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 clich├ęs 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.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Places for the Imagination: Bethlehem

Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem
After Jerusalem itself, Bethlehem was probably the most popular pilgrimage destination in the Holy Land. (For more on the history of Bethlehem and the churches build there visit: Church of the Nativity) It had the advantage of being just over six miles distant from Jerusalem, making it comparatively easy for pilgrims to Jerusalem to visit Bethlehem as well. 

In addition to its importance to Christianity, Bethlehem was the city in which the early Kings of Jerusalem were crowned, giving it political importance in the crusader period as well. It was, however, never a center of trade or industry, remaining -- right to the present time -- a city dependent primarily on religious tourism. 

Although Bethlehem is the venue of only one important episode in the Jerusalem Trilogy, Bethlehem is nevertheless an important place for understanding and envisaging life in the crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem. On the one hand, preserved in the Church of the Nativity are mosaics dating back to the reign of Constantine the Great -- an examples of the kind of mosaics that were even more common in crusader times.  Furthermore, the church underwent extensive renovation in the reign of Amalric, including a series of spectacular mosaic murals. Not only are these considered exquisite and valuable examples of crusader art, they reflect the influence of King Amalric's Greek wife, Maria Comnena. Since Maria was also Balian's wife, these mosaics have a direct tie to Balian's life and provide an alluring hint to the artistic tastes in the world in which John d'Ibelin, Lord of Beruit grew up. 

The Ibelins almost certainly maintained a residence in Jerusalem, and so trips to Bethlehem (for Christmas at least) were almost certainly part of the Ibelin routine. While the mosaics are generally considered the most important artistic feature, it was the Frankish cloisters at Bethlehem, pure Western Romanesque in style, that I personally found most beautiful:

Another, arguably more important, aspect of a trip to Bethlehem today is that the strong presence of Greek, Armenian and Syriac Christians in Bethlehem. They are a compelling reminder of how diverse Christianity was in the crusader period as well. Recent scholarship has documented a far greater tolerance for these other Christians than was previously assumed. For more about the treatment of Orthodox Christians in the crusader states please visit: Liberation or Oppression: Native Christians and the Crusaders

Bethlehem features in the first two books of the Jerusalem trilogy and is the scene of an important episode in Volume II.

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  1. ". . . preserved in the Church of the Nativity are mosaics dating back to the reign of Constantine the Great -- an examples of the kind of mosaics that were even more common in crusader times."

    I'm sure the answer is simpler than I realize, but . . . how did these survive Saladin and the Muslim occupation of the land?Today, the extremists seem to destroy anything of a religious nature that isn't Islam.

    1. No! That's a very good question. It seems that the mosaic depiction of the adoration of the Magi over the portal portrayed the three wise men as Persians -- so accurately, in fact that when when the Persians came in 614 they recognized three "kings" over the portal and did not destroy the church out of respect for their kings! Then in 640 the Caliph Omar prayed in the southern aspis, that faces Mecca, and thereafter the that chapel was used by the Muslims as a mosque, although the rest of the church continued to be a church. Nevertheless, that one prayer room saved it from destruction.

    2. Sounds reasonable. Thanks for enlightening me.