Crusader Jerusalem

We returned to the Old City of Jerusalem, this time to examine the impact of the Crusaders on the Holy City. They conquered Jerusalem in 1099 and held it until the force of Saladin’s military might forced its surrender in 1187. Added to the 15 years in the mid 13th century that it was also under Crusader control and these European knights had a good hundred years to make their impact on the city.

Crusader capital in the Last Supper Room (Cenacle)
Crusader capital in the Last Supper Room (Cenacle)

Much of the efforts of the rulers was to (re)build and restore sites of Christian importance, many of which had been either destroyed or had fallen into disrepair after over 500 years of Muslim rule. One of these was the Tomb of King David, and above it the Last Supper Room (the Cenacle) where we began our day. Although we had been here previously, on this visit our guide emphasised the impact of the Crusaders on the structure and pointed out various examples of Crusader architecture on the site.

Ruins of the Crusader Nea Church
Ruins of the Crusader Nea Church

We continued into the city walls and down to some excavations on the edge of the Jewish Quarter. I am constantly amazed, each time we enter the Old City, about things that I must have walked past hundreds of times over the years, and yet never noticed. We explored the ruins of the Ayyubid gate (this would have been built under Saladin’s rule) and then proceeded to the ruins of the Crusader Nea Church, built very close to the site of the original Byzantine version.

St Mary’s Hospice of the German Knights
St Mary’s Hospice of the German Knights

We continued into the Jewish Quarter, stopping at the St Mary’s Hospice of the German Knights. This used to be the base of the Order of Teutonic Knights in Jerusalem and it is possible to see remains of their chapel, hostel and living quarters.

View over the Temple Mount and the Old City of Jerusalem
View over the Temple Mount and the Old City of Jerusalem

Stopping for a rooftop viewpoint over the Temple Mount on the way, we wandered through the narrow streets which used to form the city market in the Crusader period. Our guide explained how they would conduct their trade, what sorts of goods were on sale in which streets, and also how they would have accessed their Templum Domini on the Temple Mount (they converted the Dome of the Rock into a church). An important source for this period is the ‘Citez de Jherusalem’, effectively a Medieval guide book for the Christian pilgrim to Crusader Jerusalem. It was quite remarkable to think that around 800 years after it was written, we were still able to use it as our guide through what has become the Arab souk.

The inimitable Bilal Abu Khalaf dons his traditional garb
The inimitable Bilal Abu Khalaf dons his traditional garb

As part of this trip through the markets, we took a particularly entertaining diversion. We entered into a large fabrics store under which they have discovered some Crusader remains – they are now visible through the transparent floor. Of more interest, however, was the owner, Bilal Abu Khalaf. His family have been in the fabrics business in Jerusalem for generations and he donned traditional garb to tell us all about the history of his trade. Interestingly, he produces fabrics for Muslims, Christians (up to the Patriarch of Jerusalem) and ultra-Orthodox Jews. He had some really beautiful fabrics in his store, including some woven with 18 carat gold thread. Not much to do with the Crusaders but fascinating nonetheless!

Crusader cloisters in the Church of the Redeemer
Crusader cloisters in the Church of the Redeemer

After a most pleasant luncheon of hummus (I have now decided where to take my tourists!) we visited the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer. The church is relatively recent but is built on the land which used to be home to the convent Saint Maria Latina and the Hospital of St John (site of the establishment of the Hospitaler Knights of St John) in the Crusader period. We explored the remains of the Crusader cloisters next to the church and also enjoyed the little museum containing some artefacts from excavations on the site.

Inside the cistern under the Coptic Church of St Helen
Inside the cistern under the Coptic Church of St Helen

We continued to the Coptic Church of St Helen. The church is built above a quarry, which was turned into a cistern in the 4th century. The cistern is holy, as it is believed that St Helen herself created it to meet the needs of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, next door. As we descended the slippery steps down into the cistern (which still contains water), we were amazed by its size. The light down there does not facilitate great photography, but in the picture above you can possibly make out a little apse to the left and a flat space ahead which is used as an altar; the priest paddles around to it in a little boat.

The acoustics in the church are fantastic; we were treated to some singing by the class vocalist laureate (he has a beautiful voice) and then together sang a poem by Hannah Senesh – A Walk to Caesarea, better known as Eli Eli. It was really rather moving.

Church of the Holy Sepulchre: site marking the creation of the world
Church of the Holy Sepulchre: site marking the creation of the world

Our final stop of the day was at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. We had been there before but used this visit to focus specifically on the Crusader elements of the church (the church today is largely from the Crusader period), and also to enter the main basilica, which had been closed on our previous visit for a mass, and to see the point marking whence the world was created, according to the Christian tradition.

Again, even though this is the third time we have visited, there is always something to add. For example, I had no idea that just in front of the church entrance, under some wooden planks, is the tomb of the English knight Philip d’Aubigny, a signatory on the Magna Carta. He had probably wanted to be buried inside the church, like the first two Crusader kings. In retrospect, he was fortunate; the tombs inside the church were raided soon after the Crusaders left, and then destroyed in the 19th century renovations.

Another day of surprises in Jerusalem. Next week, we are heading north to explore Haifa.

 

 

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