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Built in the 4th century by the will of Emperor Constantine and his mother Hélène, theChurch of the Holy Sepulcher is one of the most sacred places in Christianity. It is located on the site of the cave where the body of Jesus of Nazareth would have been deposited. Patiently maintained and enlarged by the successors of Constantine, who became the Byzantine emperors after the fall of Rome, visited by thousands of pilgrims, the Holy Sepulcher entered with the 7th century a more troubled period. From then on, its history is closely linked to the turbulent context of the region, and more particularly that of the city that hosts it, Jerusalem.
The first destruction of the Holy Sepulcher
After Justinian's revival in the 6th century, the Byzantine Empire began to experience difficulties again at the beginning of the 7th century, following the assassination of Emperor Maurice by Phocas. The young Persian ruler, Chosroes II, seizes the opportunity, feeling the empire weakened by the civil war between Phocas and Heraclius. The Persian armies manage to cross the Euphrates in 610, at the same time when Heraclius takes power in Constantinople.
The new basileus transfers troops from the Balkans to the East, but this is not enough to stop the advance of the Persians. One by one, the cities of Syria and Palestine fall, but it is the fall of Jerusalem in 614 that marks the most spirits, in more than one respect. The consequences are more psychological than military because of the symbolic importance of the Holy City for Christians, in particular because of the presence of the Holy Sepulcher. The main source that tells us about the drama experienced by Christians is a monk who witnessed the events, Stratègios. We know that the city, after the failure of negotiations, is removed after twenty days of siege, at the cost of a great massacre. The survivors, including the Patriarch Zachariah, were taken to Mesopotamia. More seriously still, by order of Chosroes II, the churches of Jerusalem are burnt and destroyed, and particularly a good part of the Holy Sepulcher. In the same spirit, the Persians take away the precious relics which were there, including the True Cross, placed in the Royal Treasury of Chosroes II. This catastrophe is very badly experienced and some already see it as the fall of the Christian empire.
However, the loss of Jerusalem to the Byzantines was short-lived. Emperor Heraclius resumed combat in the early 620s, taking advantage of the divisions within the Persian Empire to gain the upper hand. In 628, Chosroes II was overthrown, and Heraclius negotiated with a rebel general, so that the Persians withdraw from the Byzantine eastern provinces, including Palestine. Better still, the basileus manages to recover the relic of the True Cross, and he himself returns to deposit it in Jerusalem, at the Holy Sepulcher, during a triumphal procession, on March 21, 630.
The conquest of Jerusalem by the Arabs
During the Persian occupation, between 616 and 626, the abbot of Saint-Théodore, Modeste, directed the first works of reconstruction of the Holy Sepulcher, which accelerated with the reconquest of Jerusalem by Heraclius. But already, as will be the case throughout the period, the state of finances is a brake on reconstruction, which mainly concerns the Rotunda. In fact, the priority is the defense of the borders against a new enemy, more threatening than the Persians: the Arabs.
The Arab conquest, after the peninsula from which Muhammad's successors came, headed for Palestine and Egypt, as well as the Persian Empire. The wars weakened the latter, just like his Byzantine enemy. Arab success is greatly facilitated. This time, Heraclius does not know the same success, and he must fall back to Antioch, leaving Jerusalem at the mercy of the new conquerors. The city falls peacefully, thanks to the negotiations led by the patriarch Sophrones. Caliph Omar triumphantly entered it in February 638, thus opening a new period in the history of Jerusalem and the Holy Sepulcher.
The “forgotten” Holy Sepulcher?
Faithful to his method during his first conquests, the caliph ordered that the churches be respected, even if some were transformed into mosques. The Holy Sepulcher is therefore not desecrated, unlike what happened during the conquest by the Persians. The Caliph goes there himself, praying in front of the Basilica of the Martyrion, and the place also becomes a place of prayer for Muslims. Christian pilgrims can always go there too. Among them, a certain Arculfe, Frankish bishop, who made his pilgrimage to Jerusalem from 670. We owe him "the plan of Arculfe", indispensable testimony of the state of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher at the beginning of the Islamic period, in the 680s. We thus learn that a good part of the buildings of the Constantinian period resisted the destruction caused by the Persians, and that the work of Modeste mainly concerned the Rotunda.
The beginning of the Islamic period saw Jerusalem take on importance within the Muslim religion. It becomes its third holy city, after Medina and Mecca. In the second half of the 7th century and at the beginning of the 8th century, two large Muslim places of worship were built in Jerusalem, the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, which became the main religious centers, to the detriment of the Jewish holy places or Christians, like the Holy Sepulcher.
For the Christians of the West, and to a lesser extent those of the East, and in particular the Byzantines, Jerusalem is then a lost city, and its importance becomes more spiritual, with the image of the celestial Jerusalem. There are certainly still pilgrimages to the Holy Land and the Holy Sepulcher, like that of Willibald, bishop of Eichstätt, in 720-722. But Jerusalem is supplanted in the hearts of pilgrims by Rome and Constantinople. In the 8th century, the city became even less important for Muslims, due to the shift of the center of gravity of caliphal power from Damascus to Baghdad, following the victory of the Abbasids over the Umayyad dynasty in 750.
It was not until the end of this century that Jerusalem seemed to once again become important to Western Christians when, in the context of their successful embassies, Caliph Harûn al-Rashid offered Charlemagne the key to the Holy Sepulcher and the standard. of Jerusalem. This is only a parenthesis. Jerusalem also suffered natural disasters, including earthquakes during the 8th century, and in 810 the Holy Sepulcher itself was affected. While pilgrimages to the Holy City seem to be resuming, a riot in 966 causes part of the place to burn down.
The destruction of the 11th century
As during the Byzantine and Persian periods, the situation in Jerusalem is dependent on the political context. At the end of the tenth century, the Fatimid dynasty, after seizing power in Egypt, took Jerusalem from the Abbasids. After a period of tolerance, Christians are struck by a trauma even greater than the Persian destruction of the 7th century. Indeed, the Fatimid Caliph Al-Hakim (996-1021) ordered the total destruction of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher!
According to the chronicler Yahia, the destruction would have started on Tuesday, five days before the end of the month of Safar, in 400 AH, that is to say on October 18, 1009. From this moment, the monument of 4th century disappeared, just like the restorations of Modeste. It was not until 1020 that Al-Hakim allowed, for a fee, some reconstructions. But it is especially with his successors that the situation improves, while the pilgrims are more and more numerous.
The time of reconstructions
In the West, the destruction of Al-Hakim was shocking at the very moment when the pilgrimage to Jerusalem became again essential for Christians, as shown by that of Robert the Magnificent, father of William the Conqueror, in 1035. In 1065, we witnessed a pilgrimage of around 7000 men from Germany; and in 1070, the merchants of Amalfi founded in the Holy City a hospital dedicated to Saint John the Chaplain.
Meanwhile, Al-Hakim's son and successor negotiated with the Byzantines so that they could rebuild the Holy Sepulcher. Work began in earnest following the treaty between Emperor Michael IV and Caliph Al-Mustansir in the 1030s. Unfortunately, once again, the finances did not allow the Holy Sepulcher to be restored to its former glory, despite the efforts made by Emperor Constantine IX Monomachus, who completed the work of the Rotunda in 1048. Jerusalem once again suffered political tensions when it fell into the hands of the Seljuk Turks in 1071. A year before the arrival of the Crusaders, in 1098, the Holy City was taken over by the Fatimids.
Wars, natural disasters, changes of power in the Holy City, caused a succession of destruction and difficult reconstructions, until the Holy Sepulcher became one of the main issues of the First Crusade, launched in 1095 by Pope Urban II. While not desecrated, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher was nonetheless in a bad state when the Crusaders discovered it following the capture of Jerusalem in 1099.
The church was rebuilt by the crusaders and consecrated in 1149. After the fall of the kingdom of Jerusalem (1187), the building benefited from the protection of Saladin who prohibited any desecration and authorized the continuation of pilgrimages. Catholic and Orthodox monks are responsible for the maintenance of the church during the Middle Ages. Its dome will be repaired in the 18th century and then again after the fire that occurred in 1810. Since the middle of the 19th century, reconstruction and repair work has been carried out regularly, such as renovations and rehabilitations carried out from 2016 to 2017.
- The church of the Holy Sepulcher (coll), Rizzoli, 2000.
- Ben-Shammai, Prawer, The history of Jerusalem: the early muslin period (638-1099), NY University Press, 1996.
- Brooks, The Sepulcher of Christ in Art and Liturgy, University of Illinois Press, 1921.
- Cheynet, Byzantium. The Eastern Roman Empire, A. Colin, 2006.
- Coüasnon, Tje Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, Oxford, 1974.
Article originally published in Religions & Histoire, Le Saint-Sépulcre. History and treasures of a holy place, HS9, 2013