• Adrian J. Boas

On Acquired Authenticity

Although the term "Fake News" is a quite recent one, the phenomenon of course, is not. Faking it is an age-old characteristic of mankind, and history books are full of examples of faked news, faked information, faked identities, faked works of art. In the U.S. state of Virginia there is a life-size replica of Stonehenge. The work of sculptor Mark Cline, it is known as Foamhenge after the material used to make it - giant blocks of Styrofoam. The artist went to some effort to reproduce the prehistoric monument, even taking care to orient it in astronomically equivalent coordinates to the original. It was created in 2004 as a temporary attraction, but this quirky architectural folly became so popular that it remained in place for twelve years, by which time it was so deteriorated that it had to be dismantled. By then however, it had gained such popularity that in 2017 it was restored and relocated, and it continues to draw crowds. Fakes can over time achieve a certain authenticity of their own, particularly if they are of value in promoting tourism. Then they are not only tolerated, but are often enthusiastically embraced.

In what might be termed a fever of religious rediscovery, as they rebuilt the hundreds of churches that had been destroyed a century earlier by the Fatimids, the Franks identified or re-identified the location of Old and New Testament events. Within the south aisle of the Church of St Mary on Mount Zion, the second largest church in Jerusalem, they constructed a two-storey building, the ground floor of which was identified with the tombs of the ancient kings, David and Solomon. The upper storey was associated with the Last Supper, being regarded as the actual room in which that event took place. The exact date of the construction remains a point of contention among architectural historians but the identity of the location of these two events was clearly established by the twelfth century.

Regarding the royal tombs, the twelfth century traveller, Rabbi Benjamin of Tudela, gives us the earliest account, describing their discovery a mere fifteen years before his visit around 1170. At that time, Benjamin informs us, a wall of the church collapsed and when some workmen were hired to repair it, two of them by chance discovered the entrance to a cave. It led to: "a large chamber resting upon pillars of marble overlaid with silver and gold. In front was a table of gold and a sceptre and crown."* What according to Benjamin they had found, was the tomb of King David, and indeed not only that, but the tombs of Solomon and all the subsequent kings of Judah. However, when they attempted to enter the chamber they were struck by a fierce wind "and they fell to the ground like dead men, and there they lay until evening." But the drama was not over yet. When they recovered, a wind "like a man's voice" warned them to leave. The Latin patriarch and a certain recluse, Rabbi Abraham el-Constantini, were informed of the discovery, but the workers refused to re-enter the cave, and it would seem no one else had the courage to do so, so in the end, the patriarch gave orders to seal it.

Obviously, an example of medieval credulity, something nonetheless remains of this tradition, and even today at this location a supposed sepulchre of David is to be found, and is frequented by many believers. As to the tombs of Solomon and the other kings, those traditions appears to have been lost, along with the table of gold, the sceptre and the crown.

The chamber of the Last Supper is another surviving tradition. A twelfth century text connected to and sometimes identified with a certain Fetellus (or Fretellus) records that " ascends by steps to the place where He [Christ] supped with His Apostles..." Even today the elegant little Gothic chapel in the upper storey above David's Tomb has retained this identity. To clinch the deal and add to its appeal, the medieval tourists [pilgrims] were shown the actual table on which the meal of Christ and his disciples was partaken.** And it was not only Christians who made this claim - the Andalusian traveller, Muhammad al-Idrisi, wrote in his travel account "...the table is there remaining even unto the present day."*** There is some debate about the dating of the Gothic chapel (seen in the photograph above). But whether it existed at the time of the description in Fetellus, or was constructed later, perhaps in the thirteenth century, one thing we can say for certain - this medieval chapel was not there a millennium earlier when the Last Supper actually took place. Like Foamhenge it is the representation of a venerated object rather than the object itself, though (hopefully) unlike visitors to Foamhenge, most pilgrims in the past were, and not a few in the present are, unaware of that.

*Benjamin of Tudela, The Travels of Rabbi Benjamin of Tudela, trans. M.N. Adler, London, 1907, pp. 24-5 **Fetellus, Palestine Pilgrims Text Society, trans., James Rose Macpherson, London, 1896, p. 4. ***Muhammad al-Idrisi, trans., John Wilkinson (based on Guy Le Strange), Jerusalem Pilgrimage 1099-1185, London, 1988, p. 226.