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  • Writer's pictureAdrian J. Boas

On Sacred and Banal Possessions

Twelfth Century Transenna on the Tomb of the Virgin Mary, Jerusalem

Everyone wanted a piece of the Berlin wall, a signed baseball, a moon rock. British coronation mugs were treasured items. Some misguided person purchased online, a slightly charred invoice for flowers delivered to an office in the World Trade Centre on 11 September, 2001. There are people who cherish, with little thought of the tragedy they signify, pieces of barbed wire from the trenches of Normandy, bullet casings from Vietnam, and items of Nazi memorabilia. Others collect anything belonging to celebrities, from false teeth to underwear. Usually behind the collection of such objects is a desire to possess something of historical value, tasteful or otherwise. Or something personal; a reminder of a significant event in one's past. I have inherited a piece of shrapnel that, during the Second World War, missed my father's head by inches. What motivated him to keep it? Probable he regarded it as a good-luck charm, something that would get him safely through the war, and proof to himself that he was being watched over.

Often, out of an interest in human history, people desire to possess objects relating to an event in the past. But, what motivated collectors of pieces of rock in the twelfth century was neither a sense of history, nor an enthusiasm for the science of geology. It was generally one of three things. The first was a belief that a piece of a holy locus had somehow absorbed and retained the holiness of the event that took place there, and that this holiness would protect its possessor from any mishaps. A less spiritual motivation was a desire to have tangible proof to show that the traveller had fulfilled his pilgrimage commitment. The final motivation was the quite unspiritual desire to make profit by the collecting and selling stones as holy relics.

The early twelfth century pilgrim, abbot Daniel of Kiev, gives a somewhat humorous and revealing account of how he obtained a piece of rock from the Tomb of Christ. Visiting the Church of the Holy Sepulchre during Easter, he was given access to the tomb by the keeper of the keys. After prostrating himself and duly covering the sacred place "with kisses and tears", and then fulfilling the needs of his ever inquisitive mind by measuring the length, width, and height of the tomb, he gave the keeper a small donation. In Daniel's words -

"[The keeper of the keys] pushed back the slab that covers the part of the sacred Tomb on which Christ's head lay, and broke off a morsel of the sacred rock; this he gave me as a blessed memorial, begging me at the same time not to say anything about it at Jerusalem."*

Daniel was motivated by spiritual desire, but what of the keeper of the keys? Daniel writes that the keeper's act was in response to his having observed how great his devotion was, and he may have believed that, but can we? I expect it had more to do with the "small donation".

The sale of relics was big business in the crusader Holy Land. It began quite early on, and it became common enough over time to be the cause considerable damage to a number of holy sites. When he recovered Jerusalem in 1187, Saladin found to his distress, that a good part of the Sakhrah, the rock in the Templum Domini (Dome of the Rock) had been removed by the Franks. According to the Ayyubid chronicler, Ibn al-Athir, this had been done by pilgrims from the West who had bought the pieces for their weight in gold."**

The Frankish authorities had been no more pleased about this custom than was Saladin, and they went to considerable lengths to put an end to it. In the case of the Sakhrah this was done by covering the rock with marble and surrounding it with an elaborate 2.3 metre high, iron grille. But, considering the extent of the practice of taking keepsakes and of collecting and selling relics, and the extensive side-business that evolved around the former, in the sale of cross pendants and lead ampulae containing holy water or holy oil, and the latter in the manufacture of relic containers (reliquaria), the disapproval of the Frankish authorities would appear to have been directed against the unauthorised damage to the holy sites rather than the act of possession, purchase or sale.

*Abbot Daniel of Kiev, trans. C.W. Wilson, Palestine Pilgrims Text Society, vol. 4, London 1895, pp. 80-1. **Ibn al-Athīr, Kamil at-Tawarikh, XI 361-6, in Francesco Gabrieli, Arab Historians of the Crusades, trans. by E.J. Costello, London , 1957, p. 145.

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