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The Half-Crazed Caliph and the Destruction of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher

21 November, 201021 November, 2010 0 comments History History

On Tuesday, 17th or 18th October 1009, a group of workmen entered the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, and started demolishing what was then (and is now) the holiest site for Christians worldwide. Who ordered them to do so, and why?

The answer lied on the banks of the Nile, inside the head of the Caliph of the Fatimid Empire Abu 'Ali Mansur al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah. This man, whose Arabic name literally meant "Ruler by God's Command", ruled from his palace in old Cairo over a vast strip of land stretching from modern Tunisia in the west to modern Syria in the east, including all of the Holy Land.


Al-Hakim's reign, which began at the age of eleven, was a relatively troubled one. The Caliphate under his rule faced opponents abroad, such as the Byzantine Empire and the Abbasid Caliphate of Baghdad (which saw his rule as illegitimate on the grounds that he was a missionary of Shi'ite Islam rather than Sunni Islam). In addition, the army under Al-Hakim's command was torn by rival factions.

Al-Hakim repeatedly exhibited eccentric and capricious behavior. Besides executing several viziers (chief ministers) in a short period of time, he was very much obsessed with his subjects' morality. This obsession found expression in strange rules regarding every aspect of their daily lives (down to their diet), and also in harsh measures taken against non-Muslims.

The most famous of these measures was the 1009 order for the destruction of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. This large complex, originally built in the 4th century, contained several chapels and churches commemorating key events from the New Testament regarding Jesus' crucifixion, death, burial and resurrection.

The workmen assigned for the job started by demolishing the empty tomb of Jesus and the dome above it. Chunks of wall that fell as a result blocked access to many parts of the church, thus saving them from destruction.

The church had already faced a similar assault between 614 and 622, when the Byzantines were temporarily driven out of the region by the Persian Empire. The destruction of 1009, however, had much longer implications. Until the end of al-Hakim's reign in 1021 Christians were banned from approaching the ruins, and only in 1042 his successors reached an agreement with Emperor Constantine IX regarding the church's reconstruction.

Further repairs and a substantial enlargement were made by the 12th century Crusaders who took the country from the Fatimids.

The Church of the Holy Sepulcher we can see today is, architecturally speaking, the magnificent sum of all these past constructions and reconstructions.


Amir Rosenbaum is  the Co-Founder and owner of the Holy Land Gift site, Eastory.

 

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