In dubious Battle on the Plains of Heav'n



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"In dubious Battle on the Plains of Heav'n":

The Politics of Possession in Jerusalem's Holy Sepulchre

Abstract: Debates about the "divisibility" or "sharing" of religious sites continue to engage historians, political scientists and anthropologists. This paper assesses the issue of agency in two of the more salient critiques of religious coexistence before approaching the Holy Sepulchre, or Anastasis, as a site for investigating the way various constituencies, most significantly visiting pilgrims and resident monks, have dealt with issues of "sharing". It contends that inter-communal antagonisms there originate with elite struggles over the possessions of places - struggles which tend to engage political actors far from the site of the conflicts rather than local communities - and concludes that, rather than accept an "identitarian politics" which assumes a profound "civilisational" attachment of cultures to religious identities, we must carefully assess the "politics of possession" which variously play out in sites of inter-communal engagement.

Key Words: inter-communal relations, shrines, status quo, antagonism, sharing, property.

It was a quiet morning on Golgotha a few days before Easter 1984, and three or four black-garbed Greek Cypriot women were huddled in silent prayer in the Orthodox Chapel of the Exaltation of the Cross that commemorates the site where the instrument of Jesus's crucifixion was raised. Suddenly, a clamour of exuberant chanting ascended the stairs leading from the ground floor of the Holy Sepulchre (known to the Orthodox as the Anastasis [Resurrection]) and burst onto Calvary in the form of a score of Catholic pilgrims exulting at being able to witness the 11th station of the Via Dolorosa, the Latin shrine commemorating Christ's nailing to the Cross. One of the Orthodox women looked at the newcomers, grimaced, and directed the apotropaic sign of the evil eye towards them.

Overtly the situation seems to need little interpretation; the fear and aversion manifested by the Greek Orthodox pilgrim in response to the presence of the French Catholics is a clear sign of antagonism, and seems to indicate an immediate, practically instinctual, antipathy to the presence of the other. Certainly no Orthodox priest was around to orchestrate the response, and it is highly unlikely that the Cypriot pilgrim -- an elderly resident of a village to the west of Nicosia -- had had her reaction shaped by previous confrontations with French Catholics. The woman was on Orthodox holy ground and something seemingly unholy was threatening to intrude on that space. Sharing the place was out of the question even if a -- temporary and hostile -- cohabitation seemed unavoidable.

This confrontation may seem an odd image with which to open a discussion of 'sharing' holy places in that it foregrounds the incomprehension and antipathy which can be thrown up by the juxtapositioning of members of different religious communities in or around mutually revered sites. Such responses appear to be inescapable when sites and objects central to people's interaction with the powers they interpret as determining their physical and spiritual well-being are rendered accessible to others they perceive as fundamentally different from themselves and thus potentially hostile to that well-being. An assumption of a situational, if not necessarily inherent, antagonism seems commonsensical in such situations, and images such as that sketched above render that antagonism self-evident. Rather, however, than accepting the self-evident as indicative of fundamental truths, the anthropologist must inquire into the shaping of the moment -- the framing of the image -- to understand what has enabled it to speak its 'truth'. The following paper will attempt such a contextualisation in an attempt to deconstruct that apparently spontaneous antagonism. It will, in so doing, open with analyses which, building on the assumption of inherent inter-communal antagonisms, argue that sacred sites cannot be shared.

* * *


The 'sharing' of holy places has become a topic of renewed investigation in academic circles, most likely prompted by the 'clash of civilisations' debate (itself rendered topical by the events of 11 September 2001) and the way that debate foregrounds the question of whether different 'cultural complexes' can cohabit peacefully. Two scholars, one a political scientist and the other an anthropologist, are profoundly pessimistic about coexistence around sacred sites, although the anthropologist's argument allows for periods of apparently benign mixing before its dissolution.

In a recent book, aptly titled War on Sacred Grounds, the political scientist Ron Hassner has argued that 'sacred sites pose an indivisibility problem: they cannot be shared' (Hassner 2009: 3). Although Hassner initially draws on Eliade and theology (and not on empirical observation) to present the sacred site as an axis mundi 'offer[ing] believers a pure and unmediated experience of the sacred...[enabling them to] witness the divine, converse with the gods, receive blessings, or relive an event of historical religious significance' (Ibid: 24), his focus rapidly shifts to the seemingly inevitable threat of antagonistic desecration that, through the rest of his argument, reveals itself as constitutive of his conception of holy places. In War on Sacred Grounds as well as in a later paper, "The Pessimist's Guide to Religious Coexistence" (Hassner 2009) that uses the Anastasis to argue his case, Hassner links all the positive aspects of sacred sites to a litany of risks to which they respectively render the communities revering them vulnerable:

access to the divine attracts desecration;

legitimation evokes the threat of usurpation;

the provision of meaning makes possible 'attack from those seeking to...strike at the heart of the group's values, heritage and pride';

and a locale for celebrating the group calls up action intended 'to exact substantial casualties from the target community' (Hassner 2010: 147-149).

Hassner sees the religious other as inherently antagonistic, and presents the holy place as a bounded fortress armed by its devotees against the threat of that other's inevitable desecration.

Insofar as Hassner argues that 'sacred places invite conflict with rival groups who strive to compete for access or legitimacy or who simply wish to inflict harm on their opponents' (Ibid: 149), it is clear that his thesis is meant to apply to religious sites generally rather than exclusively to those which bring about direct encounters between devotees of different religions. Religion becomes, in Hassner's discourse, effectively the same as 'civilisation' in that of Samuel Huntington (Huntington 1993, Huntington 1996). Just as Huntington argues generically about individuals that 'the civilization to which he [sic] belongs is the broadest level of identification with which he intensely identifies (Huntington 1993: 24) so Hassner appears to define religious affiliation as a primordial (one might say 'essential') identity. Also resonant with Huntington's discourse is Hassner's conception of religious identity as bifurcated. Bowdlerising Geertz, who Hassner claims to emulate (Hassner 2009: 177), one might say that for Hassner religious identity is both 'identity for (one's deepest self) and an identity against (the antagonistic other)'. That primal antipathy means that the spatial coexistence of peoples of different religious identities is, effectively, an impossibility and that the only way to prevent violent and recurrent conflict between communities is to separate them: 'rather than seek examples for successful conflict management where none exist, students of religious coexistence should focus their efforts on analyzing cases in which groups have avoided conflict altogether by worshipping at separate sites (Hassner 2010: 153).

The anthropologist Robert Hayden presents a more nuanced conceptualisation of religious coexistence, allowing for periods of apparently non-conflictual sharing of holy places. Nonetheless, in "Antagonistic Tolerance: Competitive Sharing of Religious Sites in South Asia and the Balkans" (2002), he argues that sharing is profoundly tenuous and depends on a balance of power between the parties involved:

...coexistence may be a matter of competition between members of different groups manifesting the negative definition of tolerance as passive noninterference and premised on a lack of ability of either group to overcome the other.... processes of competition between groups that distinguish themselves from each other may be manifested as syncretism yet still result, ultimately, in the exclusion of the symbols of one group or another from a religious shrine (Hayden 2002: 206 and 228).

When that balance is thrown off, because of external intervention or internal developments, hostilities erupt that lead either to stalemate and a re-establishment of stasis or to the cleansing of signs of the defeated group from the site1. It appears that, regardless of historical contingencies and developments, identities remain salient markers of difference that will, given the opportunity, antagonistically assert themselves against other religious communities and their practices. Even during periods of seeming concord an identitarian animosity rages beneath relations, manifest in what Hayden calls "antagonistic tolerance".

A question that comes to the fore in examining inter-communal relations around religious sites is "what causes seeming harmonious relations to erupt into violent antagonisms?". According to the models of both Hassner and Hayden such eruptions are inevitabilities simply waiting for a prompt to erupt. Hassner regards any overlap of claims of sovereignty over a holy place as explosive - 'the centrality and vulnerability of sacred space [ ] creates a combustible combination: territory of supreme value, disputed and indivisible' (Hassner 2009: 69) - whereas for Hayden any suggestion that the balance of power between sharing communities is shifting provokes open competition with strong potentialities for violence. Although Hayden is conscious of the role of elites in provoking conflict, he sees the spark that fires inter-communal conflagrations as falling on already-smouldering and highly receptive tinder. For him, as for Hassner, conflict expresses a 'contestation of peoples' (Hayden 2002: 212). For both the eruption of hostilities is consensual, an expression of popular will. In Hayden's formulation of antagonistic tolerance as in Hassner's insistence on the indivisibility of sacred space we are told we hear the Vox Populi -- the voice of the people.

***

But is this will to exclusion and separation, whether violent or not, necessarily the will of the people? Other works on the sharing of holy places have suggested that relations can be far more convivial than either Hassner or Hayden contend, and assert variously that sharing, rather than inevitably erupting into violent fission, may in some cases be relatively permanent, may in others give rise to new amalgams of identity, or may reestablish itself after temporary collapses into communal separation2. In many of these cases the inter-religious community manifest around shared sites can be seen to reflect the everyday life of people who, though differentiated by nominal religious affiliations, live together in the vicinity of sacred sites and share in facing crises and contingencies which impel them to call on sacred powers. It is not, however, the purpose of the paper to provide case studies countering the arguments of Hassner and Hayden or to elaborate on arguments developed elsewhere. Instead I wish to examine the issue of agency foregrounded in the above analyses of Hassner's and Hayden's work in order to query from whom the insistence on indivisibility and the the demand for hegemonic control originates. Using the example of the Anastasis, where I carried out twenty three months of fieldwork in the early to mid 1980s and to which I have returned numerous times since, I demonstrate that there inter-communal antagonism between lay members of religious congregations is a result of the encounter with groups unfamiliar with each other in a domain far from home. When, however, groups actually sharing the site - effectively co-resident therein - come into conflict the struggle is between elite clerical groups, often controlled by powerful political forces outside the site, whose concerns are far more with issues of property than with theology.



* * *

The Anastasis, or Holy Sepulchre, traditionally the locus of Christianity, concentrates the problems of sharing sacra in an intense manner. Perhaps most saliently the Anastasis brings together -- while keeping separate -- persons not of different religions but of familial branches of the same religion. Thus, as distinct from the multi-religious shrines attended to by the majority of other scholars concerned with shared shrines, the Anastasis is associated with just one religion. According to the 1852 firman of the Status Quo, which will be discussed below, the three dominant Christian religions of Jerusalem -- the Armenian Orthodox, the Greek Orthodox and the Catholic3 -- differentially share 'possessory rights' (Cust 1929: 14) over the Anastasis and its grounds. Superimposed on these 'possessory rights' are temporally and spatially regulated rights of usage distributed amongst a number of other Christian sects including the Syrian Orthodox, the Coptic Orthodox, and the Ethiopian Orthodox. The Status Quo effectively choreographs the relations of these communities in the Holy Places over which it legislates. A number of other Christian churches, which in the mid-nineteenth century had either not yet come into being or not been granted rights to carry out formal rituals and ceremonies within the precincts of the church, nonetheless have local and pilgrim populations which visit and worship within the Anastasis; these include the various Eastern Catholic or 'Uniate' churches (the Melkites or Greek Catholics, the Syrian Catholics, the Armenian Catholics, and the Maronites) as well as various breakaway branches of the Latin church (the Anglicans and the numerous Protestant denominations which continue to revere the Anastasis). As a result the Anastasis is spectacularly polyvalent and is, at certain times, thronged with a multitude of people who, while being in accord about the significance of the compound as the site of Jesus's death and resurrection, follow different ritual routines, worship in different languages, and struggle to occupy at various times the same limited bits of sacred ground (cf. Bowman 1991).



At any one time, and particularly on occasions when Orthodox and Latin feast days coincide, members of as many as twenty seven recognised Christian churches (and within the membership of each a significant heterogeneity in terms of places and cultures of origin) may be present in the Anastasis. In addition to persons affiliated to 'churches' there are as well religious and secular tourists, most of whom are from Christian cultures but some of whom are a-religious or members of other religions. The potential for confrontation is accordingly high; for the most part visitors are far from home amongst others whose practices and deportment are unfamiliar and who seem to be attempting to access places and things to which many of those visitors have been led to believe they have exclusive and God-given rights. In light of this it is surprising that confrontation remains for the most part latent, surfacing when it does in rarely more than the ill-tempered grimace, the surreptitious shove, or hostile gestures such as that discussed above.

What also does not occur, except debatably in well choreographed events such as the Sabta Nur ('Saturday Light' or 'Holy Fire') ceremony on Easter Saturday (Hecht 1995), is anything like what Victor Turner refers to as communitas:

"a moment in and out of time", and in and out of secular social structure, which reveals, however fleetingly, some recognition (...) of a generalized social bond that has ceased to be and has simultaneously yet to be fragmented into a multiplicity of structural ties (Turner 1969: 97).

Turner's conception of 'communitas', which he, and later his wife Edith, applied to contemporary Christian pilgrimage in a number of works (Turner 1969, Turner 1974, Turner 1974, Turner 1974, Turner 1975, Turner and Turner 1978), suggests that the process of approaching a holy place -- the 'goal' of pilgrimage -- generates a radical solidarity in pilgrims via an enthusiasm akin to Emile Durkheim's 'effervescence' (Durkheim 1995: 216-221, but see Sallnow 1981 and Eade and Sallnow 1991). Turner, however, argues that 'communitas is...strikingly different from Durkheimian "solidarity," the force of which depends upon an in-group/out-group contrast' (Turner 1969: 132). For him the solidarity communitas produces is virtually limitless, extending to all within the pilgrims' ken, and profoundly resistant to hierarchicisation; as he and Edith claim in their study on Christian pilgrimage, the phenomenon is characterised by a

deep non-rational fellowship before symbols of transmundane beings and powers,...posing... unity and homogeneity (even among the most diverse cultural groups) against the disunity and heterogeneity of ethnicities, cultures, classes and professions in the mundane sphere (Turner and Turner 1978: 39).

At busy moments in the Anastasis -- such as during the Holy Fire ceremony on Easter Saturday -- one might have the impression of an undifferentiated mass moving sluggishly but passionately through the corridors and stairways of the medieval complex past a scattering of sites of ritualised activities4. I would argue, however, that this flow, rather than providing an image of 'a relational quality of full unmediated communication, even communion, between definite and determinate identities' (Ibid: 250) is better expressed by Edgar Allen Poe's description of an uncanny stream of something like water found flowing in the negative utopia which provides the setting of the final pages of The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (1838)

the whole mass of liquid was made up of a number of distinct veins, each of a distinct hue; ... these veins did not commingle; and ... their cohesion was perfect in regard to their own particles among themselves, and imperfect in regard to neighboring veins. Upon passing the blade of a knife athwart the veins, the water closed over it immediately, as with us, and also, in withdrawing it, all traces of the passage of the knife were instantly obliterated. If, however, the blade was passed down accurately between the two veins, a perfect separation was effected, which the power of cohesion did not immediately rectify (Poe 1960: 151).



In the Anastasis, as in the other 'shared' shrines of the what Christians term 'the Holy Land', different denominational communities may coexist, but they are as likely to commune as they are to share communion; 'sharing' for the most part functions through mutual disregard, and when that disregard is disrupted the result is far more likely to be incomprehension and confrontation than communication and empathy.

Pilgrim groups moving through both the secular and sacred terrains of Israel/Palestine tend to move in coherent units held together either (or both) by the constitutive members' previous knowledge of each other forged in the place from which the group has travelled or (and) by consolidation under the leadership of a spiritual guide who organises the pilgrims' experiences. The 'neighbourliness' in the former instance makes for an 'in group' placing itself in opposition to, or at least in distinction from, others made to perform as 'out groups' in situations of encounter; without the intentional organisation of an assimilative mingling members of such groups are highly unlikely to identify in any way with members of other groups. When groups are directed by a 'spiritual guide' the pilgrim experience is likely to be akin to that which Catherine Schmidt, discussing 'guiding' more generally, describes as an 'insulated adventure' (Schmidt 1979). Here the guide constructs the pilgrim's experience, framing encounters with places in a manner which accords with the group's expectations and interpreting difference in a manner that prevents its disruption of those expectations (cf. Bowman 1992). Unless the guide 'builds' the other into that experience as someone like the pilgrim or something like a 'relevant object', the other will remain a stranger, and potentially an enemy.

During my fieldwork in Jerusalem's Old City, Orthodox Easter was marked by a descent onto the city of hundreds of Cypriot pilgrims dressed in black. For ten days or so the Christian Quarter of the Old City would take on the appearance of a Cypriot village, the narrow streets lined with elderly Cyriots sitting on stools they'd brought with them and the shops filled with Cypriot brandy and halloumi cheese they'd traded for local goods. The Anastasis was crowded with old men and women quietly praying or simply sitting and watching with devout eyes the muted movements of pilgrims and priests who appeared to be appropriate occupants of this portal to paradise. In this context the sudden loud advent of brightly dressed Western pilgrims exulting in being in the setting of Jesus's death and resurrection could only seem an incredible, and somewhat frightening, violence. These were unfamiliar people bursting with unfamiliar ways into a setting which, to the Cypriot peasants, was even more intimately their own than the villages from whence they came. There were also demographics; the three Cypriots in the Chapel of the Plantation were certainly outnumbered by more than a dozen French Catholics. Here the French were an 'out-group' delineating the boundary between 'us' and 'them' while at the same time threatening to overrun it. This was not, however, a matter of a conflict over shared territory à la Hayden but a spontaneous fright response at the appearance of something profoundly intrusive and unfamiliar. The resort to apotropaics was appropriate as a means of invoking protection of an endangered self from the threat of the alien.

In most cases, particularly when the odds were better aligned, 'the other' served to consolidate 'the same' and assure it of the rightness of its deportment. Thus, for instance, individual tourists moving through the Holy Places were 'noise' to organised groups; while they might be irritating, as when they fired off flash guns during liturgical events or treated pilgrims as themselves 'tourist attractions', they often served to do no more than consolidate the worshipful group as 'real pilgrims' in contradistinction to the 'tourists'. The 'insulation' Schmidt wrote of produced both an 'inside' and an 'outside'; while the pilgims, like Schmidt's tourists, could perceive the occupants of that other space and what they were doing, they remained for the most part secure within the space defined by their own projects of worship and peregrination.

* * *


There are, however, events during which this indifference and insulation breaks down, and violence breaks out. Seminal to such events is a particular conception of property. Pilgrims and celebrants in Jerusalem's holy places come to the places as guests; the Anastasis, like all of the other sites falling under the regimen of the Status Quo agreements, is not a parish church and hence has neither parishioners nor parochial duties. Local communities whose members come to these holy places either for calendrical ceremonies or individual prayers have their own parish churches in which not only local versions of the 'central' rituals are carried out but also communal services such as baptisms, christenings, marriages and funerals are performed. Similarly pilgrims have left 'home parishes' to travel to the Holy Land and expect at the holy places 'something different' from what their local churches proffer. When locals and pilgrims come to the Anastasis, the Tomb of the Virgin, the Chapel of the Ascension, the Dar es-Sultan or Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity, they come to sites over which Patriarchates rather than local congregations hold "possessory rights". What this means, in effect, is that these sites are under the immediate jurisdiction of the highest ranking bishops of the respective churches and this, for pilgrims and visitors, associates the places with "religion in general" far more than "religion in the context of the everyday". Furthermore, the resonance of these places with the focal and originary moments of Christian history abstracts them from the local and temporal, associating them far more with the sacred and the universal than with the secular and the quotidian. Visitors and pilgrims move through the holy places in a manner not dissimilar to the "flow" celebrated by Turner (1974) and evoked more uncannily by Poe. They do not imagine themselves, except in the most rarefied theological sense, as "owning" the sacred sites.

The situation is very different for the clergy - almost exclusively monks - affiliated to the monasteries of the authorities holding "possessory rights" over the Status Quo Holy Places. As Richard Hecht indicates, these do not see themselves as "custodians" of the sites, maintaining them for the usage of Christendom generally, but as literal owners of the places: 'the three major communities within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre -- the Greek Orthodox, the Latin Franciscans, and the Armenian Orthodox -- all claim exclusive praedominium to the places they believe they own' (Hecht 1995: 190). Unlike local worshippers and pilgrims who visit the holy sites, these "keepers" are resident in or near the places and spend much of their time there carrying out liturgies and guarding and maintaining the condition of places they see as 'their property'. While the other churches are accorded, and assert, rights of usage (but rarely, except in the case of the Copts and Ethiopians and the Dar es-Sultan, those of ownership), the dominant churches of the Holy Land all seek to assert final ownership of the domains sacralised by the Christian narratives they revere and which ground their authority. Thus Nikos Kazantzakis was told by a Greek monk, during a visit to the Holy Sepulchre in 1927, that "this entire church belongs to us, the Orthodox. All the sacred shrines are ours....[W]e're going to throw the Armenians out....Whatever the Latins tell you is a lie. All their shrines are fakes. I hope to God the day comes when we can throw them out" (Kazantzakis 1973 [orig. 1961]: 153).

Outside the most sacred sites these claims rarely give rise to conflict. Although each church has founded shrines and monasteries at sites they claim are the settings of sacred events, these either commemorate the same events at different places, as with the multiple "Shepherds' Fields" (two Latin and one Greek Orthodox) scattered around the town of Beit Sahour or the three "Prisons of Christ" of Jerusalem's Old City, or focus on different moments of the same event in the same locale, as do the Latin Church of the Transfiguration and the Orthodox Church of St. Elias on the bifurcated peak of Jebel et-Tur or Tabor. As long as the clerics, and the pilgrims, recognise their churches' claims to the authenticity of these sites, and see those of the other churches as fallacious, there are no grounds for dispute. One can, to use the metaphor of differentiated "flow" suggested by Poe, develop both liturgical and pilgrim movements through these commemorative sites which, although they may occasionally run next to, or even across, the paths of other groups, neither intermingle nor conflict with them.

When, however, the churches agree on the sites where core events in the histories of the central figures of Christianity occurred, the question of ownership can come violently to the fore. Thus Cust notes that

[t]he history of the holy places is one long story of bitter animosities and contentions, in which outside influences take part in an increasing degree, until the scenes of Our Lord's life on earth become a political shuttlecock, and eventually the cause of international conflict (Cust 1929: 3-4).

It is important to note his use of the term "increasing"; the early history of the Holy Places is far from as riven by intra-Christian conflict as is the period following the Ottoman-French Capitulations of the early 17th century and certainly as that of the early twentieth century in the wake of the British accession to the Mandate for Palestine.

* * *


The present day Anastasis took shape during the Crusade-established Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, but despite Catholic ownership during the Latin Kingdom the Greek Orthodox and Armenians maintained chapels and 'most of the Eastern Churches celebrated their services under the roof of the Holy Sepulchre' (Luke 1924: 47). After the fall of the Kingdom (Jerusalem is surrendered in 1187, Acre in 1291), Latin supremacy is diluted whilst, under the Ayyubid dynasty, first the Georgians and then the Armenians become the paramount church followed by, under the Ottomans, the Greek Orthodox (Peri 2001: 98ff). Nonetheless, throughout this long period the Anastasis seems to be relatively unproblematically shared. Ludolph of Sudheim reports, in 1348, that although the Georgians are the "Custodians of the Keys of the Holy Sepulchre" there are seven communities in residence, including the Nestorians. Francesco Suriano, in 1485, notes the presence of ten communities in the church while Pietro Casola, nine years later, claims the ownership of the Anastasis is shared by the Latins, Greeks, Georgians, Armenians, Abyssinians, Syrians, Maronites, Jacobites and Copts (he does not list Nestorians).

Although it is not clear from the extant pilgrim narratives how the churches' sharing of the Anastasis and other mutually revered holy places was choreographed, it appears likely that the financial interests of the rulers of the city and of the Jerusalem district had much to do with it. Through pilgrim narratives stretching from Jerusalem's fall to Salah ad-Din to its surrender to General Allenby seven hundred and thirty years later runs a leitmotif of outrage at the taxes collected by authorities from pilgrims at ports, passes, the gates of cities, and the doorways to the holy places themselves. In addition to these, substantial payments were demanded from religious authorities resident in Jerusalem and the holy places to maintain their residence and their hold on those sites. Pilgrimage was clearly good business for the local authorities, and allowing and fostering the presence of a diversity of churches ensured the most expansive, and hence lucrative, catchment area for the pilgrimage. Encouraging competition between the churches over access to and control of sites was even more lucrative, as it ensured a continuous flow of bribes and bids for influence (Peri 2001: 137-148). This was as true for the Abbasids and Mamluks (see Colbi 1969: 60-61) as it was later for the Ottomans:

The Christians were a source of revenue to the Turk, and were, therefore, encouraged....As the number of pilgrims increased, so did the number of holy places, both within and without the Church of the Holy Sepulchre....The Turk looked on in derision, and extracted tribute from all inhabitants of Jerusalem with unrelenting vigour (Cust 1924: 180; also Peri 2001: 161-178)

International developments in the mid-sixteenth century had significant impact upon the local ecclesiastical politics of Jerusalem and the Holy Places. The Ottoman Empire, seeking allies against the threat of the Hapsburgs, opened close relations with France and, beginning in 1536, negotiated a series of trade agreements (Capitulations) with King Françoise I which meant, in effect, that over the following decades of burgeoning international trade 'all European merchants wishing to trade in the Empire had to do so under the French flag' (Faroqhi 2006: 145). The Capitulations allowed Europeans under French patronage rights of residence and trade and extended the protection of that state's extra-territorial jurisdiction to Europeans resident in the Empire as well as to members of sectarian communities taken under its protection (see Masters 2001: 68-80, Peri 2001: 56-63, de Groot, 2003 and Faroqhi 2006: 144-160). France's consequent influence on the Sublime Porte was manifest among other things in French diplomatic championing of the cause of the Catholic Church as an almost national crusade, and this, firmly opposed by the Oecumenical Patriarch of the Greek Orthodox Church (resident in Constantinople), focussed on the issue of the Holy Places.

In 1604 Henry IV negotiated the insertion of clauses in the Capitulations of 20 May offering free access to the Holy Places to subjects and 'friends' of France as well as protection and rights for 'the religious' (read 'Franciscans') living in and serving the Anastasis (Peri 2001: 60f). The Greek Orthodox response was rapid, and in 1605 Sultan Ahmet I issued a firman restricting Latin rights and substantially expanding the territories within the church over which the Greeks had praedominium. Over the following one hundred and fifty three years this struggle for relative hegemony escalated, as did the exactions of the local and imperial authorities. As a result many of the churches which had shared the Anastasis and the Holy Places either withdrew altogether (the Nestorians in 1614 [Meinhardus 1967: 124)] and the Georgians in 1644 [Luke 1924: 54]), substantially reduced their holdings (the Abyssinians retreating to the Dar es-Sultan in around 1670), or took shelter under the dominion of the more powerful churches (as did, for instance, the Maronites and other 'Uniate' churches under the Latins and the Syrian Orthodox under the Armenians). Control over the Holy Places, and particularly those within the Anastasis, was in continuous flux with the praedominium over the central sites at one moment in Latin hands and the next in Orthodox.



Between 1630 and 1637 an effective 'bidding war' went on between the Greek Orthodox and the Latins under the gavel of Sultan Murad IV:

in this brief period the right of pre-eminence (paredominium) in the Holy Places principally concerned, namely, the Holy Sepulchre, the Church of the Tomb of the Virgin near Gethsemene and the Basilica of the Nativity at Bethlehem, alternated no fewer than six times between the two protagonists (Luke 1924: 53).

The translation of rights of usage, or even custodianship, into effective ownership through fierce and pecuniary contestation not only impoverished the Holy Places by stripping away the heterodoxy of communities worshipping there, but also elevated "property rights" to an absolute value. Henry Maundrell, an Oxford academic and clergyman to the Levant Company, writing in 1697, notes through their absence the communities that had previously shared the site -

almost every Christian nation anciently maintained a small society of monks, each society having its proper quarter assigned to it by the appointment of the Turks, such as the Latins, Greeks, Syrians, Armenians, Abyssinians, Georgians, Nestorians, Cophtites [Copts], Maronites, &c., all of which had anciently their several apartments in the church; but these have all, except four, forsaken their quarters, not being able to sustain the severe rents and extortions which their Turkish landlords impose upon them (Maundrell 1703: 70) -

as well as the fury with which those remaining fight to defend the territories they've purchased -

that which has always been the great prize contended for by the several sects is the command and appropriation of the Holy Sepulchre, a privilege contested with so much unchristian fury and animosity, especially between the Greeks and Latins, that, in disputing which party should go into it to celebrate their mass, they have sometimes proceeded to blows and wounds even at the very door of the Sepulchre, mingling their own blood with their sacrifices (Ibid).

Lauding a temporary victory of the Latins, he characterises the 'winner takes all' attitude that came to predominate in this climate:

putting an end to these infamous quarrels, the French king interposed, by a letter to the Grand Vizier...requesting him to order the Holy Sepulchre to be put into the hands of the Latins, according to the tenor of the capitulation made in the year 1673, the consequence of which letter, and of other instances made by the French King, was that the Holy Sepulchre was appropriated by the Latins. This was not accomplished until the year 1690, they alone having the privilege to say mass in it: and though it be permitted to Christians of all nations to go into it for their private devotions, yet none may solemnize any public office of religion there but the Latins (Ibid: 71).

Such exclusionary policies tend to rebound, and in 1757, after a long period of Latin privilege in the Holy Places (including, by a treaty of 1740, praedominium over nearly all of the Anastasis as well as over the Church of the Nativity and the Tomb of the Virgin), the Sultan Osman issued a firman giving the Greek Orthodox control over the greater part of the Anastasis - guardianship of the Edicule (tomb) itself as well as possession of the Katholikon, the Chapel of Adam, the Seven Arches of the Virgin, the Prison of Christ, and the northern half of Calvary (Cohen 2008: 7) - and, outside the Anastasis, praedominium over the Tomb of the Virgin and the Church of the Nativity.

Subsequent developments, saliently the French Revolution, the Napoleonic Wars, the Greek War of Independence, and the burgeoning power of the Russian Empire produced instabilities in the forces working on the Sublime Porte not unlike those refracted in the changing ownership of the Holy Places. Whilst Catholic (and particularly French) pilgrimage waned between the eighteenth and mid-nineteenth centuries under the impact of secularism and revolution, Russian pilgrimage, backed with largesse by the Russian state and Russian Orthodox church, increased exponentially (see Hopwood 1969 and Graham 1916). The Russian Empire, already threatening the Ottoman Empire along shared borders, had taken the mantle of 'protector of Orthodox interests' from the Greek Orthodox patriarchate when the latter fell out of the good favour of the Sublime Porte as a result of the Greek War of Independence. Yet by the mid 1840s Russia's very substantial involvement in Palestine and the Holy Places began to be countered by that of French 'Ultramontanes' who reinvigorated Latin monasteries and schools and pressed Pope Pius IX into re-establishing the Latin Patriarchate in Jerusalem.

Like the Russian Empire, the Second French Republic (about to be declared the Second French Empire) strengthened its claims to popular legitimacy by taking on the role of "Protector of the Holy Places". Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, elected French president in 1848 after the overthrow of the Bourbon monarchy, played the imperial chauvinist card and courted Catholic support (perhaps in anticipation of his well-planned coup d'état of 1851) by directing General Aupick, the French representative at the Sublime Porte, to demand of Sultan Abdul Mecid in 1850 that he reinstate the near full control of the Holy Places the Franciscans had enjoyed after 1740. The Russians objected and in 1852, after hearing the report of an imperial commission on the sites, the Sultan announced that the firman of 1757 was effectively inviolate. A series of threats and counter-threats followed with the French placing warships off Constantinople and in the Bay of Tripoli (as a result of which the Sultan gave the keys to the Church of the Nativity and access to the Tomb of the Virgin to the French) and the Russians placing troops along the Turkish border and beginning military preparations on the Black Sea (as a result of which an unsuccessful flurry of international negotiations, drawing in the British and the Austrians, was initiated). The end result of the internationalisation of the struggle for property rights over the Holy Places was the Crimean War (Temperley 1936: 280-349) and, with its conclusion after three bloody years, the Treaty of Paris that, recognising the dangers residing in juridical unfixity around the Holy Places, authorised the firman of 1852. In 1878 the Congress of Berlin affirmed, in Article 62 of the Treaty of Berlin, what it called the Status Quo Ante Bellum. The largely Greek Orthodox praedominium over the Anastasis and the Holy Places was thus institutionalised in international law.



* * *

I've focussed at length on the complex history of negotiations and conflicts leading up to the instatement of the current Status Quo over the Holy Places in order to illustrate how, when property rights are invoked in the context of shared sites, an "all or nothing" attitude can easily come to predominate. In the case of the Holy Places this gave rise to an ever-escalating struggle which could have been resolved either by one community driving all other contestants from the field or by subordinating the terrain to the authority of a power capable of stilling the struggle. The competition over control of the Anastasis and the other Holy Places initially cleared the field of all but, in effect, the Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Armenian Orthodox churches; Peri writes that 'the struggle for possession of, and worship at, the Holy Sites was mainly the concern of those churches which could afford it' (Peri 2001: 121)5. Subsequently the unremitting competition between the Greek Orthodox and Catholic clergy attracted international forces into the fray, giving rise to a major European war. In the wake of that war the contestants' patrons, most notably France, Russia, Britain and Turkey, effectively "capped" disputes over rights to the Holy Places by accepting Sultan Abdul Mecid's decision to ratify the firman of 1757, thereby restricting escalating conflicts by carefully mapping out what could be done where and by whom. As Emmett Chad indicates this established 'an interlocking system of scattered sovereignty' regulated by 'specific schedules coordinat[ing] very complex orders of procession and prayer' (Chad 1997: 16 and 21). The Status Quo regulations were meant to, in effect, ensure that the officiants of the shared sites would move in accordance with the same 'separated flows' I described as keeping pilgrims co-present but non-conflictual.



The regulations operated in accord with very particular conceptions of property. During the Ottoman Period, as under earlier Islamic regimes, the Holy Places of the "Religions of the Book" (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) fell under the remit of shari'a law which considered them awqaf , 'inalienable religious endowment[s], not mulk, private property' (Cohen 2008: 7). Formally they could be said to belong to God and, although the sovereign had custody of them and could thus grant rights of usage to the sites as well as retract such rights and bequeath them to other users, 'Moslem law did not allow, and in the words of Sir Anton Bertram, "viewed with horror", the alienation of any property devoted to religious purposes' (Zander 1973: 357). One consequence of this is the long -- and still-maintained -- practice of having the keys to the door of the Anastasis kept by a member of a prestigious Muslim family, the Nuseibehs, who opens and shuts the church morning and night. When the British took control of Palestine from the defeated Ottomans after the First World War, they were committed to maintaining the Status Quo not by shari'a but by international law (the Treaty of Berlin) and by a desire to promote good relations with the communities brought under the Mandate. Replacement of Ottoman-Muslim state sovereignty with British-secular sovereignty effectively meant that Islam was reduced from a dominant position to one where it was to be treated equally with the other faiths. General Allenby, entering Jerusalem on the 9th of December 1917, announced that

every sacred building, monument, holy spot, shrine, traditional site, endowment, pious bequest, or customary place of prayer of whatsoever form of the three religions will be maintained and protected according to the existing customs and beliefs of those to whose faith they are sacred (Allenby 1917).

Under what was effectively the secular rule of the Mandate authorities this commendable, but inevitably unfulfilled, aspiration had two consequences: one was the extension of the domain covered by the Status Quo to take in a much wider field of holy places (encompassing a number of Jewish and Muslim sites and adding further Christian sites [Eordegian 2003]); the other was the decision to replace what had, under the Ottomans, effectively been state sovereignty over the sites with an authoritative body distinct from the state (initially to be a religious organisation, then an international body, and finally, a Holy Places Commission) that would legislate over Holy Places issues and determine rights and privileges (Zander 1973: 337-364). As we will see the latter has made the Holy Places a tinderbox prone to bursting into inter-communal violence while at the same time providing incentive for religious authorities to find ways of circumventing, if not seeking to abolish, Status Quo regulations that impede their aspirations.

* * *


Lionel Cust opens his 1929 The Status Quo and the Holy Places with two introductory statements:

Article 13 of the Mandate for Palestine lays on the Mandatory Power the responsibility of preserving existing rights in the Holy Places.

Article 14 provides for the constitution of a special Commission to study, define and determine the rights and claims in connexion with the Holy Places. This Commission has never yet been formed, and in consequence, the Government of Palestine is still under the obligation to maintain the Status Quo in every respect (Cust 1929: 2).

The Holy Places Commission, not 'yet' formed in 1929, was still inchoate when the British withdrew from Palestine, meaning that, between 1917 and 1948, controversies between communities were dealt with neither by local courts nor by the High Commissioner but solely in terms of the rules of the Status Quo as worked out on the ground by the parties (with mediation by government authorities). Insofar, however, as the Status Quo, whether of 1767 or of 1852, related to customary usages, one of the first things the British did in order to provide what James Scott calls 'legibility' was attempt to assess and record what those usages were (Scott 1998: 2 and Barkey 2008 on Ottoman legibility). Although this in effect meant the inscription of the Status Quo operative at the moment when the British took power, Ottoman records kept in Jerusalem had been lost or destroyed at the time of the 1917 retreat. Cust, a district engineer under the Mandate Authority, sought to compile as close a record as possible to the contemporary state of play with the assistance of Abdullah Effendi Kardus, a former Ottoman official, then district officer for Bethlehem. Harry Luke, Chief Secretary to the Government of Palestine, called their attempt 'a succinct account of modern practice...[which] cannot fail to be a valuable vade mecum to those charged with the delicate duty of applying one of the most fluid and imprecise codes in the world' (Luke 1929: 1), but it was never fully accepted by the churches, which continue to this day to contest its accuracy.



Cust's text largely attended to the Anastasis but it also treated other traditional Status Quo sites (the Sanctuary of the Ascension, the Virgin's Tomb, the Dar es-Sultan, and the Church of the Nativity) as well as 'new' Jewish sites such as Rachel's Tomb and the Wailing Wall. The volume provides a history of the relations of the religious communities around the holy sites and with the Ottoman rulers. This culminates in the establishment of the British Mandate for Palestine and its commitment to maintaining the Status Quo arrangements until replaced by 'a solution satisfactory to all parties' (Cust 1929: 11). Until then

the arrangements existing in 1852 which corresponded to the Status Quo of 1757 as to the rights and privileges of the Christian communities officiating in the Holy Places have to be most meticulously observed, and what each rite practised at that time in the way of public worship, decorations of altars and shrines, use of lamps, candelabra, tapestry and pictures, and in the exercise of the most minute acts of ownership and usage has to remain unaltered. Moreover, the Status Quo applies also to the nature of the officiants....[T]he three Patriarchates of Jerusalem alone are considered as having possessory rights in the Church with the exception of the small Chapel in the possession of the Copts. They alone have the right to require the entrance door to be opened on their behalf, to enter in religious procession and to officiate regularly at their will (Cust 1929: 11 and 14).

Cust's text, like its annexe which describes the Church of the Nativity (Kabdus 1929), carefully maps rites and privileges to areas within the churches, attending particularly to common areas, areas under the exclusive jurisdiction of single rites, areas claimed by one rite but censed or visited by other rites during their offices, and sites of which ownership is disputed. Distinct choreographies of engagement are specified for each of these involving both temporal and spatial restrictions. A good example is the following:

the steps leading up to the Chapel of St. Mary's Agony are Latin property. The question as to who was to clean the lowest step, which is barely above the level of the Courtyard, was in 1901 the cause of a sanguinary encounter between the Latin and Orthodox monks. The position now is that the Latins brush it daily at dawn, and the Orthodox at times together with the rest of the Parvis (Cust 1929: 16).

Issues devolving from Ottoman customs pertaining to repair and ownership, as well as to usage and precedent, led to further restrictions and constraints:

authority to repair a roof or floor implies the right to an exclusive possession on the part of the restorers....[T]he right to hang a lamp or picture or to change a lamp or picture is a recognition of exclusive possession of a pillar or wall. The right of other communities to cense at a chapel implies that the ownership is not absolute (Cust 1929: 12).



The rules on repair produced an impasse on necessary structural repairs to dome of the rotunda, severely damaged in the earthquake of 1927, that, as Raymond Cohen chronicles in his Saving the Holy Sepulchre (2008), was broken only in 1949 when an offer by the Jordanian monarch to carry out the work drove the three patriarchates to begin to negotiate about collaborating in the face of the threat that, in line with the Ottoman law that one who repairs the roof of a house owns the house, 'the Hashemite kingdom intended to assume direct responsibility for the church' (Cohen 2008: 95 and passim).

Although the firman of 1757, restated by that of 1852, seemed to give the Greek Orthodox praedominium over most of the Anastasis (including guardianship of the Edicule) as well as over both the Tomb of the Virgin and the Church of the Nativity, modifications of practice had been effected between those dates and the period of Cust's compilation. Thus, for instance, Cust's text indicates that 'the Edicule is the common property of all three rites' (Cust 1929: 22), a point reiterated in a working paper entitled 'The Holy Places' issued by the United Nations Conciliation Commission for Palestine in April 1949 (Secretariat 1949). In the Edicule itself sections are variously parsed out between the three dominant communities, and the forty three lamps over the marble slab in the inner sanctum are owned by four communities (thirteen each for the Orthodox, Latins, and Armenians and four for the Copts). Although the Orthodox were granted guardianship of the Edicule, it is used by the Armenians for liturgies between 2:30 and 4:30, by the Latins between 4:30 and 8:00 and by the Orthodox between 8:00 and 19:00, after which the church is formally closed. Throughout this time there is an Orthodox monk within the Edicule who "guards" the site except for 16:30 each day when he leaves the Edicule and allows a procession of Latins to enter (the Armenians too process into the tomb three times a week, but during these times the Greek monk stays in place [Cohen: private correspondence]). Similar variations, about which no consensus on origins exists between the churches, mean that the Church of the Nativity (and particularly the Grotto, where the Altar of the Manger is under Latin jurisdiction while the Altar of the Nativity is shared by Armenians and Orthodox and officiated at by Copts and Syrians) and the Tomb of the Virgin (which is under the Status Quo jurisdiction of the Orthodox and Armenians and where the Syrians and Copts are able to hold liturgies) are no longer as completely under Orthodox praedominium as the 1767 firman implied.

Despite the attempts of Cust and later successors to map spatially and temporally the detailed workings of the Status Quo, the only real record of its operation is the operation itself. Each of the communities has its own records of rights, its own grievances about how these have been violated by subsequent developments, and its own sense of a pressure working on the bounds of quotidian practice and seeking to push the limits and 'regain' territories and rights lost to the other(s). Sensitivity to this pressure is amplified by the fact that there is in effect no higher authority to refer to than the Status Quo regulations which, in addition to being frequently indeterminate, themselves suggest, through negative examples, guidelines for changing the rules --

'authority to repair a roof or floor implies the right to an exclusive possession ....[T]he right to hang a lamp or picture or to change a lamp or picture is a recognition of exclusive possession of a pillar or wall. The right of other communities to cense at a chapel implies that the ownership is not absolute (Cust 1929: 12).

Despite -- or perhaps because of -- the Status Quo agreements, violence frequently breaks out between Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, and Franciscan clergy. While in the Ottoman past such violence had been a productive means of drawing the attention, and intervention, of the authorities (the overturning of the Latin hegemony granted by the treaty of 1740 came about in the wake of an Orthodox provoked riot in the Anastasis in 1757), after 1917, and in the absence of an authoritative Commission for the Holy Places, such violence became a reactive response to the assumption that others were trying to seize one's own "possessory rights". This violence was, in other words, reactive; a response to an expropriative drive sensed in the other which in fact was a refraction of one's own community's frustrated will to expand and drive that other out.

On the 31st of December 1984 I encountered a group of Greek Orthodox monks, members of the Brotherhood of the Holy Sepulchre, walking down Greek Orthodox Patriarchate Road. Two days earlier Greek, Armenian and Latin monks had engaged in the annual cleaning of Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity that traditionally serves as a occasion for the three communities to "mark out" their areas of the church by dusting and sweeping them. A Greek monk, attempting to dust the archway of the northern entrance to the Grotto of the Nativity, had perched on a wooden beam designated by the Status Quo as 'Armenian'. According to the report I'd read the previous day in the Jerusalem Post, Armenian monks had knocked his ladder out from under him, leaving him stranded twenty feet above the stone floor, while Greek and Armenian monks, clearly already prepared for battle, pulled clubs and knives from under their robes and attacked each other, leaving at least one monk badly injured. The fight was broken up by Israeli police who had evidently themselves come prepared for a fracas. I asked one of the monks, Brother Philadelphus, if he'd been in Bethlehem during the event and

...he brightened immediately saying that day was the best of his life. He realised during the fighting what has always eluded him, the precise meaning of his presence in the holy places. With the fight came the awareness of the concreteness of the term "defenders of the holy places" (fieldnotes, 31/12/84).



A whole series of incidents of violence in the Holy Places, now and in the past, can be explained by this 'defensive violence'; Cohen writes of several of these, citing, for instance, a 1951 attack by Greek monks armed with clubs on a group of French pilgrims who had moved some benches into the parvis in order to set up a photograph (Cohen 2008: 88), a series of bloody fights between Greek and Latin monks in Bethlehem in 1955 prompted by attempts to replace some old chairs (Ibid: 113), and a 1975 struggle involving pickaxes between Copts (who continue to hold minimal rights in the Anastasis under the Status Quo) and Armenians prompted by the kicking of a misplaced Coptic lectionary by an Armenian bishop (Ibid: 212-213). Such struggles over the regimen legislated by the Status Quo continue to the present day. In August 2003 the Greeks changed the locks to the Church of the Nativity (locks to which all three communities held keys) because the Franciscans, attempting to remove the bodies of Palestinian militants killed by Israeli forces during the 2002 'siege' and unable while the church was under attack to lay hands on their own keys, had borrowed keys from the Armenians and opened doors for which the Greeks (who had fled the church when the siege began) had the right to first opening (Dunn 2003: 2). During the Orthodox Holy Cross celebrations on the 27th of September 2004 Greek and Russian Orthodox monks fought with Catholics over the impropriety of a door to a Franciscan section of the church being left open while the Orthodox processed past it (Fisher-Ilan 2004).

After 1967, when Israel took control of East Jerusalem, the West Bank, Gaza and the Golan Heights, other grounds for disputation and inter-sect violence were established. Israel declined to commit itself to maintaining the Status Quo agreements per se, with General Herzog, Military Governor of the West Bank declaring that 'the State of Israel will ...protect the Holy Places of all religions' and that 'arrangements for protecting the Holy Places would be made by the religious leaders themselves, each in the places revered by his own religion' (quoted by Benvenisti 1976: 262). This meant that 'the internal administration of the sites and the measures to be taken for their management would be left entirely to the spiritual heads concerned' (Colbi 1969: 159). Israel adopted from the British and Jordanian governments the role of policing the Holy Sites so as to prevent public disorder, but refused to take on that of mediating controversies between the churches over the application of the Status Quo regulations. Cohen makes clear the implications of this refusal: 'disputes...were now negotiated directly and not settled by an umpire....In the past...the Jordanian governor was there to help in the event of a deadlock in the talks. Now there was no governor to fall back on' (Cohen 2008: 211). This, Benvenisti notes, was 'extremely problematical [as i]t was, after all, the very inability of the Christian communities to solve the problems of internal administration of the Holy Places that led to the status quo being instituted' (Benvenisti 1976: 263-264).

In practice what this has come to mean is that in any situation where a lack of clarity exists in the Status Quo legislation, or where there is no solid consensus over the application of the existing legislation, confrontations flare up which can only be quenched, if at all, by drawn out and aggravated negotiations. A classic instance, which has led to repeated clashes in and around the Edicule itself, has to do with a dispute between the Greek Orthodox and the Armenians over guardianship of the Tomb of Christ. As mentioned above, custom has it that the Greek Orthodox 'guardian' of the Edicule leaves the Chapel of the Angel each day at 16:30 when a Catholic procession enters; he does not, however, leave when, three times a week, Armenian processions enter. This discrepancy has given rise to a vehement dispute between the Greeks and Armenians that comes to a head during religious feasts when the fervour of clerics is at a peak and an audience of co-religionists is present. Thus twice in 2008 alone, during the Orthodox Palm Sunday celebrations (20 April) and those linked to the Armenian Feast of the Discovery of the Cross (9 November), violent confrontations broke out when Armenian clerics attempted to force the Greek guardian from the Edicule. Insofar as state agencies refuse any role other than to 'law and order functions' (Cohen 2008: 211) -- that is breaking up fights and arresting violent monks -- such confrontations will continue until an agreement is reached between all three parties to effect a change in the Status Quo. In the absence of an authority willing to, as in the past, "cap" the trouble and reinstate the Status Quo, it is in the interest of the party wishing to change current practices to continue to provoke confrontation until the situation becomes intolerable for the other parties. In light of the strengths of the Greek investment in its guardianship and the Armenian desire to instate its 'right', one can imagine that Greek-Armenian bloodshed around the Edicule will long continue as a ritualised occurrence.

* * *


There is, however, another means by which contestants in the struggle over rights to the Holy Places have been able to anticipate achieving victory over competitors. Israel's formal abnegation of its role in maintaining the Status Quo in 1967 left it in a position analogous to that of the Ottoman authorities before they 'fixed' the legislation in 1852 (and were held to that stabilisation by the Treaties of Paris and Berlin); after taking control of Jerusalem and the West Bank (the regions in which all the Status Quo sites are located) it assumed the legal right to reallocate permissions and privileges, and even hand Holy Place praedominium over to one of the contesting parties (Eordegian 2003: 318-319). Under Mandate Law, established by the British and maintained by the Jordanians, "substantive" disputes -- those dealing with rights of ownership, worship and possession -- would be investigated by the High Commissioner who, if unable to resolve them through consultation, would dismiss them and insist on the maintenance of the Status Quo; under Israeli law such "non-justiciable" cases are decided by the government which 'has become the supreme authority in whom the ultimate power of adjudicating matters on the Holy Places is vested' (Eordegian 2003: 321). Although to date this sovereignty has not been formally asserted, most likely because of fears of international repercussions, it has heightened tensions between the communities because, as Eordegian indicates, 'assigning such judicial powers over the Holy Places to the government is an innovation with regard to the Mandatory law that may indicate the politicization of the matter' (Ibid).

* * *


The long-standing dispute between the Ethiopian Orthodox and Coptic Orthodox churches over the Dar es-Sultan illustrates this politicisation saliently. The Dar es-Sultan is a monastic compound of huts and narrow passageways perched on the roof of the St. Helena Chapel and currently in the possession of the Ethiopian Orthodox Patriarchate. A narrow stairway, off which are both the Chapel of the Four Living Creatures and that of St. Michael, runs from the courtyard of the Dar es-Sultan to the Parvis of the Anastasis and connects both the monastery and the Coptic Patriarchate beyond to the main church. A long dispute over ownership and usage of the site has run since the 16th century when the Ethiopian community, then in possession of the Dar es-Sultan and other sites within the Anastasis, was impoverished by loss of support from its homeland and increasingly 'could not find means to pay the taxes and bribes demanded by the new Ottoman rulers' (O'Mahony 1999: 476). In 1640 the Ethiopians became "clients" of the monophysite Armenians (Peri 2001: 122f), and in 1656 they were forced to surrender to the Greeks their rights to properties and ritual permissions within the main body of the Anastasis (Ibid: 477). The Ethiopians (frequently referred to in contemporary work as "Abyssinians") nonetheless retained their hold on the rooftop, the stairway, and the two chapels until 1838 when the Jerusalem community was effectively wiped out by plague and the Copts, formally the "mother church" of the monophysite Ethiopians in the Oriental Orthodox Communion, pressed Ibrahim Pasha, son of Egypt's wali Muhammad Ali and himself Governor of Syria, to grant them the keys of and control over the site (Cust 1929: 27ff and Pedersen 1987-88: 40). When the Ethiopians later sought to re-establish themselves on the site they were forced to do as "guests" of the Copts.

The two communities continued to dispute possession of the site over the following decades, and Cust's compendium of Status Quo rights leaves its praedominium indeterminate, saying that the Dar es-Sultan is 'occupied by Abyssinian monks under a Coptic guardian' (Cust 1929: 30) and then entering into a history of the complex disputation and of British attempts to ascertain rights (Ibid: 30-33). The Jordanian government, considering the Status Quo indeterminate, convened - as had the British before it - committees to investigate the situation and in late February 1961 determined that the Ethiopians should be granted control over the site. This decision was, however, suspended five weeks later, allegedly under pressure from the Nasserite regime (Hecht 1995: 196, see also Cohen 2008: 193-194), and the pre-existing status quo was re-established.

After midnight on 13 April 19706, while the Coptic patriarch and monks were celebrating Easter at their chapel in the Anastasis, it was reported to them that Ethiopian monks had changed the locks at both ends of the stairway connecting the Dar es-Sultan to the Anastasis. When the Copts attempted to approach the doors from either end they were blocked by Israeli police, and eventually the Patriarch and his party were forced to return to their monastery through the streets of the Old City. Two weeks later the Ethiopian archbishop announced that the Ethiopians had regained their rights over the Dar es-Sultan. The Copts subsequently petitioned the Israeli Supreme Court for the removal of the locks and the return of the monastery and chapels. Although the Supreme Court returned a decision that the changing of the locks was illicit, that the police had acted wrongly in preventing the Copts from approaching the doorways, and that the stairway, the chapels and the Dar es-Sultan should be returned to the guardianship of the Copts, it also delayed implementation of its decision for twenty one days so the government could consider the "substantive" or "non-justiciable" issue of possession. The government promptly established a consultative committee, issued an order leaving the property in the possession of the Ethiopians (which, as Cohen writes, 'effectively annulled the decision of the high court, which now declined to get involved in an area that came under government jurisdiction' [Cohen 2008: 195]), and has since failed to announce a decision.

Richard Hecht, who interviewed participants in the dispute in the mid-eighties, contends that

geopolitics help explain why the committee froze the situation through inaction....Yisrael Lippel, who was then the director of the Ministry of Religious Affairs, gave some insight into the government's position. First, the Jordanian committee had ruled in favor of the Ethiopians in 1961, and the Israeli committee could simply defer to the earlier position. Second, the Israeli government was interested in gaining the support of the Ethiopian government for the emigration of the Falasha Jews. Third, the Israel government wanted access to Ethiopian airspace for its commercial airline routes to sub-Saharan Africa. Fourth, diplomatic recognition of Israel by the Ethiopian government would further Israel's foreign policy towards the African nations (Hecht 1995: 197).

Cohen, researching the matter more recently and with access to archival materials Hecht had not seen, narrates an even more complex set of events and negotiations, originating in a promise made to the head of the Ethiopian church by the Israeli prime minister soon after the 1967 conquest of the Old City that the monastery and staircase would be given to the Ethiopians. This promise - in return for which Israel expected (in addition to what Hecht cites) a security alliance with Ethiopia against Nasserite Egypt and the opening of an Ethiopian embassy in Jerusalem - initiated complex and legalistic discussions within the Foreign Ministry and the Ministry of Religious Affairs as well as in the Prime Minister's chambers about how effectively to violate the Status Quo without raising substantial international condemnation (Cohen 2008: 197). The changing of the locks, which Cohen suggests was in fact carried out by the Israeli police (Ibid: 200), and the perennial stalling of any decision on the legitimacy of the Ethiopian take-over was the solution to the question.

The Dar es-Sultan has remained a focus of political negotiations between states rather than simply between religious communities. Ethiopia failed in what Israel saw as its promised alliance, never opening an embassy in Jerusalem, sponsoring in 1971 a UN resolution hostile to Israel, and breaking off diplomatic relations in the wake of the 1973 Yom Kippur War. In the context of the Begin-Sadat negotiations and the signing of a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt, Israel mooted returning the Dar es-Sultan to Egypt, firstly in return for normalisation of relations after the diplomatic rupture brought about by the First Lebanon War (1982) and subsequently as a concession in the 1986 negotiations over Taba. Moves in that direction were initially stalled by the necessity of appeasing the Ethiopian government during "Operation Moses" (1984-85), the covert mass emigration of Falasha Jews out of Ethiopia, as well as by anxiety about losing access to Ethiopian air space. The Taba offer was perhaps not acted upon because, as Hecht chillingly notes in his account of the dispute, of a warning during those negotiations by the secretary of the National Council for Ethiopian Jews in Israel that Jews remaining in Ethiopia might be put at risk if Israel was to offend the Ethiopian government by returning the Dar es-Sultan to the Copts (Hecht 1995: 198). Thus, as in the 1850s, the politicisation of disputes over communal property rights in the Holy Places rapidly escalated those struggles, bringing in states as players and producing unsettling effects far beyond the bounds of the Holy Land.



* * *

Israel's willingness to use the Holy Places for political gain, and its de jure disavowal of both the Status Quo and the Treaties of Paris and Berlin, has also weakened the churches' political stances vis a vis Israel and has influenced their hierarchies' decisions to collude with the state because of the possibility that Israeli might be convinced to make a bilateral settlement in favour of one or the other of them. This latter assumption gains credence from the negotiations which have gone on between the Catholic church and the Israeli state since the founding of the state. The United Nations Conciliation Commission for Palestine eventually gave up on its proposal to put the holy places of former Palestine under UN protection in response to Israel's insistence that the term "Holy Places" and the protection to be guaranteed them would apply solely to those sites which came under the Status Quo arrangements. This not only substantially reduced the number of Christian sites previously protected to those which had been in Jordanian territory but also excluded from protection Muslim sites, allowing for their expropriation and nationalisation (see Dumper 1991 and Reiter 1997). Despite this the Catholic church, through the Vatican, retained its commitment to the internationalisation of a "Greater Jerusalem", including Bethlehem. In secret negotiations taking place at the same time as Israel and the UN debated the latter's proposal for internationalisation, Israel unsuccessfully offered the Vatican 'a separate agreement...bestowing additional rights on the Catholic church' (Eordegian 2003: 318) if it were to drop its support for internationalising the Holy City. After the Six Day War, which delivered the Holy Places from Jordanian to Israeli control, the Catholic church publicly maintained its call for internationalisation while engaging in secret negotiations to abandon it. Yaacov Herzog, Director of the Prime Minister's Office, offered 'proposals [which] included changing the status quo by giving the Catholics senior status as the expense of the Eastern communities; by recognizing the Pope as the representative of all the Christian groups; and by granting diplomatic status to the Holy Places' (Benvenisti 1976: 268). Although the Vatican turned down the offer because it felt it could not formally recognise Israel's sovereignty over Jerusalem and the rest of the Occupied Territories by entering into a bilateral agreement with the state, it 'agreed to "accept with its blessing" a unilateral Israeli declaration promising priority status to the Catholic Church' (Ibid). Israel, snubbed by the refusal, retracted the offer, but the two parties continued over subsequent years to keep diplomatic channels open. At the end of December 1993 this resulted in the bilateral signing of the Fundamental Agreement between the Holy See and Israel which claimed to respect the Status Quo (Article 4) while, in Article 12, noting that 'the Holy See and Israel will continue to negotiate for a solution to those questions [of extra-territorial status for the Holy Places] agreed upon in the agenda of July 15, 1992' (Papasthathis 1995-1996: 729-730).

Anxiety about collusion between 'sister' churches and the Israeli state and its proxies has led the authorities of the three major churches to seek to accommodate Israeli wishes, often at their own and their parishioners' expense, so as to retain strength in bargaining. These anxieties are exacerbated by Israel's ostentatious interference in church affairs, manifest in such practices as delays in, or refusals of, the granting of visas to priests and nuns or attempts at influencing, or refusing to recognise, the appointment of senior clergy such as patriarchs (see Dumper 2002 and Roussos 2004). Such interference has become more open and commonplace in the wake of the 1977 Likud victory in national elections and was amplified when Ehud Olmert was elected as Jerusalem mayor in 1993. Appointments were made then, and since then, to the Ministries of Justice, Religious Affairs, Housing and the Israel Lands Administration which entrenched policies of 'ensuring Israeli Jewish dominance over East Jerusalem' (Dumper 2002: 53) at the expense of earlier more politic relations with the churches. In 1997 Shmuel Evyatar, a settler who had played a significant role in the April 1990 occupation of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate's St. John's Hospice was appointed as Olmert's advisor on Christian communities (Ibid). This increasingly hostile environment has tended not to push the churches into defensive solidarity around the holy places but, if the recent clashes of Armenians and Greeks are indicative, to have worsened inter-church relations there.

Sotiris Roussos notes that the Greek Patriarchate's policy under Israel of 'co-operating closely with [Israeli] state policy in order to maintain its predominant position in the Holy Places' continues an earlier practice under Islamic rule of co-operating with the state 'in the political, social and economic spheres...in exchange for autonomy in the Church's internal affairs' (Roussos 2004). Certainly since the creation of the Israeli state the Brotherhood of the Holy Sepulchre has not only opposed itself to the Greek state's initially critical position on Israel (Nachmani 1987) but also obliged Israeli agencies by facilitating the selling off, permanent "leasing", and alleged "confiscation" of the considerable properties it holds either straightforwardly or as trusts (waqf) in Israel, Jerusalem and the Occupied Territories. In a context in which the recent Israeli drive to expand Jewish settlement and land ownership is matched by increased dissatisfaction amongst the lay populace, both Christian and Muslim, with the failure of the churches to defend its rights, such accommodation is more visible than it had been in the past. In March 2005 Patriarch Irenaios I was implicated in a number of land deals made with Israeli companies with purported links to the settler association Ateret Cohanim. In response to pressure from the Christian Palestinian population, the Palestinian National Authority, and the Orthodox Church outside of Israel/Palestine, Irenaios was deposed in May of that year and replaced by Theophilus III (Macintyre 2007) whose installation was blocked until December 2007 by the Israeli government. In a 2006 interview with a Greek newspaper 'Theophilus complained of Israeli "blackmail", the purpose of which he said was "to ratify the agreements for the purchase and sale of property signed by our predecessors"' (Ibid). However, in the wake of Theophilus's approved installation the 'lease' of the land connecting Gilo and Har Homa settlements (closing another link in the settlement encirclement of Jerusalem) suggests to some in the Palestinian community that 'recognition came at a price. "I think the continued leasing of land was a condition by Israel [to grant him recognition]" said Marwan Toubasi' (Karmi 2010).

The relations of the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem with the Israeli state, and particularly with the Israel Lands Administration, have tended to attract less attention from national and international media than do those of the Greek Orthodox Church. However, as Dumper points out, the patriarchate is not only 'reputed to be the largest landowner in the Old City and one of the largest in Jerusalem' (Dumper 2002: 65) but has also shown 'willingness to sell land and property to the Israel Lands Administration' (ibid). That 'willingness' generated a major scandal when Archbishop Karekian Kazanjian, appointed from Australia in 1981 as Grand Sacristan (protector of the Armenian Holy Places in Jerusalem) by the Catholicos of the Armenian Church in Etchmiadzin, discovered that Archbishop Shahe Ajamian, who was serving as Superintendent of the Estate of the Armenian Patriarchate, Chancellor, and chief aide to Patriarch Yeghishe Derderian and who Israeli officials considered 'a special friend of Israel' (Shapiro 1990), had not only been stealing and selling ancient manuscripts from the Patriarchate Library but more importantly selling Armenian lands in Jerusalem and the West Bank to Israelis. Ajamian was deposed and expelled from the St. James Monastery, sparking a violent feud between Derderian and Ajamian who claimed Derderian was scapegoating him for his crimes (Claiborne 1986). Further investigation implicated Derderian as well in land sales and misappropriations of church funds. The King of Jordan (the Jordanian monarch was recognised by the church as the only legitimate secular authority over the Jerusalem Patriarchate) pressured His Holiness Vazken I, Catholicos of the Armenian church, to instruct the St. James Brotherhood (the Armenian equivalent of the Brotherhood of the Holy Sepulchre) to investigate Derderian as a means to deposing him. Derderian, however, purged that governing body of unsupportive prelates (the entirety of the membership serving outside of Israel/Palestine) and had the remainder refuse to vote for an investigation (Bird and Holland 1985).

He stayed in power until his death in 1990 when Shahe Ajamian, supported by armed guards (who informants told me were out of uniform Israeli soldiers), barricaded himself within his reappropriated flat within the monastery apparently waiting for an anticipated popular demand for his installation to be raised (Shapiro 1990). There was little if any support for such a move, especially in the context of the Palestinian intifada which, while directly involving few Armenians, nonetheless had given rise to a general fury among the lay populace against ecclesiastical corruption and collaboration with what was increasingly perceived as a hostile state. Instead Torkom Manoogian, an Iraqi by birth who had served for twenty four years as Primate of the Eastern Diocese of America and had earlier been appointed by the Catholicos as an investigator of the Ajamian affair, was elected Patriarch and has since been vocal in defence of the positions of both Armenians and Palestinians in the Holy Land.

* * *


The complexity of inter-communal relations around the Anastasis and other Christian holy places in Israel/Palestine may seem bewildering, but what emerges fairly clearly is that the hostilities that frequently break out are between monks and priests, with occasional but infrequent support from devout followers, rather than between lay groups of local Christians or pilgrim groups from outside the region. Whether ecclesiastical interests or collusion in corruption play determinative roles, the struggles described in the preceding pages have far more to do with grasping power than they do with protecting sanctity; property and influence rather than purity seem to play the determinative roles. In this sense Hassner's descriptions of the real politik of relations between groups claiming to represent religious communities in his sections on 'sacred space as real estate' and 'sacred space as a force multiplier' (Hassner 2009: 59-62) seem quite accurate as do Hayden's assertions that, at a shared site such as that of the Anastasis, 'coexistence may be a matter of competition between members of different groups manifesting the negative definition of tolerance as passive non-interference and premised on a lack of ability of either group to overcome the other' (Hayden 2002: 2006). What does not ring true is the assertion, on both of their parts, that inter-communal hostility is grounded in communal sensibilities rather than in ecclesiastical interests.

Local Christians are rarely caught up in or supportive of the turf wars played out between monks in the holy places. In this they are like foreign tourists and pilgrims who for the most part remain oblivious to those struggles. In my experience the Christians resident in Jerusalem and Israel/Palestine feel a strong solidarity with Palestinian Christians of other denominations and this is a solidarity often extended - particularly in periods of particularly aggressive Israeli state activity - to their fellow Palestinian Muslims. This feeling of existential consanguinity is particularly strong when people live in relatively close proximity, engaging with each other in quotidian activities. In such situations religious identity becomes just another one of the situational identities that come into play in interactions outside of and ofttimes within religious shrines. Although, as Hayden and Hassner have shown, it may be possible for religious leaders and nationalist activists mobilising religious themes to stir up popular support for actions against members of other religions, my field experience in Jerusalem and the Bethlehem region has revealed that local people are far more antagonistic towards the monks and priests they see as being of "foreign" churches than towards other Christians, and often other Muslims. Such anger has been particularly evident at shared religious sites such as Mar Elyas and shared religious festivities such as the Christmas Eve celebrations in Bethlehem at which the religious officiants of their respective churches attempt to block the festive community those sites and events provoked. Even manifestations of apparent hostility between local Christians of different denominations, such as the ritualised "fights" which take place between Armenians and Greeks over entry to the Anastasis for the celebration of the Holy Fire on Easter Saturday, are traditional charades played out between men who, on the street, are friends. It is this ability to subsume religious identity within wider communalisms of place and experience that provides hope for a future in which difference is not antagonism, and it is vital that we as ethnographers and historians recognise this strength and those in whom it resides and do not instead take for our images of people in general those dark robed priests battering each other over the right to clean a small patch of holy ground.

Canterbury 4 January 2011





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