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  • Writer's pictureAdrian J. Boas

On Celebrating National Days

Section of the Cambrai Map of Jerusalem showing the Feast of the Liberation procession route [Public Domain]

Today Israel celebrates its Independence Day. The fifth of Iyar in the Hebrew calendar, which in 1948 fell on 14 May, was the day on which the establishment of the Jewish state was publicly announced by David Ben Gurion. In normal times it is celebrated with singing, dancing, fireworks, flags, aeronautic displays, special prayers, an international bible contest, a national prize ceremony (one of the recipients of which, this year, is the crusader scholar and my former teacher and mentor, Professor Benjamin Kedar), family outings to the parks and forests, and above all, that most popular festive act - the fanning of charcoal over a grill that for some obscure reason has come to be regarded as expressively Israeli. This year, being a decidedly abnormal time, the celebrations have been restricted to television viewing and singing on balconies.

Perhaps these restrictions are what have put me in a reflective mood. It may be that the half century that has passed has eroded my memories of it, but I have almost no recollection of celebrating Australia Day as a child. I recall the annual Moomba festival with its floats, the Royal Melbourne Show, an agricultural show that had evolved into a sort of carnival, Anzac Day with its emotional march of war veterans, and above all Guy Fawkes Night with the excitement of firecrackers and bonfires; but somehow memories of celebrating the official national day on 26 January, a day that commemorates the founding of Australia, seem to have left little residue in those slowly shrinking and withering cells of my brain that are intended to retain memories. Australia Day officially marks the anniversary of the arrival of the First Fleet at Port Jackson, New South Wales in 1788, and the raising of the British flag at Sydney Cove by the governor, Arthur Phillip. It seems perhaps an odd choice for a national day - the celebration of a group of eleven ships carrying 775 thieves and murderers transported from England to the place that was intended to serve as their prison. It is rather as if the Cubans were to celebrate Guantanamo Bay Day, or Cayenne islanders were to celebrate Devil's Island Day. But of course, it not a celebration of criminal transportation, but a day of national pride in what, in spite of those inauspicious beginnings, has become one of the freest and happiest of societies in today's world.

If the kingdom of Jerusalem had an equivalent foundation day it was 15 July, the anniversary of the conquest of the Holy City and with it the establishment of the kingdom. It was indeed a festive day in Jerusalem, but there is not, to the best of my knowledge, any mention of it being celebrated outside of Jerusalem. It was certainly, however, a significant date in the calendar of the city, where it was known as the Feast of the Liberation of Jerusalem. The chronicler, William of Tyre noted that a general decree was issued stating that the day should be ‘sacred and set apart’.* The celebrations commenced on the day before, 14 July, when at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, prayers, psalms and appropriate readings were recited at Vespers, Matins and Lauds.** The next day, after Prime, the patriarch led a procession from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to the Templum Domini (Dome of the Rock). One can imagine the crowding in the narrow streets the noise and colour, the emotions of the celebrants. Prayers were held to the south of the church, opposite the entrance to the Templum Salomonis (the Al-Aqsa Mosque, which at that time served as the house of the Templar knights). The procession then exited the city via the Porta Aurea (the sealed Golden Gate, which was opened only for specific festive days) and continued to the place outside the walls where those crusaders who had fallen in battle during the siege of Jerusalem had been interred. There, in the place now occupied by a Muslim cemetery, prayers were held before the procession made its way to the place on the northern wall where in 1099 the army of the First Crusade had scaled the fortifications and entered the city. The site was marked by a great wooden cross on top of the wall. It appears on a twelfth century Cambrai map (above) marked with the legend: Hic capta est civitas a Francis (Here the city was captured by the Franks). Below the cross the crowds gathered, and the patriarch gave a sermon, and here the procession concluded with prayers before dispersing.

The fiftieth anniversary on 15 July 1149 had an additional significance as on that day the city also celebrated the official completion of the magnificent new Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The opening ceremony took place in the presence of King Baldwin III and Queen Melisende. A special mass held in the church. John of Würzburg, the German pilgrim who arrived a decade after the opening of the church, described the annual celebrations: ‘...they celebrate that day after the renewal of the consecration in divine service by singing at the first mass, Letare Iherusalem (Rejoice, O Jerusalem), and at the high mass of dedication, Terribilis est locus iste (This is a place that inspires fear/respect - Genesis 28.17).***

*William of Tyre Chronicon, ed. R.B.C. Huygens, Turnholt, 1986, 8.24.

** Amnon Linder, "The Liturgy of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem", in Knights of the Holy Land. The Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem, ed, Silvia Rozenberg, Jerusalem, 1999, pp. 97-98.

***John of Würzburg, in Palestine Pilgrims' Text Society, vol. 5, London, 1890, p. 124.

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