An Ethiopian Journal

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Posts Tagged ‘Jerusalem

Deir Sultan, Ethiopia and the Black World

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By Negussay Ayele

Background to Deir Sultan at a glance

Unknown by much of the world, monks and nuns of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, have for centuries quietly maintained the only presence by black people in one of Christianity’s holiest sites—the Church of the Holy Sepulcher of Jesus Christ in Jerusalem. Through the vagaries and vicissitudes of millennial history and landlord changes in Jerusalem and the Middle East region, Ethiopian monks have retained their monastic convent in what has come to be known as Deir Sultan or the Monastery of the Sultan for more than a thousand years. Likewise, others that have their respective presences in the area at different periods, include Armenian, Russian, Syrian, Egyptian and Greek Orthodox/Coptic Churches as well as the Holy See. As one writer put it recently, “For more than 1500 years, the Church of Ethiopia survived in Jerusalem. Its survival has not, in the last resort, been dependent on politics, but on the faith of individual monks that we should look for the vindication of the Church’s presence in Jerusalem….They are attracted in Jerusalem not by a hope for material gain or comfort, but by faith.” It is hoped that public discussion on this all-important subject will be joined by individuals and groups from all over the world, particularly the African Diaspora. At this time, I will confine myself to offering a brief profile of the Ethiopian presence in Jerusalem and its current state of turmoil. I hope that others with more detailed and/or first hand knowledge about the subject will join in the discussion.

Accounts of Ethiopian presence in Jerusalem invoke the Bible to establish the origin of Ethiopian presence in Jerusalem. Accordingly, some Ethiopians refer to the story of the encounter in Jerusalem between Queen of Sheba–believed to have been a ruler in Ethiopia and environs–and King Solomon, cited, for instance, in I Kings 10: 1-13. According to this version, Ethiopia’s presence in the region was already established about 1000 B.C. possibly through land grant to the visiting Queen, and that later transformation into Ethiopian Orthodox Christian monastery is an extension of that same property. Others refer to the New Testament account of Acts 8: 26-40 which relates the conversion to Christianity of the envoy of Ethiopia’s Queen Candace (Hendeke) to Jerusalem in the first century A.D., thereby signaling the early phase of Ethiopia’s adoption of Christianity. This event may have led to the probable establishment of a center of worship in Jerusalem for Ethiopian pilgrims, priests, monks and nuns.

Keeping these renditions as a backdrop, what can be said for certain is the following. Ethiopian monastic activities in Jerusalem were observed and reported by contemporary residents and sojourners during the early years of the Christian era. By the time of the Muslim conquest of Jerusalem and the region (634-644 A.D.) khalif Omar is said to have confirmed Ethiopian physical presence in Jerusalem’s Christian holy places, including the Church of St. Helena which encompasses the Holy Sepulcher of the Lord Jesus Christ. His firman or directive of 636 declared that“the Iberian and Abyssinian communities remain there” while also recognizing the rights of other Christian communities to make pilgrimages in the Christian holy places of Jerusalem. Because Jerusalem and the region around it, has been subjected to frequent invasions and changing landlords, stakes in the holy places were often part of the political whims of respective powers that be. Subsequently, upon their conquest of Jerusalem in 1099, the Crusaders, had kicked out Orthodox/Coptic monks from the monasteries and installed Augustine monks instead. However, when in 1187 Salaheddin wrested Jerusalem from the Crusaders, he restored the presence of the Ethiopian and other Orthodox/Coptic monks in the holy places. When political powers were not playing havoc with their claims to the holy places, the different Christian sects would often carry on their own internecine conflicts among themselves, at times with violent results.

“For more than 1500 years, the Church of Ethiopia survived in Jerusalem. Its survival has not, in the last resort, been dependent on politics, but on the faith of individual monks that we should look for the vindication of the Church’s presence in Jerusalem….They are attracted in Jerusalem not by a hope for material gain or comfort, but by faith.”

Contemporary records and reports indicate that the Ethiopian presence in the holy places in Jerusalem was rather much more substantial throughout much of the period up to the 18th and 19th centuries. For example, an Italian pilgrim, Barbore Morsini, is cited as having written in 1614 that “the Chapels of St. Mary of Golgotha and of St. Paul…the grotto of David on Mount Sion and an altar at Bethelheim…”among others were in the possession of the Ethiopians. From the 16th to the middle of the 19thcenturies, virtually the whole of the Middle East was under the suzerainty of the Ottoman Empire. When one of the Zagwe kings in Ethiopia, King Lalibela (1190-1225), had trouble maintaining unhampered contacts with the monks in Jerusalem, he decided to build a new Jerusalem in his land. In the process he left behind one of the true architectural wonders known as the Rock-hewn Churches of Lalibela. The Ottomans also controlled Egypt and much of the Red Sea littoral and thereby circumscribed Christian Ethiopia’s communication with the outside world, including Jerusalem. Besides, they had also tried but failed to subdue Ethiopia altogether. Though Ethiopia’s independent existence was continuously under duress not only from the Ottomans but also their colonial surrogate, Egypt as well as from the dervishes in the Sudan, the Ethiopian monastery somehow survived during this period. Whenever they could, Ethiopian rulers and other personages as well as church establishments sent subsidies and even bought plots of land where in time churches and residential buildings for Ethiopian pilgrims were built in and around Jerusalem. Church leaders in Jerusalem often represented the Ethiopian Orthodox Church in ecumenical councils and meetings in Florence and other fora.

During the 16th and 17th centuries the Ottoman rulers of the region including Palestine and, of course, Jerusalem, tried to stabilize the continuing clamor and bickering among the Christian sects claiming sites in the Christian holy places. To that effect, Ottoman rulers including Sultan Selim I (1512-1520) and Suleiman “the Magnificent” (1520-1566) as well as later ones in the 19th century, issued edicts or firmans regulating and detailing by name which group of monks would be housed where and the protocol governing their respective religious ceremonies. These edicts are called firmans of the Status Quo for all Christian claimants in Jerusalem’s holy places including the Church of the Holy Sepulcher which came to be called Deir Sultan or the monastery (place) of the Sultan. Ethiopians referred to it endearingly as Debre Sultan. Most observers of the scene in the latter part of the 19th Century as well as honest spokesmen for some of the sects attest to the fact that from time immemorial the Ethiopian monks had pride of place in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher (Deir Sultan). Despite their meager existence and pressures from fellow monks from other countries, the Ethiopian monks survived through the difficult periods their country was going through such as the period of feudal autarchy (1769-1855). Still, in every document or reference since the opening of the Christian era, Ethiopia and Ethiopian monks have been mentioned in connection with Christian holy places in Jerusalem, by all alternating landlords and powers that be in the region.

As surrogates of the weakening Ottomans, the Egyptians were temporarily in control of Jerusalem (1831-1840). It was at this time, in 1838, that a plague is said to have occurred in the holy places which in some mysterious ways of Byzantine proportions, claimed the lives of allEthiopian monks. The Ethiopians at this time were ensconced in a chapel of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher (Deir Sultan) as well as in other locales nearby. Immediately thereafter, the Egyptian authorities gave the keys of the Church to the Egyptian Coptic monks. The Egyptian ruler, Ibrahim Pasha, then ordered that all thousands of very precious Ethiopian holy books and documents, including historical and ecclesiastical materials related to property deeds and rights, be burned—alleging conveniently that the plague was spawned by the Ethiopian parchments. Monasteries are traditionally important hubs of learning and, given its location and its opportunity for interaction with the wider family of Christiandom, the Ethiopian monastery in Jerusalem was even more so than others. That is how Ethiopians lost their choice possession in Deir Sultan. By the time other monks arrived in Jerusalem, the Copts claimed their squatter’s rights, the new Ethiopian arrivals were eventually pushed off onto the open rooftop of the church, thanks largely to the machinations of the Egyptian Coptic church.

Although efforts on behalf of Ethiopian monks in Jerusalem started in mid-19th Century with Ras Ali and Dejach Wube, it was the rise of Emperor Tewodros in 1855 in Ethiopia that put the Jerusalem monastery issue back onto international focus. When Ethiopian monks numbering a hundred or so congregated in Jerusalem at the time, the Armenians had assumed superiority in the holy places. The Anglican bishop in Jerusalem then, Bishop Samuel Gobat witnessed the unholy attitude and behavior of the Armenians and the Copts towards their fellow Christian Ethiopians who were trying to reclaim their rights to the holy places in Jerusalem. He wrote that the Ethiopian monks, nuns and pilgrims “were both intelligent and respectable, yet they were treated like slaves, or rather like beasts by the Copts and the Armenians combined…(the Ethiopians) could never enter their own chapel but when it pleased the Armenians to open it. …On one occasion, they could not get their chapel opened to perform funeral service for one of their members. The key to their convent being in the hands of their oppressors, they were locked up in their convent in the evening until it pleased their Coptic jailer to open it in the morning, so that in any severe attacks of illness, which are frequent there, they had no means of going out to call a physician.’’ It was awareness of such indignities suffered by Ethiopian monks in Jerusalem that is said to have impelled Emperor Tewodros to have visions of clearing the path between his domain and Jerusalem from Turkish/Egyptian control, and establishing something more than monastic presence there. In the event, one of the issues which contributed to the clash with British colonialists that consumed his life 1868, was the quest for adequate protection of the Ethiopian monks and their monastery in Jerusalem.

Emperor Yohannes IV (1872-1889), the priestly warrior king, used his relatively cordial relations with the British who were holding sway in the region then, to make representations on behalf of the Ethiopian monastery in Jerusalem. He carried on regular pen-pal communications with the monks even before he became Emperor. He sent them money, he counseled them and he always asked them to pray for him and the country, saying, “For the prayers of the righteous help and serve in all matters. By the prayers of the righteous a country is saved.” He used some war booty from his battles with Ottomans and their Egyptian surrogates, to buy land and started to build a church in Jerusalem. As he died fighting Sudanese/Dervish expansionists in 1889, his successor, Emperor Menelik completed the construction of the Church named Debre Gennet located on what was called “Ethiopian Street.” During this period more monasteries, churches and residences were also built Empresses Tayitu, Zewditu, Menen as well as by several other personages including Afe Negus Nessibu, Dejazmach Balcha, Woizeros Amarech Walelu, Beyenech Gebru, Altayeworq. As of the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th Century the numbers of Ethiopian monks and nuns increased and so did overall Ethiopian pilgimage and presence in Jerusalem. In 1903, Emperor Menelikput $200, 000 thalers in a (Credileone?) Bank in the region and ordained that interests from that savings be used exclusively as subsidy for the sustenance of the Ethiopian monks and nuns and the upkeep of Deir Sultan. Emperor Menelik’s 6-point edict also ordained that no one be allowed to draw from the capital in whole or in part. Land was also purchased at various localities and a number of personalities including Empress Tayitu, and later Empress Menen, built churches there. British authorities supported a study on the history of the issue since at least the time of kalifa (Calif) Omar ((636) and correspondences and firmans and reaffirmations of Ethiopian rights in 1852, in an effort to resolve the chronic problems of conflicting claims to the holy sites in Jerusalm. The 1925 study concluded that ”the Abyssinian (Ethiopian ) community in Palestine ought to be considered the only possessor of the convent Deir Es Sultan at Jerusalem with the Chapels which are there and the free and exclusive use of the doors which give entrance to the convent, the free use of the keys being understood.”

Until the Fascist invasion of Ethiopia in the 1930’s when Mussolini confiscated Ethiopian accounts and possessions everywhere, including in Jerusalem, the Ethiopian presence in Jerusalem had shown some semblance of stability and security, despite continuing intrigues by Copts, Armenians and their overlords in the region. This was a most difficult and trying time for the Ethiopian monks in Jerusalem who were confronted with a situation never experienced in the country’s history, namely its occupation by a foreign power. And, just like some of their compatriots including Church leaders at home, some paid allegiance to the Fascist rulers albeit for the brief (1936-1941) interregnum. Emperor Haile Sellassie was also a notable patron of the monastery cause, and the only monarch to have made several trips to Jerusalem, including en route to his self-exile to London in May, 1936. Since at least the 1950s there was an Ethiopian Association for Jerusalem in Addis Ababa which coordinated annual Easter pilgrimages to Jerusalem. Hundreds of Ethiopians and other persons from Ethiopia and the Diaspora took advantage of its good offices to go there for absolution, supplication or felicitation, and the practice continues today. Against all odds, historical, ecclesiastical and cultural bonding between Ethiopia and Jerusalem waxed over the years. The Ethiopian presence expanded beyond Deir Sultan including also numerous Ethiopian Churches, chapels, convents and properties. This condition required that the Patriarchate of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church designate Jerusalem as a major diocese to be administered under its own Archbishop.

Contemporary developments related to Deir Sultan

The foregoing pages should give the reader some idea of the deeply rooted but checkered and sinewy Ethiopian tenure in Jerusalem’s Deir Sultan. That the Ethiopian monastery has survived so far against all odds, is nothing short of a miracle. The different powers played havoc with the Ethiopian monks and nuns in Deir Sultan, taking away their key to their own chapel, changing locks on them, burning their precious religious materials, beating and mistreating them and eventually pushing them out of their central holdings in the main chapel of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher onto the rooftop of the Church. Still, they remained there making their own thatched roofs, linoleum ceiling covers, plants for shades, water well and makeshift cookeries and bathrooms. There they stayed fasting, praying, singing hymnals in the style of David of old. They also carried on their religious rituals and ceremonies in accordance with the practices and requisites of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Throughout its history the Ethiopian monastery has been a political football for Egyptian Copts and Armenian Orthodox in particular and the Turks and other overlords of the region in general. Most of the time, the Ethiopian state, was not in a position to do much on behalf of the Deir Sultan Ethiopian monks, as it was itself struggling for its survival and sovereignty in a hostile environment. Only towards the end of the 19thCentury, did the Ethiopian state and the Metropolitan in Addis Ababa start making some difference in stabilizing whatever could be salvaged from centuries of Egyptian/Coptic usurpation sustained by the Ethiopian monastery.

Egyptian government/Coptic cabal against Ethiopian/black presence in Jerusalem became even more politicized and more pronounced after the 1950’s when the Ethiopian Orthodox Church opted to be autocephalous, thereby ending the centuries old tutelage of the Alexandrian Coptic Church, which had until then provided the Metropolitan or Patriarch for the Ethiopian Church. The Egyptian Copts never got over that act of self-determination by the Ethiopian Church, and they were quick to peg their petty or greedy quest for complete takeover of all Ethiopian properties and possessions in the holy places, especially the prized Church of the Holy Sepulcher. To that end, they have leaned on the Egyptian government to pressure different landlords of Jerusalem including the Jordanians until 1967 and the Israelis since then. In one form or another, therefore, the question of Deir Sultan has become intertwined with the larger issue of Arab/Palestinian an Israeli conflict in the region. Technically, the Status Quo firmans issued in earlier times, as adumbrated in foregoing pages, are supposed to govern possessions of the holy places in question and relations among the Christian claimants of same. These firmans are not only rigorous and stringent, but it is also incumbent on all landlords that be–such as Turks, British, Jordanian or Israeli—to enforce them strictly to the letter. A recent report points out, for example, that the Status Quo“prohibits simple renovations, removal of fallen debris from the decaying ceiling, even sweeping has to be done in the dark or the Ethiopians risk being reported to the authorities by their Christian neighbors.” Despite such strict provisions, it is, as we have seen heretofore, the rights and footholds of the Ethiopian monks that have been continuously usurped, to benefit mainly the Egyptian Copts and then the Armenians and to some extent other groups as well. The Ethiopian monks are even victims of internecine rivalries and jockeying for advantages among the other Christian usual suspects.

When in 1948, the State of Israel came into existence in Palestine, Jerusalem was still part of the Kingdom of Jordan. The ever irksome Copts provoked a confrontation with Ethiopian monks in Deir Sultan which required Jordanian intervention or, more properly enforcement of the age-old Status Quo provisions. Given the somewhat frigid relations then between Egypt and Jordan on the one hand and the nascent cordiality between Emperor Haile Sellassie and King Hussein on the other at that moment, the Jordanian government ordered that the Egyptian Copts hand over the keys to Deir Sultan to the Ethiopians. When the Copts failed to comply with the order, the Jordanians went ahead and changed the locks and gave the new keys to the Ethiopians. This was, however, short lived as newfound courtship between Egyptian President Nasser and Jordanian king Hussein resulted in a Jordanian volte-face which reversed their earlier ruling and the keys were once again given to the Copts. As is well known, in its sweeping military victory over its Arab antagonists in the 1967 war, Israel occupied territories of Egypt, Syria and Jordan. More importantly, Israel wrested Jerusalem from Jordanian control and became henceforth the new landlord of the Christian holy places as well. And so, the problem of Deir Sultan was now squarely on Israel’s shoulders. And, it did not take long for their judgment to be tested. The chronic tug-of-war between the Copts and Ethiopian Orthodox monks flared up again in 1970, when the Israeli government is said to have changed the locks and given the keys to the Ethiopians. The Copts, as expected, did not take this lying down. They decided to take the matter to the Israeli courts where they filed papers alleging that they were the sole owners of Deir Sultan and that at best the Ethiopians were only guests with no property rights to the holy places. In 1971, the Israeli High Court is said to have ruled in favour of the Coptic claim and ordered that the government turn over the keys to the Copts. It is reported that the Israeli government did not comply with the court order insisting that “its dispute with the Copts was political and not legal and that the judiciary should desist from pressuring the government to resolve the case in court.” It is to be remembered that through all this, the Egyptian Copts have already usurped the main floor and chapel of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Ethiopians are pushed to the rooftop of the Church. What the Copts want is for the Ethiopians to disappear once and for all from the scene, from the last vestige of presence they have maintained for nearly two thousand years altogether. With such Christian charity who needs enemies.

Despite the fact that the government of Emperor Haile Sellassie broke diplomatic relations with Israel in 1973, in solidarity with Egypt (an OAU member) which lost its Sinai territory, the Israeli government did not at this time retaliate by siding with the Egyptian Copts. To be sure, the Israelis were, and some say they still are, annoyed by Ethiopia’s decision which they regard as ‘betrayal’ and which also spawned an avalanche of diplomatic break off of ties with Israel by several other African countries, they did not retaliate on Deir Sultan for several reasons. One reason was that in the larger Arab-Israeli scheme of things, Deir Sultan does not figure big either for Egypt, the Arabs or for Israel. Sinai, the West Bank, the Golan Heights, Red Sea littoral and most importantly, sovereignty over Jerusalem as a whole and, when all is said and done, Palestinian/Arab and Israeli peaceful coexistence in the region are the most important issues. At best, the Deir Sultan issue is a nuisance to them as it has been for all landlords of Jerusalem historically.

Another reason for the Israeli reluctance to tackle the Deir Sultan dispute between mainly the Copts and the Ethiopian monks has to do with yet a different factor in the mix embedded in millennial history of the region. For a very long time, it was recognized by Zionist elements that several thousands of Ethiopians referred to in Ethiopia as falashas and now named bete Israelis as being more or less Jews and in the early 1970’s the rabbinical authorities had authenticated as Jews in exile from one of the lost tribes and therefore eligible for the right of return oraliyah to Israel. Thus, for several years Jewish groups in North America, Europe and Israel had been working painstakingly to safely facilitate the return of the Ethiopian Jews to Israel, and the Israeli government was well advised not to jeopardize this process by antagonizing the Ethiopian government(s) on the Deir Sultan issue. In the event, between the mid-1980’s and 1991 more than 60, 000 Ethiopian Jews have arrived in Israel.

It appears that the Egyptian government and the Copts have left no stone unturned to divest the Ethiopian Church of its rightful heritage in Jerusalem which is as much, if not more, legitimate as that of the Copts and other Christian sects. It is to be recalled that in 1978, then Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian president Anwar Sadat were negotiating land for peace through the good offices of U.S. president Jimmy Carter at Camp David. It is believed that in the course of those negotiations, Sadat privately raised the Deir Sultan issue on behalf of the Copts under his suzerainty, and it is intimated that Begin made some kind of personal promise to him. Inasmuch as what transpired or what exactly was promised was all personal, private and unregistered or not declared publicly at the time, one wonders if any responsible state or government would deem to be duty bound to act upon such informal exchanges. The Egyptians are said to have also raised the matter of Deir Sultan at the Israeli-Egyptian Normalization talks in 1986. What is of interest to us here in all of the above litany of Egyptian/Coptic pleas and goadings, is how relentless and dogged the Egyptians/Copts have been in their hostility to Ethiopian/black Christian presence in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher of Jerusalem.

This brings us to the latest physical clashes perpetrated by the Egyptian Coptic clerics in the Deir Sultan holy site in Jerusalem, which has been the subject of several reports by British, American, Israeli and Arab papers.

Unholy violence occurred in Christianity’s holiest place in Jerusalem at the end of  July 2002, when an Egyptian Coptic priest, Father Abdel Malek, decided to bring a chair, go up to the rooftop of the Church, which is the last remaining preserve of the Ethiopian monks, and proceeded to sit there under the shade of a tree in clear violation of the Status Quo. It is to be remembered that, the cleric and his colleagues would not allow Ethiopians to visit, sit or worship in the Coptic chapels. The details are sketchy in terms who did what and when. However, it appears that when Ethiopians naturally tried to resist this wanton violation of their rights to their space by the impudent Copt, violent clashes erupted involving also Israeli policemen. In the melee, nearly a dozen monks, mostly Ethiopians suffered injuries and lascerations. After all that, it is reported that, escorted by Israeli police daily, Coptic cleric Abdel Malek continued to perch at the Ethiopian property, presumably until the Ministry of Religious Affairs issues a ruling on the matter. A question that comes on loudly to an interested observer is, “Why did the Copts choose this particular time to force a confrontation on Deir Sultan?” It seems that, given the volatile and bloody situation in Palestinian and Israeli relations, the Egyptians/Copts may have assumed that the Israelis may at the moment be ready to cave in and Deir Sultan’s rooftop may just be the kind of bone they can throw to them to elicit a possible or putative mediating role vis-à-vis the Palestinians. And the Egyptians/Copts continue to put pressure on Israel by inflaming Arab opinion. Egyptian President Mubarak is said to have boycotted an important regional meeting recently protesting the Deir Sultan affair. An Arab paper reported  that earlier on, Pope Shenuda III of Alexandria lambasted Israeli Prime Minister Israel Sharon, calling on the Arab world to unite and put more effective pressure on Israel, inserting his pet agenda and saying, “the Israelis are occupying since 1970, the Deir Al Sultan church in east Jerusalem by force, and did not implement a ruling issued by the Jewish Supreme Court in favor of the (his Coptic) church.”

Since these shameful events, several deputations and representations to the Israeli authorities have been made by a newly formed “Ethiopian Association for Jerusalem” in the United States. These deputations took the form of written communications to the Israeli Embassy in Washington, D.C., and also in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Other concerned groups including the longstanding Association in Ethiopia and individuals of Ethiopian origin are, no doubt making efforts to let the authorities in Israel know their concern on the issue. It is also hoped that the black Jews from Ethiopia and elsewhere will also weigh in on the matter. Though the current regime in Addis Ababa is better known for its systematic destruction of Ethiopian history, culture, and integrity, it sent a delegation to Israel for perfunctory reasons and with no avail on behalf of the Ethiopian monks or the monastery. Given the split of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church in Addis Ababa and in the Diaspora, the Church’s effectiveness in successfully challenging the Egyptian Coptic pressures to eliminate Ethiopian, hence black presence in Jerusalem is a matter of serious concern.

Ethiopia and Black Heritage In Jerusalem

For hundreds of years, the name or concept of Ethiopia has been a beacon for black/African identity liberty and dignity throughout the Diaspora. The Biblical (Psalm 68:31) verse , “…Ethiopia shall soon stretch forth her hands unto God” has been universally taken to mean African people, black people at large, stretch out their hands to God (and only to God) in supplication, in felicitation or in absolution. As Daniel Thwaite put it, for the Black man Ethiopia was always “…an incarnation of African independence.” And today, Ethiopian monastic presence in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher or Deir Sultan in Jerusalem, is the only Black presence in the holiest place on earth for Christians. For much of its history, Ethiopian Christianity was largely hemmed in by alternating powers in the region. Likewise, Ethiopia used its own indigenous Ethiopic languages for liturgical and other purposes within its own territorial confines, instead of colonial or other lingua franca used in extended geographical spaces of the globe. For these and other reasons, Ethiopia was not able to communicate effectively with the wider Black world in the past. Given the fact that until recently, most of the Black world within Africa and in the Diaspora was also under colonial tutelage or under slavery, it was not easy to appreciate the significance of Ethiopian presence in Jerusalem. Consequently, even though Ethiopian/Black presence in Jerusalem has been maintained through untold sacrifices for centuries, the rest of the Black world outside of Ethiopia has not taken part in its blessings through pilgrimages to the holy sites and thereby develop concomitant bonding with the Ethiopian monastery in Jerusalem. Apropos to this theme, there is an initiative afoot by a few individuals to launch a “Forum for African Heritage in Jerusalem” website that can serve as a forum for education, dialogue and/or action by any and all concerned on Deir Sultan and the sustenance of Black presence there.

For nearly two millennia now, the Ethiopian Church and its adherent monks and priests have miraculously maintained custodianship of Deir Sultan, suffering through and surviving all the struggles we have glanced at in these pages. In fact, the survival of Ethiopian/Black presence in Christianity’s holy places in Jerusalem is matched only by the “Survival Ethiopian Independence” itself. Indeed, Ethiopian presence in Deir Sultan represents not just Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity but all African/black Christians of all denominations who value the sacred legacy that the holy places of Jerusalem represent for Christians everywhere. It represents also the affirmation of the fact that Jerusalem is the birthplace of Christianity, just as adherents of Judaism and Islam claim it also. The Ethiopian foothold at the rooftop of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher is the only form of Black presence in Christianity’s holy places of Jerusalem. It ought to be secure, hallowed and sanctified ground by and for all Black folks everywhere who value it. The saga of Deir Sultan also represents part of Ethiopian history and culture. And that too is part of African/black history and culture regardless of religious orientation.

When a few years ago, an Ethiopian monk was asked by a writer why he had come to Jerusalem to face all the daily vicissitudes and indignities, he answered, “because it is Jerusalem.” And the writer makes the perceptive observation that “The Ethiopian church in Jerusalem itself resembles a plant which in Jerusalem has found poor soil, but has continued to grow in defiance of the laws of probability and to survive the hardest winters and the hottest summers.” The number of Ethiopian monks and nuns domiciled in Deir Sultan today has shrank drastically from several hundreds at the turn of the century to a few dozens today. And they are of the view that “if they are forced to leave Deir as-Sultan Monastery, blacks will never again be represented in the sacred place.” It is hoped that henceforth not only Ethiopians but all other Black folks from every land in the African continent and in the Diaspora will embark on annual pilgrimages to the Ethiopian convent of Deir Sultan and assert their rights of representation in this holiest of holy Christian shrines in Jerusalem.

8 November 2002

Written by Tseday

October 8, 2015 at 6:53 pm

The “New Jerusalem” of Ethiopia

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Ethiopian Orthodox Church: History [short documentary]

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Zionism in Palestine

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Photo by Ilan Assayag – January 2012 – Ethiopian-Israelis protesters march in front of the Knesset in Jerusalem and hold signs which read, ‘Blacks and Whites – We’re all Equal’ and ‘Our Blood is Only Good for Wars.’

What has Jerusalem to do with Islam?

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To Pray In Jerusalem
July/August 1974

Earlier this year King Faisal of Saudi Arabia, a devout Muslim, protector of the Holy Cities of Mecca and Medina, and the leading proponent of Islamic unity, made a significant remark that was widely quoted in the world press. “My greatest wish before I die,” said the 70-year-old King, “is to pray in Jerusalem.”

Muslims everywhere immediately understood and sympathized with King Faisal’s wish, but to Westerners unfamiliar with the Middle East the King’s statement came as something of a surprise. Undoubtedly, many persons today know that Muslims consider Mecca and Medina, both in Saudi Arabia, as Holy Cities and that the Ka’bah, in Mecca’s Sacred Mosque, is the point toward which, five times each day, the world’s 600 million Muslims face in prayer. But Jerusalem? From both the Bible’s Old and New Testaments Westerners know Jerusalem’s deep associations with Judaism and Christianity. But what has Jerusalem to do with Islam?

The answer is: a great deal. Jerusalem is as holy a city to Muslims—and for many of the same reasons—as it is to Jews and Christians, and it also figures importantly in religious traditions particular to Islam. There are also for Muslims some 1,300 years of historical ties.

The historical ties are not completely unknown in the West. Even those with a limited exposure to Middle East history probably know that in the year 637—13 centuries ago—crusading Muslims from Arabia besieged Jerusalem, accepted the surrender of its Byzantine overlords and ruled there almost continually until the Christian Crusaders from Europe came in 1099. They probably recall too that less than a century later Saladin, the gallant Muslim leader famous for his encounters with Richard the Lion Hearted, recaptured Jerusalem from the Europeans and that the subsequent Arab dynasties and later the Ottoman Turks, who controlled the Holy City up to World War I, were Muslim.

What has escaped the casual reader, however, is that Islam’s religious ties with the Holy City are equally long and much deeper. How many Western pundits now puzzling over King Faisal’s statement realize that the large rock atop Mount Moriah in Jerusalem, where tradition says Abraham prepared to sacrifice his son, is also holy to Muslims because they believe it is the place from which Muhammad began his ascent to Heaven? Or that Arabs too believe they are descended from Abraham, prophet and father of the Jews, that they too revere him as a prophet and that he is mentioned in the Holy Koran as being a Muslim? And how many realize that John the Baptist and Jesus are also both accepted and revered by Muslims as prophets?

This lack of understanding, widespread and of long duration, is due in part to the historic hostility of Western nations toward Islam, a hostility probably originally engendered by Islam’s attempts in distant centuries to conquer Europe. As one result, Western religious history rarely mentions that Muslims, Christians and Jews share many nearly identical beliefs—such as the oneness of God, the need for total submission to His will and the clash of good and evil—and that in Islam, the last of the three great monotheistic religions, many of the individuals, events and places sacred to Jews and Christians are equally sacred to Muslims.

The Prophet Muhammad, to whom God revealed His truths, grew up in Mecca, then a center of pagan idolatry although both Judaism and Christianity, being Semitic religions, were known in Arabia. Muhammad was a ready instrument when God, in the year 610, spoke to him through the Archangel Gabriel—himself familiar to many Christians—and entrusted to Muhammad His final revelations, a confirmation of the Abrahamic line of revelations, the message of Islam.

This aspect of Muslim belief is crucial to any understanding of a Muslim presence in Jerusalem. For Muhammad, from the beginning, emphasized that he was only the last in a long line of prophets through whom God has spoken to mankind, and that he was only completing and fulfilling God’s often-revealed message. Thus he taught reverence for the prophets of the Old and New Testaments and respect for Jews and Christians as fellow monotheists and “People of the Book.” In the Holy Koran, which is God’s word as He revealed it to Muhammad, Biblical figures such as Adam, Noah, David and Solomon, and prophets such as Elijah, Moses, John the Baptist and Jesus, with his mother Mary, all have their place. To put it another way, their ties to Jerusalem are also Islam’s ties.

Above all, Muhammad stressed reverence toward Abraham, father of the Jews and Arabs.

According to Muslim belief, Arabs are descendants of Abraham through his son Ishmael, as Jews are descendants of Abraham through Isaac. Indeed, Abraham, according to the Koran, was a Muslim himself. When, on God’s command, Abraham took his son to a rocky summit and prepared unflinchingly to sacrifice him to the one God, it could be considered, as the first example of complete submission to God’s will—the essence of Muslim belief—a starting point of Islam. As Sura 16, verse 120 of the Koran says, “Abraham was indeed a model, devoutly obedient to God, true in faith, and he joined not gods with God.”

Later, as God continued to reveal the message of Islam to Muhammad, the ties to Jerusalem became more direct. One night God, through the Archangel Gabriel, summoned Muhammad from Mecca to Jerusalem on a Nocturnal Journey (Isra’). According to Muslim belief, Muhammad was carried aloft on the back of a winged mare named al-Buraq to Mount Moriah and the Holy Rock. From its summit he ascended (Mi’raj) through the stages of Heaven, meeting and praying with the previous prophets including Abraham, Moses and Jesus. In the Seventh Heaven Muhammad appeared before the throne of God, Who spoke to him. The Prophet then returned to the Holy Rock and, mounting al-Buraq, was back in Mecca by dawn.

As the embarkation point for this journey to God, Jerusalem thus became even more established as a Holy City. As Sura 17, verse 1 of the Koran says, “Glory be to Him, who carried His servant by night from the Sacred Mosque (Mecca) to the Farthest Mosque (Jerusalem), the precincts of which We have blessed, that We might show him some of Our signs …” Indeed, for a short time early in their history Muslims prayed toward Jerusalem, and it is called in Arabic Ula al-Qihlatain, “First of the two Qiblas,” —”directions”—the second being Mecca. It is also called al-Quds ash-Sharif, “the Holy and Noble City,” or simply, al-Quds, “the Holy.” In addition to the Koranic blessing, there is a Hadith, or saying attributed to the Prophet, that Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem are equally deserving of pilgrimage.

For all those reasons, it was inevitable that the Muslims would want to implement their spiritual rights to Jerusalem. In 637 they did. By that time, the empires of Persia and Byzantium, successor to Rome, were deadlocked after years of exhausting struggle to control what is now the Middle East. And although Muhammad had died, the faith of his followers was such that they had routed the Byzantine forces from every major city between the Tigris and the Mediterranean except Jerusalem. Now, in 637, they approached the city, pitched their tents on the Mount of Olives and prepared to take it.

Inside the walls of Jerusalem, then called by its Roman name, Aelia Capitolina, the Byzantines, nearly defenseless, debated whether to surrender or fight—as they had 20 years before when the Persians were at the gates, resulting in ruthless and indiscriminate slaughter. Those arguing for surrender pointed out that when Damascus fell to the Muslim armies two years before, there had been no slaughter. Furthermore the terms of surrender had been extremely lenient, with Christians being allowed to continue praying in their churches upon the payment of a poll tax which guaranteed for them as well as Muslim citizens, the “Security of Islam.”

As news of this had leaked into besieged Jerusalem, the Greek Patriarch, Sophronius, sent word out that he would surrender the city without a struggle, but only to the Caliph Omar personally. Omar, then in Damascus, agreed and in one of the great scenes of Muslim history entered Jerusalem alone, except for a servant. Because his clothes were torn and dusty from the ride from Damascus, and because his manner to his servant was so courteous, the Byzantines, arrayed in pompous splendor to meet him, assumed the servant was Omar and greeted him effusively—to the quiet amusement of the Caliph. Thus did Islam come to Jerusalem.

Omar’s behavior on that occasion was symbolic of his later approach to the Christians and to Jerusalem. Once his identity was clarified, Omar asked Sophronius to show him the city’s holy places, and Sophronius led him first to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. As it was prayer time the Patriarch invited the Caliph to pray there with him. Omar declined, saying that to do so might later encourage his followers to convert the church into a mosque. Instead he prayed outside a little to the south, a place commemorated today by a 10th-century mosque called the Mosque of Omar and built in a small garden across the courtyard from the entrance of the Holy Sepulchre. (Aramco World, March-April, 1965).

As the Caliph Omar was especially eager to see the site of the Prophet’s ascendance to Heaven, the Patriarch led him to an ancient, crumbling platform on the eastern edge of the city. Seeing that it was piled with the debris of the Persian destruction and more recent accumulations of municipal refuge, Omar personally began the task of clearing the rocky summit so that the site could be reconsecrated. This area today is in the center of a 34-acre compound in the southeast corner of the Old City called al-Haram ash-Sharif, “the Noble Sanctuary.” The whole area in Omar’s time was known as al-Aqsa, “the Furthermost,” a reference to Muhammad’s ultimate journey. The Caliph ordered that a simple wooden mosque be built on the southwestern corner of the platform near the great wall where, tradition held, the Prophet had tethered his mare al-Buraq.

Traveling with the Muslim army was a man named Bilal, who had been the Prophet’s own muezzin, or prayer caller. On the first Friday after the discovery of the sacred rock, Omar went to the enclosure to worship and there Bilal himself, for the first time since Muhammad’s death six years previously, called the faithful to prayer. Al-Quds, Holy Jerusalem, was in Muslim hands.

Omar’s covenant with the Byzantines of Jerusalem followed the pattern of Damascus. With the payment of the poll tax and the acceptance of the “Security of Islam,” Christians were given self-government under their ecclesiastical leaders and Christian pilgrimages from the West were permitted. This is part of the text of Omar’s treaty:

“In the name of Allah, the Merciful, the Compassionate. This is the covenant which Omar Ibn al-Khattab, the servant of Allah, the Commander of the Faithful, grants to the people of Aelia, the Holy House. He grants them security of their lives, their possessions, their churches and crosses . . . they shall have freedom of religion and none shall be molested unless they rise up in a body. . . They shall pay a tax instead of military service . . . and those who leave the city shall be safeguarded until they reach their destination. . .”

As John Gray, an English historian, puts it, Omar’s decree was “less of a treaty imposed by a conqueror than a guarantee by a victorious faith confident in its inherent strength and conscious of its responsibilities.”

In the years that followed, Omar’s successors set to work on what is possibly Islam’s most beautiful shrine: the Dome of the Rock, so called because it encloses the rock from which Muhammad ascended. Built during the reign of the Caliph ‘Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan, it was finished in 691, and is one of Islam’s oldest existing monuments. Despite extensive modifications and repairs throughout the centuries it is today essentially the same: a magnificent structure with a great golden dome that, until the present government began to build high-rise apartment houses on surrounding hilltops, dominated the city’s skyline.

Close by the Dome of the Rock is the also famous Aqsa Mosque. Built near the site of Omar’s wooden mosque in 715, al-Aqsa has a special place in Muslim affections, because by unspoken tradition it is more a house of prayer than a monument. Five thousand worshipers can pray inside. Remarkably, these two edifices, the main symbols of the Muslim presence in Jerusalem, have survived all the difficult centuries that followed.

The pattern of religious tolerance established in Jerusalem by Omar and maintained by the Umayyad caliphs became uncertain under their Abbasid successors, deteriorated further under the Fatimids and vanished in 1099, when the Crusaders captured the Holy City (Aramco World, May-June, 1970). Not only did the European conquerors massacre all but a handful of Jerusalem’s Muslim defenders, but also burned the small Jewish community in its synagogue and slaughtered great numbers of Arab and Orthodox Christians. The Crusaders also converted the Muslim shrines to churches. A gold cross was raised on top of the Dome of the Rock, which the Crusaders then named the Templum Domini. Another was placed on the dome of al-Aqsa Mosque, which was named the Templum Solomonis and became the headquarters of the militant religious order, the Knights Templar.

But if defeated, the Muslims were not conquered. In 1187 under the great Saladin, they decisively defeated the Crusaders at Hattin near Galilee and, on October 2, the anniversary of the Prophet’s Nocturnal Journey, rode back into Jerusalem. Then, fulfilling the vow of his predecessor Nur ad-Din, who had dedicated a magnificent cedarwood minbar, or pulpit, made in Aleppo to the capture of the city, Saladin installed the pulpit in al-Aqsa Mosque. Though isolated coastal outposts remained in Christian control up to 1291, al-Quds, the Holy, was again part of the Muslim empire.

Under Saladin, whose chivalry was a legend even among his enemies, the tolerance of Omar was restored. His merciful occupation of the city was in glaring contrast to the policies of the Crusader conquest. He spared all lives, offered the “Security of Islam” to those who sought it and, although removing the crosses and altars from the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa, left all other Christian shrines intact.

During the Ayyubid dynasty, which came next, it became traditional that at times the various sultans would clean al-Aqsa with their own hands before dispensing alms. The sultans of the Mameluke dynasty, which came to power in the 13th century, assumed the title “Servants and Guardians” of the holy places in Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem. They were notable not only for the substantial restorations and redecorations they carried out in both of Jerusalem’s two major shrines, but also for the steps they took to provide for their future. The Mamelukes purchased substantial properties in Jerusalem, especially in the Magharibah quarter just west of the Noble Sanctuary, and through the establishment ofwaqfs, or perpetual sacred trusts (Aramco World, Nov.-Dec, 1973), dedicated their income to finance the upkeep of the holy places and establish, maintain and operate Muslim schools, religious institutes, pilgrim hospices and kitchens for the poor. Those institutions, plus the homes and neighborhood mosques of the devout who settled close to the two great mosques, made up an intimate, if humble, part of the Muslim presence for five centuries.

Today this presence, if weakened, is still obvious, particularly in al-Haram ash-Sharif, “the Noble Sanctuary.” On or near this site, to be sure, there occurred some of the great events of Biblical history. It was here that tradition says King Solomon built the Temple. It was here, Christians believe, that the boy Jesus was found by Mary and Joseph preaching to the elders and that he later chased the money changers from the Temple. But it should be remembered that it is a central site for Muslims too, being the holy spot from which Muhammad ascended to Heaven to pray with former prophets and appear before the throne of God.

Within the Dome of the Rock, in a small cave beneath the rocky summit of Mount Moriah are Muslim shrines to Abraham and Elijah. Here, tradition says, is the site of the Last Judgment. Beneath it is the Well of Souls, where spirits await the Day of Judgment in prayer and apprehension. And scattered about the Sanctuary are other shrines which, with quiet eloquence, remind Western visitors of how many more of their own traditions are shared by Muslims: the Dome of Moses, the Dome of Solomon, the Dome of Gabriel—all built by Muslim caliphs through the centuries. In the far corner is a small dome to mark the spot where, Muslim tradition says, Mary and the infant Jesus rested before starting down to Egypt. Across the valley on the Mount of Olives, a small mosque commemorates the site ofhis ascension to Heaven. Around the edge of the platform are a series of graceful arches, the mawazeen, from which, according to tradition, the balance scales will be hung on the Day of Judgment. Toward the south is the silver dome of al-Aqsa, “the Furthermost,” the blessed mosque, now being patiently restored after it was severely damaged by arson in 1969, in which every devout Muslim hopes to pray.

And in the center, towering above all, is the Dome of the Rock, Islam’s holy shrine built on a rocky mountain top above which Abraham, Jesus and Muhammad worshiped together and where, before he dies, an aging King hopes some day to pray.

William Tracy is Assistant Editor of Aramco World.

This article appeared on pages 24-31 of the July/August 1974 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.

Written by Tseday

April 23, 2009 at 1:48 pm