Back in Muslim Hands

Eighty-seven years after the Crusader conquest, Jerusalem was retaken by the Muslims under the celebrated Salah al-Din Yusuf ibn Ayub, better known in the West as Saladin, founder of the Egyptian Ayyubid dynasty. The king of Jerusalem, Guy Lusignan, surrendered the city without a fight after a siege lasting twelve days. The Muslim transformation of the city began in October of 1187. Islamic flags were raised on the city walls and all traces of Christian worship were removed from the Temple Mount. The gilt cross placed atop the Dome of the Rock by the Crusaders was dragged through the streets, then melted down as booty. The Dome of the Rock and al-Aksa Mosque were cleansed with rose water and all the Christian decorations were stripped away. Two Christian shrines near the Haram, the Church of Saint Anne and the Church of Zion, were converted into places for Muslim learning and study. But Saladin resisted the urgings of some that the Church of the Holy Sepulcher be demolished. It remained closed for three days before he commanded its reopening for the several thousand Syrian and Armenian Christians who had chosen to remain under his rule. However, as retaliation for the massacre of Jerusalem's Muslim population during the First Crusade, Saladin placed the key to the church in the hands of two Muslim families, the Nuseibeh and the Joudeh. Salidin also opened the city to unrestricted Jewish settlement, and from then on, scattered Jewish communities from many parts of the world resumed pilgrimages to the Holy City.

The recapture of Jerusalem by the Muslims prompted the Christians to mount the Third Crusade (1189-92), pitting Saladin against Richard I, the Lion-Hearted, of England. However, the Crusaders succeeded only in capturing the port of Acre, and the Peace of Ramleh (1192) left the Crusaders with only a small strip of land along the Mediterranean coast.


Note: Renowned as a Crusader and gallant knight, Richard neglected his kingdom, allowing his ministers to rule in his stead. Immature and petulant, he excelled only in fighting. Before becoming king, Richard was often at war with his father and brothers, and he spent all but six months of his reign outside England campaigning or in captivity. On his return from the Third Crusade in 1192, Richard was shipwrecked near Venice and imprisoned by Duke Leopold of Austria. Leopold turned Richard over to Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI, who released him only upon pledging a huge ransom. Richard spent the last five years of his reign warring with Philip II of France. Although later romanticized by Sir Walter Scott and others, Richard did little more than contribute to the financial exhaustion of his realm through the expenses of the Crusade and other wars, the king's ransom, and subsidies to his allies. Heavy taxation under Richard and his absence from England created dissatisfaction and initiated a decline in the power of the crown.

Christian Again

Early in 1193 AD, Saladin died and his empire was divided among his sons who lacked their father's greatness and abilities. In 1229 AD, the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II of Germany briefly turned back the clock. During the peaceful Sixth Crusade (1228-1229 AD), Frederick negotiated the return of Jerusalem and other important pilgrimage sites (Bethlehem, Lydda, and perhaps Nazareth) without bloodshed. Already married to Isabel of Brienne, queen of Jerusalem, he crowned himself king of Jerusalem in 1229 AD...


Note: In 1239 AD, Pope Gregory IX excommunicated Frederick on charges of heresy and, in 1245 AD, Innocent IV induced the Council of Lyon to declare him deposed. Frederick continued to fight both the popes and Lombards with mixed success until his death in 1250 AD.

The key to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher

By turning over the key of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher to two Muslim families, Saladin ensured continuing access for the rival Christian denominations who have claimed rights. Even now, over eight centuries later, the 10-inch metal key is still safeguarded in the house of the Joudeh family. Every morning at dawn, a family member climbs a short ladder to the keyhole, head-height off the ground, picks up the key and opens the massive wooden doors. Every night at 8:00 p.m. he returns to shut and lock them. As one of the doorkeepers said, "As a Muslim, I'm proud to do it. It's good for our religion to respect others, and for them to respect us. Here in Jerusalem, that's something for all of us to learn."

Muslim control of the key has never meant Muslim control of the Church, however. Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Armenian Orthodox groups share main control of the church, while the Ethiopian, Egyptian Copt and Syrian churches maintain a presence. For centuries Christian sects have zealously guarded their corners of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher complex. On Sunday June 20, 1999, the leaders of all denominations united in a decision to install a new exit door in time for the upcoming 2000 millennium celebrations. Until that time the church had only one door, a factor that contributed to the deaths of dozens of visitors who were trampled to death during a fire in 1840.

City wall of the 12th-13th centuries

Near the present Dung Gate, in the southern wall of the Old City, archaeologists have uncovered the city wall built by Saladin in the late 12th and early 13th centuries AD. It lies beneath the present Old City wall constructed in the 16th century AD by Sulieman the Magnificent. However, not long after the Arab wall was erected by Saladin and his successors, it was destroyed by the very people who built it. Fearing that the Crusaders would recapture Jerusalem in the Third Crusade, it was dismantled so that the Christians would be unable to defend the city.

Go to Jerusalem history - part 20

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