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  • Adrian J. Boas

On a Remarkable Foundation


In the west Jerusalem suburb of Talbiyeh there is an attractive old house, abandoned for several years, but recently restored and now serving as a media and arts centre. It was built in the 1880s, designed by the renowned German architect, Conrad Schick. The words "Jesus Hilfe" (Help of Jesus) were carved above its door, but it was known by its function as a leper hospital, and since 1950, when it was taken over by the Ministry of Health, it has taken on the somewhat less onerous title - the Hansen Government Hospital (Hansen’s Disease is the term used in medical circles after the name of the discoverer of the bacterium - Mycobacterium leprae). Whenever I pass this building I feel a slight queasiness; one that its recent conversion into a supposedly harmless venue for contemporary art and design has done absolutely nothing to dismiss. The last of the patients left the premises eighteen years ago, but the Mycobacterium leprae is still there, absorbed deeply into the stone, plaster and soil, waiting for the moment when it can rise again like the phoenix and claim its next victim. The Bible, after all, tells us that leprosy was absorbed into the walls of houses.


One of the more perplexing ideas of the crusader period, a period that was fertile soil in which not a few strange concepts took root, was that lepers could form a fighting force, a military order. There is no record of anything similar anywhere else, and it is hard to come to terms with the idea that these unfortunate people that we tend to think of as walking around with their fingers and noses dropping off at unexpected intervals, could carry out any sort of military activity, let alone, become warrior knights.


But they did precisely that. The Order of St Lazarus was first recorded in a document dating to between 1128 and 1137. Arising from a long-established leper hospital, the new military order was under the patronage of Saint Lazarus ("a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores" - Luke 16:19-31). It was located outside the walls of Jerusalem, and was headed by a magister (le maister de Saint Ladre des Mesiaux). The brothers wore a green cross on their mantles and followed the Rule of St Augustine. Like the Templars and the Hospitallers, the Leper Knights of St Lazarus began acquiring properties and took on a military role, though we only hear of this in 1244, when the brothers fought at the Battle of La Forbie. Six years later they took part in the campaign of Louis IX in Egypt.


At the time of Saladin’s siege of Jerusalem in 1187 the order appears to have occupied the entire area outside the walls in the north-west, extending from the Tower of David in the west to St Stephen’s Gate (now Damascus Gate) in the north. Among their possessions were a mill at David's Gate, a nearby hospital for female lepers, a church dedicated to St Lazarus, and in the north a small gate in the city wall, a separate hospital for men, a large open reservoir (lacus Legerii) and a burial place. In Acre the order possessed a property that was originally located some distance outside the city walls. Its founders did not realise that the city would grow so vastly that, by the beginning of the thirteenth century it would be included within the new city walls.


The leper order received widespread support. Raymond of Tripoli became a confrère, Walter lord of Beirut considered entering the order, and Eustace, brother of Hugh lord of Caesarea, did so, possibly for reasons of piety rather than having contracted the disease. Indeed it seems that not all the brothers of the Order of St Lazarus were lepers. A statute of the Rule of the Templars barred Templar brothers who were not lepers from entering the order, a prohibition which suggests that, for some reason they had been doing so up to that point, though why that should have been the case is difficult to comprehend. On the other hand, another statute required brothers who had contracted the disease to leave the Templar Order and join the Order of St Lazarus.


Royal patronage came early. King Fulk and Queen Melisende supported the order, as did King Amaury, whose son Baldwin (later Baldwin IV) was himself a leper. Emperor Frederick II, at the time of his crusade and coronation as king of Jerusalem in 1229, gave the order privileges. The count of Tripoli, the lords of Beirut and Caesarea, and others gave gifts. The pope, however, appears to have been rather slow to come to terms with the idea of lepers as knights. Papal recognition was achieved only in 1255 with the papal bull Cum a Nobis Petitur of Pope Alexander IV. And it does seem an understandable reluctance. The idea of lepers dressed in armour and charging into the heat of a battle inevitably leads to thoughts of a Monty Python sketch.

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