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  • Writer's pictureAdrian J. Boas

On Symbols and Solutions

Turkish Cypriot flag on the mountain range overlooking Nicosia. A. Savin (Wikimedia Commons)

Symbolism is a powerful vehicle for getting a message across to the masses. When Bulgarian troops reached the walls of Constantinople during the First Balkan War late in 1912, the Bulgarian king, Ferdinand I gave an order to construct a huge white cross. He planned to place it on the dome of the Hagia Sophia as a symbol of the magnificent Bulgarian victory over the Turks and the Christian victory over Islam. The cross was never raised over the dome as Bulgaria's luck ran out at Constantinople. The city remained in Turkish hands and the Bulgarian army subsequently suffered a disastrous defeat the following year in the second Balkan War, and subsequent defeats in the First World War. Ferdinand abdicated in 1918. The First Balkan War had been for him a new crusade and he saw it as "a just, great and sacred struggle of the Cross against the Crescent."* His plan to place a cross on the celebrated building was intended as a statement of the primacy of Christianity.

The Umayyad structure known as the Qubbat al-Sakhrah (Dome of the Rock) on the Temple Mount of Jerusalem has for over a millennium been the city's most prominent building. The visual impact its creators achieved came through a combination of its elevated position on the eastern hill of the old city, and its strikingly beautiful form, with the perfectly proportioned slightly pointed, gold-plated dome, so stunning in the brilliant Jerusalem light. This building is a powerful example of how stone can ignite human emotions. It was built as a religious and political symbol, and it has retained this role for thirteen hundred years, with such potency that images of it appeared on crusader coins and royal seals, on medieval maps and pilgrim keepsakes. More recently in mandatory Palestine it appeared on postage stamps and on the one pound note, and today its image is reproduced in film, books and in huge blown up photographs like the one in the hall where the Palestinian Legislative Council meets. The twelfth century Church of the Ascension on the Mount of Olives imitated its form and it is today reproduced in the design of mosques in several West Bank towns, rather like the many chapels imitating the Church of the Holy Sepulchre that are found in European cities.

The presence of this building must have posed a serious problem for the crusader conquerors in 1099. The city was to become an entirely Christian one. What should be done with such a blatantly Islamic monument? Should it be dismantled, or should changes be made to it in order to convert it in into a church? Sadly there are no known records of debates held on this topic by crusaders and Church leaders. It would be fascinating to know what their thoughts were and how they achieved the eventual solution to this problem. A central aspect of this debate must have been with regard to its visual manifestation. For the Christians there could be no more important building in Jerusalem than the site of Christ's crucifixion, burial and resurrection, but the Rotunda and chapels, which had only recently been built over the ruins of Constantine the Great's fourth century church, were no competition for the Dome of the Rock. The site was far less prominent, and the conical roof that then rose above the Sepulchre, impressive as it was, was no match for the highly conspicuous gilded dome.

The solution decided upon was to preserve the building intact and give it a new identity as the Lord's Temple, Templum Domini. The crescent on the dome was replace by a cross and the Islamic designs and calligraphy on the walls were covered with plaster and decorated with Christian frescoes. However, the visual challenge it represented was a difficult problem to resolve. The Holy Sepulchre obviously could not be moved to a more commanding location. Instead, the Franks spent much time and effort and considerable resources on making the church more prominent. A vast new compound with a magnificent choir and chapels was constructed adjacent to and replacing parts of the eleventh century church. It had a splendid facade, heavily decorated with sculptures and wall mosaics, a new dome and a elaborate bell tower that was one of the tallest structures in the city. In addition, to diminish somewhat the striking appearance of the Templum Domini, the gilding of its dome was removed and replaced by a plain, lead covering.** These efforts seemed to have done the trick. The Templum Domini would be one of the most highly regarded churches in Frankish Jerusalem, but the primacy of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre had been reestablished, and would remain until in 1187 the city was recovered by the Muslims and the scale tipped back the other way once again.

* Theo Aronson, Crowns in Conflict. The Triumph and Tragedy of European Monarchy, London, 1986, p. 87. ** William of Tyre. Chronicon, ed. R.B.C Huygens, Turnholt, 1986, 8.3.

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