister Theophania of St. George’s Convent, Old Cairo.)

A close-up of the mosaic in the crypt, showing St. George in his original aspect as a young, beardless soldier with armor, spear, and shield.

To return to the main nave, in front of the iconostasis, we find this stand, featuring a cabinet containing a blanket, a silver icon containing two relics on either side of a standing St. George, a color icon (reproduced below), and a chalice containing a candle and holy oil.

A scanned postcard of the icon in the stand above. The caption can be translated “Holy Monastery of Saint George in Lydda – Saint George”

A priest imposes holy oil on a pilgrim.

A picture of St. George and the dragon, framed by numerous scenes from his passion and martyrdom.

Another image of St. George and the numerous tortures he endured, scanned from a pamphlet in the church.

Four roundels painted on the ceiling, of Saints Procopius, Demetrius, Stephen, and George. The three warrior saints are dressed as soldiers.

A recently-placed mosaic of St. George, indebted to western iconography, especially with respect to the plate armor and helmet plume.

Finally, a gentle reminder of the Mandatory period.

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My thanks to Alex Nikas for his comments.

Jerusalem

President Trump has announced that that the United States will soon recognize Jerusalem as the capital of the State of Israel, and begin to move the US embassy there. Obviously, this is just a formality – Israelis themselves have long considered Jerusalem their eternal capital, and the Knesset has been there since 1948. This is not how it was supposed to be, of course: the original UN plan was for the city to have an international status, somewhat like Danzig between the wars. But events turned out rather differently: the city ended up divided between Israel and Jordan, and then entirely conquered by Israel in 1967. Many people hold that the Israeli occupation of East Jerusalem is illegal, but possession is 9/10 of the law, so here we are. What makes Trump’s move so provocative is that no other country formally recognizes Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, nor has its embassy there – most are in Tel Aviv, Israel’s most important city otherwise.

Personally, if I were Israeli, I would not want my capital in Jerusalem. This is largely because I don’t believe that Israel is the latest instantiation of the ancient Hebrew monarchy, but a nineteenth-century settler nation, and Tel Aviv is the perfect symbol for this – Jewish settlers built it themselves from scratch, and the city’s population remains predominantly Jewish. I would be very proud of this. Jerusalem, by contrast, belongs to the entire world, which you will discover if you ever get there. Certainly the Old City is only 1/4 Jewish, and East Jerusalem remains predominately Arab. Why bother trying to impose yourself on all this? An international administration would have been most appropriate for the place – too bad it didn’t come to pass. You could say that Tel Aviv is nowhere near as historic or poetic as Jerusalem, but plenty of countries locate their capitals in such functional places, viz. Ankara, Brasilia, or Ottawa.

Here are some photographs I took of Jerusalem in October.

The Damascus Gate, my first view of the Old City. A common way to get from Ben-Gurion airport to Jerusalem is by shared taxi. You just get in the van, and it leaves when it’s full, taking each passenger to his or her destination. Since very few streets in the Old City can accommodate cars, a taxi driver will drop you off at the gate of your choice. (Actually, I had no idea what gate I wanted, so he just chose for me.) I eventually found the Ecce Homo Pilgrim Guesthouse where I had my reservation; I highly recommend this place if you’re ever visiting Jerusalem.

This is the archetypical scene – the Dome of the Rock over the Western Wall. The minaret to the left is called the Bab al-Sisila Minaret and is one of four on the Temple Mount. The elevated walkway is one of the entrances to the Temple Mount – it is only open at certain times, and you have to line up pretty early if you want to get in (I never managed to). You can just make out, beneath it, the divider between the men’s and women’s prayer sections on the Western Wall.

A close-up of some people in the men’s section. A Haredi Jew prays at the wall, while a worker cleans out the papers left between the cracks. An American fellow traveller who could read Hebrew told me that he wasn’t just throwing them in a trash can, but a genizah, that is, a vessel used to store worn-out sacred texts prior to proper burial in a Jewish cemetery.

On Friday evening, a festive mood prevails.

I saw innumerable groups of Christian pilgrims following the Stations of the Cross, from “I. Jesus is Condemned to Death” near the Lion Gate on the Via Dolorosa to “XIV. Jesus is Laid in the Tomb” in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (pictured). Each station has at least a chapel associated with it, and often an entire church. The Holy Sepulchre actually contains the last four stations; it is also famously divided among six Christian denominations by an Ottoman firman of 1853, designated the Status Quo. Each denomination jealously guards its rights, and violence can break out over perceived threats to them; the ladder under the upper window in the photo above is known as the Immovable Ladder since “no cleric of the six ecumenical Christian orders may move, rearrange, or alter any property without the consent of the other five orders.”

(I feel compelled to inject my opinion here that as a historian I am interested in sacred space, but as a Christian I don’t care much for it. Christianity is wherever two or three are gathered together in Christ’s name. Christianity derives from the Bible and Church tradition, and you can have these anywhere. Whenever people designate a particular place or object as being essential to their faith, they are just asking for trouble – what happens when you lose control over it? Your entire life’s purpose then becomes getting it back, at the expense of everything else that matters.)

Some other Christian churches I saw were:

St. Helena’s Coptic Orthodox Church.

The Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, near the Holy Sepulchre. I really liked this one – it was beautifully simple, and had a great courtyard.

St. George’s Anglican Cathedral, outside Herod’s Gate to the north of the Old City. It represents is a little slice of England in the Holy Land. I assume that it was an important religious venue during the Mandatory period.

Interior of the dome of St. Stephen’s Greek Orthodox Church, commemorating the site of the martyrdom of St. Stephen, just outside the Lion Gate to the east of the Old City.

The subterranean Church of the Sepulchre of St. Mary, in the Kidron Valley between the Old City and the Mount of Olives. This one is divided between the Greeks and the Armenians.

On the Mount of Olives, the Roman Catholic Dominus Flevit Church, commemorating the site where Jesus wept over Jerusalem, from Luke 19.

Fittingly, the window of the Dominus Flevit Church provides a great vista of Jerusalem, through Christian eyes.

The Roman Catholic Church of St. Peter in Gallicantu, on the eastern slope of Mount Zion to the south of the Old City. This commemorates the site of St. Peter’s denial of Christ before the cock crowed.

The Benedictine Abbey of the Dormition, to the south of the Old City, commemorating the site of the “falling asleep” of the Virgin Mary (there is a dispute as to whether she actually “died”).

The interior of the Franciscan Monastery of San Salvadore, within the walls of the Old City near the New Gate. I found this one particularly appealing.

In the nearby village of Ein Karem, the Roman Catholic Church of St. John the Baptist, commemorating John’s birthplace.

Not too far away in Ein Karem, the Church of the Visitation, commemorating the site where St. Mary, while pregnant with Jesus, visited her cousin Elizabeth, while she was pregnant with St. John.

While visiting Elizabeth, Mary came out with the Magnificat (“My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my savior…”), recorded in Luke 1:46-55. This passage, in numerous languages, is displayed in the church’s courtyard. (The Church of St. John features the same display, but with the Benedictus, that is, the canticle sung by Zachariah on the occasion of John’s circumcision, from Luke 1:68-79 – “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he hath visited and redeemed his people, and hath raised up a mighty salvation for us, in the house of his servant David,” as the Book of Common Prayer has it.)

***

A bit of trivia: the Greek Orthodox symbol for Jerusalem, I discovered, is a combination of the letters tau (T) and phi (Φ), for taphos, meaning tomb. You see it all over the city. (As it happens I’ve seen this device before in another context: a Dartmouth fraternity, Phi Tau, also uses it.)

The Kidron Valley, to the east of the Old City, is a very popular place for Jewish burials, on the principle that this is where the Messiah will return.

The Ottoman-era Tower of David, just inside the Jaffa Gate. (Alas, I never got inside.)

“Here in the Muristan was situated the first hospital of the knights of St. John of Jerusalem during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. In 1882, the Grand Priory in the British realm of the Most Venerable Order of the hospital of St. John of Jerusalem established an ophthalmic hospital in the Holy City in emulation of the humanitarian and charitable efforts of its mediaeval predecessors.”

Finally, and to return to more mundane concerns: the streets of the Old City are very narrow indeed, and some of them are even covered, giving the occasional impression that you’re in a large indoor mall. This is further emphasized by the what’s on sale in the stores – largely souvenirs, and in the case of this store, t-shirts with American sports team logos but with the name rendered in Hebrew script. This I thought was very clever: simultaneously a souvenir of Israel, and a means of supporting one’s favorite team at home, giving tourists extra reason to buy them.

Christian Remains

In Turkey, I saw exactly one functioning Christian church: St. George’s Cathedral, seat of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople which the Turks, in their generosity, allow to be headquartered in Istanbul. Otherwise, as the result of Islamization in the Middle Ages (detailed by Speros Vyronis in The Decline of Medieval Hellenism in Asia Minor and the Process of Islamization from the Eleventh through the Fifteenth Century) and population transfer (or plain old persecution) in the twentieth century, 99% of Turks consider themselves Muslim, or at least culturally Muslim. Yet at one point Asia Minor was very Christian indeed, and Christian remains abound (although I should say that these are Greek Christian remains – Turkey has attempted to systematically erase any evidence that Armenians ever lived there).

¶ The most famous formerly Christian site, of course, is Istanbul’s Church of the Holy Wisdom (“Hagia Sophia” in Greek, “Ayasofya” in Turkish). This was ordered built by the Emperor Justinian in the 530s, and for almost a thousand years it was the largest Christian church in the world. (Its central dome, too, was the largest until surpassed by Brunelleschi’s dome on Florence Cathedral in 1436.) As the seat of the Eastern Orthodox Church, it was considered especially holy, and decorated accordingly. Procopius describes it as:

distinguished by indescribable beauty, excelling both in its size, and in the harmony of its measures, having no part excessive and none deficient; being more magnificent than ordinary buildings, and much more elegant than those which are not of so just a proportion. The church is singularly full of light and sunshine; you would declare that the place is not lighted by the sun from without, but that the rays are produced within itself, such an abundance of light is poured into this church….

No one ever became weary of this spectacle, but those who are in the church delight in what they see, and, when they leave, magnify it in their talk. Moreover it is impossible accurately to describe the gold, and silver, and gems, presented by the Emperor Justinian, but by the description of one part, I leave the rest to be inferred. That part of the church which is especially sacred, and where the priests alone are allowed to enter, which is called the Sanctuary, contains forty thousand pounds’ weight of silver.

Witnessing his creation, Justinian is said to have proclaimed, “Solomon, I have outdone thee!”

Of course, anything richly endowed will become a target for looters, and Hagia Sophia was pretty much stripped bare by western Crusaders when they sacked Constantinople in 1204. Any replacement decoration was stripped again in 1453, when the Ottomans under Mehmet II conquered Constantinople and converted Hagia Sophia into a mosque, complete with mihrab, minbar, and minarets, and eventually large roundels with the names of Allah, Mohammad, the first four caliphs, and Mohammad’s grandchildren Hassan and Hussein, suspended from the ceiling.

Roundels of Hassan and Hussein, Hagia Sophia Museum, Istanbul.

Hagia Sophia remained a mosque until Atatürk closed it in 1931, and then reopened it in 1935 as a museum. This has allowed archaeologists to uncover some Byzantine mosaics that had been plastered over.

A partial mosaic of the Virgin Mary, Jesus Christ, and John the Baptist, Hagia Sophia Museum, Istanbul.

It seemed to me, when I visited, that the museum’s marketing depends far more on its Christian than its Muslim heritage, but I wonder how much longer it will be before it becomes a mosque again. Following Pope Francis’s acknowledgement of the Armenian Genocide in 2015, protesters gathered outside demanding that Hagia Sophia be recommissioned as a mosque, and the following year Muslim prayers were held there for the first time in 85 years. (Given that there are some 3000 mosques in Istanbul, this does seem a trifle selfish, but it’s certainly in keeping with the times in Turkey.)

(Frankly, as historically significant as the building is, I did not find it that impressive. It’s as though Justinian bit off more than he could chew when he ordered it. Someone mentioned that they’ve been rebuilding it since it was first built – and it’s true, there are all sorts of kludge repairs that you notice when you get to see it up close. Istanbul’s grander mosques, like the Suleyman Mosque or the Blue Mosque, are much more architecturally impressive.)

Elsewhere in Istanbul, we have “Little Hagia Sophia,” a former Byzantine Church commissioned by Justinian and dedicated to Saints Sergius and Bacchus. The Ottomans turned into a mosque and it remains in use as one. You won’t see any Christian decoration, but the style of the columns and the awkwardly placed minbar indicate that it wasn’t originally an Islamic building.

Near Hagia Sophia, one finds Hagia Irene (the Church of the Holy Peace). This church was also built by Justinian, but was not converted for use as a mosque – it became an arsenal for the nearby Topkapı Palace. Since 1980, it has been used as a concert hall on account of its superior acoustics.

Note the cross on the apse, an artifact of the iconoclastic period, which prescribed such simple, symbolic decoration.

The central dome through anti-bird-poop netting.

Chairs, stage, and side aisle.

The most Christian archaeological site that I saw in Istanbul was Chora Church, which was originally a part of a monastery located in the fields (“chora”) outside the walls of Constantinople. Like Hagia Sophia, the Church of the Holy Savior in Chora became a mosque following the Ottoman conquest in 1453, and like Hagia Sophia became a museum in the twentieth century. This allowed the uncovering of a great panoply of mosaics and frescos, far more than they have found in Hagia Sophia. I spent quite a bit of time there transfixed by the beauty of it all.

Christos Pantokator mosaic.

Mosaic of the enrollment for taxation under Governor Quirinius.

View of the esonarthex.

Fresco of four bishops.

Fresco of St. George.

Mosaic of Theodore Metochites presenting a model of Chora Church to an enthroned Christ. Metochites paid for the church’s restoration after the depredations of the Crusaders. Apparently fourteenth-century Byzantines wore turbans.

Mosaic of the wedding at Cana.

I highly recommend Chora Church if you’re visiting Istanbul. Hopefully the restoration work on the nave will be completed before too long and you’ll be able to see that, too.

(My thanks to Stephen Bartlett for telling me about all of these sites.)

¶ In the interior of Turkey, around the city of Nevşehir, is an area designated “Cappadocia” for tourist purposes, so-called after an ancient area of the same name. The distinguishing geographical feature of Cappadocia is its soft volcanic rock that is easily carved into dwellings. Here is the view from my hotel, which itself was carved into a hillside

Cappadocia was the site of a thriving Christian community even prior to the conversion of the Roman Empire; Cappadocia’s relative remoteness and the ability of its inhabitants to create underground cities which could shelter them from persecution were advantageous (this was certainly the case for the subsequent Persian, Arab, and Turkish invasions). The church fathers Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory Nazianzus all hailed from Cappadocia, and one of St. George’s place designators is “St. George of Cappadocia.” (This title, though, was likely transferred to him from another George of Cappadocia, the Arian archbishop of Alexandria in the 360s, who was certainly no saint.)

The main attraction for Christian remains in Cappadocia is the Göreme Open Air Museum, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which features several rock-cut churches and chapels. Some of these were in use up until the expulsion of the Greeks in the 1920s; it’s nice that they have been preserved and not destroyed. Some of the art is gorgeous, although photography is generally forbidden and you have to be surreptitious about it.

I was pleased to snap this one of St. George. My favorite painting showed St. George and St. Theodore sharing a dragon to kill.

Interestingly, many of the churches are decorated in a style deriving from the iconoclastic period, not showing saints, but monochrome drawings of crosses and other geometric designs.

In the afternoon I drove to the Ihlara Valley, which turned out to be over an hour away and in the next province over (the tourist map was not really to scale). But it was certainly worth the trip! I enjoyed hiking along the Melendi River, and exploring any number of rock-cut chapels in the cliffs.

Their decoration was not as well preserved as at Göreme, but certainly captivating.

I spent way too little time in Cappadocia and am hoping for an excuse to return some day.

¶ Selçuk, on the Aegean coast, has a great archaeological museum, but the real attraction is the Roman city of Ephesus, whose ruins are some of the most extensive anywhere. You get a real sense of what it must have been like to live in a Roman city.

Main Street.

Library of Celsus.

Theater.

Ephesus was important to Christian history. St. Paul lived there for two years in the AD 50s, cultivating a Christian community; one of his later letters to this community was canonized as the Epistle to the Ephesians. Visitors can see some vestiges of Christian Ephesus, like these crosses…

…or this eight-spoked wheel, which is supposed to represent all the letters of the word ΙΧΘΥΣ – an acronym for “Jesus, Christ, Son of God, Savior” – lying on top of each other.

Ephesus was one of the seven churches in Asia enumerated in the book of Revelation, and it was the site of the third ecumenical council in 431, which affirmed the Nicene Creed and the acceptability of designating the Virgin Mary Theotokos (as opposed to merely Christotokos). I saw the remains of the church of St. Mary where this council took place, although the sun was in the wrong place for any pictures.

Sadly, I did not get to see the cave of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus, the House of the Virgin Mary, or the Basilica of St. John. Next time!

Mosques

Some notes:

• The Muslim worship space, of course, is called a mosque. It is essentially an empty room, which can be as small as the living room in a suburban tract house, or as large as a minor-league hockey arena. The floor is usually carpeted, and larger mosques feature large chandeliers that are suspended from the ceiling all the way down to about ten feet off the floor.

Interior, Prince’s Mosque, Istanbul.

Interior, Süleymaniye Mosque, Istanbul.

• Generally you’ll know it’s a mosque by the presence of one or more minarets – tall “steeples” that rise from the corners of the building. The number is significant, although I do not know the precise reason why some mosques warrant more minarets than others. Historically, the müezzin would climb up one of the minarets to issue the adhan – that is, the call to prayer, which is done five times a day. Nowadays, he gives the adhan over a PA system, connected to loudspeakers on the minarets. Turkish minarets are generally tall, round, and thin, while Egyptian ones tend to be squatter, and can be square or octagonal in shape.

Sultan Ahmed (“Blue”) Mosque, Istanbul.

Mosque, Necmettin Erbakan Square, Ankara.

Mosque of Qani-Bay, Cairo.

Islamic Cairo.

• Mosques can also be signified by the presence of a dome over the main structure. In Turkey, most mosques follow the pattern established by Hagia Sophia, where a large, central dome over the main room has a circle of windows along the base to let in light. Also like Hagia Sophia, several half-domes can “cascade” down from the central one.

Süleymaniye Mosque, Istanbul.

Interior, Sultan Ahmet Mosque, Istanbul.

In Egypt, domes can be smaller, more vertical in shape and/or not centrally placed.

Mosque of Mahmoudiyah, Cairo.

Mosque of Umm Sultan Shaaban, Cairo.

• Usually there is some means of making ritual ablutions on the way in – in the grander mosques there is an entire front courtyard with an ablution block devoted to this function.

Yeni Cami (New Mosque), Istanbul.

Outside Süleymaniye Mosque, Istanbul.

Muhammad Ali Mosque, Cairo.

Islamic Cairo.

• Some mosques, however, consist of nothing more than large courtyards, with the “room” for prayer simply a deep colonnade on the far side as you walk in. I believe they are known as Persian style mosques. The Al-Hakim Mosque in Cairo is one such.

Al-Hakim Mosque, Cairo.

• “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground,” God commands Moses in the Book of Exodus. Muslims retain this tradition; one must always remove one’s shoes before setting foot inside a mosque. (In fact, I would highly recommend wearing sandals or loafers if you are going to be visiting a number of mosques in a given day – constantly having to retie your shoes gets old rather quickly.) 

• But that’s not all: modest dress is required in other ways, too. (Not to worry, they’ll lend you a headscarf and/or a wrap-around skirt if you’re dressed immodestly.)

• In large mosques that tourists want to see, there is generally a viewing area at the back of the central room. Only men who wish to pray are allowed to go further. (Women who wish to pray are granted their own area, usually at the back of the mosque, and behind a screen.)

• On the opposite wall once you enter are two features you can’t miss: the mihrab and the minbar. The mihrab is nothing more than a niche in the wall, indicating the qibla, that is, the direction towards Mecca and thus the direction one faces for prayer. The minbar, usually to the right of the mihrab, is a pulpit from which the imam gives a sermon following the Friday noon prayers. It consists of a staircase going straight up; it doesn’t look like your average church pulpit.

Mihrab and minbar, Elvançelebi mosque, Çorum Province, Turkey.

Mihrab, Vasat Atik Ali Pasha Mosque, Istanbul.

Minbar, Hagia Sophia, Istanbul.

Mihrab and minbar, Gazi Atik Ali Pasha Mosque, Istanbul.

Minbar, Molla Ferani Cami, Istanbul.

Mihrab and minbar, Sahib Ata Mosque, Konya.

Mihrab and minbar, Sultan Hassan Mosque, Cairo.

Mihrab and minbar, mosque of Al-Nasser Mohammed Ibn Kalawoun, Cairo.

• Mosques famously do not feature sculpture or (much) representational art, in keeping with the monotheistic prohibition of images. This means that their decoration consists of intricate designs or texts from the Koran. (In Turkey, these are often rendered on tiles.) I’m certain that there are art historians who would be able to delineate the history and meaning of all of these…

• As far as I can tell mosques do not have the same connection with burial that Christian churches have traditionally had, but some mosques do have cemeteries outside of them, or outbuildings that serve as mausolea for important people.

Outside Süleymaniye Mosque, Istanbul.

Sultan Süleyman Turbesi, outside Süleymaniye Mosque, Istanbul.

Şehzadeler Türbesi (“Prince’s Tomb”), outside Hagia Sophia, Istanbul.

• But just as it was meritorious, in Catholic Europe, to sponsor the building of a church, so also it was meritorious to sponsor a mosque – thus the multiplicity of mosques in Istanbul and in Cairo, which may not have been justified by the population numbers. But as to who owns the title to the mosques, or who is responsible for their upkeep, or who appoints the imam… these things, at present, I do not know.

Christianity

Early Christianity offered its adherents contact with the divine, community with fellow believers, and the promise of eternal life in heaven. But the religion was suspicious to the Romans for a number of reasons:

• It was not classy: it was a novelty (Romans respected antiquity in religion), and attractive to those on the lower end of the social pyramid, e.g. slaves, women, and merchants. Plus, they worshiped an executed criminal! As I like to say, it was like Scientology without the celebrities.

• Christians also met privately in people’s homes for their religious rituals. What were they up to? Romans practiced their religion in public, and the Twelve Tables forbade people meeting at night. If Christians had nothing to hide, then surely they wouldn’t be so secretive? It may have been a caricature of anti-Christian sentiment, but the notions of one Caecilius Natalis, a character in the Octavius of Minicius Felix (d. ca. 250), probably reflect a certain strain of opinion:

I hear that they adore the head of an ass, that basest of creatures, consecrated by I know not what silly persuasion, a worthy and appropriate religion for such manners. Some say that they worship the genitals of their pontiff and priest, and adore the nature, as it were, of their common parent. I know not whether these things are false; certainly suspicion is applicable to secret and nocturnal rites…

Now the story about the initiation of young novices is as much to be detested as it is well known. An infant covered over with meal, that it may deceive the unwary, is placed before him who is to be stained with their rites: this infant is slain by the young pupil, who has been urged on as if to harmless blows on the surface of the meal, with dark and secret wounds. Thirstily – O horror! they lick up its blood; eagerly they divide its limbs. By this victim they are pledged together; with this consciousness of wickedness they are covenanted to mutual silence.

You can see how the liturgical consumption of bread and wine, designated the “body” and “blood” of Jesus, might lead to this accusation of ritual murder and cannibalism. (Ironically, Christians would accuse Jews of doing much the same thing during the Middle Ages.)

• Perhaps most important, the religion was monotheistic. Or rather – Christians claimed to be monotheists, and spent a good deal of mental energy attempting to save this particular appearance, even though their God had three different aspects in a complex relationship. But they were not tolerant of any other gods, and unlike the Romans, who were religiously broad-minded and instinctively syncretic, Christians refused to acknowledge even the possibility that other deities existed. The Romans, for their part, could not understand this. They didn’t care what you actually believed; participating in the state sacrifices was like standing for the national anthem. Just do it! Then go and do whatever else you want. But when Jupiter looks down and sees that not all the people in the city are honoring him, he might get cranky and punish it. So Christianity was sporadically persecuted by the Roman authorities, not because of anything that the Christians believed, but because of their refusal to participate in the state sacrifices. They represented a security risk.

But in one of the most remarkable reversals in history, Emperor Constantine (306-337) called it all off (his predecessor in office, Emperor Diocletian, was a particularly enthusiastic persecutor of Christians). Constantine’s mother was a Christian, and the Battle of Milvian Bridge (312) sealed the deal: he claimed that God gave him the victory, so he became the patron and protector of Christianity over the course of his long reign. Not only that, but he established a Christian dynasty; following Constantine, all emperors were Christian (except for Julian the Apostate, who reigned for only two years in the 360s). Thus, over the course of the fourth century, the Roman Empire was increasingly Christianized, and its traditional paganism increasingly denigrated. The two classic documents to illustrate this trend are Edict of Toleration of 313, which granted protection to Christians and restored their expropriated property, and the Theodosian Code of 380, which essentially outlawed paganism.

Needless to say, this shift profoundly changed the Roman Empire. But it also changed Christianity – for good and for ill. If nothing else, Christians had to go from hating the empire to defending it, which was psychologically discombobulating. They had to imagine that the conversion of the empire was all part of God’s plan all along. Now it is safe to say that this phenomenon is why Christianity exists today. If the conversion had not occurred, Christianity may very well have gone the way of Mithraism or the cult of Isis. So some people see the conversion of the Empire as a profound triumph. Others see it as an example of someone gaining the world but losing his own soul. In the third century, there were certain benefits to being a Christian, but you stood a very real chance of dying for your faith if you became one. So you had to mean it. Now that Christianity had the backing of the state, people started to convert opportunistically, and so it lost some of its fervor. You didn’t need to be a Christian to get a job with Constantine, but it sure helped. So people became Christians, but did they really mean it? At the same time, Constantine may have been Christian, but he was still the emperor, meaning that he had to do all the political things that emperors do, like executing criminals, waging war, cheating people to reward others, etc. Like a political party out of power, at one point Christians could afford to be ideologically pure, but once they got their hands on power, they needed to make all sorts of compromises. (Right from the start! Does the God of the Christians really make his will known by the results of battles?)

Some other effects of the conversion of the fourth century include:

• A concern with orthodoxy (“correct belief”). The longer that Christianity went on, and the wider it spread, the more likely it was that different people would adopt different opinions about what it all meant. When the state was persecuting Christians, these differences were of secondary importance, but once the state started to favor Christians, they immediately started sniping at each other and jockeying for position. Constantine, embarrassed by this, personally called the Council of Nicaea (325) to sort out the question of whether “there was a time when Jesus was not.” (Answer: No! Don’t be fooled by the titles “God the Father” and “God the Son” – the one did not give rise to the other, as the names would suggest; both of them, along with the Holy Spirit, existed from before all time.) Since Christianity is not tied to a particular ethnic group, there is nothing to distinguish the Christian from the non-Christian except belief, expressed through the Creed (from credo, “I believe”). Christianity acted like Communism, with a party line that you had to adhere to. If you didn’t, you were a heretic (from the Greek word for “choice,” which was invariably a wrong choice). The early Christians did not “celebrate diversity” the way we do – “following the devices and desires of our own hearts” will lead straight to Hell, and people need firm guidance to in order avoid it. Other opinions declared heretical around this time included Pelagianism (the idea that you can work your own salvation), Donatism (the idea that the sinfulness of a priest renders the communion he performs inoperative), and Monophysitism (the idea that Jesus had only one divine nature while on earth, instead of two).

• A concern with theology. When educated pagans converted to Christianity, they were appalled at its intellectual poverty. Thus did St. Augustine (354-430) and other so-called Doctors of the Church attempt to provide some philosophical heft to the religion. Augustine’s City of God, for instance, provided a Christian interpretation of all world history. In one of his letters to the Corinthians, St. Paul had declared that the world’s wisdom was foolishness. After the fourth century, this was no longer the case.

• A reimagining of the concept of sainthood. At the very start, I understand, Christians called each other “saint” (“holy”) in the same way that Communists used to call each other “comrade.” Members of the LDS church still adhere to this custom. Soon the title was reserved for martyrs: people who had been witnesses for their faith, even unto death. Martyrdom was a one-way ticket to heaven and martyrs were hugely prestigious for the Christian communities that produced them. Tertullian said that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church”; a more contemporary way of putting this would be “You can’t win, Darth. If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.” But with the conversion of the empire, there were no more martyrs being created. Some people felt relieved about this, I’m sure. Others were deeply disappointed, as though they were always hoping to achieve this happy state. The disappearance of martyrdom did not lead to a withering of the concept of sainthood, however: other servants of the church like competent and well-loved bishops, generous church patrons, or learned theologians could all became saints, and did.

• The advent of the intercessory power of sainthood. With the conversion of the empire, it was easy to figure heaven as parallel to the imperial court. Just as a supplicant could not approach the emperor directly, but had to go through one of his courtiers, so also Christians started to think that it was presumptuous to pray directly to God. It was much better to go through a saint, who was in heaven with God and who had his attention, but who had once been human and was familiar with human concerns. The saint could pass your prayer on to God; he might even be deputized to answer prayer himself. Thus did certain saints come to exercise particular competencies, which were often suggested by details from their lives: if St. Lawrence was executed on a gridiron, he could become the patron saint of cooks; if St. Lucy had her eyes gouged out, you should pray to her if you’re experiencing eye trouble.

• An emphasis on relics and pilgrimage. Some people claim that the Christian veneration of relics (the bones of saints, and other things they left behind) grew out of the pagan cult of heroes. Indeed, there is an interesting story in book one of the Histories of Herodotus, when the Spartans asked the Oracle at Delphi whether they should go to war again against Tegea, and the Oracle replied they should acquire the bones of Orestes, son of Agamemnon – which they did, and which helps to explain the Spartan advantage in war. But the pagans were nowhere near as obsessed with relics as Christians were, and to my mind the Christian interest in relics derives from their doctrine of the resurrection of the dead – in the Last Days, the dead will be raised for the final judgment. Saints retained a certain connection with their earthy remains, which Christians treated with the utmost respect. (All the same, I suppose the notion of relics holding power would be something that a newly-converted pagan would understand.) Prayers to saints were particularly effective in the presence of these relics, so people would sometimes travel long distances to make their requests (or to give thanks for prayers already answered). This is known as pilgrimage and it was a distinctive feature of medieval Christianity.

• The rise of monasticism. If martyrdom was no longer an option, some people tried to become ascetic “living martyrs.” The entire empire was ostensibly Christian, but it was just as bad as it ever was, so some people wanted to withdraw from it. St. Anthony (d. ca. 356) was one such – he withdrew into the Egyptian desert, ate as little as possible, and prayed full time to God. (Unfortunately for him, he achieved such a reputation for holiness that he attracted great throngs of people seeking his advice.) His performance was designated “eremitical” monasticism, and it inspired numerous other people hoping to reach the same level of holiness. Not everyone was quite as dedicated as Anthony, however, and eventually some of these desert fathers began pooling their efforts – one person went to look for food, while the others stayed behind to pray or do other tasks. This represents the beginning of “cenobitical” monasticism, which achieved its most celebrated form in The Rule, a blueprint for establishing a community of monks, by St. Benedict of Nursia (480-547). Monks, especially Benedictine monks, became a regular feature of life throughout the medieval west.

Needless to say intercessory sainthood, relics, pilgrimage, and monasticism are not endorsed by the Bible and as a consequence were rejected by most Protestants in the sixteenth century. A lot of them were skeptical of the conversion of the empire.

Science

The usual case study to illustrate the Scientific Revolution is the triumph of heliocentrism. As you are no doubt aware, at one point learned opinion held that the Earth sat immobile at the center of the universe, with the Moon, the Sun, all the planets, and all the stars moving around it. This was a view endorsed by Aristotle, and by Ptolemy (AD 100-170), and it fit well with medieval theology: it’s not that we placed ourselves self-importantly at the center of all creation, but that we are sitting at the bottom of a sewer. We’re still one level up from Hell, but on Earth, the place where the four elements interact, things change and decay. One level up from the earth, the Lunar Sphere, is where things are perfect, formed as they are from the fifth element, quintessence. Keep on ascending and eventually you get to the realm of the angels and God himself. And anyway, the Earth appears immobile. There’s no great rushing wind, and no observable parallax either – if we were moving around the Sun, the stars would be moving in relation to each other (that they are so far away that there could be no observable parallax did not occur to anyone).

The trouble is that Ptolemy’s model didn’t quite work. The planets were never exactly where they should have been. Astronomers assumed that it was a result of faulty manuscript transmission but with the Renaissance and its mania for uncovering original texts, people discovered that Ptolemy was the originator of the bad data. (Another thing that they discovered is that not everyone was a geocentrist – the ancient Greek philosopher Aristarchus had proposed a heliocentric universe in the third century BC.) Finally, the discovery of the New World threw Ptolemy’s model even further into question. Ptolemy had proposed that the earthly realm consisted of four concentric spheres of earth, water, air, and fire. The first two weren’t quite aligned, however: the Earth should be completely covered by water, but part of it poked out above the water. This was the land – or rather, the three continents of Europe, Asia, and Africa, which themselves were in balance with each other. The discovery of the Americas illustrated that this theory was completely wrong. And if Ptolemy was wrong about that, what else was he wrong about?

Thus did the Polish astronomer Nicholas Copernicus publish De revolutionibus orbium coelestium in 1543, proposing an immobile sun at the center of the universe, with the apparent daily rotation of the stars the product of the Earth’s own axial rotation. All the planets, including the Earth, revolved around the Sun, with the Moon revolving around the Earth. De revolutionibus featured a preface claiming that it was “only a model,” but we now think that Copernicus himself was a genuine heliocentrist. This model didn’t quite work either, but it was simpler in many ways.

Heliocentrism thus became the scientific Big Idea of the sixteenth century, shared among certain scholars and derided as crazy by others – not only Catholics, but also Protestants like Luther and Calvin. After all, did Joshua not command the sun to stand still, and it stood still? Does not Chronicles state that “the world stands firm, never to be moved”? You can’t treat scripture as the foundation of your faith and not heed verses like these.

Galileo (1564-1642) wasn’t buying it. He was a heliocentrist anyway, and his use of the telescope to gaze at the heavens provided further evidence for a Sun-centered universe. Most famously, he discovered the four largest “Galilean” moons of Jupiter, proving that one could have “nested” revolutions (that the Moon went around the Earth, while the Earth itself went around the Sun, was a stumbling block to some people). He also observed sunspots on the Sun and craters on the Moon – in other words, “out there” was not perfect, but apparently made of the same stuff found “down here.” Galileo famously got into hot water with the Inquisition – no, he was not persecuted primarily for his belief in heliocentrism, but for his intemperate attacks on the Pope and the Church (which was rather touchy anyway on account of all the Protestants running around). But Galileo was forced to publicly recant his heliocentrism and spent the rest of his life under house arrest.

This was not enough to discourage further investigation. Tycho Brahe (1546-1601) was a Danish nobleman who took detailed and accurate observations of the heavens over a twenty-year period, and his German student Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) used the data to formulate the laws of planetary motion. Kepler discovered that planetary orbits are elliptical (with the sun at one of the “foci”) and that planets vary in speed as they travel. Again, this violates the principle of the “perfect” heavens: orbits are supposed to be perfectly circular, and speeds uniform. Once Kepler accurately described planetary orbits, astronomers could get rid of the epicycle – an orbit within an orbit invented to describe the apparent backward motion of some planets at times. Now, they realized, it was merely a function of variable speeds as the Earth “overtook” some other planet.

The capstone of this narrative is Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1726), who provided mathematical proof that gravity, the same force drawing things towards the Earth, is the exact same force keeping the planets going around the Sun. In one fell swoop, Newton explained all the motion in the universe, and got God out of it at the same time. Not that Newton was an atheist – he believed that only a divine mind could come up with something so elegant. But the planets no longer needed angels to make them move. Newton’s work was so culturally significant that it launched the Enlightenment – people believed that, using their reason, they could find other immutable laws that underlay other phenomena.

This, in a nutshell, is my lecture on the Scientific Revolution. Of course, I try to emphasize that it’s not a continuous narrative of Progress, that the whole thing was never foreordained, that there were all sorts of blind alleys to explore, that these scientists were human and prone to error and pettiness, etc. Furthermore, the heliocentric revolution did not even involve experimentation, an essential component of the scientific method, although it did involve accurate data collection and testable hypotheses. But one idea really did lead to another, and now we have a pretty accurate picture of the solar system (we can no longer claim that it is the entire universe). We can send spacecraft to explore these celestial bodies, and they seem to arrive and send useful data back to us.

I feel compelled to write this post today because this issue is still with us. We all hail Galileo as a martyr for the truth, and the whole episode remains deeply embarrassing for the RC Church. But the conflict between scripture and science remains when it comes to explaining the origins of life. The theory of evolution through natural selection, first formulated by Charles Darwin and refined ever since, is one of the great ideas that shaped the modern world – and unlike, say, Marxism and Freudianism, it retains its utility. It is, indeed, the foundation of the modern discipline of biology. Unfortunately, this theory’s explanation for the diversity of life on Earth contradicts the accounts given in Genesis 1 and 2, the opening chapters of the Jewish Torah, which Christians retain as part of their scriptures. Many Christians, especially around these parts, insist on the literal truth of scripture – certainly of the opening chapters, which explain the origin of everything, spelled out in a certain amount of detail. Thus has a certain type of Christian invested a great deal of mental energy in saving the appearances, of shoehorning all physical evidence into an explanatory theory that is in accord with the book of Genesis (including not only Creation, but also the idea that “in those days there were giants” and of the Flood – did you know that the Grand Canyon came about as a result of this?). The most recent example, and one that was breathlessly recommended to me by several people, is the movie Is Genesis History? which was shown last week in select cinemas. It was so successful that two more dates have been announced. Act now!

Part of me respects how Christians (and/or conservatives) have created this parallel media universe to get around the liberal possession of the commanding heights of culture. But I really wish they’d focus on stuff that’s true – or at least useful. Needless to say, this deliberate obtuseness is one of the worst advertisements for Christianity right now. One might understand evangelical opposition to same-sex marriage or abortion as matters of opinion – but to a falsifiable scientific theory, in accord with 150 years of data, in favor of some iron-age mythology? Is it any wonder that coastal Americans look down on the denizens of flyover country?

All I can say is that I’m really glad that the Bible does not overtly contradict other modern scientific discoveries, like the circulation of blood, the existence of microbes, Boyle’s Law, or the periodic table.

Templars

Crusade historian Christopher Tyerman once wrote that:

The Templars occupy a prominent place in the pantheon of Alternative History of the ‘what they have tried to conceal from us’ genre, championed by obsessive, swivel-eyed anoraks and conspiracy theorists allied to cool money sharks bent on the commercial exploitation of public credulity.

Now I wouldn’t put it quite that way, but it’s true: like the Bermuda Triangle, the lost continent of Atlantis, and the Nazca Lines, the Templars do tend to attract a good deal of Speculation. The Templars, or more formally “The Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon,” were founded as a religious order in 1119 in the Crusader kingdom of Jerusalem. Like the crusading movement itself, they represented “a fusion of Christian and military practice” – that is, the members took vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, but instead of praying eight times a day and copying out manuscripts like monks, they practiced horsemanship, guarded pilgrims to the Holy Land, and fought Muslims as they needed to, like knights. (This is definitely a novelty – prior to the late eleventh century the Church did not like knighthood much, but after numerous unsuccessful attempts at regulating it, the Church threw in the towel, and gave it their blessing – but only if the knights exercised their craft far from Europe, and against non-Christians. Thus were they allowed to organize themselves into religious orders.) What attracts everyone’s attention is the Templars’ sordid end: in 1312, King Philip IV of France accused them of heresy, tortured confessions out of the leadership, and prevailed on Pope Clement V to dissolve the order, after which many of them were burned at the stake. But some of the Templars, it is alleged, escaped and “went underground,” later to emerge as the Freemasons. Some of them even sailed to the New World before Columbus, which is why the fifteenth-century Rosslyn Chapel in Scotland, built by supposed crypto-Templar William Sinclair, features carvings of new world corn. One author claims they buried treasure in the Oak Island Money Pit off Nova Scotia. A student of mine once lent me a book suggesting that the Shroud of Turin actually depicts an image, not of Jesus, but of the martyred Templar Grand Master Jacques de Molay. A character in Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code asserts that the Templars, while in the Holy Land, had uncovered evidence that the Papacy was a con job, and that the leadership of the true Church belonged to the descendants of Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene – which is why the Pope was so keen to eradicate them.

And so on.

I tell my students that history is interesting enough without concocting such theories. The real history of the Templars touches on several late-medieval themes – among them the rising power of the king of France (at the expense of the papacy), and the desire to find a scapegoat for the loss of the Holy Land (Acre, the last Christian stronghold there, had fallen in 1291). But what it touches on the most is the money one could make as a result of the medieval commercial revolution – and the envy this provoked in others. The Templars were not just active in the Holy Land – they had chapters throughout Western Christendom (their churches were usually round, and you can visit one in London). Templars got into long-distance banking – and made a fortune, so much so that their formal title of “Poor Knights,” and their seal showing two knights riding a single horse, became ironic.

Seal_of_Templars

Wikipedia.

A BBC article, which my friend Chris Berard points me to, explores this history in greater detail. Author Tim Harford claims that they “invented modern banking.”

The Templars dedicated themselves to the defence of Christian pilgrims to Jerusalem. The city had been captured by the first crusade in 1099 and pilgrims began to stream in, travelling thousands of miles across Europe.

Those pilgrims needed to somehow fund months of food and transport and accommodation, yet avoid carrying huge sums of cash around, because that would have made them a target for robbers.

Fortunately, the Templars had that covered. A pilgrim could leave his cash at Temple Church in London, and withdraw it in Jerusalem. Instead of carrying money, he would carry a letter of credit. The Knights Templar were the Western Union of the crusades.

We don’t actually know how the Templars made this system work and protected themselves against fraud. Was there a secret code verifying the document and the traveller’s identity?

They did more than this, however:

Templars were much closer to a private bank – albeit one owned by the Pope, allied to kings and princes across Europe, and run by a partnership of monks sworn to poverty.

The Knights Templar did much more than transferring money across long distances.

As William Goetzmann describes in his book Money Changes Everything, they provided a range of recognisably modern financial services.

If you wanted to buy a nice island off the west coast of France – as King Henry III of England did in the 1200s with the island of Oleron, north-west of Bordeaux – the Templars could broker the deal.

Henry III paid £200 a year for five years to the Temple in London, then when his men took possession of the island, the Templars made sure that the seller got paid.

And in the 1200s, the Crown Jewels were kept at the Temple as security on a loan, the Templars operating as a very high-end pawn broker.

Harford goes on to say that Philip IV owed money to the Templars, and didn’t like how they operated beyond his control, and so contrived to dissolve them. But I can’t help but think there was even more at stake here. Lester Little’s Religious Poverty and the Profit Economy in Medieval Europe (1983) talks about how money made people very anxious in the Middle Ages, especially the “money from nothing” that one could get from currency exchange, lending at interest, or taking advantage of scarcity to sell at a premium. Charging more money than the “just price” for something was uncharitable and un-Christian, and if you made any extra-normal profits at all the only way to expiate your sin would be to give it all to the Church. (This helps to explain all those elaborate late medieval “wool churches” in East Anglia, and it also helps to explain the increased anti-Semitism of the High Middle Ages – Jews were increasingly shut out of various professions, leaving them in the role of the hated money lender.) It’s true that the Templars were themselves a church organization, but I suspect that just made it worse.

As unfair as their end was, however, it happened. “Templar” groups today are somewhat disreputable – at least, they have no institutional continuity with their medieval namesake. If you’re interested in joining a crusading order, try the Hospitallers, the Templars’ main rivals in the Middle Ages, who do enjoy continuity and who are thus much classier.

Another RU Blog

My colleague across the hall, Aquiles Martinez, has publicly unveiled Encounters with the Sacred, a blog for Reinhardt’s religion program (he has been authoring it since last August). A sample post:

Any formal study of religion or religions must begin with a clear understanding of the subject matter, namely, what religion is.  And and yet this task is not as easy as it seems because in any society the meaning of words is not absolute or fixed; it is as fluid as its interpretations and applications.

Although the majority of the population of the world continues to identify themselves with a religion, on the basis of some implicit and unmeasured understandings of religion, especially when it comes to answering polls, over the years religious scholars have struggled with the meaning of the term religion, or even with the essential, common traits that would lead them to classify individuals or groups under that label.

Adopting different points of view and using methodologies of analysis that embody different human experiences, many scholars have concluded that a single, definitive definition of religion is neither possible nor advisable.  Since it is a social construct that reflects diversity of perceptions and thoughts, it is up to any person to decide what it means and for others to try to understand these definitions in their corresponding contexts.  And yet a work-in-progress definition of religion is possible, necessary, and desirable, at least to name the subject matter and start a conversation that would elicit a wide range of qualifications, exceptions to the rule, and even critiques.

Recognizing that there is no such a thing as value-free, final definition and that, at the same time, religion is something that average people primarily experience or live and hardly ever stop to formally define it, much less to take into account the ideas of others to see where they all coincide, how could we, then, define religion?

Read on at the link.

Martin Luther

From the Economist, via Tim Furnish:

How Martin Luther has shaped Germany for half a millennium

The 500th anniversary of the 95 theses finds a country as moralistic as ever

SET foot in Germany this year and you are likely to encounter the jowly, dour portrait of Martin Luther. With more than 1,000 events in 100 locations, the whole nation is celebrating the 500th anniversary of the monk issuing his 95 theses and (perhaps apocryphally) pinning them to the church door at Wittenberg. He set in motion a split in Christianity that would forever change not just Germany, but the world.

At home, Luther’s significance is no longer primarily theological. After generations of secularisation, not to mention decades of official atheism in the formerly communist east (which includes Wittenberg), Germans are not particularly religious. But the Reformation was not just about God. It shaped the German language, mentality and way of life. For centuries the country was riven by bloody confessional strife; today Protestants and Catholics are each about 30% of the population. But after German unification in the 19th century, Lutheranism won the culture wars. “Much of what used to be typically Protestant we today perceive as typically German,” says Christine Eichel, author of “Deutschland, Lutherland”, a book about Luther’s influence.

Click on the link to see if you agree.