April 17, 2004

Troubled Songs of Zion

On June 15th 1099, Frankish warriors entered Jerusalem and slaughtered its inhabitants, who were at that time mostly Muslims and Orthodox Christians. The crusaders' own chroniclers reveled in the bloodshed. According to one, the blood which ran down the steps leading to the Temple Mount and its majestic Dome of the Rock, where the massacres were staged, was so deep as to come up to the knees of his horse. That is hard to believe, but the nature of the exaggeration is telling: gleeful barbarism always errs on the side of excessive gore.

Ninety years before this 'liberation' of the city from its 'infidel' overlords and 'heretical' clergymen, the city was dealt a crushing blow when the Caliph of Cairo, 'Mad' Hakim, razed the Constantinian Basilica of the Resurrection to the ground. This destruction-happy Fatimid's intolerance of Christianity was in marked contrast to the city's first Muslim ruler, Omar the Rightly-Guided, who four hundred years earlier declined the generous offer extended him by the Patriarch of Jerusalem, St. Sophronius, to join the prayers at the cathedral church. Were he to do so, said Omar, his just-recently inspired followers would turn the venerable site of Christ's crucifixion and resurrection into a mosque. Such magnanimity was not Hakim's way, though, and his crazed obsession with stamping out whatever wasn't Islamic caused his own soldiers to assassinate him. Yet he lives on to this day, for when certain Shiite Muslims in the Lebanon reacted to the news of his murder with a messianic despondency, they soon elevated him to the status of prophet above even Mohammed himself, thus giving birth to a new religion, that of the Druzes.

Hakim's legacy lingers on more generally too. His was the first Muslim regime to seriously consider the forced conversion of Christians. Previously, Muslims had been happy to merely rule over the Jews and Christians in their lands, the Peoples of the Book protected by divine fiat in the Qur'an; because of this, for example, Egypt was majority Christian until the 14th century. But in Hakim's wake, the name of the mad caliph spread quickly throughout Christian Europe, both East and West, and gave the Byzantine Emperor Alexius Comnenus a powerful propaganda villain in order to muster the armies of the West--whose religion his own church had declared heretical a scant forty-five years earlier--to help him repel the increasing threat of the Seljuk Turks who at the Battle of Manzikert in 1071 totally routed the Byzantine army and took central and eastern Anatolia for their own. Thus the above-mentioned Frankish warriors arrived on the Middle Eastern scene, and some might say they haven't left since, though adopting different guises and carrying different ideologies.

So Jerusalem is no stranger to troubles. It is indeed a troubled city, and to its conscientious visitors, deeply troubling.

Posted by djsmall at April 17, 2004 11:24 AM