Ascension, then and now

On the whole Mount of Olivet there seems to be no spot higher than that from which the Lord is said to have ascended into the heavens, where there stands a great round church, having in its circuit three vaulted porticoes covered over above. The interior of the church, without roof or vault, lies open to heaven under the open air, having in its eastern side an altar protected under a narrow covering. So that in this way the interior has no vault, in order that from the place where the Divine footprints are last seen, when the Lord was carried up into heaven in a cloud, the way may be always open and free to the eyes of those who pray towards heaven.

For when this basilica, of which I have now made slight mention, was building, that place of the footprints of the Lord, as we find written elsewhere, could not be enclosed under the covering with the rest of the buildings. Whatever was applied, the unaccustomed earth, refusing to receive anything human, cast back into the face of those who brought it. And, moreover, the mark of the dust that was trodden by the Lord is so lasting that the impression of the footsteps may be perceived; and although the faith;of such as gather daily at the spot snatches away some of what was trodden by the Lord, yet the area perceives no loss, and the ground still retains that same appearance of being marked by the impress of footsteps.

Further, as the sainted Arculf, who carefully visited this spot, relates, a brass hollow cylinder of large circumference, flattened on the top, has been placed here, its height being shown by measurement to reach one’s neck. In the centre of it is an opening of some size, through which the uncovered marks of the feet of the Lord are plainly and clearly seen from above, impressed in the dust. In that cylinder there is, in the western side, as it were, a door so that any entering by it can easily approach the place of the sacred dust, and through the open hole in the wheel may take up in their outstretched hands some particles of the sacred dust.

Thus the narrative of our Arculf as to the footprints of the Lord quite accords with the writings of others–to the effect that they could not be covered in any way, whether by the roof of the house or by any special lower and closer covering, so that they can always be seen by all that enter, and the marks of the feet of the Lord can be clearly seen depicted in the dust of that place. For these footprints of the Lord are lighted by the brightness of an immense lamp hanging on pulleys above that cylinder in the church, and burning day and night. Further in the western side of the round church we have mentioned above, twice four windows have been formed high up with glazed shutters, and in these windows there burn as many lamps placed opposite them, within and close to them. These lamps hang in chains, and are so placed that each lamp may hang neither higher nor lower, but may be seen, as it were, fixed to its own window, opposite and close to which it is specially seen. The brightness of these lamps is so great that, as their light is copiously poured through the glass from the summit of the Mountain of Olivet, not only is the part of the mountain nearest the round basilica to the west illuminated, but also the lofty path which rises by steps up to the city of Jerusalem from the Valley of Josaphat, is clearly illuminated in a wonderful manner, even on dark nights, while the greater part of the city that lies nearest at hand on the opposite side is similarly illuminated by the same brightness. The effect of this brilliant and admirable coruscation of the eight great lamps shining by night from the holy mountain and from the site of the Lord’s ascension, as Arculf related, is to pour into the hearts of the believing onlookers a greater eagerness of the Divine love, and to strike the mind with a certain fear along with vast inward compunction.

This also Arculf related to me about the same round church: That on the anniversary of the Lord’s Ascension, at mid-day, after the solemnities of the Mass have been celebrated in that basilica, a most violent tempest of wind comes on regularly every year, so that no one can stand or sit in that church or in the neighbouring places, but all lie prostrate in prayer with their faces in the ground until that terrible tempest has passed.

The result of this terrific blast is that that part of the house cannot be vaulted over; so that above the spot where the footsteps of the Lord are impressed and are clearly shown, within the opening in the centre of the above-named cylinder, the way always appears open to heaven. For the blast of the above-mentioned wind destroyed, in accordance with the Divine will, whatever materials had been gathered for preparing a vault above it, if any human art made the attempt.

This account of this dreadful storm was given to us by the sainted Arculf, who was himself present in that Church of Mount Olivet at the very hour of the day of the Lord’s Ascension when that fierce storm arose. A drawing of this round church is shown below, however unworthily it may have been drawn; while the form of the brass cylinder is also shown placed in the middle of the church.

This also we learned from the narrative of the sainted Arculf: That in that round church, besides the usual light of the eight lamps mentioned above as shining within the church by night, there are usually added on the night of the Lord’s Ascension almost innumerable other lamps, which by their terrible and admirable brightness, poured abundantly through the glass of the windows, not only illuminate the Mount of Olivet, but make it seem to be wholly on fire; while the whole city and the places in the neighbourhood are also lit up.

Excerpts from St Adomnán of Iona De Locis Sanctis (“On the Holy Places”) on the description of the Imbomon Church at the peak of the Mount of Olives, the traditional site of the Christ’s Ascension, related by a certain Frankish Bishop Arculf, who visited Jerusalem circa 670 AD. Arculf was shipwrecked at Iona when returning from his lengthy travels in the East. He related to Adomnán an account of the various holy sites he visited and, most importantly, drew diagrams of their layouts, all of which Adomnán compiled in De Locis Sanctis. This makes De Locis Sanctis an extremely valuable historical account of the appearance of these sites in the third quarter of seventh century, within fifty years of the Arabs taking control of the city. An old, but workable, English translation of Adomnán’s De Locis Sanctis is available here. The reconstruction plan (the second image, above) is from Jerome Murphy O’Connor, The Holy Land: And Oxford Archaeological Guide from Earliest Times to 1700 (Oxford University Press, 1998), p. 124. I’ve rotated both images, so that north is to the top. The dashed octogon in the reconstruction drawing indicates the outline of the currently standing dome illustrated below.

The ancient Imbomon Church in its prime must have been quite beautiful. The original church was built circa 380. The church Arculf saw circa 670 was one that was rebuilt after the Persian destruction in 614 of all churches in the Holy Land (except for that of the Nativity in Bethlehem, because its facade’s mosaic depicted the Magi as Persians). Centuries later, the victory of Saladin over the Crusaders led to the church being transferred to the ownership of some of Saladin’s retainers, who massively altered the site, though much of this alteration likely occurred under the Crusader regime. Only the central, formerly unroofed, section was retained, the outer parts of the building being razed to their foundations. The remaining structure was covered with a dome and a mihrab was added to the south wall (visible in the interior photo), making it a mosque, which it is to this day. A rough wall making mostly a round courtyard (it’s more of a semicircle now) around the central structure indicates (in the round part) roughly the original size of the church, which was massive. The following pictures date to between 1900 and 1920, and are from the online Library of Congress collection of the Matson Photo Archives.

Temple, Church, Dome

Just last week, Eastern Orthodox Christians commemorated the entrance of Mary (the Theotokos, “God-birther,” the mother of Jesus) into the Jerusalem Temple. If you’re not familiar with this somewhat surprising story, as many western Christians aren’t, then you may read the tale in the Protevangelium of James, which, while it is certainly an apocryphal text and no part of the canon of Scripture, nonetheless it is recognized to contain many of the same traditions held by Orthodox Christians concerning Mary, which traditions are expressed in hymnography and hagiography. One of these is that Joachim and Anna, Mary’s parents, dedicated her to the Jerusalem Temple as a young girl, where she lived in the Holy of Holies (!) and was fed by an angel. Later, she left the Temple and was entrusted to Joseph. The rest of the story will be familiar.

What is important about this set of stories is its impact particularly among Eastern Christians, particularly early ones (note that the Protevangelium of James dates to roughly the middle of the second century, showing these stories took root very early), and most especially those wealthier among them who were responsible for building churches in the Holy Land. It was believed by early Christians that the child Mary literally lived in the Holy of Holies in the Jerusalem Temple, however unlikely or impossible this was, and however much we may rather prefer to find this allegorically describing her life of faith, purity, and devotion. This led someone, at some point prior to the late fifth century, to construct a Church of Mary Theotokos on the site of the ancient Jewish Temple, the plan of which is, I suggest, preseved by the current Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem.

Several lines of evidence support this:
1.) The foundation of an identical Church of Mary Theotokos precisely atop the ruined Samaritan Temple on Mt Gerizim was built by Emperor Zeno in 484 AD. The choice of a Church of Mary Theotokos there would otherwise be odd, as no traditions relate her life to Gerizim or the Samaritan Temple. Yet, if Zeno were simply treating one set of Temple ruins like another, it would make sense to have the two matching ruins covered with two matching shrines. Thus, the church in Jerusalem will likely have been built earlier than his reign (474-491 AD), though named at the very least if not indeed constructed after the Council of Chalcedon, during which “Theotokos” was argued upon and accepted as the proper Christian title for Mary, indicating Jesus was God and not merely Christ/Messiah. So it was probably built (or at least begun) during the very active construction in the time when the former Empress Eudocia was resident in Jerusalem, roughly 441-460 AD. This founding in the later fifth century would explain why it is not mentioned by Egeria and Jerome.
2.) Justinian’s huge and famous “Nea” church was actually named the New Church of Mary Theotokos, requiring there to be an older church of Mary the Theotokos somewhere in the city, while none is specifically mentioned in the records. The most obvious location would be the Temple Mount, with a Church of Mary Theotokos there to commemorate her living there.
3.) All the known various elements of Mary’s life were commemorated by churches, even a stop for a break between Jerusalem and Ain Karem, the recently rediscovered Kathisma church, also octagonal in plan (as was the original eastern end of the Nativity Basilica in Bethlehem built in the fourth century over the traditional site of the birth cave of Jesus, and the fifth-century structure built over the house of Peter in Capernaum). It is highly unlikely that the otherwise precisely located and unused area of the ruined Jerusalem Temple, based upon the tradition of her childhood there, were not similarly commemorated.
4.) Recent and ongoing sifting of the fill from the Temple Mount has brought to light much evidence of an early Byzantine Christian presence on the platform, in contrast to the former belief that the site was abandoned and used as a dump, which tale was mere propaganda found solely in Islamic sources regarding the building of the Dome of the Rock. (While it is true that every church except the Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem was destroyed by the Persians in 614, and thus many churches were still in ruins at the point of the Arab invasion in 638, it does not follow that such ruins were of long standing.) The presence of this memorial Church of Mary Theotokos, undoubtedly one of the pilgrim sites in Jerusalem, would account for these materials.
5.) Further evidence is the choice of Quranic verses for the interior of the Dome of the Rock, denying Jesus being the Son of God, which were chosen not randomly, but in reaction to the former dedication of this church to Mary the Theotokos, which was essentially an important statement about the Son Mary bore being God, and not just a man.

In conclusion, it is, I think, beyond doubt that a Church of Mary Theotokos was constructed in about the middle of the fifth century on the Temple Mount over the ruins of the Jerusalem Temple in order to commemorate the Eastern Christian tradition of Mary having grown up in the Temple itself. It may even have been at that point that the stairway and cave beneath the central rock (the former floor of the Holy of Holies) was cut, in order to provide a “luminous cave” as found in various other of the commemorated Holy Land sites (Annunciation in Nazareth, Nativity in Bethlehem, Eleona on Mt Olivet, Anastasis in Jerusalem, etc), though this may even have been done in Crusader times. The plan of the presently standing Dome of the Rock preserves the plan of this ancient church (and perhaps even some of the structural elements as examination of the beams of the Dome of the Rock indicate they are older than they should be) which would have been destroyed by the Persians, along with most other churches in the Holy Land, only a few decades before the Dome itself was constructed. This makes the Dome of the Rock that much more interesting, I think, in addition to being the most beautiful building in Jerusalem.

More on Nimrud Treasure Photos

Several months ago I posted on the extraordinary photographs of the Iraqi Museum treasures hidden in the flooded bank vault. Please see there for a link to the presentation. Photographer Noreen Feeney has commented. For those of you who have been keeping up more recently with well-illustrated introductions to Mesopotamian art, I was hoping that you could recommend a book or two for Noreen that would describe for her what were the items that she photographed. She didn’t know what they were, their ages, their importance, or any of that information which some of us take for granted, yet look at the amazing, indeed almost loving, attention that she paid the artifacts in her detailed photography, hands-down better than any photography of the items in history. So, if anyone can help out by recommending some well-illustrated books, please leave some titles for Noreen in the comments here or there at the older post. I recommended Pritchard’s ANEP, but that’s only black and white, and quite dated, though it should cover all or most of the Sumerian items and give at least a bare-bones idea of what they were. Something better than that would be more appropriate, I think.

As a note of appreciation in the very least, for her participation in documenting the rescue of all these precious items, it’s the least we can do. Thanks again, Noreen!

Nimrud Treasures

There’s a stunning set of photos of the Nimrud treasures on the Iraq Museum website. In the left column, under Exhibitions, click The Secret of Nimrud. The first seven sections (347 photos!) cover the opening of the flooded bank vault in which these and other treasures (including the gold helmet of Meskalamdug, and the headdress of one of the “female attendants,” and at least one of the gold bull’s head harp decorations, all found in Ur) were hidden, and which are shown being unpacked from sodden crates. Sections 8 and 9 show the items cleaned and on display in the museum. All should be thankful for the beautiful photography of Noreen Feeney, especially in her extreme closeups, showing us in unprecedented detail the extraordinary Nimrud finds, especially. Wow!

Thoughts on the Tel Zayit abecedary

Or should that be abgad? Nevertheless, there is an obvious interest in this building stone from Tel Zayit, now playing at a blog near you. While the importance of finding any literate inscription from the ancient world is a cause for celebration, I’d like to state my reasons for caution in making any conclusions regarding this particular inscription vis-à-vis biblical historiography.

1.) Regarding the skill of the writer:
I don’t see that anyone should deny that this was written by a scribe, whether a newly trained one or one of hoary experience. Throughout the history of writing in the ancient near east, we know that scribes did the overwhelmingly majority of all writing. However, this particular inscription appears to be scratched onto a stone with a completely unprepared surface. You try scratching, with a bronze or iron stylus, a modern alphabet into rock like that and see how far you get without slips, mistakes, and a result that resembles much more the scrawl of a juvenile scribal pupil than your typical (hopefully) elegant penmanship.

2.) Regarding the purpose of the inscription:
Now, if my understanding of the reportage of the find is correct, the stone was inscribed prior to its placement in the wall, as the entire inscription was not able to be read in that location. In the wall above this inscribed stone was another non-native stone of onyx. These were situated so as to be opposite the entrance to a room, the function of which is indeterminate. I think the only two conclusions possible to draw from this placement of two unusual stones in one prominent place is that they are there for either a.) apotropaic, or b.) decorative. For case a.), the apotropaic usage, those placing the stone there may have seen the inscription and recognized it as writing, but not known what it said, if they were illiterate, and perhaps dealt with it as a kind of amulet, displaying a somewhat primitive awe of writing. I find that more likely than that an abecedary was considered apotropaic. For case b.), the decorative, well, interesting scribbles on rocks can be decorative, I suppose. A big chunk of onyx in the wall sounds rather nice. But again, this doesn’t sound as though it indicates literacy on the part of the people who placed the stone in the wall. For my part, I consider the abecedary inscription on the rock to have possibly been scribal practice, perhaps practicing to do an inscription on some similar stone, now lost. Certainly a 40 pound stone is not a very practical practice tablet for scribal teacher or student! This stone, found on the site by an illiterate builder, undoubtedly generated enough interest for it to be considered as striking as the chunk of onyx above.

3.) Phoenician or Hebrew?
Here lies the crux, and the great interest in the inscription. The answer can come from two directions: paleography or archaeology.
a.) Paleography: To be perfectly honest, I think that we need a greater selection of data for comparison, a greater selection which has simply not been discovered yet, indeed may never be discovered due to preservation issues. This especially in the case of earliest Hebrew, and how it diverges from the more northern Phoenician, and how specifically it would differ from southern, strictly Canaanite (southern coastal Palestinian) inscriptional letter forms (of which I recall none, though I hope someone will correct me, if I’m wrong on that). This Tel Zayit inscription (if Hebrew), the Gezer calendar, and the Izbet Sartah inscription do not appear to be in a trained hand. Using them as paleographical reference points (even as nice as the Gezer calendar hand is) doesn’t seem as wise as using something clearly done by a full-fledged professional scribe under ideal conditions, like the Ahirom of Byblos sarcophagus or the Mesha of Moab stele. It’s all unfortunately to our loss that the scribes of Canaan and Israel appear to have favored papyrus over clay for their documentation, as the majority of the exemplars from which a truly representative set of data could’ve been found.
b.) Archaeology: From the reportage, apparently there’s evidence of a change in material culture with the particular layer of occupation to which the building with this inscription is assigned. The earlier layers indicate connections with the coast, while the inscription building’s layer displays connections to the hills. That’s quite interesting. At this point, I have more questions at this point than suggestions. Is the site large enough to have had the resources to be considered strong enough to have made such switches of allegiance on its own terms? If not, is it not logical that either a coalition of eastern towns or a larger eastern city took it from under the hegemony of a coastal coalition or city? (That is, after all, the former, and some would argue current, way of the world.) Does such a change of culture indicate or require an ethnic change? How clear is the connection to hill country and the difference from coastal? Could it be, after all is said and done, that the two lines of evidence, paleographical and archaeological, reinforce one another in this hill country connection, a hill country which we probably have seen called Israel prior to this time (in Merneptah’s stele; I say “probably” because the precise location is debatable, though Chris very well describes the standard reading and possibilities), and know is called Israel from later inscriptions (Mesha’s stele, the Tel Dan stele) and the descendants of that culture’s own writings?

Beyond all of this and the initial excitement and all the flutter, I await full and exhaustive publication. No doubt several of my questions/objections will be answered, and those of others. All talk of “nail in the coffin” seems really quite premature.