When medieval Europe was young, Jerusalem was already ancient. As laborers laid the first stones of the great pyramid of Giza, fifty generations of Jerusalemites had come and gone. After another twenty-five centuries a rustic carpenter’s son started throwing tables around at the Jewish temple located on the city’s high ground. Then another eight centuries or so went by, before a son was born to an usurper king in Europe, who would go on to found the empire that would bear his name.
Jerusalem occupied a special place in the minds and souls of eighth century Europeans. Constantinople was the other great eastern city known (if any would have been known), it was regarded more as the seat of the ‘other’ Christian empire, the palace that gave orders to popes. A rival power.
On the other hand there was never a kingdom or a regional power based in Jerusalem, aside from its role as one of the five bishoprics of the Pentarchy, along with Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, and Antioch. Rather, Jerusalem was a place evoked as a a spiritual beacon and a synonym for heaven.
The Commendation of the Dying in the Sacramentary of Gellone, includes, “Today your servant’s place is established in peace and his dwelling in Jerusalem on high. Receive your servant, Lord.”1.Included in Hillgarth, Christianity and Paganism, 350-750, p.193.
During St. Brendan’s voyage the saint lands on an island and meets a large number of white birds who are in fact lesser angels or heavenly spirits that fell with Lucifer, apparently through no fault of their own (the birds are not clear on this point). During his stay the birds break into a psalm, “clapping their wings in unison,” and sing, “A hymn, O Lord, becomes you in Sion, and a vow will be paid to you in Jerusalem.”2.St. Brendan’s Voyage, Visions of Heaven and Hell, p.94.
In the secular realm the city had been under the control of the Romans since before the time of Christ, and that authority continued under the Byzantine emperors, particularly Constantine in the early fourth century. In 637, after more than three-hundred years of Byzantine, Christian rule, Jerusalem was conquered by the fresh and powerful forces of the new religion of Islam. This event was noticed and recorded as far away as Neustria.3.Chronicles of Fredegar, ch.66, p.55.
Life in the holy city after the Umayyad conquest continued without major interruption. After the triumph the ruling caliph may (or may not) have issued a guarantee to the Jews and Christians of the city called Umar’s Assurance. The pledge demanded that the non-Muslim pay their taxes, and in return their homes, places of worship, and rituals would be protected. While the Assurance is questionable historically, it does jibe with a story told about the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and the arrival of the Muslims.
When the Caliph Umar came to Jerusalem he went to see the tomb of Christ, in the church built by the Byzantines. Umar told the Byzantine Patriarch that he, Umar, would pray outside the church, because if he prayed inside the church the Islamic faithful would eventually tear down the church and build a mosque in its place.4.Couasnon, Church of the Holy Sepulchre Jerusalem, p.18. The church later suffered severe damage in an earthquake in 746, part of an absolutely fascinating architectural and spiritual history.
Another architectural marvel was added to the Jerusalem cityscape in 691 with the construction of the Dome of the Rock. The structure replaced a Roman temple of Jupiter, which in turn had been built on the ruins of the Jewish Second Temple, destroyed by the Romans in 70CE, which had replaced the first Temple, built by King Solomon and destroyed by the Babylonians in 586BCE… Truly, the history of Jerusalem is a historian’s treasure.
Jerusalem was also, of course, a place of pilgrimage. While many of the devout would make the journey to Rome, a pilgrimage to Jerusalem was a much greater feat. Getting to Rome was merely the first leg of the journey! From the Tiber the pilgrim could take ship direct to the holy land, although this was rare. More common was to cross the Adriatic to Greece, continue to Constantinople, and thence south across Turkey. Another route skipped Italy all together, and went across the Alps and down through Balkans.5.Here is a good article that talks about pilgrimage routes to Jerusalem in the early middle ages. No matter which route was taken the bulk of the travel went over the Roman roads.
Among the many Charlemagne legends that sprouted throughout western Europe in the decades and centuries after his death was a story about a journey he made to Jerusalem. While one version of this story calls it a pilgrimage, the legend is actually about his trip to see Hugo of Constantinople, whom Charles’ wife said was handsomer than her husband. Needless to say, she was wrong.6.This is only translation I was able to find.
A more authentic pilgrimage story is the voyage that Saint Willibald made to the holy city from in 724, and his many adventures along the way.7.Saint Willibald, Soldiers of Christ, p.150.
At the close of the eighth century we get a glimpse of Jerusalem in the Carolingian court. In 799, “a certain monk arrived from Jerusalem, bringing blessing from the patriarch of Jerusalem and relics from the Lord’s sepulchre which he had sent to the lord king.”8.Year 799, Royal Annals, King, Translated Sources, p92. The revised annals give virtually the same account, except that the sentence is tantalizingly prefaced with the word, “Again,” which might mean that travelers from Jerusalem had appeared at court before.
Charles quickly dispatched an embassy to Jerusalem in return. The annals don’t quite agree on the timing, with the original version stating that it was early in the year 800. “The king gave the monk from Jerusalem leave to depart and had him sent on his way, dispatching with him Zacharias, a priest from his palace, who was to deliver his gifts to those holy places.” The revised annals state that Zacharias and the Jerusalem monks left at Christmas of 799. The revised annals add that when Charles was in Rome in 800, Zacharias met him there on his return trip.
[T]he priest Zacharias, whom the king had dispatched to Jerusalem, arrived in Rome with two monks sent to the king with him by the patriarch; they brought in token of his blessing the keys of the Lord’s sepulchre and of Calvary, together with the standard. The king received them graciously, kept them with him for some time and when they wanted to return home gave them leave to depart, having rewarded them.9.Year 800, Revised Royal Annals, King, Translated Sources, p.131.
This embassy was recalled by Einhard in his biography of the emperor, but Einhard places the exchange in a political context. Harun al-Rashid had been leader of the Abbasid caliphate since 786.10.The retrenchment of the last of the Umayyads in Spain had prompted, at least in part, the remnants of the Abbasid forces in Spain to request Charles’ assistance in 777. Since Jerusalem was under Harun’s control, any delegation sent to Charles would have had to be have been authorized by him. Einhard mentions an early communication, involving a must unusual gift. “A few years before this he had sent an elephant, the only one he then possessed, to Charles who had asked him.”11.Einhard, Life of Charlemagne, 2.16, in Charlemagne’s Courtier, Dutton, p.26.
Einhard notes that the gifting of the keys to the Holy Sepulchre in effect granted Charles symbolic control over those places in Jerusalem. Einhard also gives us some insight into gift-giving, and lists the additional gifts sent to Charles as “robes, spices, and other riches of the east.”
As emperor Charles exercised his power and wealth in the support of Christendom throughout his realm and the Mediterranean. Einhard tells us that he spread alms “not only in his own country and in his kingdom but even over the sea in Syria and Egypt and even in Africa, Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Carthage.”12.Einhard, Life of Charlemagne, 2.27, in Charlemagne’s Courtier, Dutton, p.43. Charles, being the practical ruler that he was, did not spread his wealth without due consideration. Alms were given to those who needed them, neither too much nor too little. But how to know how much was needed in such faraway lands?
By one of those odd happenstances of history, we have the actual record of a survey Charles commissioned of the holy land, drawn up for the express purpose of determining how much aid was needed. The document is known as the Basel roll, after the city in which it was discovered in the 17th century. Perhaps at the request of the patriarch, who sent such wonderful gifts to the emperor, Charles dispatched his missi dominici to Palestine. Their task was to discover how many monks there were, by gender, and language; to enumerate the state of the buildings, the annual expenditures, and what was being purchased.
The detail is extraordinary, both for what it reveals about religious practices in that time and place, but also for the bureaucratic familiarity the document invokes. “In Holy Bethlehem, where Our Lord Jesus Christ deigned to be born from the Holy Virgin Mary, including priests, clerics and monks: 15; hermits who sit on top of columns on the example of St. Symeon: 2.” If the missi had had a spreadsheet program, they would have used it.13.All of this comes from Charlemagne’s Survey of the Holy Land, McCormick. The quote is from p.209.
Jerusalem was not a place of earthly power, like Aachen, Rome, Baghdad, or Constantinople. Jerusalem was, and still is, a place where the secular meets the divine, where people go to be closer to the infinite, the Navel of the World. But to the get there you had to make your way past hermits on columns, rapacious bandits, and government checkpoints. A place of fascination, forever.
Footnotes [ + ]
|1.||↑||Included in Hillgarth, Christianity and Paganism, 350-750, p.193.|
|2.||↑||St. Brendan’s Voyage, Visions of Heaven and Hell, p.94.|
|3.||↑||Chronicles of Fredegar, ch.66, p.55.|
|4.||↑||Couasnon, Church of the Holy Sepulchre Jerusalem, p.18.|
|5.||↑||Here is a good article that talks about pilgrimage routes to Jerusalem in the early middle ages.|
|6.||↑||This is only translation I was able to find.|
|7.||↑||Saint Willibald, Soldiers of Christ, p.150.|
|8.||↑||Year 799, Royal Annals, King, Translated Sources, p92.|
|9.||↑||Year 800, Revised Royal Annals, King, Translated Sources, p.131.|
|10.||↑||The retrenchment of the last of the Umayyads in Spain had prompted, at least in part, the remnants of the Abbasid forces in Spain to request Charles’ assistance in 777.|
|11.||↑||Einhard, Life of Charlemagne, 2.16, in Charlemagne’s Courtier, Dutton, p.26.|
|12.||↑||Einhard, Life of Charlemagne, 2.27, in Charlemagne’s Courtier, Dutton, p.43.|
|13.||↑||All of this comes from Charlemagne’s Survey of the Holy Land, McCormick. The quote is from p.209.|