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Saving the Holy Sepulchre: How Rival Groups Came Together to Rescue their Holiest Shrine.

Saving the Holy Sepulchre: How Rival Groups Came Together to Rescue their Holiest Shrine. By Raymond Cohen. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. xxvi + 315 pp. $29.99 cloth.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is an extraordinary building. Unlike the great cathedrals, it is an architectural mess, thanks both to successive rebuilding over the centuries and to competitive architectural hooliganism between rival sects. Yet somehow its combination of layers of history and sanctity, and its place in the imagination of warriors and artists and religious thinkers, can lift it above its own physical limitations--at least for some visitors. Generations of Protestants have been very leery indeed about this much-fought-over center of Christian worship. Mark Twain saw there nothing but "clap-trap side-shows and unseemly impostures of every kind" (The Innocents Abroad [Hartford, Conn.: American Publishing Co., 1869], 573); the famous Victorian archaeologist Edward Robinson coined the phrase "pious fraud" (Biblical Researches in Palestine, 1838-52 [Boston: Crocker and Brewster, 1856], I:251) for the relics on show, including the sepulchre itself; and Herman Melville wrote, "All is glitter and nothing is gold. A sickening cheat" ([1857] Journal of a Visit to Europe and the Levant [Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1955], 281).

One element that particularly amazed and disgusted visitors was the fighting between priests and monks within the church. Alexander William Kinglake, the snidely ironic old Etonian travel writer and historian, describes how a monk, forgetting "his monkish humility, as well as the duties of hospitality" (Eothen; or, Traces of Travel [London: John Ollivier, 1847], 166) criticized an Englishman for accepting food and drink at the monastery but then not being prepared to join in a punch-up on the side of the monks. Robert Curzon, more painfully, gives a lurid description of a battle in 1834 that left many dead, suffocated in the crush or ripped apart by violent assault. To the outsider, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre has often seemed an image of everything that could go wrong with a Christian institution--infighting and aggression and prejudice in place of love, humility, and charity.

Raymond Cohen, the Chaim Weizmann professor of International Relations at the Hebrew University and a graduate of Oxford, is an outsider to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. But he has made himself an insider--in the sense that he has done what no previous historian has attempted and spent many years in the archives of the various groups who use the church, talked to many witnesses, explored the documents, and tried to understand exactly what has been happening between the rival forces in the church. The story he has come up with from this detailed research is something of a surprise. As his subtitle suggests, "How Rival Christians Came Together to Rescue their Holiest Shrine," Cohen argues that there has actually been a real shift in recent years toward a working solution on the ground. And I use that cliched phrase with its broader political overtones designedly, because, as Cohen clearly knows, the story he tells of groups fighting over the same patch of holy ground, but finally, after centuries of warring, reaching some sort of solution of how to live together evokes conflicts across the world from Northern Ireland to the Middle East itself.

It would be quite wrong, however, to see this rapprochement as a tale of Christian feelings at last outweighing evil impulses, and former combatants coming together in a spirit of love and harmony. Rather, as in Northern Ireland, the peace, inasmuch as it exists, is a product of exhaustion, external pressures--financial as well as political--and self-interest drawing the differing parties together in a more productive encounter.

Cohen's history starts with the terrible earthquake in 1927. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre survived, apparently intact, but as became gradually clear, there was deep-seated damage to the structure. It is the attempt to diagnose this damage and finally put it fight that forms the central narrative of this engrossing book. To understand the opposed groups, Cohen takes us back to the Status Quo agreement. This is the contract drawn up by the Ottomans and formally upheld by the British Mandate that possession, usage, and ceremony in the holy site should not change but "will all remain forever in their present state" (8). Hence the ladder leaning against a first-floor window above the entrance: since it was there in 1852, there it will always remain, replaced if necessary by an identical ladder. The Status Quo agreement drew up immutable boundaries--and it is over these boundaries that all the fighting takes place. The focus of the book means that Cohen does not go back much further in the history of the building than the Status Quo agreement and is not distracted by its role in such world-stage events as the Crimean War. This account maintains a close gaze at who said what to whom and who did what to whom inside the church and its committee rooms.

The best aspect of the book is that Cohen not only has done the sort of properly conducted historical research that is rarely done on institutions with such huge religious stakes, but also that he manages to make the detailed story of bickering and nastiness so riveting. He uncovers bizarre plans from the Vatican in Mussolini's time for the rebuilding of the whole site in neoclassical splendor; traces how good and honest men got sucked into the rivalries and rows of petty officialdom; and narrates how, step by laborious step, an agreed plan was formulated and completed. It is a good read, almost never pompous or judgmental--which too few books on such contentious sites manage.

Is the overall story convincing? The detailed study of what happened, even where small differences of opinion or judgment are of course possible, is undoubtedly the best account available for the modem development of this major religious site, and is well worth reading for any religious or cultural historian interested in the connection between religion, politics, and architecture. But I am not sure everyone will share Cohen's optimism. The rotunda has indeed been restored. But since then, the same old rows broke out over mending the toilets, with the Armenians refusing permission for repairs until the Greeks agreed to their demands on another issue: an unpleasantly smelly Easter resulted. It is still impossible to open a second entrance or exit door anywhere in the building, since no side will allow such precedence to another group. The new breeze-block walls of the Catholicon still stand, the ugliest sign of lingering aggressive partisanship. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre has been restored, and Cohen tells very well indeed how this came about: whether this should be called a story of triumphant international relations brokering a treaty, or an uneasy and fragile truce enforced by necessity, remains less clear.

doi: 10.1017/S0009640709000389

Simon Goldhill

King's College, Cambridge
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Author:Goldhill, Simon
Publication:Church History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 1, 2009
Words:1143
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