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  • Writer's pictureAdrian J. Boas

On a Sometime Safe Haven

Bethany in c.1890. Photograph by Félix Bonfils, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons (note remains of the Frankish tower, upper right)

Two occasions driving through this village might have ended badly for me. Once, having just passed the turnoff leading to the ruins and beginning the steep ascent up the Mount of Olives, I observed with the insouciance that comes when developments are so sudden and unexpected that there is no time for emotions such as fear or panic to set in, the front wheel of a car driving down opposite come off and hurtle along the centre of the road directly towards my car. There was no opportunity to pull out of its way and it impacted the front of my vehicle with considerable force, causing substantial damage. Fortunately, no physical injury was sustained and having observed the event with a sort of out-of-body detachment, the psychological stress was inconsequential. The second occasion was during the unrest of the 1990s known as the First Intifada, when at the turnoff, masked protesters had set up a roadblock of burning tyres and bombarded passing vehicles, mine included, with rocks. With small children in the car this was a rather more disturbing incident, and although the first occurrence was a freak accident unlikely to reoccur, and the second was the outcome of a particular wave of violence that shortly thereafter receded (to be replaced by other forms of violence in other locations), on subsequent occasions when it was necessary to travel the road down to the Dead Sea I have generally taken an alternative route, and I have not visited the ruins of the abbey in over two decades.

The English name, Bethany, is from the Hebrew Beit 'Ani (בית עני), in Aramaic Beth 'Anya, meaning House of Poverty, whereas the Arabic name, el-Azariya (العيزرية‎), derives from el-'Azir, the Arabic form of the name Lazarus, and preserves the New Testament association with the raising of Lazarus (John 11:1-46). It is this connection, along with additional Biblical acclaim, that has lifted this innocuous village out of otherwise well-deserved obscurity, for the village of el-Azariya has little else to commend, and like most other villages in the Levant it owes whatever beauty it might possess entirely to the landscape and not at all to its architecture. It is a great misfortune that modern villagers have so entirely abandoned their ancient and unique architectural heritage in favour of a type of vernacular architecture that, at its most original, seems to have been designed by the manufacturers of Lego blocks. But at the heart of many villages the old houses can still be found, beautifully constructed with massive walls, arched doorways and windows, and open interiors subdivided by raised platforms or mastabas. And often in their vicinity is some ancient ruin, the raison d'être for the village, either because it preserves a cherished sacred memory or because it served the first settlers as a convenient source of building stone (as was so often the case with abandoned crusader castles). At el-Azariya it is the Tomb of Lazarus, which, like so many other holy sites, was a meagre fragment that had been aggrandised by a series of subsequent enhancements - a Byzantine basilica and monastery and a medieval basilica and Benedictine convent.

William of Tyre's account of the establishment of the medieval convent of Bethany records the double motivation for its founding by Queen Melisende in 1138: " provide for the healing of her own soul and those of her parents as also for the salvation of her husband and children" but in addition, to provide a fitting position for her younger sister Iveta. Until then, Iveta had been a nun in the convent of St Anne in Jerusalem. William writes that: "...she [Melisende] felt that it was unfitting that a king's daughter should be subject to the authority of a mother superior, like an ordinary person."* Bethany was a solution, and in order to obtain possession of it, as it was then in the hands of the canons of the Holy Sepulchre, King Fulk gave them in its place another property that was also an important pilgrimage site - Tekoah (Thecua), south-east of Bethlehem. Tekoah had long been identified as the birthplace of the prophet Amos, and the location of his tomb, and was indeed linked with the traditions of Habakkuk and the Massacre of the Innocents. Its prestige had expanded in the Middle Ages, and an early twelfth century writer, the abbot Daniel of Kiev, located here the church of the Holy Prophets containing the tombs not only of Amos and Habakkuk, but also Nahum, Michah, Ezekiah, Abdias, Zachariah, Ezekiel, Ismael, Saviel, Baruch and Hosea. Such an impressive convocation of holy individuals would certainly have made the exchange more palatable for the canons, although Tekoah no doubt received less pilgrimage that Bethany, which was not only on the pilgrimage route to the place of Baptism on the Jordan River, but also on that of the Palm Sunday procession, Bethany being the place from which Jesus began his entry into Jerusalem.

For all its religious esteem, Bethany was a problematic site. It was located at the edge of the wilderness, in the borderland where it was exposed to Moslem incursions. To diminish this danger, in 1144 Melisende, who had built a new church over the tomb of Lazarus along with a cloister and conventual buildings, added the massive tower with four-metre-thick walls that has over the centuries been the most prominent visual component of the ruins at Bethany. It appears in every drawing and photograph through the centuries, and even today, overshadowed by unattractive apartment blocks, it remains a powerful image, and a reminder of threats more ancient than those that have kept me away.

*William of Tyre, Chronicon 15.26, English trans. Emily A. Babcock and A.C. Krey, A History of Deeds Done Beyond the Sea, New York, 1943, pp. 132-33.

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