Day 8 - History

Day 8:While Helena was exploring Jerusalem, her son Constantine was occupied with several tasks.  In the political sphere, he shifted the focal point of Roman administration by creating a new capital in the east, at ancient Byzantium, newly named Constantinople.  He also tried to foster uniformity among the Christians of his realm by sponsoring the first ecumenical council at Nicaea in 325, which, among other things, defined the “consubstantial” relationship between God the Father and God the Son.  The intimate connection between imperial authority and orthodox Christian faith would remain a characteristic of Byzantine life until the empire was finally conquered by Ottoman Turks in 1453.

In the east Constantine’s successors in the sixth century became locked in an increasingly costly struggle with the major power of the middle east, Sassanian Persia, which controlled Jerusalem from 614 to 629, when it was retaken by Byzantine forces. The weakened condition of the two empires provided an opening for a new force in the Middle East, the followers of an influential Arabian prophet.  Mohammed began preaching in his hometown of Mecca around 613, on the basis of revelations that he claimed to have received from Allah. After meeting resistance in Mecca, he and his followers moved to Medina in 622, where he was active for a decade. He returned in triumph to Mecca shortly before his death in 632, leaving to his followers the Quran, the primary sacred text of Islam.

After Mohammed’s death, the movement spread rapidly under a series of Caliphs known as the Rashidun.  Jerusalem fell to a Muslim army in 638, as Muslim military forces spread out from the Arabian peninsula.  The second Caliph, Umar, guaranteed Christians the right to pray in Jerusalem, a right respected ever since.

The architectural jewel of Islamic Jerusalem, the Dome of the Rock or the Haram Al-Sharif (“The Noble Sanctuary”) was built in the late seventh century under the Caliph Abd Al-Malik, a member of the Umayyid dynasty (661-750). Constructed on or close to the site of the ancient Jewish Temple, the shrine commemorates a visit to Jerusalem mentioned in the Quran (Sura 17) and in traditions about the prophet (hadith).   The visit was supposed to have taken place around 621 when Mohammed came to the “farthest mosque” on a marvelous horse, Buraq,  and then was taken up to heaven. The other major structure on the Temple Mount, the Al Aqsa mosque, originally constructed by the Caliph Umar, was rebuilt by Abd Al-Malik and his successor. The sacred mount, holy to both Judaism and Islam, has remained in Islamic hands since that time, with the exception of the period when Jerusalem was under control of the Crusaders’ Kingdom of Jerusalem (1099-1187). 

The sacred Land subsequently knew many ruling powers, including Ottoman Turks (1517-1923), whose ruler, Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent (1520-66), left his mark on the fortifications of Jeruslaem, and the British empire, which exercised a Mandate over the territory in the aftermath of the First World War (1923-1948).  The establishment of the State of Israel, on May 14, 1948, led to the partition of the Land and the City of Jerusalem, which lasted until the six day war of 1967 and the control over the Palestinian Territories by Israeli authorities.

What we will experience in our travels to the land between the Jordan and the Mediterranean represents the heritage of this complex history.  The Land remains a sacred space for the three Abrahamic religious traditions.  Finding a way to make it a common ground of peace for all those traditions is an abiding challenge.