Saturday, April 23, 2011

Fire Ceremony

Today at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, thousands took part in a centuries-old fire ceremony:
"The small doorway to the traditional site of Jesus' tomb cracked open to reveal a bright flame and tens of thousands of worshippers cheered ecstatically, marking the pinnacle of Easter Week's holy fire ceremony in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

"The annual ritual has been practiced for at least the last 1,200 years on the day before Easter, which celebrates Jesus' resurrection.

"Worshippers of various Orthodox Christian sects packed into the Jerusalem church - Christianity's most sacred shrine and revered as the site where Jesus was crucified, buried and resurrected. In the ceremony, a flame believed to be miraculously lit emanates from the tomb."

In his biography of the Fatimid ruler al-Hakim, Paul Walker includes a primary source account of that caliph's reaction to news of the ceremony in 1008 CE:
"That year Christians went from Egypt to Jerusalem to be present at Easter in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, as was customary every year, bringing with them important adornments, much as the Muslims do in going out with the pilgrimage caravan. So al-Hakim asked Khatkin al-Dayf al-'Adudi, one of his commanders, about that because of the latter's familiarity with the matter of this church. He responded, 'The Christians greatly revere this church and make pilgrimages to it from every country. Kings come to visit, carrying to it great wealth, vestments, curtains, furnishings, candle stands, crosses finely wrought in gold and silver, and vessels of the same. There are in it many things of that type. On the day of Easter, the Christians assemble at the church, setting up crosses and suspending candlesticks on the altar. They attempt to have fire transferred to it by means of elder oil mixed with mercury. It produces for the purpose a bright light that those who see this happen suppose has descended from the heavens.' Al-Hakim rejected that and directed Bishr ibn Surin, the clerk of the chancery, to write to Ahmad b. Ya'qub, the da'i, commanding him to proceed straight away to Jerusalem to destroy the church and have the people plunder it so thoroughly all traces of it were obliterated. He did exactly that."

Walker later suggests that the fact the actual destruction of the church in 1009, which is 400 in the Islamic calendar, may have been related to a messianic complex on the part of al-Hakim focused on that year, in which, for example, he began eschewing court ceremony for wearing plain clothes and riding everyone's favorite messianic mount, a donkey. The full mysteries of al-Hakim's actions during his reign, which have caused many to see him as insane, will probably never be resolved, but this one did have a significant historical consequence in that the westward travel of news of this destruction served as one of the "immediate" sparks for the First Crusade decades later.

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