92. Eastern Orthodoxy’s Jerusalems


Being an Atlantan mainstream Protestant , I’m not use to the variety of Chalcedonian (Greek and Russian) and non-Chalcedonian Christians, or sometimes referred to as the Oriental Christians( Armenian, Syriac, Coptic, and Ethiopian) in Jerusalem. Their use of icons, their liturgical dress, and their languages remind me that Christianity comes in all shapes and sizes just like morning cereal. Like the Franciscans (and the presence of other Roman Catholics such as the Dominicans at Ecole Biblioteque and the White Missionaries of Africa at St. Anne’s), each of these churches has created their own “sacred geography.” Although they may hurry along the same streets of Jerusalem, not all the streets have the same significance. While they may linger at the same fast food shop buying a falafel, they don’t spend hours of worship in front of the same altar. tHere are a few notes and impressions  about the Greeks, the Armenians, the Russians, the Coptics and the Ethiopians. Don’t bother reading this posting if you don’t like history!


In remembering Jerusalem’s past, the Greek Orthodox weave a story with many participants, circumstances. For the first several generations of the Christian movement, most Christians in Jerusalem were formerly Jews. When Eusebius lists the first thirty-six Bishops of Jerusalem, his list began with the first sixteen being initially Jewish. When the Romans expelled Jews and Christians from Jerusalem in 135, the Jerusalem Christians scattered. As a result, leadership for Christians in the Roman territory surrounding Jerusalem shifted to the coastal Bishop of Caesarea. When Jerusalem eventually regained having its own Bishop, the Bishop continued to be appointed by the  Bishop of Caesarea.  My point is that for the first few centuries Jerusalem was not the “spiritual center” of early Christians either in fact or in imagination, 

A truism of history though is that things never stay the same. Eventually, Christians began to see their “sacred geography” focus upon Jerusalem. The reasons were several. Early monastics inspired by the Egyptian monastics began to make the Jerusalem region “holy.” Thousands of pilgrims, even back then wanting “to walk in the footsteps of Jesus,” made their way to Jerusalem. Inspired by his mother’s Helena’s visit, Constantine erected  magnificent churches. Finally, the Council of Chalcedon in 451 elevated the Bishop of Jerusalem to a new status, the Patriarch of Jerusalem. During these centuries, the primary Christians would have been the ancestors of Orthodox Christians.

Over later centuries, the Orthodox Churches had to face Jerusalem’s destruction by Persians, occupation by Muslims and the Latin Crusaders. These Latin Crusaders not only captured Jerusalem, but also established the Kingdom of Jerusalem. Because of the 1054 split between  Eastern Orthodox Churches and the Roman Catholic Church, the Crusaders established a Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem and expelled the Orthodox Patriarch. Are you getting dizzy yet? While I could continue narrating the history, I have made my point. The Orthodox churches, particularly the Greek Orthodox Church, took pride in their long and persistent involvement with the tumultuous history of Jerusalem.


Walking Jerusalem’s streets, I see signs of the Greek Orthodox Church’s presence everywhere. When I enter the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and immediately walk up the stone steps to Golgotha, I see two altars. The larger one is the Greek Orthodox altar built over the rock where tradition has it that Jesus was crucified. As one takes the stairs down and moves toward the Edicule (the traditional site of Jesus’ tomb), I pass a large enclosed, domed space which is the Greek Orthodox Catholicon. On the dome is the classic and beautiful Christ the Pantocrator, Christ the Final Judge.


While I could illustrate their ubiquitous presence in numerous ways, I want to move to mention other Orthodox churches.

Staying within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Armenian Orthodox Church has a noteworthy presence here. The Armenians have built a chapel that leads to the Chapel of St Helena and the Finding of the Cross. Helena is best-known for discovering Jesus’ tomb and the True Cross. Get ready for history overload!

Appended to his translation of Eusebius’s Ecclesiastical History, Tyrannius Rufinus related the legend of how the empress found the True Cross. Three crosses were uncovered at a site that Helena’s workers had begun excavating, and a test was performed to determine which cross had been used to crucify Jesus. What kind of test? Obviously, a test involving a sick person and a miracle. A very sick woman was brought to the crosses. After touching the first two crosses, nothing happened. When she touched the third cross though, lo and behold she was miraculously healed. For Helena, only the true cross could occasion such healing. Over this discovery site of the true cross, Constantine built the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

Armenians mark the Church in other ways. Prior to descending into the chapel of the Finding of the Cross, the Armenians combine both Biblical scenes such as the Biblical Ark resting on Mt. Ararat in ancient Armenia as well as King Tiridates III baptism (between 301-314). Armenians proudly remind people that they were the first people who became Christian as a result of that baptism.  


Moving beyond the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Armenians possess one of the four Old City quarters. The Armenian Quarter houses not only a monastery but St. James Cathedral.


Having walked Spain’s Camino in 2017, I had to visit the Cathedral. In a small chapel beneath an altar, tradition claims that the head of St. James is buried (the rest of his body is at Spain’s Santiago del Compostela Cathedral). 

Armenians’ “sacred geography” though reminds them not only of early Christian occurrences, but also more recent atrocities. Outside the Cathedral, the Armenians with the help of dozens of small posters want others to remember the genocide of 1915-1923 when over a million-and-a-half Armenians were killed by Turkish authorities. 


The Russian Orthodox Church also has a “sacred geography.” Although late-comers to Jerusalem, the Russian Orthodox have contributed to Jerusalem’s sacred geography with two noteworthy markers: the Holy Trinity Cathedral in the former Russian Compound outside the Old City and Mount of Olives Church of St. Mary Magdalene. Unknown to most, these two sites belong to two different branches of the Russian Orthodox Church! Why you ask? To answer that question, we have to understand something of modern history.

Russian Orthodox Christians traveled in mass during the 1800’s. Some scholars estimate that as many as 200,000 Russian pilgrims traveled to Jerusalem during the 1800’s. The government, businesses, and church officials all made this possible. Taxes were lowered for those traveling to the Holy Land; steamship lines made “special arrangements”; government hospices were built for the pilgrims to rest upon arrival; and the church’s monks and priests who were already in Jerusalem became the first “tour guides.” After the Crimean War in the 1850’s, the Ottoman authorities finally allowed others to own land to build. Even though they had fought in that war, the Russians bought two major pieces of land. They bought land on Mt Olives which becomes the site for The Church of Mary Magdalene in Gethsemane, and they bought 10 acres outside Old City to build the Russian Compound which houses the Holy Trinity Cathedral. I can’t resist quoting two passages from Claude R. Conder’s Tent Work in Palestine (1878). 

“[At Easter] the town swarms with Russian men and women. The strength and endurance of these peasants is wonderful: old women of sixty or seventy trudge on foot from Jaffa to Jerusalem, a distance of thirty-five miles by road; they undergo the fatigues of the crowded Easter ceremonies, and then walk down again to the coast…”
“The scene in the Russian Cathedral at Easter time, is striking and instructive. The ritual was impressive … I have attended many religious services, Christian, Jewish, and Moslem, but none more remarkable for barbaric grandeur and pomp. The songs of Latin monks, the shrill nasal clamour of the Armenians, the Jewish gesticulation, are all far less dignified than the solemn chants of the Russian cathedral. The fanaticism of the pilgrims, drawn from the lowest and most ignorant peasant class, surpasses anything in Christendom, and is equaled by that of the Moslems.”

The Russian Revolution of 1917 not only broke the influence of the Russian church and put an end to pilgrimages, but it also created a split within the Russian Orthodox Church.  Alongside the Moscow Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, a new Church in Exile or Church Abroad, arose as a rival.  Both groups held property in Jerusalem. With the establishment of the state of Israel, the Russian Orthodox Church with the Moscow Patriarch lost a lot of its buildings and properties. With the 1990’s collapse of the Soviet Union, the problem increased: Which church is the authentic voice of Russian Orthodoxy, and which holds ownership rights over property?  The Church in Exile or the Church Abroad controls the Church of Mary Magdalene  on the Mount of Olives;  the Moscow Patriarchate possesses the Holy Trinity Cathedral, in the Russian Compound. 

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When I see Russian Orthodox pilgrims, more pilgrims than any other Orthodox Church, I wonder how much these different markers matter to them. For church officials, I know that the differences matter. For Russian Orthodox pilgrims, I suspect that the different ownership matters little.


I want to mention one final group, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. They are the “poor-cousins” of other Jerusalem Christian communities. Since their formal separation from the Egyptian Coptic Orthodox Church and their becoming self-governing only thirty years ago, the Ethiopians maintain both a small chapel in the courtyard of the Church of Holy Sepulchre as well as space on the church’s flat roof. The Ethiopian Church Compound is found outside and north of the Old City.

Each of these different churches provide a “sacred geography.” This geography is not only similar to the other churches “sacred geography,” but also distinct from those churches. The similarity consists of a concentration upon accepted, traditional geographical reference points in the life of Jesus. Jesus prayed on Mount of Olives; Jesus was arrested, tried, and forced to carry his cross on the Via Dolorosa; Jesus was crucified and buried in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. These various churches reinforce these points of the sacred geography. Yet, each of these churches provide a distinct orientation for their members. These churches remember previous members’ presence in Jerusalem, through the location of churches, monasteries, and other shrines. In addition though, they help their members remember a broader history beyond those past pilgrims and priests. The Armenians remember the genocide of 1914-1923; the Russians remember the persecution by the Communists and the split between the Moscow Patriarch and the Church in Exile. This overlapping “sacred geography” helps provide a concentrated sense of the Christian faith unparalleled anywhere else in the world.

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