Saturday, 7 November 2015

Days Five and Six: the sacred sites of Jerusalem and the hinterland of the city

Day 5 was substantially another day on foot. The bus dropped us in the old city and there we were fortunate to be guided by Dr Jon Seligman, head of research for the Israeli Antiquities Authority, with 35 years experience working in Jerusalem. 

The group gathered outside the Church of St Mary for
Jon Seligman's introduction
We began our tour with the Church of St Mary of the Valley of Jehoshaphat, a building which still displays a number of Crusader-period features, including the burial chapel of Queen Melisande of Jerusalem (1105-61) and vaulted ceilings. The church is currently shared between the Greek Orthodox and Armenian churches and we were able to squeeze our visit alongside on-going services in the church. Dr Seligman outlined key architectural features and pointed out the location of frescoes which we would see the following day in the Israel Museum. 

From there we walked into the old city and to the Church of St Anne, traditionally the birthplace of Mary, as well as lying next to the pools of Bethesda. Here Anthi Andronikou gave us an excellent introduction to the complex architectural relationship between the crusader church the the remains of the earlier pool of Bethesda. There was a stimulating debate about the role of patrons and artisans in building projects, which continued into the following day as we explored the area around Jerusalem, but more on that shortly!

The contentious vaulting in the Cenacle
Having seen the Church of St Anne we made our way through the streets of the old city to Mt. Zion, and looked around the fiendishly complicated building complex which includes the Cenacle, which according to tradition is the room in which the Last Supper took place, as well as being the home of Caiaphas and the scene of Pentecost. We were introduced to this site by Michaelis Olympios, who gave a very detailed account of its role in pilgrim journeys, as well as its built history. This enabled us to engage in a lively debate inside about the dating of the ribbed and groin-vaulted ceiling, calling into question ideas of transference. This was followed by a whistle-stop visit to the Tomb of David and the foyer of the ladies’ bathrooms in the Church of the Holy Zion, which also happens to be the site of some of the uncovered Crusader foundations of the building. 

The Chapel of Adam in the Holy Sepulchre
After lunch we began the second part of our day, dedicated to the Holy Sepulchre, in which we benefitted greatly from the insights of Bob Ousterhout, who generously shared his own deep familiarity with the building, an edifice which he described as ‘the most complicated building in the world, bar none’. There were many highlights of the time we spent there, but among them were Bob’s analysis of the Chapel of Adam. This chapel, which exhibits eleventh-century brick architecture, alongside earlier stonework and later Crusader masonry, demonstrates the commitment of the Crusader-period architects to preserving and keeping on display as much of the earlier phases of construction, while framing the existing holy sites within the ambulatory structure of a western pilgrimage church. 

The blocked window above the choir in the Holy Sepulchre
Another discussion focussed on the erection of a dome over the choir of the church, and above the omphalos, or centre of the world. Bob pointed out the evidence for a change of plan between the first stage of building this part of the structure, and the eventual result. This centred upon a blocked window, partially visible above an arch, which suggests that originally the architects had intended to construct a tower, before changing to a dome. 


That brought Day 5 to a close, with another fabulous dinner and a fairly early night. The next day would again be full of things to do…


Day 6 saw us heading out of the city to the agricultural hinterland of Crusader Jerusalem. We visited several sites connected with Hospitaller patronage, and saw along the way further evidence for the agricultural wealth of the region in farmed terraces. Together these supplied the needs of the hospital in Jerusalem, which sources describe as having numerous beds and patients, as well as the military activities of the monastic order of St John. Our first stop was at Abu Ghosh, where Gil Fishhof presented the site, giving us an introduction to its history and architecture and then presenting his own research into the famous and lavish fresco cycle. He interpreted this as expressing Hospitaller ideas associating the order with events connected to Christ’s resurrection. We then continued yesterday’s lively discussion about the role of patrons and workshops in Crusader art. The issue is far from resolved but we look forward to taking it up again in Greece. 

Dana explaining some of the mysteries of Aqua Bella

A view into the courtyard at Aqua Bella
Back in the bus, and out of the rain, we drove a very short distance to the enigmatic courtyard structure known as Aqua Bella. This is often described in literature as a farmhouse, but Dana Katz gave us an overview of the earlier scholarship on the site and other possible interpretations. In particular she highlighted the issue of levels of fortification in Crusader secular buildings: should Aqua Bella be considered unfortified, semi-fortified, or just fortified? She also raised the important question of how it relates to the nearby Hospitaller castle of Belmont, and drew attention to its location in relation to other known Crusader-period villages and estates. 

With Dr Lester in the Islamic Gallery
After a pause for lunch at Ein Kerem we made for the Israel Museum, where Dr Ayala Lester of the Israel Antiquities Authority met us in the gallery of Islamic Art, and presented two important metal hoards. These contained hundreds of metal objects and were found in Caesarea and Tiberias in strata datable to the eleventh/twelfth centuries period. This gave us an opportunity to reconnect with discussions begun in Turkey earlier this year, as we were able to compare Crusader material culture with contemporary or nearly contemporary Fatimid and Mamluk artefacts, and reflect on the importance of trade and mobility of goods. Gil Fishhof also talked about major sculptural finds and the fresco cycle from the Church of St Mary of the Valley of Jehoshaphat, now displayed in the Crusader gallery in the museum. 

Saying goodbye to Jules
Having returned to the hotel it was, sadly time to part with Jules, our tour guide, before our final dinner of this trip. Our visit to Israel has sparked many debates, which we very much look forward to continuing in Greece, as well as giving us an opportunity to see firsthand the remains of Crusader lifestyles in the region. 


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