While Roman Catholics and Protestants in Israel and across the world celebrated Easter Sunday on 31st March this year, for hundreds of millions of Eastern Orthodox in Russia, Ukraine, Greece, the Holy Land and elsewhere the highlight of Easter 2013 came on Saturday, 4th May, when tens of thousands of the faithful packed Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulcher to witness the Holy Fire ceremony marking the resurrection of the Christian messiah.
The pageant, observed according to the Julian calendar which the Orthodox cling to, was already established in the ninth century when Bernard the Wise was told that an angel lit the fire on Easter night, explained Armenian historian George Hintlian. By Crusader times it had become a famous miracle. In Ottoman times horsemen stationed in the church courtyard carried the flame to Bethlehem and Nazareth. By the 19th century the fire was transported by steamer from Jaffa to the Greek Orthodox churches of the eastern Mediterranean.
Like the Olympic Torch, today the flame is taken by chartered jet to the monasteries on Mount Athos near Thessaloniki, and to Russia. As well, the colorful ceremony is broadcast live in countries like Serbia and Bulgaria, and throughout much of the former Soviet Union.
During the annual ritual carried out in the presence of many thousands of Armenian, Greek Orthodox, Coptic and Assyrian faithful, top clerics enter the Aedicule - the tiny chamber in the rotunda of the Holy Sepulcher marking the site of the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea in which Jesus’ body was placed on Easter Friday following his crucifixion. As the tension mounts in the darkened medieval basilica, a flame of “holy fire” - said to be miraculously descended from Heaven - was thrust out one of the portals of the shrine. Details of the flame’s source are a closely guarded secret. The “divine” spark was then quickly passed from candle to candle in a wall of flame while the faithful literally bathed in its glow and passed their hands unharmed through the fire.
For Frieda Batarseh, born in Old Jerusalem’s Armenian Quarter but today living in London, UK, this year marked the first time in 45 years she has returned to her homeland. “It was never like this. Less people. More religious spirit,” she recalled while lining up on Armenian Orthodox Patriarchate Road in front of St. James Cathedral to march to the Holy Sepulcher one kilometer away accompanied by an Armenian boy scout troop playing bagpipes and drums.
“Witnessing it (the ceremony and sacred fire) is a beautiful sight,” said Avo Semerjiam, also born in Jerusalem’s Armenian Quarter and now living in Santa Barbara, California.
A heavy police presence locked down the Old City Saturday frustrating many pilgrims who were disappointed in their hopes of witnessing the miracle. Inside the Holy Sepulcher, the Crusader structure was slightly less crowded than in previous years - a reflection of the economic crisis gripping Cyprus and Greece which kept many of the faithful at home.
Unlike in previous years, this ceremony this Easter was free of violence.
Simon Sebag-Montefiore in his recent bestseller Jerusalem: The Biography recounts the bloody riot of 3rd May, 1834, when Egyptian leader Ibrahim Pasha came to the Holy Sepulcher. The Greek patriarch, in ‘magnificent procession’, entered the aedicule. The crowd awaited the divine spark. Lord Curzon saw the flicker then the flame of the Miracle which was passed to the pilgrim ‘who had paid the highest sum for this honour’, but ‘a furious battle’ broke out for the Fire; pilgrims fell to the floor in ecstatic faints; blinding smoke filled the Church; three pilgrims fell to their deaths from the higher galleries; an old Armenian lady died in her seat. Ibrahim tried to leave his seat but could not move. His guards, attempting to beat a way through the crowd, started a stampede. By the time Curzon ‘got as far the place where the Virgin stood during the crucifixion’, the stones felt soft under his feet.
“There was actually a great heap of bodies on which I trod. All dead. Many of them quite black with suffocation and others all bloody and covered with brains and entrails, trodden to pieces by the crowd. Soldiers with their bayonets killed a number of fainting wretches, the walls splattered with the blood and brains of men who had been felled like oxen.”
The frenzied stampede became a ‘desperate and savage’ fight for survival. - Curzon saw people dying all around him. Ibrahim only just escaped with his own life, fainting several times until his guards drew their swords and sliced a path through human flesh.
Bodies were ‘lying in heaps upon the Stone of Unction’. Ibrahim stood in the courtyard ‘giving orders for the removal of the corpses and making his men drag out the bodies of those who appeared to be alive’. Four hundred pilgrims perished. When Curzon escaped, many of the bodies were actually ‘standing upright quite dead’.
More recently as documented on YouTube, Greek Orthodox and Armenian priests have scuffled and fought with brooms over the right to clean certain areas of the church.
While impressed by the ceremony, Mike Ney - a material science engineer with Boeing Aircraft in Seattle currently stationed on contract in Tel Aviv - was skeptical of its miraculous nature. “It’s an easy trick we used to do in Gr. 8 chemistry,” he explained. “You mix phosphorus with an organic compound. As the organic solution evaporates, it leaves the phosphorus behind which spontaneously combusts with water vapor in the air. Imagine that someone in the 13th century didn’t know that. They didn’t know chemistry like we do today. They would have thought it was a miracle.”
Gil Zohar is a Jerusalem-based licensed tour guide, journalist and regular contributor to Travelujah-Holy Land tours, the leading Christian social network foocused on travel to the Holy land. People can learn, plan and share their Holy Land tour and travel experiences on Travelujah. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org