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  • Writer's pictureAdrian J. Boas

On a Forgotten Building and a Gesture

The Asnerie Jerusalem, before dismantling. Late 19th century

Early in the thirteenth century a German pilgrim named Thietmar set out in the company of “…certain Syrians and Saracens…” They travelled through the Galilee and north into the mountains beyond Damascus where he visited the monastery of Saidnaya in order to see a famous icon of St Mary, reputed to have been painted by Luke the Evangelist. It is interesting, to find that at this time a German monk should be travelling into Syria accompanied by Muslims. It gives us an idea of how, in spite of the hostility between Christians and Muslims, such a journey beyond the borders of Christian territory could still be undertaken without apparent fear.

We get a somewhat different picture when after returning to Acre, Thietmar is obliged to disguise himself as a Georgian monk with a long beard before he sets out once again. This time he is aiming to visit the Monastery of St. Catherine in the Sinai Peninsula, again well outside the borders of the kingdom. The disguise was needed because as a Georgian he was less likely to be mistreated by the Muslims than a German. Georgia, it seems, had cordial relations with the Ayyubids, and perhaps the Muslims of the south were less hospitable to other foreign visitors. Thietmar headed down the coast to Jaffa, then inland along the main route leading east, via Ramla towards Bethlehem. He claims to have seen Samaria, but that seems unlikely as he would have had to make a substantial detour north, but he did approach Jerusalem. The Holy City would have been in a state of high alert at that time as news arrived of the preparations in the West for the Fifth Crusade. He consequently attempted to bypass it, but he came too close (within three miles), and his disguise, it seems, did not help him. Just north of the city he was captured and imprisoned in the Asnerie, a dismal vaulted structure that had formerly served as the stables for the Hospitallers’ asses and pack-horses. Since the occupation of the Holy City by Saladin in 1187 the Asnerie or Anerie had been used to house Christian pilgrims, those who were willing to pay the Muslims in order to visit the Holy Sepulchre. Now it appears to have been used as a prison. Thietmar fell into a pit of despair:

At that time although alive I seemed to myself dead. For there was nothing standing between my present sufferings and the fear of death or perpetual captivity; on the contrary, disturbed by the fear of death and imprisonment from then onwards I seemed to myself to die at every moment.

A bit melodramatic perhaps, but he was in fact in very real danger and things might well have ended badly. In the event, however, he was released after only two days. What had saved him was the presence of another imprisoned pilgrim, a Hungarian nobleman who had somehow managed to get word to some Muslim Hungarians living in Jerusalem. They interceded for the two, and not only was Thietmar released, but he was allowed to spend two days in the city. What a pity then that he says nothing of what he saw or did while he was there, before recommencing on his pilgrimage road south to Sinai.

In all probability his movements in the city would have been very restricted and under escort. It was Muslim policy to make it clear to the Christians who was in control, and this was done by restricting the pilgrims' freedom of movement. An early thirteenth century text (Ernoul) records that during the period of Ayyubid rule Christian pilgrims were required to reside in the Asnerie which, as a former stable, would not have been very comfortable. They could only enter the city after paying thirty gold bezants and they were restricted from entering by any but the Lepers' Gate. They could only use back routes to approach the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and were not permitted to enter the main streets of the city. Saladin himself had blocked all but one of the entrances to the church. The use of the Asnerie was a symbolic gesture. Some former Crusader churches had also been converted into stables by the Muslims. After nearly nine decades of Christian rule they wanted to make the ownership of the city clearly understood by those whom they variously referred to as "pigs" or "dogs".

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