Helena Schrader's Historical Fiction

Dr. Helena P. Schrader is the winner of more than 20 literary accolades. For a complete list of her awards see: http://helenapschrader.com

For readers tired of clichés and cartoons, award-winning novelist Helena P. Schrader offers nuanced insight to historical events and figures based on sound research and an understanding of human nature. Her complex and engaging characters bring history back to life as a means to better understand ourselves.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

The Templars and the Holy Grail

The “Holy Grail” makes its first appearance in literature in the 12th century in a work by Chrétien de Troyes, Perceval. Here, Perceval was a knight of the legendary King Arthur’s Round Table on a quest to find the "Holy Grail." The story was subsequently told and re-told, embellished and altered by various writers, including both Wolfram von Eschenbach and Sir Thomas Malory. In later versions of the Grail quest, Sir Galahad replaced Sir Perceval as the principal hero, but the theme remained popular and was increasingly depicted in works of art as well literature.

People in the Middle Ages understood that, like King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table themselves, the Holy Grail was a symbol, a spiritual gift. It was not until the 19th century that people -- increasingly lacking spirituality and thinking of themselves as more “rational” and “scientific” -- crudely turned the Holy Grail into a mere thing. Just people in the 19th and 20th centuries insisted on trying to identify the “real King Arthur,” modern scholars and enthusiasts have tied themselves in knots trying to explain just what the Holy Grail was ― even inventing the idea that it was the blood of Christ in the form of genetic descendants of Christ and Mary Magdalen. 

Another 20th/21st Century invention is that the Templars were in search of the Holy Grail when they excavated under the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem. Indeed, it has even been argued that the Templars went all the way to Ethiopia in the 12th century in search of the Holy Grail (now transformed into the Ark of the Covenant). Most recently, the History Chanel’s “Knightfall” builds on the notion that there was a connection between the Templars and the Holy Grail. 

This connection is as spurious and ridiculous as the idea that there was a Holy Grail in the first place. There can be no evidence of a connection between the Knights Templar and the Holy Grail, because people in the Middle Ages, least of all the practical and hard-headed Knights Templar, weren’t gullible enough to actually think that the Holy Grail was a thing. Since the Templars (at least in theory) disdained secular literature and courtly love, the venue in which the legends and tales of the Holy Grail played out, would have been particularly disdained by the Templars. They probably would not have deigned to admit they knew of the tales at all.  

Copyright Fireforge Games
Literature, whether disguised as pseudo scholarship or, more honestly, fiction, that depicts a relationship between the Knights Templar and an object called the “Holy Grail” belong in the realm of fantasy and should be recognized and treated as such. 

For readers tired of clichés and cartoons, award-winning novelist Helena P. Schrader offers nuanced insight to historical events and figures based on sound research and an understanding of human nature. Her complex and engaging characters bring history back to life as a means to better understand ourselves. Her Jerusalem Trilogy has won 15 literary accolades including Best Biography 2017 (Book Excellence Awards) and Best Christian Historical Fiction 2017 (Readers' Favorites).

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A Templar disaster set the stage for:


Saturday, December 23, 2017

The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem

Tomorrow at midnight,
 Christians around the world
remember the birth of Christ in the city of Bethlehem. 
Today I would like to provide a short history of the Church commemorating that event
The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem 

Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem
According to Christian traditions, 2,017 years ago Joseph of Nazareth and his pregnant wife Maria went to Bethlehem, the birthplace of Joseph, in order to comply with a Roman edict to register for a census. They found the city of Bethlehem full to overflowing, and were unable to find a room in either in an inn or the home of Joseph’s relatives. In consequence, they lodged in the cave behind the residence of Joseph’s family in which, as was common at the time, livestock and stores were kept.  (To this day, this is a custom in the region.) Here Mary gave birth to a son, Jesus. 

At the time of his birth Jesus was not of particular importance, hence his birthplace was not in any way noted, marked or honored. It was only after he had died that some of his followers sought to locate the place where he had been born. Since this occurred within the living memory of many of his friends and family, it is not improbable that the house in which Joseph and Mary had stayed--and the stables attached to it--could be accurately identified.   

Following the Jewish uprising of 132-135, Hadrian ordered Roman temples erected on top of all Jewish and Christian holy sites. Over the cave in Bethlehem, revered by the small but significant Christian community still resident in Palestine, a temple to Adonis was built. Although certainly an insult to Christians at the time, it was a fortuitous development for later generations since it effectively marked a location that might otherwise have been lost from memory.

In 312, Constantine became Roman Emperor and raised his mother Helena to the rank of Empress. Helena had converted to Christianity and within a year of coming to power, Constantine issued an edict that ended the persecution of Christians.  Thereafter and throughout his reign, Constantine was to protect and serve as a patron of the Christian church, without, however, fully suppressing pagan rites.   

Emperor Constantine - Wall Mosaic in Hagia Sophia, Istanbul (Constantinople)
Helena, however, had been an early convert to Christianity and after her son’s rise to ultimate power, she traveled to Palestine in search of the sites of Christ’s passion. According to Christian traditions, she located the site of the crucifixion, excavated the cross on which Christ had been crucified, and also found the tomb in which Christ had been buried. While her son commissioned the construction of a church over the Holy Grave (the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem), Helena is credited with commissioning the construction of a church on the site of Christ’s birth to replace the temple to Adonis.

Helena’s church was a five-aisled basilica, the mosaics of which are still visible to this day. However, in  529, this church was destroyed in a revolt by the Samaritans.

In 540, Emperor Justinian I sponsored the construction of a new basilica over the foundations of the old that stood over and incorporated the cave in which Christ had been born. When Palestine was overrun by the Persians in 614, they destroyed all the churches and monasteries, including Constantine’s church over the Holy Sepulcher — except the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. This was because over the portal of the church was a mosaic depicting the adoration of the magi or Three Wise Men in which the magi were wearing “oriental” robes.  Based on their dress, Persians invaders recognized the figures in the mosaic as Persian priests; out of respect for their own priests they spared the church.  It is this church that can still be found in Bethlehem today, although the mosaic that saved it from destruction has itself since been lost.

In 640, Bethlehem fell to the forces of the Muslim Caliph Omar. Omar, rather than destroying the Church of the Nativity, used it as a place of prayer.  Thereafter, parts of the church complex were reserved for Muslim worship. This preserved the church from destruction by less tolerant Muslim leaders such as Caliph el-Hakim, who demolished the Church of the Holy Sepulcher a second time. 

When the Crusaders reached Palestine in 1099, they took possession of Bethlehem before launching the assault on Jerusalem. In contrast to the seizure of Jerusalem that ended with a blood-bath, there is no mention of violence or massacre in Bethlehem, probably because the town was neither walled nor defended. It has also been suggested in some sources that the population of Bethlehem was still predominantly Christian when the crusaders arrived

With the establishment of the Christian Kingdom of Jerusalem, Bethlehem became the seat of a bishop. It remained part of the royal domain, however, and Baldwin of Bouillon was crowned the first King of Jerusalem in the Church of the Nativity. A tradition followed by his successor, Baldwin II, but not subsequent kings, who preferred to be crowned in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. 

Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Jerusalem
The Church of the Nativity became the second most important pilgrimage destination in the Christian world after the Holy Sepulcher itself.  As Christian pilgrims flooded to the Holy Land, the city of Bethlehem enjoyed an economic boom. This was supplemented by massive investments on the part of the crusader kings to restore a church that was in a state of significant disrepair when the crusaders arrived. Especially under King Baldwin III and King Amalric I, both of whom were married to Byzantine princesses (Theodora and Maria Comnena respectively), the restoration work was carried out by artists with very high levels of sophistication and influenced by Byzantine traditions. The most extensive mosaics from the crusader period are found in the Church of the Nativity, where no less than 28 frescos dating from the crusader period have been identified.  Furthermore, under Christian rule, religious orders were re-established in the Holy Land and a beautiful Romanesque cloister was built adjacent to the Church of the Nativity which can still be visited today. 

Crusader Mosaics at the Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem

All that ended with the devastating defeat of the Christian army at Hattin on July 4, 1187.  Bethlehem had no defenses and no defenders. It fell without a fight to the army of Saladin, and, except for a brief interval from 1229 to 1244, it remained in Muslim hands until it came under the British Protectorate in 1920. Under the various Muslim leaders, Bethlehem became impoverished again. In 1516, the town had only 100 inhabitants! Meanwhile, the church fell increasing into disrepair. The marble wall panels were ripped out to be used in new buildings. In 1646 the tin roof was torn off and melted down for other purposes. The Church would almost certainly have become a complete ruin had not the Greek Orthodox church set out to restore the church with the tolerance of the Ottoman rulers starting in 1670.

Unfortunately, the 18th and 19th centuries saw a bitter fight between the Greek Orthodox, the Roman Catholic and the Armenian churches for control of the Church of the Nativity. In addition, earthquakes, fires and uprisings damaged both the church and the town of Bethlehem. In 1920 Bethlehem came under British administration, and in 1948 fell to Jordan. In 1963, the city numbered roughly 60,000 mostly Christian inhabitants, but the number fell dramatically after Israeli occupation. Today, Bethlehem suffers visibly from the political situation and the tensions between Palestinians and Israelis.   

The Fortress-like Construction seems sadly appropriate. Palestinian Terrorists held nuns, priests and tourists hostage here in April 2002.
Nevertheless it is still worth a visit today. To be sure, the mosaic mural depicting the adoration of the magi that saved the Church from Persian destruction has been lost, but St. Helena’s floor mosaics can still be seen, as can the mosaic murals of the crusader kings and the crusader-period cloisters. Most important, of course, beneath the high alter in the crypt of the church is the cave in which according to two thousand years of Christian tradition Christ was born over 2000 years ago today.

The Crusader cloisters -- my favorite place.

Bethlehem features in my novels set in the Holy Land. It was the scene of a skirmish leading up to the siege of Jerusalem in 1187, which is described in detail in award-winning: