Today in Middle Eastern history: Fatimid Caliph al-Hakim destroys the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (1009)

First of all, a disclaimer: I am terrified that somebody’s going to read the title of this post, on Twitter probably, not notice the (1009) part or the “Fatimid Caliph al-Hakim” part, and start some kind of nutjob avalanche of reports that the modern Church of the Holy Sepulchre has just been destroyed. Don’t worry, guys, it’s safe and sound, even though Jerusalem as a whole certainly has seen some better days.

I’m also worried that less nutty people will see the title of this post and think, “See? Muslims persecuting Christians; it’s been going on for over a thousand years!” That would be unfortunate, because it wasn’t “Muslims” who ordered the destruction of the church that supposedly stands on the site of Jesus’s crucifixion and tomb, it was, as the title says, the Fatimid Caliph al-Hakim. And al-Hakim may very well have been mentally ill and was at the very least a very odd guy. I know that seems insensitive, and the truth is that we can’t assume that he was actually mentally ill, because 11th century mental health diagnosis just wasn’t all that great. Plus, we’re biased by the sources, many of which were written well after al-Hakim reigned (996-1021) and by people who were inclined for political and religious reasons to regard him unfavorably. There are, to be fair, other historical traditions that identify al-Hakim as an ideal ruler and even a divine or quasi-divine figure. But what we know of al-Hakim’s behavior, most especially the decisions that led to the destruction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, suggests a guy who was at the very least prone to some incredible mood swings.

First, a little background if you’re not familiar with the Fatimid Caliphate. The Fatimids were a dynasty of Shiʿa rulers, but they belonged to the Ismaʿili branch of Shiʿism rather than the Imami or “Twelver” branch that is most prevalent today, especially in Iran (the Ismaʿilis are still around, though). These two groups diverged after the death of fifth/sixth (nearly every Shiʿa branch has its own way of numbering them) imam (for our purposes right now, we can define “imam” as “successor to Muhammad”), Jaʿfar al-Sadiq (d. 765). Ismaʿilis say that Jaʿfar designated his eldest son (whose name was, you know, Ismaʿil) as his successor, and he very well might have done that, but Ismaʿil tragically died before his father. When Jaʿfar died, one group of his followers stuck with Ismaʿil’s line and transferred its allegiance to his son (Jaʿfar’s grandson) Muhammad (the groups that would ultimately coalesce into the Twelvers argued that Jaʿfar transferred his designation to one of his other sons).

The state of the Islamic world around 1000 CE, including the Fatimid Caliphate
The state of the Islamic world around 1000 CE, including the Fatimid Caliphate

This group split again after Muhammad b. Ismaʿil’s death sometime in the 810s. One group (the “Seveners”) argued that Muhammad (the seventh imam by their counting) was the final imam and also the Mahdi, and that he had not died but rather went into a sort of divine stasis, from which he would come again on the Day of Judgment. But another group, which only emerged publicly around the turn of the 10th century, claimed that they descended from Muhammad b. Ismaʿil (and, I mean, it’s possible they did although this was certainly disputed by their enemies) and had continued the line of imams in secret since Muhammad’s death. Employing a cadre of missionaries and an army that was largely Berber at first, this line of imams conquered first North Africa (in 909) and then Egypt (in 969) and parts of Syria from the Abbasids. These were the Fatimids, named for Muhammad’s daughter and Ali’s wife, Fatimah, from whom they traced their descent. They declared themselves caliphs, in a direct political challenge to the Sunni Abbasids. Al-Hakim (a shortened form of his regal title, “al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah,” or “Ruler by the Command of God”) was the sixth Fatimid caliph, and the sixteenth Ismaʿili imam of that particular line.

Al-Hakim (Wikimedia)

Most of the narrative of al-Hakim’s madness (eccentricity or arbitrariness, if you want to tone it down a little) revolves around his very uneven treatment of non-Shiʿa faiths, but he did some other questionable stuff in other arenas. He tried to outlaw music and dancing (good luck with that), to name one odd move. Most infamously, he got tired of hearing dogs barking all the time, so (in a move that would kill his chances of being a major Vine star in 2015) he ordered the slaughter of every dog found in the city of Cairo. This unevenness applied to Sunnis as well as to Jews and Christians. For example, in 1005 he ordered that major figures from Sunni history, like Muʿawiyah, Abu Bakr, and Umar, should be cursed in public. A couple of years later, he ordered the cursing to be stopped, with no apparent reason for the change in heart.

That brings us to the matter at hand, al-Hakim’s eventual order to destroy the most important Christian church in Jerusalem and one of the most important in the world. In the early part of al-Hakim’s reign, Jews and Christians were actually treated pretty well, arguably better than Sunnis. Then starting in about 1004 he began to treat them progressively worse. He outlawed their holidays, outlawed their use of wine in religious services, forced them to start wearing identifying clothing (always a sign of good things to come), and may even have instituted forced conversion. His order to demolish the Church of the Holy Sepulchre came as part of a general order to destroy Christian and Jewish places of worship throughout Fatimid domains, which was not only a stunning order in its own right, but arguably (and I’m not even sure it’s an argument) was in direct violation of Islamic law regarding the treatment of “People of the Book.” Al-Hakim seems to have been particularly enraged about the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, specifically over its annual Easter vigil “Descent of the Holy Fire” ritual, which is probably done using something like white phosphorous er, is a miracle, obviously. Al-Hakim saw the ritual as a fraud perpetrated on worshipers, a belief he shared with later Catholic popes (though they were in no position to have the whole church torn down, of course).

Then, around 1012, al-Hakim’s behavior toward his Jewish and Christian subjects abruptly changed. He eased restrictions on their worship and rebuilt many of the churches and synagogues he’d had destroyed (not the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, though; that didn’t get rebuilt until the middle of the 11th century, after al-Hakim’s assassination disappearance. He even allowed those who had been forcibly converted to Islam to return to their former faiths, which in another context could have been seen as apostasy and punished with execution. As with his other wild changes of mood, this last one is equally unexplained.

Al-Hakim may have been influenced by a new reform movement that was developing at the time under his chief missionary, Hamza b. Ali, called al-Muwahiddun or “the Monotheists.” Heavily influenced by Greek philosophy, Hamza taught a “pure” monotheism that largely rejected the supposed differences between the Abrahamic faiths (there was much more to it than that, obviously, but even I’m not going to digress that far). Al-Hakim fostered this unitarian movement and encouraged Hamza’s preaching (some scholars claim that he became convinced that God had specifically chosen him to sort of midwife this new religious movement), and in return al-Hakim was held in high esteem by the Hamza and his followers. One of the most prominent of those followers was a man named Muhammad b. Ismaʿil al-Darazi, who broke with Hamza and began teaching that al-Hakim was not chosen by God, but was in fact an earthly incarnation of God. Although this teaching was rejected, and al-Hakim had al-Darazi executed for preaching his heresy, later opponents of the Muwahiddun movement slandered them by saying that this was what they all actually believed, and by naming the whole movement after al-Darazi, and so the Druze religion got its name.

Gradually al-Hakim began to withdraw into asceticism, until one day in 1021 he went out for an evening donkey ride (as was his habit) and never came back. His most ardent supporters believed that he had been taken bodily to Heaven by God, but the preponderance of evidence, including some bloody clothes found later with his donkey, suggests assassination, probably at the behest of his sister, Sitt al-Mulk, who then got to serve as regent to her nephew, Ali al-Zahir (d. 1036) and repealed many of al-Hakim’s more bizarre edicts (she also instituted a policy of strictly persecuting the Druze, because of course she did). Whatever happened to him, al-Hakim packed a hell of a lot of living into his 36 years, and made life alternately joyful and terrible for a lot of people.

Christians throughout Europe reacted to the horrible news of the destruction of one of their most cherished churches the way that medieval Christians reacted to most horrible news (or to most good news, or, hell, to the rising of the sun each morning): by punishing Jews. No, really; even though al-Hakim had Jewish houses of worship destroyed right alongside Christian ones, somehow Christians back in Europe figured that the Jews were to blame for it all. A French monk named Rodulfus Glaber, displaying a crazy streak that would have rivaled al-Hakim’s, theorized that French Jews must have somehow sent a message to al-Hakim telling him to destroy the Church, lest Christians one day conquer his caliphate, or something. Al-Hakim then obeyed their message because of the Jews’ mind-control powers, I guess; Rodulfus doesn’t even really blame al-Hakim very much for the act that he personally ordered. Another French monk (what is it with these guys?) named Adémar de Chabannes didn’t even bother concocting a crazy story like Rodulfus; he simply argued that the destruction of the church was a sign that the End of Days was nigh, and the Jews were just as guilty as the Muslims of being agents of Satan, or whatever. Anyway, pogroms against Jewish communities all over Europe followed, because, at the risk of overusing this Chris Rock quote, that train’s never late.

Aside from providing a convenient excuse for persecuting the Jews, something European Christians would have been doing anyway, the destruction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre also had one other major impact on European Christianity. After the Battle of Manzikert (1071) put the Byzantine Empire in mortal danger, Pope Urban II made sure to refer to the Holy Sepulchre’s destruction (and the desecration of other Christian churches and holy sites under Muslim control) as part of his call (1095) for a Christian Crusade to the east to defeat the Turks and liberate Jesus’s hometown from the Muslims. The church’s destruction was traumatic enough to the religious sensibilities of European nobility that it drove them to join the Crusade almost 90 years after it had occurred, and a full half-century after the church had been rebuilt (with Fatimid blessings).

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