Destruction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre 1009

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Ninth Station outside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

The Destruction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre 1009 refers to the destruction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, churches, synagogues, torah scrolls and other religious artifacts and buildings in and around Jerusalem, which was ordered on 28 September 1009, by the Isma'ili-Shia Fatmid Caliph Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah, known as the "mad Caliph"[1] or "Nero of Islam".[2]

A diagram of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre showing traditional site of Calvary and the Tomb of Jesus

Prelude to the desecration[edit]

At Easter in 1008, Al-Hakim started tightening controls on religious freedoms in Jerusalem, forbidding Christians from making their annual Palm Sunday procession from Bethany.[3]

Holy Sepulchre destruction[edit]

On 29 September 1009, Al-Hakim ordered a governor or Ramla called Yarukh to demolish the area around Constantine's original Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Yarukh, along with his son Yusuf, Al-Husayn ibn Zahir al-Wazzan and Abu'l-Farawis Al-Dayf were among those who started destroying various buildings. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre was said to be built on the site of the Calvary or Golgotha where Jesus was alleged to have been crucified, over a rock-cut room that Helena and Macarius identified as the location of the resurrection.[1] The destruction was chronicled by Yahya ibn Sa'id of Antioch who noted it "cast down as far as the foundations" and the rock cut tomb was demolished in the attempt to "cause all trace of it to disappear". All sacred remains and holy relics were "completely annihilated".[1] Iron hammers were ineffectual against the bedrock foundations of the tomb, so they resorted to burning it with fire.[3]

Wider desecration[edit]

The desecration was not only carried out on Christian sites in and around Jerusalem. In campaigns of 1011 and 1013–14, Al-Hakim continued his campaign of destruction against Jewish synagogues and Torah scrolls along with churches all over Syria. Unlike other Fatimids, Al-Hakim launched persecutions against dhimmis that lasted throughout his reign.[4] Christians were made to wear crosses and Jews forced to wear wooden blocks around their necks.[5] He only stopped for fear of retaliatory attacks on Mosques in Christian lands.[6]

European reaction[edit]

When the news reached Europe, Christians were horrified and Pope Sergius IV sent a circular letter to all churches calling for a holy fight in the Middle East and expulsion of Muslims from the Holy land.[7] The events would later be recalled by Pope Urban II in his preaching for the Crusade at Clermont.[8] Although the crusades happened almost a century after the desecration and caused by various other complex political intrigues, it was still very much in the public mind as a cause.[9] It was considered so by William of Tyre.[10]

Adémar de Chabannes wrote about the events, drawing associations between Al-Hakim (who founded the Druze faith and self-proclaimed himself to be the Mahdi[11]) and the Antichrist, blaming the Jews for inspiring his desecration of the Holy Sepulchre.[12] Rudolfus Glaber also wrote a history of the events blaming French Jews from Orléans for sending a message to the Caliph via a pilgrim disguised as a Jew. The message was said to have been hidden inside a hollow staff and urged the Caliph to destroy the sepulchre on threat Christians would take over his empire otherwise. Rudolfus portrays Al-Hakim as gullible and firmly cast blame on the Jews.[4] This led to outbreaks of antisemitism and violence against Jews across Europe with King Robert II of France ordering forced conversions and Henry II, Holy Roman Emperor to expel Jews from Mainz, condemning Judaism as heresy.[13]

Arabic chroniclers[edit]

Al-Qalanisi and Al-Djawizi suggested that Al-Hakim was angered by the supposed miracle of the Holy Fire, which had been reported as early as the 9th century. Taqi al-Din Ahmad ibn 'Ali al-Maqrizi suggested the use of black elder and quicksilver was used to cause the fraudulent miracle.[6] Bar Hebraeus and Severas ibn Muqaffa report accounts of a Christian monk named John who had become disenchanted with the Patriarch of Jerusalem informed the Caliph of the fraud to disparage him.[4] Severas notes the Patriarch was arrested at the time of the sepulchre's destruction and Adémar confirms he was killed.[4] The Patriarch of Jerusalem who was secretly put to death over the matter was the appropriately named Arsenius, also a Patriarch of Alexandria and apparently an uncle of Al-Hakim.[14]


Al-Hakim's motivations for the desecration are unclear and have been variously attested. John J. Saunders states that his anti-Christian policies were intended to mitigate the discontent aroused by his father's liberal attitude towards non-Muslims.[2] There were also suspicions of Christians colluding with Bedouin tribes to undermine Fatimid power.[15] It was possibly in relatiation for Byzantine attacks.[16] In Master of the Age, historian Paul. E Walker writes that in the popular imagination of the era, Al-Hakim's actions were interpreted by some Muslims as "doing what a Muslim leader should do" by destroying the pre-Islamic cultural heritage as part of a policy seen to be "commanding the good and forbidding the bad".[17] William of Tyre suggested Al-Hakim's mother may have been Christian and he desecrated Jerusalem simply to quash these suggestions.[18] Some note Al-Hakim's shifting religious allegiances finally starting a new Abrahamic religion that incorporated Buddhist beliefs in reincarnation.[19] Others simply think he was psychotic.[20]


  1. ^ a b c Jerome Murphy-O'Connor (23 February 2012). Keys to Jerusalem: Collected Essays. OUP Oxford. pp. 245–. ISBN 978-0-19-964202-1.
  2. ^ a b John Joseph Saunders (11 March 2002). A History of Medieval Islam. Routledge. pp. 109–. ISBN 978-1-134-93005-0.
  3. ^ a b Denys Pringle (1993). The Churches of the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem: Volume 3, The City of Jerusalem: A Corpus. Cambridge University Press. pp. 11–. ISBN 978-0-521-39038-5.
  4. ^ a b c d Michael Frassetto (2007). Christian Attitudes Toward the Jews in the Middle Ages: A Casebook. Taylor & Francis. pp. 26–. ISBN 978-0-415-97827-9.
  5. ^ Marina Rustow (3 October 2014). Heresy and the Politics of Community: The Jews of the Fatimid Caliphate. Cornell University Press. pp. 219–. ISBN 978-0-8014-5529-2.
  6. ^ a b Niall Christie (27 June 2014). Muslims and Crusaders: Christianity’s Wars in the Middle East, 1095-1382, from the Islamic Sources. Routledge. pp. 125–. ISBN 978-1-317-68279-0.
  7. ^ Irven M. Resnick (1 June 2012). Marks of Distinctions: Christian Perceptions of Jews in the High Middle Ages. CUA Press. pp. 135–. ISBN 978-0-8132-1969-1.
  8. ^ Michael Brett (2001). The Rise of the Fatimids: The World of the Mediterranean and the Middle East in the Fourth Century of the Hijra, Tenth Century Ce. BRILL. p. 1. ISBN 90-04-11741-5.
  9. ^ Helen J. Nicholson (1 January 2004). The Crusades. Greenwood Publishing Group. pp. 5–. ISBN 978-0-313-32685-1.
  10. ^ William of Tyre, A History of Deeds Done Beyond the Sea, trans. E.A. Babcock and A.C. Krey. p. 65, Columbia University Press, 1943.
  11. ^ Clinton Bennett (10 June 2008). Understanding Christian-Muslim Relations: Past and Present. A&C Black. pp. 104–. ISBN 978-0-8264-8782-7.
  12. ^ Karolyn Kinane; Michael A. Ryan (9 April 2009). End of Days: Essays on the Apocalypse from Antiquity to Modernity. McFarland. pp. 61–. ISBN 978-0-7864-5359-7.
  13. ^ James Palmer (20 November 2014). The Apocalypse in the Early Middle Ages. Cambridge University Press. pp. 219–. ISBN 978-1-107-08544-2.
  14. ^ |title=Arsenios (1000–1010) |publisher=Official web site of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria and All Africa |accessdate=2011-02-07
  15. ^ Juan Eduardo Campo (1 January 2009). Encyclopedia of Islam. Infobase Publishing. pp. 394–. ISBN 978-1-4381-2696-8.
  16. ^ Restorations of Jerusalem and the Dome of the Rock and Their Political Significance, 1537-1928, Beatrice St. Laurent and András Riedlmayer, Muqarnas, Vol. 10, Essays in Honor of Oleg Grabar (1993), pp. 76-84, BRILL
  17. ^ Paul E. Walker (15 December 2007). Master of the Age: لمصابیح في إثبات الإمامة. I.B.Tauris. pp. 7–. ISBN 978-1-84511-604-0.
  18. ^ Delia Cortese; Simonetta Calderini (2006). Women and the Fatimids in the World of Islam. Edinburgh University Press. pp. 52–. ISBN 978-0-7486-1733-3.
  19. ^ Marshall Cavendish Reference (2011). Illustrated Dictionary of the Muslim World. Marshall Cavendish. pp. 101–. ISBN 978-0-7614-7929-1.
  20. ^ Caroline Williams (1 January 2008). Islamic Monuments in Cairo: The Practical Guide. American Univ in Cairo Press. pp. 3–. ISBN 978-977-416-205-3.