Two key periods in the last one thousand years were the Crusades and the rise of the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire. Due to its central location and sacred association, Jerusalem had a front row seat. The city that we know today was greatly impacted by both entities.
Jerusalem’s central location and sacred association guaranteed it a front-row seat to history’s greatest drama. One of these key events was the Crusades in the Middle Ages.
The Crusades 1099-1187 AD
The Crusades were a period of several European invasions of the holy land; they were considered a long overdue pushback after four centuries of Islamic conquests. It was a controversial period of claims and counterclaims. The main thing is that the pilgrims were motivated by piety to ‘defend the Holy Sepulchre’ and guarantee free access to all Christian holy sites in the land.
The first crusade succeeded in conquering Jerusalem in July 1099. The victorious Christians set up the ‘Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem.’ They turned the Dome of the Rock and the al Aqsa Mosque into Christian houses of worship. They left an architectural legacy that remains to this day. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, destroyed in 1010 AD, was completely restored and the building you now see today dates back to the Crusader period, though it was only a third of its Constantinian size.
In 1187 Saladin, the Ayyub leader, won the battle at the Horns of Hattin near the Sea of Galilee. This gave him the springboard to take Jerusalem from the Crusaders. Even the militarily gifted King of England, Richard the Lion-Hearted, failed to recover Jerusalem. Except for a brief period of negotiated Crusader rule from 1229-1244, Jerusalem would not have another Christian ruler until the 20th Century.
Second Muslim Period: 1187-1917 AD
1187-1260: The holy city returned to Ayyubid rule back in 1187 AD, though the crusader presence in the holy land continued until the fall of Acre in 1292. The Mongols, who once had the largest empire in history, were almost unstoppable but yet met their defeat at Ain Jalut in the Jezreel Valley at the hands of Sultan Baibars.
1260-1517: From this date in 1260 the Mamluks took over. Ruling from Egypt, these freed slaves became a powerful force in the land. Some of their buildings still stand in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City to this day.
1517-1917: Another Muslim power, this time from Turkey, won battles at Marj Dabiq (Aleppo) and Younis Khan (near Gaza). Thus commenced the four-hundred-year occupation of the Ottomans, based in Constantinople (Istanbul). Their rule was so long and their footprints so deep that abundant evidence of the Ottoman presence, physically and legally, is still with us to this day. Their Central Asian conquering heritage caused them to capture and administer lands in three continents: North Africa, SE (Balkan) Europe, and Western Asia. Though Islam has a history of successful military conquests, the Ottomans were the first Muslim military to have a potent navy, and they used it to full effect.
The first Sultan to rule over Jerusalem, Selim, had gone a step further. He named himself the Caliph of (Sunni) Islam. This title was bestowed on all his successors until the caliphate was abolished in 1924 by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of the Turkish Republic.
For those who have visited Jerusalem, you will appreciate the legacy of the next Sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent. An ‘Islamic Nehemiah,’ in the years 1535-38, he is credited for building the walls of the Old City that we have with us today. In 1541, he did something of symbolic significance: Suleiman sealed the Golden Gate, known as the Eastern Gate, the one Jesus used to enter the holy city after His triumphal procession. It is expected that He will again enter through this gate – unsealed – during His glorious return.
After the high point of Suleiman’s wall-building legacy, Jerusalem declined economically from the 16th to 19th centuries. Despite this neglect, the European powers became vitally interested in the city, particularly the holy places. Russia took the side of the Greek Orthodox Church while France and the Venetians aligned themselves with the Roman Catholics, locally known as ‘the Latins.’
Unholy Fight for a Holy Site
The biggest rope in the tug-o-war was Christendom’s premier site, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the traditional location of Calvary and the tomb of Christ. It was administered by six denominations, the major ones being the Orthodox, Catholics and Armenians. It is no secret that the prime chapels of the Church were held by the Greeks, including the Chapel of the Crucifixion and the actual sepulchre itself. The competition between the groups was so fierce that it was not uncommon for one group to lock out another from the church. There have even been physical altercations. Any changes in the status of these chapels could spark an international incident; the missing silver ‘Star of Bethlehem’ in the Grotto of the Nativity was one of the pretexts for starting the Crimean War.
For years, the Catholics put pressure on the Ottomans to restore their rights to these chief chapels. An Ottoman ruling in 1757 gave ‘joint ownership’ of the shrines but the Catholics viewed it as a Greek triumph, especially because they continued to retain the prized chapels. When the Catholics objected, the Ottoman representative said bluntly: These holy sites, though Christian, belong to the sultan and he can give them to whoever he wants.
Nearly a century later in 1850, France demanded the Ottomans restore Catholic oversight of key sites, like the church’s rotunda, the sepulchre itself, the stone of unction, etc. In February 1852 Sultan Abdul Megid issued his famous landmark firman (decree) which said: whoever owns a chapel today, owns it forever. The erstwhile de facto situation became de jure. This decree, known as ‘The Status Quo of the Holy Places,’ remains in force to this day.
What the Ottomans learned was that adjudicating the Christian holy sites was a thankless job. What they wisely learned is: to make a decision, seal it in concrete, and don’t touch it again. Their British, Jordanian, and Israeli successors were destined to learn this same lesson. Though none of them were bound by Ottoman decrees, they discovered that even mentioning a possible change of the status quo stirred up a hornet’s test. Touching this issue was simply not worth it inevitable fallout.
After Caliph Omar’s conquest of Jerusalem in 638 AD, apart from the Crusader period, Christians would not rule the city again until General Allenby walked through the Jaffa Gate on Hanukkah, in December 1917. The time of the Gentiles was entering its twilight.
TO BE CONTINUED