The idea of a holy land has its beginnings in ancient Israel and in the Hebrew Bible. Biblical history begins with the call of Abraham to leave his people and his land in Ur of the Chaldees (Iraq) to serve the one God in a new land, the land of Canaan (Genesis 12:1). During the Exile in Babylonia following the destruction of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar in 586 B.C.E.a, the idea of repossessing the land became the driving force of Jewish hopes (Deuteronomy 30:3–5). The term “Holy Land” became a way of expressing the unique relationship between the 028people of Israel and the land of Israel (Zechariah 1:13–17; 2 Maccabees 1:7).
Even after the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E., Jews continued to hope for a restoration of Jewish institutions in the Holy Land.
In the early centuries, Christians avoided the term; not until the sixth century did “Holy Land” gain currency among Christians, designating Jerusalem and the territory where biblical history occurred. Yet from the very beginning Christian faith was oriented to events that took place in Jerusalem and other places in the land of Israel. Jesus was born in Bethlehem. He preached and healed in Galilee. He was buried in Jerusalem. These topographical facts embedded themselves very early in Christian memory. From earliest times, the place of Jesus’ birth was not simply remembered, it was celebrated. In the Gospel of Matthew, when Herod asks where Christ is to be born, he is told: “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet: ‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will govern my people Israel’ ” (Matthew 2:5–6). Few people could hear these stories without wanting to visit the scenes of these wondrous happenings.
The Christian Church had its beginnings in the city of Jerusalem. According to Acts, Peter went out into the streets and preached to the “inhabitants of Judea and all who dwell in Jerusalem” (Acts 2:14). The first Christian martyr, Stephen, met his death in the city (Acts 7:55–60). In the fourth century, a great church was built in Jerusalem outside the Damascus Gate to house his relics and honor his memory. Ancient remains from this church can still be seen as part of the rebuilt church at the Ecole Biblique et Archèologique Française.
As early as the second century, Christians began to visit the “cave” in Bethlehem where tradition said Christ was born. Eusebius, the fourth-century church historian, says that a certain Alexander from Cappadocia in Asia Minor had gone up to Jerusalem in the third century “for the purpose of prayer and seeing the [holy] places.”1 Not until the fourth century, however, was the tomb of Christ identified. At the site was constructed a handsome courtyard open to the air paved with beautiful stones surrounded by large porticoes. Across from the tomb was the hill of Golgotha, the place where Christ was crucified. Immediately to the east, contigious to the courtyard, Constantine had built a vast basilia church with five aisles oriented so that the worshipers faced west, in the direction of the tomb.
This magnificent church and shrine at the place of Christ’s death and resurrection was only one of the memorial churches built at this time. Others were constructed on the Mount of Olives, at Bethlehem and at the Oak of Mamre near Hebron, a place associated with Abraham.
Christians from all over the Mediterranean world began coming to Palestine on pilgrimages. For, from the mid-fourth century, Palestine was not simply part of the Roman empire, Christianity was its official religion and would remain so until the Arab conquest in the seventh century. Evidence of at least one of these Christian pilgrimages came to light in 1971 in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre 029in Jerusalem. Excavators uncovered a graffito of a pilgrim ship with an inscription reading “Domine ivimus,” Latin for “Lord, we went.”
The first written account of a pilgrimage to the holy places of Palestine was written by a man from Bordeaux in Gaul, usually referred to as the Bordeaux Pilgrim, who arrived in the East in 333 C.E.2 The record of this anonymous pilgrim’s journey is a brief, almost stenographic, account, noting where he went, what he saw, where he changed horses, distances from one place to another (a selection appears in the sidebar to this article). His pilgrimage took him all over Palestine, not simply to Jerusalem. He visited not only scenes from Jesus’ life, but also obscure places where little-known biblical events occurred.
In the late fourth century, an aristocratic woman from Spain named Egeria wrote a much fuller account of a pilgrimage to Palestine (a selection also appears in the sidebar to this article).3 By the time of her visit, Jerusalem was a bustling Christian city, filled with pilgrims, monks and nuns, clerics and adventurers. Its new monuments at the holy places and the elaborate liturgies celebrated in its major churches dazzled and thrilled pilgrims from all over the world. Egeria visited the “holy mount of God,” Mt. Sinai, deep in the desert, still difficult of access even today; Mt. Horeb, where the prophet Elijah fled from King Ahab; and the place near the Dead Sea where Lot’s wife was turned into a pillar of salt. She had hoped to see the “actual pillar,” but what she saw was only the place where it had supposedly stood.
As she moved from place to place, Egeria dreamed of recounting her exploits to her sisters back in Spain, very much like the modern pilgrim who, while taking pictures of the sites, thinks of gathering friends and neighbors for a slide show back home. Egeria always carried a Bible with her, and when she came to a “holy place,” she would read the biblical account of what had happened there. She was thrilled to be able to read the Scriptures and pray “on the very spot” (John Wilkinson’s felicitous translation of the Latin in ipso loco) where the biblical events had occurred.
In the fifth century, the number of pilgrims increased as people from all over the Christian world learned about the geography of Palestine. Some discovered that the Holy Land not only had shrines and memorials, it also had a desert—the desert of Elijah, of John the Baptist and of Jesus.4 Early in the fifth century Euthymius (known as “the great” to Eastern Christians), a monk from Armenia, made the long journey from his native land to settle permanently in the Judean desert. This led to the transformation of the Judean wilderness into a thriving Christian community of monasteries, forever altering the relation of Christianity to the land of the Bible. His biography and that of his energetic disciple Sabas were written in the mid-sixth century by Cyril of Scythopolis (biblical BethShean), who became the first to make Christianity in Palestine the subject of a historical narrative.5
Palestinian monasticism differed from Christian monasticism in other lands, in that most of the Palestinian monks came from outside the country. They came to Palestine because they wanted to live in “this desert,” the “desert of the holy city,” or simply the “dear desert,” as it was called by the monks. Some of the monks understood the ancient words to Abraham, “Go up to the land that I will show you” as an injunction to move to Jerusalem. For these monks, Palestine was not simply a place of pilgrimage, it was a place in which to live. In their conception, “Holy Land” was irrevocably linked to the community of Christians living in Jerusalem and its vicinity, a community that could trace its origins back to the apostles and to the time of Jesus. “We the inhabitants of Jerusalem, as it were, touch with our own hands the truth through these holy places in which the mystery of the incarnation of our great God and savior took place,” wrote Sabas and Theodosius, Palestinian monks in the sixth century.6 Living in Jerusalem conferred a unique status on its inhabitants.
From the fourth through the seventh centuries, the population of Byzantine Palestine grew rapidly. New buildings were constructed at a dizzying pace, trade increased, the economy flourished, jobs were plentiful especially for skilled craftsmen and artists, and agriculture and the cultivation of grapes (viticulture) were extended to previously uncultivated areas, such as the Negev and Judean deserts. According to Israeli historian Michael AviYonah, Jerusalem’s population increased from about 10,000 or 15,000 to over 50,000. Archaeological surveys of the region indicate that during the Christian period four times as many people lived in the country than had lived there during biblical times. The relative size of the population can be encapsulated in the following ratios: Canaanite: 1; Israelite: 1.5; Byzantine [Christian]: 5–6. “The Byzantine period … indubitably represents a very high point of material development attained by this country,” wrote Avi-Yonah.7
No region of the country provides greater evidence of the changes that were taking place in this period than the Negev desert south of Beer-Sheva. Wrote historian Kenneth Gutwein,
“It is a remarkable experience to visit the remaining ruins of the major Byzantine cities of 033Palestine III [the Roman province that embraced the Negev]. It is difficult to comprehend how such urban centers could have flourished within such a bleak environment. Yet never before in the history of the region had the total size of the population, the amount of trade, intensity of cultivation and maximization of land usage reached the proportions it did under Byzantine rule.”8
The Negev desert, shaped like a large triangle with the point at the bottom, was the ancient grazing land of the patriarchs. Its base forms a line running from Gaza through Beer-Sheva to the Dead Sea. One side runs south from the Dead Sea to Eilat/Aqaba, the other from Gaza to the same point. Water is scarce and the climate is severe. Only by skillful husbandry and an intricate system of catchments to channel the sparse precipitation into cisterns is it possible to support human life in this area. Yet in the Byzantine period, the inhabitants of the Negev cultivated field crops such as wheat, barley and legumes; they grew grapes, olives, dates and almonds. Olive oil production was apparently the region’s second most important industry, after wine production.
Byzantine Palestine was a homeland for Christians, as well as a Holy Land, a place where men and women tilled the ground and planted orchards, built homes and raised families, bought fish and sold olives. Many if not most of the churches built in the country during this period were modest, even small, parish churches or monastic chapels designed to serve the needs of the Christian population. They had little to do with the traffic of pilgrims. A small town like Madaba, east of the Jordan, had 14 churches; Gerasa (also on the east bank) had one church in the fourth century but 12 in the sixth century.
In 614, however, the armies of Chosroe II, king of the Sassanids who had ruled the Persian empire since the third century, occupied Jerusalem and captured the relic of the Holy Cross. Christians were stunned and bewildered. For centuries the Sassanids and Romans had fought each other for control of the vast area extending from the Euphrates River to the Mediterranean, but this was the first time the Persians had penetrated into Palestine and taken, in the words of a Christian eye-witness, “that great city, the city of the Christians, Jerusalem, the city of Jesus Christ.9
Nothing better exemplifies the transformation that had taken place in the land of Israel than the obvious, yet seldom observed fact, that when Jerusalem was captured by the Persians in the seventh 053century of the Common Era, it was the Christians, not the Jews, who sang a lamentation over the Holy City, Until the Persian conquest in the seventh century, it was Jews who had lamented the city’s misfortunes. Now it was Christians. A Christian “lamentation” written at the time of the Persian conquest by a monk from Mar Saba describes the occupation of the city and the fate of the Jerusalem patriarch Zacharias, who was taken into captivity by the Persians.
As Zacharias was led out of the city, the people followed him down the Kidron Valley and up the Mount of Olives, where the band of captives halted briefly. “They raised their eyes and beheld Jerusalem ablaze with flames and began to lament.” Zacharias turned for one last look at Zion and cried out:
“O Zion, with a sorrowful word that makes one weep I speak peace to you; peace be with you, O Jerusalem, peace be with you O Holy Land, peace on the whole land…. O Zion, what hope do I have, how many years before I will see you again. What use is there for me, an old man, to hope? … I will not see your face again…. O Zion, do not forget me your servant, and may your creator not forget you. For [quoting Psalm 137:5–6] ‘if I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither. Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you.’ Peace on you, O Zion, you who were my city, and now I am made a stranger to you…. To die and to be run through with a sword is sweeter than to be separated from you, O Zion.”10
Although the Christians succeeded in driving out the Persians and restoring Christian rule in the city in 629 C.E., within less than a decade a new, and unknown, foe appeared out of the deserts of Arabia. Unlike the Persian occupation of Jerusalem, Islam’s conquest of Christian Palestine (634–638 C.E.) was not a temporary scourge that would soon pass. With the arrival of Muhammad’s armies and the swift establishment of Arab hegemony in the region, Christian rule in Jerusalem came to an end, decisively and definitively. The commanders of the Muslim armies were disciples and heralds of a new civilization.
The Persian occupation and Muslim conquest produced a new generation of martyrs who were buried in the same earth that held Abraham and Sarah, Joseph and David, and Zechariah and the Maccabean martyrs and Stephen and James the brother of the Lord, and the “martyrs of Palestine,” the latter being Eusebius’ epithet for those who died during Diocletian’s persecution of Christians in the early fourth century. As Christians suffered in and with the land, and buried their dead in the land, the Holy Land became irrevocably part of the Christian experience.
The Muslim conquest did not spell the end of Christian life in the Holy land. Most Christians in Palestine were indigenous to the region and their lives went on undisturbed, at least initially. Just seven years ago, in the summer of 1986, a team of Italian archaeologists excavated several Christian churches in Jordan at Um er-Ras, a site not too far from Madaba (where the sixth-century mosaic map of the Holy land was found). Set in the floor of one of the Um er-Ras churches were panels depicting cities in Palestine, Jordan and Egypt: Jerusalem, called the Holy City, Neapolis (Nablus), Sebastia, Caesarea, Diosopolis (Lod), Eleutheropolis (Beth-Guvrin), Ascalon, Gaza, Philadelphia (Amman), Madaba, Alexandria, etc. The church includes two dated mosaics, one dedicated in 756 C.E., and a second dedicated in 785 C.E. The latter date is 140 years after the Muslim conquest of Jerusalem and well into the period of Abassid rule. In this period Christians were able to construct a new church and had the wherewithal and artistic skill to design and construct a complex and sophisticated mosaic floor.
In the early eighth century the Muslim Caliph al-Walid called Syria (which included Palestine) the “country of the Christians.” According to F. E. Peters the “beautiful churches whose adornments were a temptation [to the Muslims]” caused the caliph to undertake the construction of a mosque in Damascus that would attract Muslims from these churches, and he made it one of the wonders of the world.”11 Two centuries later, during a visit to Jerusalem, another Muslim, al-Muqaddasi, observed that “learned men are few and the Christians are numerous.” Significantly, he also noted the presence of Jews in the city. “Everywhere the Christians and the Jews are in the majority; and the mosque is empty of the faithful and of scholars.”12
In Palestine, Christians began to adopt Arabic, the language of the conquerors, as a language for Christian worship and scholarship. By the end of the eighth century the “scholarly activity” of the monks at the monasteries of Mar Sabas and Mar Chariton “was beginning to be conducted in Arabic.”13
Sometime during this period a monk living in Palestine wrote a little work in Arabic to remind Christians what had given the Holy land its singular place in Christian devotion and memory:
“Wherever there is a place that god glorified and hallowed by the appearance in it of his Christ and the presence of his Holy Spirit, whether it be a plain or a 054mountain, wherever there is a place in which God spoke to any of his prophets earlier or in which his wonders were seen, He has set all these places in the hands of those who believe in Christ, to pass on an inheritance from parents to children forever, until He brings them the kingdom of heaven which does not perish.”14
From this catalogue of the places marked by the “traces of Christ,” we can construct the entire story of the Christian gospel. The church at Nazareth bears witness to the annunciation; the church at Bethlehem, to the nativity; the church at the river Jordan, to the baptism of Christ; at Cana, to the miracle of turning water into wine; at Banyas (Caesarea Philippi), to the healing of the woman with the issue of blood; at Nain, to the raising of the only son of a widow woman; at Mt. Tabor, to the transfiguration; at Mt. Zion, to the institution of the Eucharist; at the Church of the resurrection and Calvary (“in the middle of the world and at its navel”), to the crucifixion and the Resurrection; at Emmaus, to Christ’s appearance to Cleopas and Luke.
The anonymous monk who wrote this book inserted the little word “there” (in Arabic, “in that place”) each time he tells what happened at the site. Christ’s life can be told and retold in many places allover the world, but no verbal testimony can replace the witness of the places themselves.
For Christians the Holy land is not simply a fascinating chapter in the Christian past. As Jerome wrote to his friend Paula in Rome urging her to come and live in the Holy Land, “The whole mystery of our faith is native to this province and city.”15 No matter how many centuries have passed, no matter where the Christian religion has set down roots, Christians remain wedded to the land that gave birth to Christ and to the Christian religion.
The idea of a holy land has its beginnings in ancient Israel and in the Hebrew Bible. Biblical history begins with the call of Abraham to leave his people and his land in Ur of the Chaldees (Iraq) to serve the one God in a new land, the land of Canaan (Genesis 12:1). During the Exile in Babylonia following the destruction of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar in 586 B.C.E.a, the idea of repossessing the land became the driving force of Jewish hopes (Deuteronomy 30:3–5). The term “Holy Land” became a way of expressing the unique relationship between the 028people of […]