Syriac Orthodox Monastery of Saint Mark in Jerusalem

The city of Jerusalem has a 16th century Ottoman wall surrounding its Old City.  The area within these walls is allotted into four sections: the Jewish Quarter, the Muslim Quarter, the Christian Quarter, and the Armenian Quarter.  Although Armenians are Christian, they were the first country to nationally convert to Christianity, so they have kept a presence in Jerusalem for centuries.  That is why they have their own quarter.  Despite the name, none of the quarters are solely made up of one group of people.  In fact, hidden away in a narrow street of the Armenian Quarter is St. Mark’s Monastery.

St. Mark’s Monastery is not Armenian but Syriac Orthodox.  When people hear of the Syriac Orthodox Church, they assume that it is connected with the country of Syria.  However, that is not the case.  Syria gained independence from France in 1946, but the Syriac Orthodox Church is one of the oldest churches in the world.  According to an article (“National and Ethnic Identity in the Neo-Assyrian Empire and Assyrian Identity in Post-Empire Times.” Journal of Assyrian Academic Studies 18, no. 2 (2004): 5-22) by the Finnish Assyriologist, Simo Parpola, the words “Assyrian,” “Syriac,” and “Syrian” all derive from the word Ashur, the name of the Ancient Assyrian Empire.  Since the Assyrian Empire once dominated the Middle East, its name influenced the region.

During the first few hundred years of Christianity, before the Catholic and Orthodox churches even split, churches from across the globe held ecumenical councils.  During the fourth ecumenical council in A.D. 451, called the Council of Chalcedon, the churches excommunicated those adhering to monophysitism, which states that Jesus only had a divine, not human, nature.  Those expelled included the Armenian Apostolic Church, the Coptic (Egyptian) Orthodox Church, and the Syriac Orthodox Church.  Today, these latter churches claim that their theology was misrepresented at the Council, and that they did still believe in Jesus’ humanity.  Regardless, because of this early split, these Eastern Churches developed on their own.

This is the Syriac inscription over the entrance to Saint Mark’s Monastery.

Most people from the Syriac Orthodox Church (also known as the Jacobite Church, because of one of their bishops, Jacob Barradaeus) lived in what is present-day Turkey.  They built a church in Jerusalem in the sixth century A.D., which became St. Mark’s Monastery. According to Syriac Orthodox tradition, it was built over the Upper Room where Jesus had his last supper.  Today, anyone can visit the church and have a tour with the caretaker.  Fortunately, when I visited the church, the caretaker allowed me to go downstairs to the site of the earliest church.  The current church was built on top of it.  Archaeologists did not discover this earlier church until 1940.

The authenticity of this Syriac inscription found at St. Mark’s Monastery is debated.

The Syriac Orthodox Church’s liturgy is in a modern dialect of Aramaic.  That is because, prior to the Islamic invasion of the Middle East in the seventh century A.D., the Middle East’s lingua franca was Aramaic.  After the Islamic invastion, those who did not convert to Christianity kept their Aramaic language and did not replace it with Arabic.  The modern Aramaic script is called Syriac.  If you attend a service at St. Mark’s Monastery, you can hear the Aramaic liturgy and see the Syriac prayer books used.

If the Syriac Orthodox Church is not confusing enough, I would like to add one more confusing element to it.  Today, many adherents of the Syriac Orthodox Church consider themselves ethnically Aramean, because they speak the Aramaic language.  Since they lived in the Middle East before the Islamic conquest, they are certainly not Arab, even if most of them can speak Arabic today.  However, it is only in the 20th century that the Syriac Orthodox Church adopted the Aramean identity.

St. Mary’s Assyrian Apostolic Church in Worcester, Massachusetts, mentioned on this commemorative bookmark, is now called the Syriac Orthodox Church in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts.

The identity of the Syriac Orthodox Church remains a controversial topic today.  Whereas some, but not all, from the Syriac Orthodox Church consider themselves Aramean, others call themselves Assyrian.  In fact, one of the founders of Assyrian Nationalism in the early twentieth century, Naum Faiq, was born into a Syriac Orthodox family.  Assyrian nationalists claim that they are descended from the ancient Assyrians and want to build an Assyrian homeland.

Members of the Assyrian Church of the East also believe that the Syriac Orthodox Church is descended from the ancient Assyrians.  Similar to the Syriac Orthodox Church, the Assyrian Church of the East is an ancient Middle Eastern church that speaks Aramaic (although an Eastern dialect, unlike the Syriac Orthodox Church’s western dialect).  It was excommunicated from the mainstream church at the third ecumenical council in A.D. 431 (the Council of Ephesus), because its members were associated with the heretic Nestorius.  According to those from the Assyrian Church of the East, who also identify themselves as descendants of the ancient Assyrians, the reason why the Syriac Orthodox Church stopped calling itself Assyrian in the twentieth century was because it wanted to distance itself from the Assyrian Church of the East.  This was not only for religious reasons, but primarily because they did not want to experience the same fate as the Assyrians, who were massacred in Simele, Iraq in 1933.  At Simele, between 3,000 to 6,000 Assyrians were killed by the Iraqi government, both for political and religious reasons.

This photo is in the public domain and taken from Wikipedia. It explains the splits in the churches that use Aramaic liturgy.

Although the Syriac Orthodox did avoid its own massacre, it did not escape massacre earlier in the 20th century.  Approximately 200,000 members of both the Assyrian and Syriac Orthodox churches were massacred during WWI, along with the one million Armenians murdered during the Armenian Genocide.  Many Syriac Orthodox people moved to Israel after that, and still live there today.  Throughout the 20th century, many others moved to Sweden and the United States.  If you are interested, a Syriac Orthodox Group in New Jersey has recently uploaded over 2,000 Syriac Orthodox and Assyrian books online here: https://archive.org/details/bethmardutho.

St. Mark’s Monastery has a connection with the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947.  I plan to write about that soon. (September 20 Update: Here is the Post about the Dead Sea Scrolls.)

Sources and Further Reading

“Dayro d-Mor Marqos.” Syriac Orthodox Resources. http://syriacorthodoxresources.org/ChMon/HLand/YerusalemSMark.html (accessed September 13, 2020).

Donabed, Sargon and Ninos Donabed. Assyrians of Eastern Massachusetts. Charleston: Arcadia, 2006.

Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Monophysite.” https://www.britannica.com/topic/monophysite (accessed September 13, 2020).

Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Nestorianism.” https://www.britannica.com/topic/Nestorianism (accessed September 13, 2020).

Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Syriac Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and All the East.” https://www.britannica.com/topic/Syriac-Orthodox-Patriarchate-of-Antioch-and-All-the-East (accessed September 13, 2020).

Parpola, Simo. “National and Ethnic Identity in the Neo-Assyrian Empire and Assyrian Identity in Post-Empire Times.” Journal of Assyrian Academic Studies 18, no. 2 (2004): 5-22. http://www.jaas.org/edocs/v18n2/Parpola-identity_Article%20-Final.pdf (accessed September 13, 2020).

Church of the Holy Sepulchre

One of the most popular tourist destinations in Jerusalem is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, located where many Christians believe Jesus was crucified, buried, and resurrected.  It was built during the reign of Constantine the Great in the 4th century A.D., destroyed several times, and rebuilt or enlarged several times.  Currently, the Church is closed, due to the COVID-19 outbreak.  The last time the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was closed to the public was in 1349, also due to sickness: the Black Plague. 

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is the domed building to the left.

I have been inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre several times, but still consider it as confusing as a maze.  Therefore, I unfortunately cannot provide directions on how I arrived at any of the interesting places that I have seen there.

Several different church groups have a section of the Church allotted to them.  These are the Greek Orthodox Church (they are easy to identify because their priests have ponytails), the Roman Catholic Church, the Armenian Apostolic Church, the Coptic (Egyptian) Orthodox Church, the Syrian Orthodox Church, and the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.  The latter four are known as “Oriental” Churches, each using liturgy in languages unique to themselves (Armenian, Coptic/Egyptian, Aramaic, and Ge’ez, respectively). 

The most crowded part of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is a small building inside the high-domed Church, which is allegedly over Jesus’ tomb.  You must stand in line to enter this little building, known as the Edicule, where a priest directs the visiting pilgrims.  I did not enter the Edicule, so cannot share more information about it.  There are other ancient tombs nearby the Edicule, which you can find by entering a nearby doorway.  The Church of the Holy Sepulchre also includes a stone where the cross was said to be, and a variety of different relics (I remember a bone being one of them, but do not remember more).

Since the early Christian church endured enormous persecution when it began, nobody can be sure if the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is over the actual place where Jesus died.  However, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is built over ancient tombs that may date to that period.  Jesus is believed to have been buried outside of Jerusalem’s city walls.  Since the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is inside the walled Old City of Jerusalem, this may seem confusing.  However, the current walls of the Old City were built during the 16th century under the Ottoman Empire.  I was told that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre would have been outside of Jerusalem’s city walls during the Roman era.

Tombs inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

I had the opportunity to go on the top of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre’s smaller dome, because I had a wonderful professor who received permission to take her class up there.  This dome was part of the section of the Church owned by the Greek Orthodox Church.  In addition to going on top of the dome, we also went into a little room below it, where people work on repairing broken icons that churches send to them from all over the world.  My professor also took us to a part of the Church’s roof that is accessible to the public, and is the section owned by the Ethiopian Church.  Additionally, she took us to a water tunnel beneath the Church.  However, I, unfortunately, cannot remember how to find any of those places.

The roof of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre’s smaller dome.

Whether you are Christian or not, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is worth the visit.  If you are lucky, you will hear a church procession singing beautiful liturgy.  You will also smell spices, probably frankincense, throughout the entire building.  However, you must also be prepared to see visitors lighting candles and kissing various objects, which may be strange to people who do not follow those traditions.

A view of the Christian Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City from the roof of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

Sources and Further Reading

Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Church of the Holy Sepulchre.” https://www.britannica.com/place/Holy-Sepulchre (accessed April 10, 2020).

Vaiciulaityte, Giedre. “The Muslim Keymaster of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre Closed Its Doors for the First Time Since the Black Plague in 1349.” Boredpanda. April 8, 2020. https://www.boredpanda.com/church-of-the-holy-sepulchre-key-master/?utm_source=google&utm_medium=organic&utm_campaign=organic (accessed April 10, 2020).

Church of the Nativity

Slightly south of Jerusalem is Bethlehem (which means “house of bread” in Hebrew), a small town that became famous for being the birthplace of Jesus as well as King David.  However, if you visit Bethlehem today, it is difficult to picture it as the small Jewish town it once was.  It is now a somewhat touristy area with a population that has slowly changed from predominantly Christian to Muslim in the last fifty years.  It is located in a Section A area of the West Bank, meaning that it is under Palestinian control, and that Israeli citizens are not permitted to enter there. Section B areas of the West Bank have joint-Palestinian and Israeli control, and Section C is where the disputed Israeli settlements are. In order to enter or exit a Section A area, people need to go through checkpoints. However, this is mostly inconvenient for the people who live within the country. The Bethlehem checkpoint is generally not a problem for tourists.

Most tourists who visit Bethlehem go to see the oldest church in the world that is still in use today, the Church of the Nativity.  This Church encompasses a small cave that, since the second century A.D., tradition claims was Jesus’ birthplace.  The original church was built in 339 A.D. by Constantine the Great’s mother, Helena.  However, most of the current church’s structure is from the sixth century A.D., and was built by the Byzantine King, Justinian I.  Throughout the centuries, the Church has experienced both damage and restoration.  The Church’s most recent drama occurred in 2002 during the Second Intifada, when the Israeli government laid siege on 200 Palestinians who fled into the Church.  When UNESCO made the Church of the Nativity a World Heritage Site in 2012, they also placed its status as “Endangered.”  However, restoration began after that, and in 2019, this status was removed.

When you enter the Church, you must duck your head, because the doorway is shorter than most doorways.  The reason for this is probably to make sure that visitors show respect while entering the sacred space.  Because the Church is extremely old, inside is not a showy place with gaudy architecture and decorations.  Instead, it is a simple, stone structure with high columns and a high ceiling.  To enter the cave, you must descend into a separate part of the Church, away from the main sanctuary.  According to my father, when he visited the church in the 1970s, the cave area had a doll in it that was supposed to represent baby Jesus.  However, when I visited in 2010, I did not see that.  Three groups currently oversee the Church: the Roman Catholics, the Eastern Orthodox, and the Armenian Church. 

Right outside of Bethlehem is a spot that Jews, Christians, and Muslims all consider important.  It is the alleged tomb of Rachel, the favorite wife of Jacob from the Bible (Genesis 35:19-20).  However, like most Biblical sites in Israel, many theories exist as to whether this or other nearby sites are the actual place where Rachel was buried.  Unfortunately, I never had a chance to visit Rachel’s tomb.

Bethlehem has never been known for having much there, but it is certainly worth visiting if you are interested in seeing the oldest church in the world that is still in use today. It may not be the most beautiful church in the world, but the ancient stone structure and scent of frankincense flowing through the air provide an experience rarely encountered in the Western world.

I realized that the only photo I took while I was in Bethlehem was of this coffee shop, whose name I found amusing.

Sources and Further Reading

“Birthplace of Jesus: Church of the Nativity and the Pilgrimage Route, Bethlehem.” UNESCO World Heritage Centre. http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1433/ (accessed November 30, 2019).

Lidman, Melanie. “Bethlehem’s Declining Christian Population Casts Shadow over Christmas.” National Catholic Reporter, December 29, 2016. https://www.ncronline.org/news/world/bethlehems-declining-christian-population-casts-shadow-over-christmas (accessed November 30, 2019).

“Siege of Bethlehem.” Frontline. https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/siege/etc/cron.html (accessed November 30, 2019).

“The Site of the Birthplace of Jesus in Bethlehem (Palestine) Removed from the List of World Heritage in Danger.” UNESCO World Heritage Centre, July 2, 2109. http://whc.unesco.org/en/news/1995/ (accessed November 30, 2019).

DuSable Museum of African American History

After the American Civil War, freed slaves began migrating to the northern United States.  This trend continued into the beginning of the twentieth century, as the Ku Klux Klan revived in 1915, and as African Americans in the South sought better job opportunities in the North.  The migration of African Americans to the North between 1910 to 1960 is known as the “Great Migration.”  Because of the Great Migration, the two cities with the largest African American populations are located in the North: New York City and Chicago, respectively.

Because Chicago has a rich African American history, the DuSable Museum of African American History opened up in Chicago in 1961.  The museum originally began in the home of its founder, Dr. Margaret Burroughs, but in 1971, moved to its current home, which is a beautiful building that used to be an administration and police lockup facility.  Located on the South Side of Chicago, where most African Americans live, the museum is named after Jean Baptiste Point DuSable, a Hatian trader who is considered the first permanent non-Native American resident of Chicago.

The main exhibit of the museum provides a timeline of African American history, beginning with the slave trade, but then eventually narrows down to Chicago’s African American history.  One aspect of Chicago’s African American history that the museum highlights is the Pullman Car Company, which used to hire African Americans as porters on its trains, and paid them better than many other jobs that hired African Americans at the time.  The museum also mentions the story of Emmett Till, a fourteen-year-old boy from Chicago who was lynched when he went to visit relatives in Mississippi, because he allegedly whistled at a white woman.  This tragedy, which occurred in 1955, was one of the many injustices of the South that helped fuel the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. 

Martin Luther King, Jr. actually visited Chicago during the Civil Rights Movement.  In 1965, he was invited to Chicago to address the segregation there, and started what became the Chicago Freedom Movement.  If you would like to learn more about Chicago’s unfair housing situation during that time, read or watch Lorraine Hansberry’s famous 1959 play, A Raisin in the Sun.  Unfortunately, the violence and poverty of Chicago’s South Side would probably not be in such a sad state if African Americans had been integrated equally in Chicago when they first arrived.  Chicago’s historic practice of housing segregation is why such a large number of African Americans live south of the Chicago River in the first place.

In 1965, the northern Chicago suburb of Winnetka invited Martin Luther King, Jr. to speak there, because it had segregated housing rules at the time. You can see this plaque at the Winnetka Village Green.

Chicago is considered by some to be the birthplace of modern gospel music. The first gospel choir was begun in 1931 in an African American church called Ebenezer Missionary Baptist Church, which is still an active church today.

4501 S. Vincennes Ave. Chicago, IL 60653

This church attests to how the South Side has historically been the home of Chicago’s immigrants. Before being an African American neighborhood, Bronzeville was a Jewish immigrant neighborhood. Note that the Church’s cornerstone is using the Jewish year (which is based on rabbinic calculations of the Bible’s genealogies) rather than the Gregorian calendar.  It used to be a synagogue called Temple Isaiah. In case you’re wondering, 5659 is 1898.

Some famous African American jazz musicians lived in Chicago for a while. Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood has the homes of Nat King Cole and Louis Armstrong. They are still lived in, and not open to the public.

Nat King Cole’s Chicago home: 4023 S. Vincennes Ave. Chicago, IL 60653
Louis Armstrong’s Chicago home: 421 E. 44th St. Chicago, IL 60653

One final exhibit at the DuSable Museum that I thought was kind of fun was an animatronic of Chicago’s first African American mayor, Harold Washington, who served from 1983 to 1987.  The exhibit has Harold Washington talking to you.

If you want to learn more about Chicago’s African American history, then the DuSable Museum is a great place to start.

Sources and Further Reading

Bada, Ferdinand. “Cities with the Largest African-American Populations.” WorldAtlas. https://www.worldatlas.com/articles/cities-with-the-largest-african-american-populations.html (accessed October 26, 2019). 

“DuSable Museum of African-American History.” The New York Times, January 30, 2013. https://archive.is/20130130235748/http://travel.nytimes.com/travel/guides/north-america/united-states/illinois/chicago/attraction-detail.html?vid=1154654606497#selection-1415.0-1415.42  (accessed October 26, 2019).

“The Great Migration.” Smithsonian American Art Museum. http://americanexperience.si.edu/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/The-Great-Migration.pdf (accessed October 26, 2019).

Hansberry, Lorraine. A Raisin in the Sun. New York: Modern Library, 1995.

Landers, Betsy. “Martin Luther King, Jr. in Winnetka.” Winnetka Historical Society. http://www.winnetkahistory.org/gazette/martin-luther-king-jr-in-winnetka/ (accessed October 26, 2019).

“Museum History.” The DuSable Museum of African American History. https://www.dusablemuseum.org/museum-history/ (accessed October 26, 2019).

Ralph, James. “Martin Luther King, Jr., in Chicago.” Encyclopedia of Chicago. http://www.encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org/pages/1438.html (accessed October 26, 2019).