Friday, December 25, 2015

The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem

Today Christians remember the birth of Christ in the city of Bethlehem.

Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem
According to Christian traditions, 2,015 years ago Joseph of Nazareth and his pregnant wife Maria, went to Bethlehem, the birthplace of Joseph, in order to comply with a Roman edict to register for a census. They found the city of Bethlehem full to overflowing, and were unable to finding a room in either in an inn or the home of Joseph’s relatives. In consequence, they lodged in the cave behind the residence of Joseph’s family in which, as was common at the time, livestock and stores were kept.  (To this day, this is a custom in the region.) Here Mary gave birth to a son, Jesus. 

At the time of his birth Jesus was not of particular importance, hence his birthplace was not in any way noted, marked or honored. It was only after he had died that some of his followers sought to locate the place where he had been born. However, as this was within the living memory of many of his friends and family, it is not improbable that the house in which Joseph and Mary had stayed--and the stables attached to it--could be accurately identified.   

Following the Jewish uprising of 132-135, Hadrian ordered Roman temples erected on top of all Jewish and Christian holy sites. Over the cave in Bethlehem, revered by the small but significant Christian community still resident in Palestine, a temple to Adonis was built. Although certainly an insult to Christians of the time, it was a fortuitous development for later generations since it effectively marked a location that might otherwise have been lost from memory.

In 312, Constantine became Roman Emperor and raised his mother Helena to the rank of Empress. Helena had converted to Christianity and within a year of coming to power, Constantine issued an edict that ended the persecution of Christians.  Thereafter and throughout his reign, Constantine was to protect and serve as a patron of the Christian church, without, however, fully suppressing pagan rites.   

Emperor Constantine - Wall Mosaic in Hagia Sophia, Istanbul (Constantinople)

Helena, however, had been an early convert to Christianity and after her son’s rise to ultimate power, she traveled to Palestine in search of the sites of Christ’s passion. According to Christian traditions, she located the site of the crucifixion, excavated the cross on which Christ had been crucified, and also found the tomb in which Christ had been buried. While her son commissioned the construction of a church over the Holy Grave (the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem), Helena is credited with commissioning the construction of a church on the site of Christ’s birth to replace the temple to Adonis.

Helena’s church was a five-aisled basilica, the mosaics of which are still visible to this day. However, in  529, this church was destroyed in a revolt by the Samaritans.

In 540, Emperor Justinian I sponsored the construction of a new basilica over the foundations of the old that stood over and incorporated the cave in which Christ had been born. When Palestine was overrun by the Persians in 614, they destroyed all the churches and monasteries, including Constantine’s church over the Holy Sepulcher — except the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. This was because over the portal of the church was a mosaic depicting the adoration of the magi or Three Wise Men in which the magi were depicted wearing “oriental” robes.  Based on their dress, Persians invaders recognized the figures in the mosaic as Persian priests; out of respect for their own priests they spared the church.  It is this church that can still be found in Bethlehem today, although the mosaic that saved it from destruction has itself since been lost.

In 640, Bethlehem fell to the forces of the Muslim Caliph Omar. Omar, rather than destroying the Church of the Nativity, used it as a place of prayer.  Thereafter, parts of the church complex were reserved for Muslim worship. This preserved the church from destruction by less tolerant Muslim leaders such as Caliph el-Hakim, who demolished the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. 

When the Crusaders reached Palestine in 1099, they took possession of Bethlehem before launching the assault on Jerusalem. In contrast to the seizure of Jerusalem that ended with a blood-bath, there is no mention of violence or massacre in Bethlehem, probably because the town was neither walled nor defended. It is also suggested in some sources that the population of Bethlehem was still predominantly Christian when the crusaders arrived

With the establishment of the Christian Kingdom of Jerusalem, Bethlehem became the seat of a bishop. It remained part of the royal domain, however, and Baldwin of Bouillon was crowned the first King of Jerusalem in the Church of the Nativity. A tradition followed by his successor, Baldwin II, but not subsequent kings, who preferred to be crowned in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. 

Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Jerusalem
The Church of the Nativity became the second most important pilgrimage destination in the Christian world after the Holy Sepulcher itself.  As Christian pilgrims flooded to the Holy Land, the city of Bethlehem enjoyed an economic boom. This was supplemented by massive investments on the part of the crusader kings to restore a church that was a state of significant disrepair when the crusaders arrived. Especially under King Baldwin III and King Amalric I, both of whom were married to Byzantine princesses (Theodora and Maria Comnena respectively), the restoration work was carried out by artists with very high levels of sophistication and influenced by Byzantine traditions. The most extensive mosaics from the crusader period are found in the Church of the Nativity, and 28 frescos dating from the 12th century can still be identified.  Furthermore, under Christian rule, religious orders were re-established in the Holy Land and a beautiful Romanesque cloister was built adjacent to the Church of the Nativity which can still be visited today. 

Crusader Mosaics at the Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem

All that ended with the devastating defeat of the Christian army at Hattin on July 4, 1187.  Bethlehem had no defenses and no defenders. It fell without a fight to the army of Saladin, and, except for a brief interval from 1229 to 1244, it remained in Muslim hands until it came under the British Protectorate in 1920. Under the various Muslim leaders, Bethlehem became impoverished again. In 1516, the town had only 100 inhabitants! Meanwhile, the church fell into increasing disrepair. The marble wall panels were ripped out to be used in other construction. In 1646 the tin roof was torn off and melted down for other purposes. The Church would almost certainly have become a complete ruin had not in 1670 the Greek Orthodox church set out to restore the church with the tolerance of the Ottoman rulers.

Unfortunately, the 18th and 19th centuries saw a bitter fight between the Greek Orthodox, the Roman Catholic and the Armenian churches for control of the Church of the Nativity. Meanwhile, earthquakes, fires and uprisings damaged both the church and the town of Bethlehem. In 1920 Bethlehem came under British administration, and in 1948 fell to Jordan. In 1963, the city numbered roughly 60,000 mostly Christian inhabitants, but the number fell dramatically after Israeli occupation. Today, Bethlehem suffers visibly from the political situation and the tensions between Palestinians and Israelis.   

The Fortress-like Construction seems sadly appropriate. Palestinian Terrorists held nuns, priests and tourists hostage here in April 2002.
Nevertheless it is still worth a visit today. To be sure, the mosaic mural depicting the adoration of the magi that saved the Church from Persian destruction has been lost, but St. Helena’s floor mosaics can still be seen, as can the mosaic murals of the crusader kings and the crusader-period cloisters. Most important, of course, beneath the high alter in the crypt of the church is the cave in which according to two thousand years of tradition Christ was born over 2000 years ago today.

The Crusader cloisters -- my favorite place.

Friday, December 18, 2015

“The Holy Disease” — Leprosy in the Crusader Kingdoms

Baldwin IV as depicted in the Hollywood Film "The Kingdom of Heaven"

King Baldwin IV of Jerusalem was a leper. This fact is so shocking and so exceptional in the history of Western monarchies that Baldwin has gone down in history as “the Leper King.” Most people know nothing else about him, not even his Christian name.  Portrayals of Baldwin in literature and art nowadays use his leprosy mostly for sensationalist effect. Thus in the Hollywood film “The Kingdom of Heaven” he was given a mask to disguise his face, which is only revealed after his death. In Cecilia Holland’s “Jerusalem” men quail at the sight of him, but she utterly ignores the devastating impact on Baldwin’s mobility and eyesight and shows no understanding whatever of the real impact and progress of the disease. Yet what is significant about Baldwin IV’s leprosy is not the disfigurement it caused but rather the fact that he could be a leper and remain a respected and effective king. How was that possible?

Baldwin IV shown leading the Army of Jerusalem in "The Kingdom of Heaven"

Without doubt, leprosy is one of the most appalling diseases known to man. Victims of the disease suffer from symptoms including a loss of feeling in their affected limbs, a discoloring and hardening of the skin, disfiguring growths or nodules that deform the face, hands and legs, open ulcers, particularly on the soles of the feet. In its most virulent form, the disease can deform even the skeleton and skull, while progressively triggering a deterioration of control over one’s limbs. Finally, in its advanced stages the victim loses toes, fingers, ears, nose, and eyesight. This gradual decay of the body led observers to compare lepers to the “living dead” or “walking corpses.” 

A Medieval Carving which appears to show a Leper.

Leprosy is a global phenomenon, present today on every continent.  While some scientists suggest it originated in East Africa (along with mankind and horses), the oldest anthropological evidence of the disease is a nearly 3,000 year old skeleton found in India. Certainly it was known in ancient Egypt, ancient Greece, ancient China, and is recorded in the Old Testament as well.

In Western medical texts, Hippocrates described symptoms that match leprosy as early as 460 BC, but no cure was found for leprosy until the 20th century. Furthermore, while modern medical research shows that as much as 30% of a population may become infected during an epidemic, once endemic, only 5% of any given population is likely to contract the disease. However, that research was not available until the last century, and throughout most of human history the disease was believed to be not only incurable but highly contagious.  At the extreme, some medical tracts (including Arab ones) suggested that just breathing the same air as lepers could result in infection. It was this terror of catching such a horrible and incurable disease that led many societies to ostracize lepers. Notably the Jews and the Germanic tribes of northeastern Europe excluded lepers from their societies.

So how could there be a leper king? The key is that he was king in Christian Jerusalem in the late 12th century. By this time, Christianity had come to view leprosy not as a curse, an outward expression of sin, a form of divine punishment nor even something unclean, but rather as a symbol of divine grace.

According to the gospels, Christ cured a leper following the Sermon on the Mount, and in the gospel of Luke (16:19-31) a poor beggar “covered with soars” called Lazarus is scorned by a rich man but finds favor with God. In the Medieval tradition, this man was a leper and Lazarus became the patron saint of lepers. The significance of lepers in the New Testament is twofold. First, leprosy was at the time incurable, so that healing a leper could only be a miracle, a divine act, and Christ demonstrates his divinity by curing the leper. Second, and often overlooked today, lepers were outcasts in Jewish society, prohibited from entering the Temple, so in curing the leper Christ was extending his grace even to outcasts.

By the 4th century AD, Church leaders in both the East and the West had seized upon these biblical references to argue that the greatest Christian virtue was to demonstrate love and charity toward the outcasts of society — something best demonstrated by love for those most commonly rejected in heathen societies: lepers. Within a short space of time, the sufferings of Job were associated with leprosy, and leading theologians reminded the Christian community that each leper (no less than any other man) had been made in God’s image and been redeemed by Christ. The argument went farther: Disease humbled even the proudest and wealthiest, bringing them closer to God, and no disease did that more thoroughly than leprosy. Far from being a punishment for sin, therefore, leprosy was the ultimate test of righteousness. While the victims were, it was argued, already marked by God for salvation, those willing to show them Christian love and charity would also win the favor of God. Legends started to evolve in which Christ appeared on earth as a leper, and the disease started to be referred to as “the Holy Disease.”

Furthermore, early Christian advocates of leprosy being a sign of divine grace did more than preach; they led by example. The lives of saints often highlight acts of charity or kindness toward lepers, including kissing them. Likewise, from this period onward, we can trace the development and spread of hospitals especially established for the care of lepers, particularly in the Byzantine Empire. Here they are recorded in Constantinople itself and all the way to Alexandria. Notably, there was an important leper hospital in Jerusalem as well. 

The Leper Hospital at Jerusalem no longer exists. This is the hospital of St. John, also from the crusader period.

The establishment of leper hospitals enabled the removal of lepers from homes, markets, and work-places and so to a degree isolated lepers from mainstream society. No matter what the Church preached about the Christ-like nature of loving lepers, most ordinary humans preferred not to undergo the ultimate test of holiness by suffering such a debilitating and humiliating disease! A degree of segregation was therefore both rational and understandable. It is also notable, that many of these establishments were large complexes with their own churches, dormitories, kitchens, water reservoirs, orchards and land. People, whether the wealthy relatives of victims of the disease, or men and women anxious to gain credit in heaven were willing to endow leper hospitals or make charitable gifts to them in coin or kind.

Leper hospitals were not prisons, however, in which lepers were incarcerated against their will. On the contrary, the evidence suggests lepers could come and go as they pleased, and if they remained it was because they benefited from the charity and care they received rather than from compulsion. Furthermore, the lepers in these hospitals largely governed their own affairs, electing their own officials, who they then obeyed in the monastic tradition. Likewise, they had chapter meetings, like monks, and female lepers appear to have had the same rights as their male counterparts. In at least one case a woman is recorded as a “commander” of a leper hospital. 

A Medieval Chapter House where the Members of a Community Met
Significantly, however, it was in Jerusalem that a leper hospital grew into a religious order in its own right, the Order of St. Lazarus. The leper hospital had been established during Byzantine rule of the Holy City, but after the establishment of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, it was taken over by the Knights Hospitaller. By in 1147, however, the leper hospital had broken away from the Hospitallers and was recognized as a religious order in its own right. Initially referred to as the Leper Brothers of Jerusalem, the members of this new religious order soon came to be called the Knights of St. Lazarus, and adopted a green cross as their symbol. (Note: the Templars wore red crosses on white, the Hospitallers at this time white crosses on black, and the Teutonic Knights adopted a black cross on white.) By the time the Knights of St. Lazarus were expelled from the Holy Land in 1291, it had expanded across the Christian world. There were large hospitals not only in Tiberias, Nablus, Ascalon, Caesarea and Acre, but also in Armenia, Italy, Central Europe, France and England.

Membership in the Order of St. Lazarus was mandatory for knights of the other militant orders who developed leprosy after taking holy vows, and for members of the nobility of Outremer, who came down with the disease, but was not confined to these individuals. Any leper, of course, could join the community, and healthy individuals, intent on showing Christian love and charity, could do so by joining the order and serving the lepers. Enough healthy knights belonged to the Order by the 13th century for knights to have fought at the Battle of Gaza in 1244, the Battle of Ramla in 1253, and during the defense of Acre in 1291. They may also have fought at Hattin in 1187. 

All the above battles post-date the death of Baldwin IV and while that may be pure chance, it seems more likely that it was Baldwin IV’s steadfast service to his kingdom on the battlefield that inspired knights to join the Order of St. Lazarus and encouraged the Order itself to take on a more militant role. Baldwin initially led his armies on horseback, despite being unable to use his hands, and later led from a litter. A greater example of courage from a man suffering from such a debilitating disease can hardly be imagined.

But it is equally significant that his powerful barons, their knights, and all the free burghers of the Kingdom of Jerusalem were willing to do homage to and obey a leper. Baldwin IV could not have defeated Saladin repeatedly (as he did!), if he had not commanded the undivided and unquestioning loyalty of his subjects. This fact, more than his own actions, tells us that leprosy in the crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem was indeed recognized as a “holy disease.” Baldwin IV’s leprosy, far from evoking contempt or even revulsion, as Hollywood and many modern writers would have us believe, inspired awe among his contemporaries. 

Baldwin IV is a major character in my novels Knight of Jerusalem and Defender of Jerusalem.

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Friday, December 11, 2015

The Knights of St. John of Jerusalem

Of the most famous "militant orders," the Knights Templar and the Knights Hospitaller, the latter proved both more enduring and more Christian. Today's entry is a tribute to them.

The roots of the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem go back before the First Crusade. In about 1070, a hospice for pilgrims was established near the Church of the Holy Sepulcher with funds from Italian merchants and staffed by Benedictine monks and nuns. Although the Benedictines were expelled from Jerusalem before the arrival of the first crusaders, they returned after Jerusalem was in Christian hands, and with help from the Christian secular authorities, re-established a hospital. Soon, further grants of money and land from the Christian lords enabled the monks to establish a chain of hospitals throughout the Holy Land and to set up hospices at the embarkation ports for pilgrims setting out from Europe or returning from Outremer. The monks and nuns running these hospitals and hospices soon became known as the “Hospitallers.”

In 1113, the monks of the Hospital (also referred to as the Brothers of St. John and the Brothers of the Holy Sepulcher) requested and received from the Pope the right to become an order in their own right. This new order, as with the Templars a decade later, was made directly subordinate to the Pope, and in or about 1130 it adopted the Augustine Rule. Meanwhile this new order was rapidly acquiring significant donations in land and treasure in both the West and in the Holy Land, a reflection of the undiminished support for a Christian-controlled Holy Land.

THe "Hospital" in Acre is still massive and impressive; the Hospital in Jerusalem was much larger.
Photo by H. Schrader 
Nevertheless, the Hospital of St. John remained a traditional monastic order. Although it had been granted the explicit right to defend its properties and pilgrims, members of the Order were prohibited from bearing arms. As a result, throughout the 12th century the Hospital was dependent for its protection on knights who owed feudal duty to the Hospital via their landholdings, voluntarily offered their services, or were hired mercenaries. These defensive forces, whatever their source, must have been substantial, however, because the Hospital was given very powerful fortresses, notably the most impressive crusader castle of them all: Krak des Chevaliers.

Krak de Chevaliers in Modern Day Syria. Photo by H Schrader

It would have been pointless to turn over such vitally important military resources to an order incapable of maintaining and defending them, but the exact status of the Hospital’s fighting men remains obscure until 1206, when the Hospitaller Rule was changed to allow for fighting monks. Thereafter, the Hospitallers began to recruit fighting men, probably starting with those who were already associated with it in some way, and like the Templars they had both knights (men of noble birth) and sergeants. Within a very short time, the knights dominated the Order. The Hospitallers, however, continued to have priests, monks, and nuns devoted solely to the care of the sick, and the network of hospitals was not abandoned. At about this time, the entire Order adopted black robes (reminiscent of their Benedictine origins) adorned with a white cross. One notable difference with the Templars, however, was that there was no distinction in dress between the knights and the sergeants of the Hospital.

The Hospitallers, like the Templars, warned new recruits that “… when you desire to eat, it will be necessary for you to fast, and when you would wish to fast, you will have to eat. And when you would desire to sleep, it will be necessary for you to keep watch, and when you would like to stand on watch, you will have to sleep. And you will be sent this side of the sea and beyond, into places which will not please you, and you will have to go there. It will be necessary for you, therefore, to abandon all your desires to fulfill those of another and to endure other hardships in the Order, more than I can describe to you.” (Barber, Malcolm, The Knight and Chivalry, p. 275) Like the Templars, the Hospitallers vowed poverty and chastity as well as obedience.

Austere Monastic Accommodation; in this case the Cistercian Monastery of Fontfroid
The similarity between the two powerful militant orders led to open rivalry between them for recruits, resources, and power in the first half of the 13th century. This led on occasion to open fighting between members of the orders on the streets of Acre and Tripoli, but more often to subtle maneuvering behind the scenes. For decades, the Hospitallers and Templars consistently backed rival claimants to the throne of Jerusalem and rival Italian trading communities. As the end of Christian Palestine neared, however, the Hospitallers and Templars put aside their differences and jealousies to rally to the now lost cause. In the last decades of Christian Palestine, Hospitallers and Templars fought side by side, ferociously and futilely, at Antioch, Tripoli, and finally Acre.

After the fall of Acre, the Hospital also relocated its headquarters to Cyprus, but conflict with the King of Cyprus convinced the leadership of the Hospital (evidently more flexible, imaginative, and analytical than the tragic Jacques de Molay) of the necessity for independence from secular authority. The Hospitallers undertook the capture of the island of Rhodes from Turkish forces in 1306, finally seizing the capital city in 1309. With this move the Hospitallers removed themselves, and the bulk of their movable treasure, from the grasp of Philip IV – or any king inclined to follow his example. Even more important, however, from this island base the Hospitallers built up a powerful fleet capable of challenging the naval power of the Turks and of launching hit-and-run raids into Saracen territory. The Hospitallers had “reinvented” themselves and had found a new justification for their existence.

Hospitaller Castle at Kolossi, Cyprus. Photo by HSchrader

The Hospitaller fleet remained a significant force protecting Christian shipping and commerce throughout the next two and a half centuries, and the base of this fleet on Rhodes, so close to the Turkish coast, was a constant provocation to Saracen, particularly Turkish, rulers. Numerous attempts were made to capture Rhodes, notably in 1440, 1444, 1480, and 1522. During the first 3 sieges, the Hospitallers withstood vastly superior numbers, in one case (1444) driving off the enemy with a daring sortie from within the city, and twice rescued by the timely arrival of a relieving fleet from the West. In 1522, an army allegedly 100,000 strong attacked a force of just 600 knights and 4,500 local auxiliaries. After 2 months of bombardment a breach in the landward wall was made, yet 3 assaults through the breach, carried out with complete disregard for casualties, failed. Sultan Suleiman called off the costly assaults and settled down for a long siege, cutting Rhodes off from all relief. Recognizing the hopelessness of their situation, the surviving Hospitallers, now more commonly called Knights of St. John, surrendered on honorable terms.

When the Hospitallers withdrew on their ships from Rhodes, they were effectively homeless, but Emperor Charles V offered them the island of Malta as their new headquarters. From here they continued to operate their fleet so effectively that Sultan Suleiman decided he had to dislodge them from their new home. In 1565 he again assembled a large siege force. The Knights of St. John had 500 knights of the Order and 10,000 other troops. The Turks launched their first attack in May and after a month of fighting captured an outlying fort, slaughtered the garrison, and floated their mutilated bodies across the harbor to the main fortress as a warning of what was to come. The Hospitallers replied by executing Turkish prisoners and catapulting their heads into the Turkish camp. A Turkish assault on the main fortifications was undertaken on July 15, and a breach in the walls effected by August 7. Yet two assaults through the breach, on August 19 and 23, both failed. On September 7 a Spanish fleet arrived from the West and scattered the demoralized Turkish forces. The defense of Malta had cost the Hospitallers half their knights and 6,000 of the other defenders.

Melodramatic 19th Century Depiction of the Fight at Malta
Thereafter, the Knights of St. John focused again on making the seaways of the Mediterranean safe for Christian shipping, a task that became increasingly easy as Turkish naval power declined. But this victory, like the defeat in Acre 300 years earlier, robbed them of their raison d’ĂȘtre. The Knights of St. John, now commonly known as the Knights of Malta, slid into a slow decline. They became more involved in commerce than warfare, and their fortresses turned into palaces. When Napoleon laid siege to Malta in 1798, the last frail remnants of the once mighty Hospitaller Order surrendered in just two days.

The Hospitallers played an important role in the Holy Land in the 12th century and so also figure in my biographical novel about Balian d'Ibelin and the fall of the Kingdom of Jerusalem.

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