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  • Writer's pictureAdrian J. Boas

On an Old Tradition Revived (or a New Tradition Invented)

Taking a group of students along the western city wall of Jerusalem yesterday, we noted with dismay the present state of a part of Jerusalem`s Fatimid defences seen in the above photograph. This small section of main wall, forewall and moat is the only part of the eleventh century defences that can be observed today. These were the very fortifications that the Crusaders came up against in June-July 1099. There are plans for development of this area as an archaeological garden, but at present it makes a convenient place for local bagel vendors to dispose of their stale leftovers which they cast down onto the steps leading from a tower in the forewall into the moat. I didn`t think much about it at the time, but a little later as we were walking through the Muristan, the former quarter of the Hospitaller Knights of St John, I recounted a story that connected to what we had seen earlier.

The origins of the Hospitaller order and of their remarkable compound located south of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, go back to the eleventh century when Latin merchants from the Italian maritime town of Amalfi, on their way to Egypt weighed anchor at Jaffa and travelled up to Jerusalem in order to visit the Holy City and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. At the time the church was under Orthodox control, and whatever facilities there were for the convenience of Christian pilgrims were Orthodox institutions. The Italian merchants, wishing to resolve this discrepancy, decided to establish two Latin monastic houses in the area immediately south of the church, with hospices for Latin pilgrims. They set up a monastery and a nunnery, and these two institutions together with the nearby Church of St John were under the control of a certain Gerard who, for his pious character became known as the Blessed Gerard. In 1099 as the crusader army approached from the north, many of the Christian population of the Holy City was expelled for fear that they would form a Fifth Column when the crusaders arrived. Presumably Latins in particular would have been under suspicion. However, Gerard somehow was permitted to remain in the city, but when the crusaders arrived and began to attack the walls, Gerard along with other Christians was forced to participate in the city's defence. According to a legend, he was made to take up a position on the city walls and to throw rocks at the crusader warriors below. The legend informs us that Gerard would throw bread to the hungry crusaders, but when the Muslims examined him they miraculously only found stones in his cloak.

I have no doubt that Jerusalem's bagel vendors have never heard of the Blessed Gerard, that they have no idea that the place that they are throwing their leftovers was once the city moat, and that they have never hear of the Miracle of the Transmutation of Bread to Rock. But here's to the birth of a new Jerusalem ceremony!

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