Michael Riordon

the view from where I live

7. Deus vult: God wills it


On my travels to research Our Way to Fight, in East Jerusalem I saw the navel or centre of the world, the Omphalos.  On the surface there isn’t that much to see – a spot designated by the Crusaders and marked by an unremarkable marble urn in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.   But given the tidal waves of imperial conquest and ground-level resistance that continue to engulf Jerusalem – whose name, with almost cosmic irony, means ‘city of peace’ – this place might yet turn out to be, for better or worse, the centre of the world.   Join me on a brief tour:

A short walk from the tumult of modern Jerusalem, the broad, sloping stones under our feet are old enough, say our guides, that Jesus might have walked on them.   Endless tides of pilgrims and warriors have worn them smooth.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre wears its battered history on its face.  As the holiest site in Christendom, on first encounter it disappoints.  Instead of demanding attention in the imperious manner of St Peter’s in Rome or the Hagia Sofia in Istanbul, it huddles rather obscurely in a depressed courtyard, a pastiche of small metal-clad domes, arches, eccentric angles and squat towers.  Three storeys up, a wooden ladder stands under a window, unmoved for more than a century, its original purpose long forgotten through generations of feuding among priests of various Christian sects that control the church.

In the entrance court, we weave our way among throngs of the faithful and curious, people of many origins and cultures speaking a medley of tongues.  Guides prod their flocks through a single doorway into the fabled sanctuary; cameras whir and flash, gathering proof of pilgrimage.

I’m here with two Israeli historians who have kindly agreed to be my guides.  Dr Iris Shagrir teaches at the Open University of Israel, and Dr Daniella Talmon-Heller at Ben-Gurion University.  Three members of my Jerusalem host family also came along today for a quick excursion into the Crusader period, in which both historians specialize.  I mentioned a particular interest in the First Crusade and its implications, so this is where we begin.  The story actually starts a little earlier.

Archeological findings suggest human habitation here for at least fifty centuries.  Some linguists believe the name Jerusalem, or Yerushalayim in contemporary Hebrew, was derived from the Jebusite (a tribe of Canaan) Ur-Shalem, which translates loosely as ‘City of Peace.’  The Arabic name for the city, Al-Quds, means ‘the holy.’  The faithful of three major religions consider it holy, with the result that peace has tended to be rather elusive here.  By one historian’s count, Jerusalem has been destroyed twice, besieged 23 times, attacked 52 times, captured and recaptured 44 times.

The Roman tenure was particularly eventful.  It included two rebellions by Jews against the occupation, to which the imperial occupiers responded by demolishing the city.  It also included the birth and death of a Jewish prophet named Jesus.  After a beleagured start, the religion based on his teachings got a history-changing boost in the 4th century, when the Byzantine emperor Constantine followed his mother’s example in converting to Christianity.  Virtually overnight, the fragile new faith was transformed from capital crime to the official religion of western empire, launching an aggressive expansion.  That early lesson stuck: it’s better to be with the empire than against it.

Constantine’s mother Helena, later St Helena, was given the task of establishing a string of churches throughout the suddenly Christian empire.  Jerusalem was a prime site.  Around 326 CE, Helena announced that she had found the actual cross on which Jesus was crucified three centuries before, and the actual tomb from which his followers believe he ascended to heaven three days later.  She directed that a garden be built to commemorate the place of the crucifixion, and a small church erected around the tomb, atop a demolished temple to the goddess Venus that a previous Roman emperor had caused to be built.  This tomb-enclosure survives as the heart of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.  To house Christian worship, Constantine ordered that a basilica be added to the east of the tomb.

While we scan the exterior façade of the church, the two historians share what they know of this place, what can be assumed with some confidence, and what is believed. As academics they are meticulously careful in their presentation, especially, I notice, to avoid ranking any set of beliefs over any other – not an easy task in such a continuously embattled realm.  Each of us listening can draw whatever conclusions we like.

“This façade we’re looking at,” Dr Shagrir explains, “was built by the Crusaders sometime in the 12th century.”  Over the entrance, repeating shapes are cut into the arch like stacked flatbread.  “That’s called pillow design,” she says.  “It’s typical of the Crusader period.  After 1099 the Crusaders put the crucifixion, the tomb and the place of the cross all under one roof.  That’s what we see here today.  It’s the most sacred shrine of Christianity.”

The Christian invasion

The European invasion known as The First Crusade occurred in the last decade of the 11th century. It was sparked by Pope Urban II in 1095 with a series of ferocious sermons across Catholic Europe, in which he denounced Muslims – or Saracens, as they were called at the time, a term that evoked both contempt and fear – as pagans, rapists, defilers of Christian holy places, and all in all “a race absolutely alien to God.” At the launch of this vicious campaign, it is reported that when the Pope called for an invasion of Jerusalem a great roar went up from the assembled crowd: Deus vult! God wills it!

Why vilify Muslims? As the Roman/Byzantine empire collapsed, Palestine passed into Muslim control for almost 700 years, and with it, Jerusalem.  According to most historical accounts, for most of this period Christians and Jews lived and practised their faiths in relative freedom alongside Muslims.  At the same time, by the end of the 11th century the eastern Christian churches had all slipped from Rome’s control into that of the Greek Orthodox Church.  Whether or not Pope Urban II believed his own propaganda, he did need a compelling cause to bring the whole Christian empire under his control.  The chosen vehicle would be a great crusade to reclaim the holy land for Christ, or at least for Rome.

Since there were virtually no standing armies  in Europe at the time, one would have to be created.  To recruit volunteers, the Pope offered rewards both temporal and eternal: for the nobles, any territory they could conquer in the holy land, and for all, remission of past sins.  Chief among the sins to be forgiven was murder, if it was done in the name of Jesus.  At a stroke of the papal pen, sin became salvation.

An army of 40-60,000 started out on the long march from Europe to Palestine.  Many defected along the way, or died in battle or from disease.  In early June some 12-15,000 survivors reached Jerusalem.  In the roasting heat of full summer they laid siege to the thick-walled, well-defended city.  Finally at about midday on July 15, 1099, they managed to break through a section of the northern wall east of Herod’s Gate, a short walk from where we are standing in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

According to Crusader eye-witness reports, within two days nearly all the Muslims in the city were killed.  Jews sought refuge in the synagogue; the Crusaders burned them alive.  Fulcher, a chaplain and chronicler from Chartres, wrote of the Christian invaders’ motives: “They desired that this place, so long contaminated by the superstition of pagan inhabitants, should be cleansed from their contagion.”  Several reports describe a triumphal procession of nobles and clergy to the Holy Sepulchre, through streets that ran with blood – some said as deep as the ankle, some the knee. The Crusaders chanted as they marched: Deus vult! Deus vult!  God wills it.

When I refer to the Crusaders as invaders, Dr Talmon-Heller comments, “It’s my impression that many Crusaders didn’t think of themselves as invaders.”  Dr Shagrir adds, “They believed it was theirs to have, and they were just reclaiming it.”  This approach seems consistent for most imperial invaders.

Now our little group has entered the Crusaders’ church.  Directly in front of us is the Stone of Anointing, which believers hold to be on the place where Jesus’ body was prepared for burial.  People crowd in and kneel to stroke or kiss the red marble slab, some wiping it first with a tissue or kerchief.

Turning to the right, we climb narrow curving stone steps up to Golgotha, the Mount of Calvary, the official site of the crucifixion.  Here pilgrims kneel to touch the rock – or at least the protective glass that surrounds it – in which the cross is believed to have been set.  Dr Talmon-Heller explains, “The belief is that when Jesus was crucified, an earthquake cracked this rock, revealing the skull of Adam beneath.  It’s very powerful symbolism, where the blood of Jesus redeems man from the original sin.”

As we watch the faithful prostrate themselves to touch the glass, light a candle and deposit money, it occurs to me that here on Mount Calvary is a darker strand in Christian history, this one woven so intricately into the fabric of the religion that it has become virtually subconscious.  There it serves as the deepest root of anti-semitism: “The Jews killed Jesus.”  Over many centuries this phrase, as simple and compelling as Deus vult, has led legions of people who profess to be Christian to commit crimes on an unimaginable scale.

Peoples of the book

Anti-semitism was largely a European creation, closely linked to the imperial religion. The massacres in Jerusalem were not the first or last.  Even when earlier and later crusaders from Europe failed to reach their intended goal, they committed widespread pogroms enroute, wiping out whole communities of Jews.  Originally the term Semitic described a family of related languages and the peoples who spoke them, living in a broad arc from the eastern Mediterranean to the Arabian peninsula.  Though anti-semitism has come to be narrowly defined as hatred of Jews, at its root it reviles Islamic peoples with a fervour at least as intense.

By ironic contrast, in the scriptures and history of Islam a place of respect is granted to Jews and Christians.  The Quran reveres the prophets that came before Mohammad, including Abraham, Moses and Jesus, and it forbids persecution of “people of the book,” Muslims, Jews and Christians.  At the height of Muslim Spain, Jews famously flourished, generating some of the great mediaeval poets, philosophers and scientists. Scholars of the three faiths collaborated in Toledo to translate ancient Greek texts.

As the European Catholics completed their Reconquista of Spain in the 15th century, they launched the Spanish Inquisition, a European version of the Crusades, essentially a religious reign of terror.  Muslims and Jews – and later, Protestants – were offered a stark choice: convert, get out, or be killed. Many thousands of Jews and Muslims fled, and found refuge in Islamic countries in North Africa and the Middle East.  Apparently this was the origin of the Sephardic Jews, refugees from imperial Christianity.

Now we are approaching the Edicule, a rectangular building at the centre of a towering circular rotunda.  High above, dust-dotted light streams through windows at the peak of the dome.  Inside the Edicule are two small rooms.  First is the Chapel of the Angels, which holds the Angel’s Stone, a fragment of the boulder believed to have sealed the tomb after Jesus’ burial.  Above, in a tiny chamber on the roof of the Edicule is the tomb, encased in marble.

For many Christians this is the holiest place on earth.  A river of pilgrims flows around us toward the entrance into the Edicule, a single small door.  When our guides tell us it could take an hour or more just to reach the door, we elect to watch from without.  I notice that just before entering, each pilgrim lights, then extinguishes a paper torch.

“Ah,” says Dr Iris Shagrir, “the story of the fire.  It represents the light of the world, a synonym for Jesus, come down from heaven after the resurrection.  Each year on the day after Good Friday, the patriarchs go inside and wait for the light to come down.  In 1100, the first Easter after the Crusader conquest, apparently the fire didn’t come.  We have narratives of people weeping, imploring God please to give them the miracle.”  Dr Talmon-Heller adds, “The Eastern Christians blamed the Crusaders, they said this was God’s revenge after the Crusaders usurped their right to manage the church.”

On this tour, I’m frequently struck by the things human beings are capable of accepting, and doing, in the name of their faith.

The centre of the world

Next, a quick visit to the Omphalos, the navel or centre of the world.  The Greeks set it at Delphi, the Jews at the Temple Mount.  The victorious Crusaders moved it here, where it is now marked by a marble vessel in the sumptuously ornate Greek Orthodox cathedral.  Off to the side are some surprisingly plain wooden planks.  “Those protect the tombs of some very big knights who had won the privilege to be buried here,” says Dr Shagrir.  “Once I tried to lift one of those planks to see the inscription on the tomb, and you can’t believe how many people jumped on me, Armenians from here, Greek Orthodox from there.  You can’t see them right now, but if you were to touch anything, look out!”

Foregoing further crowded chapels, we emerge into the hot white light of midday in East Jerusalem.  We turn a corner into the cardo, the main street in Roman times, now a Palestinian market with shops of every sort, some clearly geared to tourists, some to local trade, selling sweets, vegetables, holy souvenirs, meat, spices, music, clothes, fabrics, furniture.  Iris Shagrir buys strong mint candies, which her brother tells her are the only thing that keeps him from smoking.  On the roof of one building I see signs I’ve come to recognize as marking a settler house – blue and white Israeli flags, a steel fence topped with razor wire, security cameras.  In a clothing store I see a black t-shirt on display, with white lettering that reads, “Israel: Uzi Does It.”

We stop for lunch at Lina’s hummus shop, a sliver of restaurant with several men preparing food downstairs, half a dozen small tables upstairs.  My Jerusalem hosts claim that here you’ll find the best hummus in Israel, perhaps in the entire world – always fresh, no preservatives, and a touch more lemony than usual.  Whether or not it’s actually in Israel is an open question, at least according to international law.  But in any case, as a hummus neophyte I’m a convert.  At the same time, as everything here does for me, even hummus raises questions.

By most accounts this is a dish of Arabic origin.  For many centuries it has been a staple food for Palestinians, inexpensive, tasty and nutritious.  But some Israelis claim the dish as their own, some arguing a reference to it in the Bible.  Sitting here in East Jerusalem, scooping up Lina’s lemony hummus with my bits of pita envelope, it occurs to me that even this lovely human creation embodies the agony of the splintered land so many call Holy.

The “City of Peace” has hardly known a moment of it because, fatefully, the faithful of three major religions believe it contains fundamental keys to their faith.  The same can be said for the particular faith of secular Zionists.  Religious Jews believe the Temple Mount contains the rock on which Abraham offered to sacrifice his son; it is also the site of the First and Second Temples, long destroyed.  Muslims hold sacred the Haram al-Sharif – the same place as the Temple Mount – as the original direction of prayer for Muslims before Mecca, and the site of Prophet Muhammad’s ascent into heaven; it is home to two venerated mosques, the al-Aqsa and the Dome of the Rock.  As we saw in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, for Christians this place is sacred because it is here, they believe, that their Saviour was crucified, buried and resurrected.

These holy sites are located in East Jerusalem.  When the state of Israel was established in 1948, a UN-brokered agreement created the so-called Green Line, dividing the city into two sectors, West Jerusalem under Israeli control and East Jerusalem under Jordanian control.  The indigenous Arab residents were not consulted on the arrangement.

In 1967 Israel occupied East Jerusalem, and shortly after replaced the Arab municipality with Israeli jurisdiction and administration.  But most countries in the world, even the United States, still consider East Jerusalem to be occupied territory. Following the passage of Israel’s Jerusalem Law in 1980, which declared the city, “complete and united”, to be the capital of Israel, the UN Security Council passed a resolution that called this law “a violation of international law,” and requested all member states to withdraw their embassies from the city.  Virtually all countries complied.  And there it stands.  Meanwhile, Israel continues to confiscate Palestinian lands and homes to build Jewish-only settlements throughout East Jerusalem.

A bone in the throat

The Crusades are not finished here.  They stick like a bone in the throat of the Middle East.

The Semitic peoples, both Jews and Muslims, were vilified by European Christians partly because they were other and exotic, but also because they posed an obstacle to the expansion of the Christian empire.  Conveniently, the Europeans (and their derivatives in the Americas and elsewhere) regarded them as primitives, people of the land.  Whether Jew in the shtetl or ghetto, or Arab in the desert wastes, they were regarded similarly to the ‘savages’ of the New World – ignorant, governed by superstition, and like animals, subject to the whims of nature. This was an image that post-Enlightenment Europeans desperately wanted to transcend, at least for themselves, and ultimately to erase.  They regarded themselves as uniquely modern, sophisticated, technological, and powerful.  In the battle with nature, surely it was they who would triumph.  Anything in their way, including people of the land, would be disposable.

Israel was an imperial creation, a gift from the British empire that it had no legitimate right to give.  Israel’s exists partly due to the Zionists’ initiative and combativeness, but primarily because its existence suits the ‘great powers.’  From the late 19th century to the present, the Zionist movement – a product of European thought and politics – and the state it created have made themselves indispensable to western imperial power.  In 1898, Zionist founder Theodor Herzl wrote in Der Judenstaat/The Jews’ State: “To Europe we would represent a part of the barrier against Asia; we would serve as the outpost of civilization against barbarism.”  Never again would Jews be on the wrong side, the losing side of history.

Ironically though, while the strategic alliance of Israeli Zionists with powerful British and American fundamentalist Christians has helped Israel to establish itself throughout Palestine, it deliberately ignores the second part of the Christian agenda. Based on the fundamentalist reading of scripture, in the first part God will return the Jews to the Promised Land.  But after that it’s not all milk and honey.  The primary task of the Jews is to prepare for the end of the world, Armageddon, the final battle between God and Satan.  At that point Jews would face almost the same choice they did in 15th century Spain: either convert to Christianity and be saved, or face what the best-selling US Christian writer Hal Lindsey calls “the mother of all Holocausts.”  The third choice for Spanish Jews, to seek refuge in a tolerant Muslim country, would no longer be available.

As well as being a useful ally, the Israelis have proved themselves as modern, sophisticated, technological, and powerful as the Europeans, no longer subject to nature, but like Europeans and Americans they master and transform it.  Look, they made the desert bloom.

Meanwhile, through the western, still predominantly Christian lens, Arabs and/or Muslims remain exotically and dangerously other, “not like us.”  How easy they are, then and now, to demonize.

“This crusade, this war on terrorism, is going to take awhile.” George W. Bush, President of the United States, September 16, 2001.

“Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.”  Pope Benedict XVI, September 12, 2006, quoting uncritically a statement by Byzantine Christian emperor Manuel II Paleologus in 1391.  A few days later, after a storm of outrage from many quarters, the Pope said he was sorry – not for his statement, but because Muslims had failed to understand it.

Deus vult.  God wills it.

Author: Michael Riordon

Canadian writer and documentary-maker Michael Riordon writes/ directs/produces books and articles, audio, video and film documentaries, plays for radio and stage. A primary goal of his work is to recover voices and stories of people who have been silenced or marginalized, written out of the official version: First Nations (aboriginal) youth, Mozambican farmers, inmates in Canadian prisons, traditional healers in Fiji, queer folk across Canada, Guatemalan labour activists. Michael also leads courses, workshops and seminars for community organizations, trade unions, schools, colleges and universities.

3 thoughts on “7. Deus vult: God wills it

  1. I’m so glad you are doing this blog to share the stories that didn’t make it into the book. This story is a rich overview of a history I know so little about. It is also a good reminder to pay attention to the history that is being made today and who is being affected.


  2. Have been reading these stories with fascination. Great insights into everyday life for those whose lives are caught up in the turbulence and oppression which results, as you suggest from age-old ignorance and arrogance.


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