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The Voyage to the Holy Land

 

 
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The Voyage to the Holy Land
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Introduction - Extract from the book "The Voyage to the Holy Land")

If during nearly twenty centuries the foundations of Egyptian civilization had been "forgotten" and hieroglyphic writing, having become indecipherable, had lost its meaning, the history, the language and the religious principles of the "Hebrews", in spite of a past nearly as distant, extended largely beyond the territory known for a long time as Palestine. The antiquity of the religion of the people of Israel, their law, their relationship with the holy power, their observance of rituals more than a thousand years old, are the source of an important innovation: monotheism. One God, one people, one law: this effective principle was born around four thousand years ago, in the tribe of nomad shepherds who lived on the right bank of the Euphrates, not far from the town of Ur, in Chaldea. It was only after many long transformations over the centuries that the monotheism of the new religion asserted itself to become what it is today. Thanks to the Jewish prophets, the parallel gods, considered as enemy powers for a long time, were put aside little by little.

One thousand eight hundred years before our time, therefore, Abram (who would become Abraham), son of Terah and descendant of Eber, left his home territory with his tribe, of which he was the chief, and crossed the desert to settle down in Canaan. It was at this time that the divine power, known by the tetragram of YHVH, imposed upon him the awesome proof of the sacrifice of his son Isaac. Finally, however, it was a lamb that was sacrificed on Mount Moriah, and on this sanctuary the town of Jerusalem, holy town par excellence, was built. An alliance was formed between the Almighty and Abraham's race, descended from Isaac, only son of Abraham and Sarah. In exchange for their submission to the divine will, the "chosen" people were guaranteed protection and a special destiny as well as the allocation of a homeland. The account that was given in Moses' time of the origin of the alliance states: "That day, Yahweh formed an alliance with Abram in these terms: to your posterity I give this country from the Egyptian river to the great river, the River Euphrates, the Kenites, the Qenizzites, the Edomites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites, and the Jebusites". For nineteen centuries this territory was called Palestine or "Holy Land" after the Romans had changed the name of the "Province of Judea" to "Syria-Palestine".

The territorial limits, as well as the history of Palestine are, however, very complex. If history is in concordance with the Bible, except for agreeing to the letter with the Holy Writing, we must accept that the account in Genesis or Exodus, the first two books recognized by the Jews and the Christians, is rather more mythical than realistic. For those religions concerned, the most important thing is the explanation of the creation of the world and the revelation of the fundamental alliance. The books after these, whose origin goes back, at the most, to the Twelfth century BC, contain the commandments, the rituals to be observed and also an account of the events, the actions of the Judges and Kings, the teachings of the prophets and sacred songs. As time goes by, people and places appear that we can recognize fairly precisely. The Bible can be read in two ways: in a religious and/or secular manner, in the real sense of the term, i.e. outside the temple.

This is where the reasons differed that incited people like de Chateaubriand and Barres, to mention just two Frenchmen, to make the trip from Paris to Jerusalem. Certain recognized what could be identified from names mentioned in the Bible, whilst others were seeking something appropriate between that which they could accept as plausible and the marks that give credit to scientific history. For some people this voyage was a pilgrimage to the holy places, as in the Middle Ages, without the crusading, for others it was a scholarly quest with cultural interests where emotion dominated. For all, but especially for those who lived there and who welcomed, fleeced, robbed and sometimes swindled them, it was only about tourists. In any case the clientele was enormous. Judo-Christian monotheism had become one of the main forms of man's primordial concern: religion. This previously very limited cult that slipped very gradually from monolatry to the more theoretical monotheism acquired universality when one of Abraham's descendants, Jesus of Nazareth, announced that he was the "Messiah" (in Greek, the Christ), the "Son of God", and died to pay for the original sin carried by all men, without distinction. The idea of "God's people" applied from then on not only directly but also metaphorically to the ever-growing crowd of those for whom Christianity was the religion that saved; the only answer to basic despair. Originally Christianity concerned just a small group of disciples who followed Christ in his travels across the provinces newly conquered by the Romans; Judea, Samaria, Galilee and along the Jordan. The sense of community, the search for purity, the wearing of white clothes, the meal rituals, as well as the importance of the "master of justice" were things that this, new Christianity had in common with the Essenians, as can be seen in comparing what we now know of these people and what the texts tell us of this first "church". Jesus after all began his public life by being baptized by John in the waters of the Jordan. John "the Baptist" belonged to the Essenian Sect, whilst Jesus would belong more to the Zealot Sect, these "members of the resistance" against the Roman occupants and their collaborators, the Pharisees… Finally, all the territory between Amman (today in Jordan), and the sea, the antique Phoenicia (today the Lebanese coast) and the Golf of Aqabah, between the Sinai and Petra was concerned by this "sacred geography".

Two major events took place at about the time when the first Christians decided to open their church to non-Jews (therefore non-circumcised): on the one hand, the tragic end of what was left of the old Judea after two patriotic uprisings in 70 and in 132-135 that were savagely reprimanded by Rome, and Jerusalem was forbidden to the Jews, many of whom were massacred, those who were spared being dispersed or put under house arrest, and the Temple was sullied by the installation of a Jupiter cult before being completely destroyed. On the other hand, the definitive text of the Bible was established. Meeting together in Jamnia since Jerusalem had been taken, the Great Council of Rabbis, who were all from the Pharisee Sect, decided on the order and the orthodoxy of the books of Judaism and authorized their translation into Greek for the Jews of the Dispersion or Diaspora. Towards the middle of the second century, the Christians did the same with their Bible. They adopted the Jewish texts of the Old Testament and added a series called the New Testament composed of four Gospels (Mathew, Mark, Luke and John), the Acts of the Apostles, of twenty-one Epistles and the Revelations of John. The Diaspora and the diffusion of the sacred texts, in whatever version, contributed to the transformation of the Holy Land into a mythical place, and the pilgrimage "to the source" into a supreme reference.

The voyage to the Holy Land was often risky, however. For thirteen centuries the territory given by Yahweh to the people of Israel, that had been trodden by the Son of God and his first disciples, the Jerusalem of the Jews and the Christians were periodically forbidden to each of them. In spite of the vitally important role played by religion, it was first of all the geographical situation of this crossroads of terrestrial routes that oriented the history of Palestine. In Palestine, the Christians were persecuted during the first two centuries AD as they were in the rest of the Empire. The blood of these first martyrs was mixed with that of Christ. After the death of Hadrian, however, the Emperors that succeeded him allowed the Jews to return to Galilee. From Jamnia, the Great Council and the Patriarch moved to Usha, then to Tiberias, where they opened schools and synagogues and compiled the Talmud. After the Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity in 312, the relationship of the imperial power with the Jews and Christians turned around. The period from the Council of Nicée (325) to the Persian invasion (613) was particularly good for the Christians in Palestine - apart from the two years of Julien the Apostate's reign. During these three hundred years tradition was established, attributing irrevocably to this or that place the value of a "place of memory", that they have kept right up until today. Just one hundred and fifty years separate the triumphant implantation of Christianity in Palestine from the end of what one may call the "primitive" church, when the primacy of the Bishop of Rome began to be accepted and when the texts were finalized. The memory of the actions and words of Christ and his first disciples was still close; even if tradition some-times allowed legend a lot of space.

Right from the first century, when the earliest disciples were still alive, the holy places saw their first pilgrims, usually bishops or special envoys from Christian communities in Asia Minor and from the Mediterranean Basin. Alexander, Bishop of Cappadoce, was the first of them of whom history has kept a trace. The future Saint Alexander made the voyage to Jerusalem after a vision, and became Patriarch. Barely one century later, it was Saint Helen, the Emperor Constantine's mother, who went to Palestine and Jerusalem. With the support of tradition, and trusting what she, herself, had observed, she established three important places: those of the birth, the death and the resurrection of Christ. She had two basilicas built, one in Bethlehem, the other on the Mount of Olives, while her son ordered the building of a third church on the site of the Holy Sepulcher. In the fourth century, Saint Jerome, who was born in Dalmatia and who had studied in Rome, began to travel, in particular to Gaul. He was drawn to the hermit's lifestyle, the idea of which came from Egypt, and he settled in the Chalcis Desert in Syria. Because of his great renown he became the Pope's Secretary. He ended his life in Bethlehem after providing us with the first version of the books of the Bible in Latin, translated from the Hebrew texts, and known as the Vulgate. A Roman noblewoman by the name of Paula, who had followed him to Bethlehem, established three monasteries and a convent there. In the Judean Desert (between Hebron and the Dead Sea) there were up to one hundred and thirty religious establishments. The number of pilgrims must have been very large if we are to judge from the Epistles of Jerome, who criticizes those, of all ranks and of all nationalities, who arrived frequently in Palestine but who did not appear to be motivated by feelings that were "worthy of the aims they set out to fulfill". Edouard Charton recounts how Jerome tried to limit this "epidemic": "…the doors of heaven" he wrote, "are open just as wide to the Bretons in their homeland as to those who come to Jerusalem"! In the prosperous VIth century the Emperor Justinian became particularly involved with the development of Palestine. He had monuments rebuilt, gave Jerusalem the Basilica of Saint Mary the New, helped some of the Nabataean towns to prosper and held two Councils in Jerusalem between 536 and 553 to flight heresy. The church was in fact torn all the time by various doctrinal deviations, splits and schisms. The springtime of the church ended in the VIIth century with the first invasion by the Persians of Chosroes. Jerusalem was taken, and its inhabitants, who at first resisted, were massacred or deported. The Jews and the Samaritans, now freed of the Christians welcomed the invaders. The churches were pillaged and burned. Legend has it that only the Basilica of Bethlehem was spared, the Persians having recognized as their compatriots the Three Wise Men whose portraits adorned its pediment. The Byzantines returned to avenge the outrages of fifteen years of Persian occupation. The Emperor Heraklius came personally to Jerusalem in 634 to bring back the relic of the "true cross" that the Persians had taken, and took measures to reprimand the Jews who had welcomed the invaders. Many of them emigrated towards the countries of the Euphrates and to Persia.

During this time, Mohammed took Mecca, from where he had been expelled eight years earlier. He was the religious and political head of an embryo state of a new kind that brought together the Muslims or faithful of the "twelve tribes" of Arabia. His teachings had given back enthusiasm and a certain homogeneity to these sons of Ismael who considered themselves as the descendants of Abraham. The third monotheistic religion, Islam, meaning "abandonment to God", that was born from the mingling of Persian and Byzantine influences (the two were then at war), began its expansion that would take it west to the Atlantic and east into the heart of Asia, through Persia. This took a century. After Mohammed's death in 632 his successors, the caliphs sent their Arabian horsemen off to conquer the old empires who had for so long held in contempt the Qurayshite merchants from Mecca, who sold perfume, spices, precious stones, silk and slaves.

The Caliph Omar, second successor of the Prophet, gave this new religion decisive victories: against Persia that of Qadisiyya in 637 that gave the Arabs the Persian province of Mesopotamia and its capital Ctesiphon. The South of Palestine was occupied from 634; the towns fell later. In order to avoid the disaster of 614 with the Persians of Chosroes II, the Patriarch of Jerusalem negotiated the surrender of his town in 638. In exchange for surrender, and the payment of a tribute, the Christians saved their heads and their churches. This model of "forced tolerance" was applied throughout the cavalcade, right through into Spain and Gaul. Omar finished the conquest of Palestine with a great victory against the Byzantines on the Yarmuk, and the taking of Cesaria in 640. In ten or so years, the Caliph Omar, and then his successors in two generations, put the finishing touches to the ruin of the antique world in a much more lasting and efficient manner than the simple plundering and pillaging carried out in the East by the Barbarians. Whilst the latter, with the possible exception of the Huns, took on the customs and traditions of those they invaded, adopting their religion and forgetting their own language, the Islam conquerors, imposed their customs, their language (Arabian), and their religion, with remorseless violence and on pain of death. Their supposed tolerance for religions they encountered is very relative and was part of the means used to obtain extortionate taxes and other, often humiliating tributes.

In Palestine, as elsewhere, as a general rule the Caliphs delegated administration (i.e. essentially the collection of taxes and the recruitment of "free" labor for the carrying out of rare, large projects) to a carefully chosen minority whose loyalty was ensured by "perks" that sharpened the hate and jealousy of other, less advantaged groups.

From a cultural point of view, forced arabization went with conversion to Islam for the majority of the conquered. The cavalry of the Prophet only left a few cults alone, in general those linked to the minority groups they used. In Palestine, when they were not building mosques on the holy sites- beginning with the one that Caliph Omar had built on the ruins of the Temple of Jerusalem, encouraged it is said by the Christian Patriarch Sophronius - the new masters used the preservation of the Holy Sepulcher or of the Grotto of Bethlehem, to negotiate. Along the lines of that which had been happening in Mecca, where before Islam the Ka'bah already attracted crowds of pilgrims wanting to meditate at the sanctuary said to be that of Ismail and his father Abraham, the Arabian Governors of Damascus authorized small groups of pilgrims, who they hoped would generally be rich, to visit the Holy Land. They taxed them heavily, sometimes took them hostage relieved them of their money and luggage and had them executed, either openly or surreptitiously, after having taken everything from them that they could. The Frankish crusades, originally known as the "pilgrimages to Jerusalem", were mobilized amongst other reasons to give the Christians free access to the holy places. The crowds were galvanized by the account of the difficulties that the intrepid travelers put up with, and they made the best of the opportunity to take a dig at the Jews and the Greek religious men.

At the end of the century that saw the Arabs masters of the cradle of the two first monotheist religions, the most precious account of the state of affairs was that in the "Description of Palestine" by the Archbishop Arculf, whose pilgrimage is recounted by Saint Adaman: "A multitude of all kinds of nations meets every year in Jerusalem, on 15 September, to sell and buy various things; the town is of course forced to put up this crowd of foreigners from many countries for several days. Herds of camels, horses, donkeys, mules and oxen who carry the merchandise, fill the squares of this busy city with dirt, which is not a simple problem for the inhabitants, it stops them from going out. But, oh! What a marvel! No sooner have all these foreigners and their beasts of burden left than, during the night, the rain falls in torrents and takes away all the mess so giving back to the city its original cleanness. For God has given the town of Jerusalem a slope so gentle, beginning at the North summit of Mount Zion right down to the bottom of the Northern and Eastern walls, that this mass of rain cannot stay in the streets like stagnant water, but, just like a river, flows down from top to bottom. All this rainwater escapes by the Eastern doors, taking with it all the rubbish, runs into the Jehoshaphat Valley and carries on to swell the Cedron Torrent. Then, after this baptism, the rain stops in Jerusalem. Judge, there-fore, how this is really the town chosen by the Almighty, that he does not wish to stay soiled for even one day, and in the honor of his Son, he purifies it, this city that holds within its walls the sites sanctified by the cross and the resurrection." Arculf also explains the origins of the Mosque of Omar:"In this illustrious place, near the Eastern wall where in other times rose the magnificent Temple of Solomon, the Saracens built a square prayer residence made from a cheap assembly of large beams and planks on a few ancient ruins; this building, they say, can hold three thousand people." The presence of such a large crowd, at this time of the year, allows us to date exactly Arculf's voyage.

At the end of the VIIth century, the Caliph of Damascus, Abdel-Malek had just given permission for the Muslims of the newly conquered countries (Syria, Egypt, and Mesopotamia) to fulfill their obligation of a pilgrimage to Mecca by going to Jerusalem, holy city of Islam. Originally, Mohammed had asked the first "faithful" to recite daily prayers turned towards Jerusalem. Was homage not paid here to the two previous prophets: Misa and Isa, or Moses and Jesus? Then, in 624, after the victory of Badr over the people of Mecca, Mohammed turned the faithful towards the Ka'bah, rather than towards Jerusalem to show his condemnation of the Jews who had refused to support him during his exile in Medina. The Jews, like the Christians must have strongly disappointed the Prophet. The former were not in agreement with his interpretation of the biblical texts, and the latter could not agree-like the heretical Docetes - that Jesus, the Son of God, was not human in nature, but had only the appearance and that his ghost alone had been crucified. Arculf was not aware, of course, of all these nuances of the religion of Allah. On the contrary, he was perfectly aware of the quarrels that had upset and continued to upset the church in the East, and where political influence was preparing for the great rift. He did not discuss the authenticity of that which he was shown. The doubting attitude came later and would be the beginning of irreligiousness. If we believe the strong minds, and, notably those who made the trip to the Holy Land in the XIXth century, nothing is in nothing and above all not where we expect it to be.

However, the Omeyyadian Caliphs of Damascus had succeeded the Abbasid Caliphs of Baghdad. In the Xth Christian century and the third century of the Hegira, the Shiites, partisans of the adopted son and cousin of Mohammed, Ali Ibn Abu Talib, were already making a name for themselves. The Fatimids, descendants of Fatima, Ali's wife and Muhammed's daughter, had taken power in Ifriqyya (Eastern Mahgreb) and were marching towards Egypt that they would also conquer. Their next victim was Palestine at the time when the Abbasids' Turkish auxiliaries were becoming more and more powerful in Baghdad. From 1009-1010, Al-Hakim, the third Fatimid Caliph of Egypt, conquered Jerusalem. This was as tragic a period for the holy city as that the Jews had known when they were exiled in 134 at the time when Hadrian had been responsible for a more serious disaster for the holy places than the Persian invasion of 614. On the orders of the Caliph Al-Hakim, the Governor of Ramallah had the construction of Constantine, built by Heraklius completely torn down. Inasmuch as it was possible, it is said, the conquerors took care to destroy, carve out and deform even the Holy Sepulcher. There were, however, two threats weighing over the new Fatimid Empire. In the East, the Turks, the Caliph's Auxiliaries or Saljuqides, allied themselves with the conquered Abbasids (who had remained Sunnite). In the East, the Christian Normans and Franks were advancing across the Mediterranean, threatening Sicily, the Tunisian coast and also the Byzantine Empire's positions. The Fatimids were therefore forced to ally themselves with their closest rivals, the Byzantine Christians. In 1048, after some discussion, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher was rebuilt and the holy places restored.
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