Pious Graffiti at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre: Pilgrims’ Prayers and Traces of the Self

A Visual Essay

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, as any pilgrim or tourist visiting it quickly discovers, is a massive, maze-like structure, or, really, assemblage of structures, including the Tomb of Christ and of Golgotha but also numerous other chapels, rooms, and other elements. Somewhat closer investigation starts to reveal the multiple layers of construction and use, going all the way back the first century AD (and probably further, since the Tomb was located in the side of an already old quarry outside of the Herodian walls of the city). While the names of prominent men and women are often attached to these various architectural layers, beginning with Constantine and his mother Helena, the traces of far humbler pilgrims to the great church are also visible, if one knows where to look. Yet, as I observed on my visits to the church earlier this year, the steady streams of pilgrims and tourists, clergy and tour guides, pass right by these fascinating reminders of the centuries of pious visitors who have traveled- often over great distances and in difficult circumstances- to venerate the empty Tomb of Christ.

The largely Crusader-era main entrance to the church, with entrance and front facade giving little indication of the size of the church’s sprawling interior. The pious graffiti is most abundant around the doors near the center of the picture.

Covering the columned framing of the great doors to the main entrance to the church are perhaps hundreds of instances of ‘pious graffiti’- prayers, names, dates, and short texts carved into the stone by pilgrims. Deeper inside the church, in a stairwell leading down to the Chapel of St. Helena, sunk within the living rock, are hundreds of neatly carved crosses left by Crusaders, also as pious graffiti marking and memorializing their pilgrimage. While in the modern world such defacement is looked down on and even seen as criminal, Continue reading “Pious Graffiti at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre: Pilgrims’ Prayers and Traces of the Self”

A Word to My Readers

Dear reader, whether long-time, occasional, or casual passer-by,

Over the coming months I would like to begin offering more original material in this space. Some of it will reflect my ongoing scholarly work, including excerpted topics and sources from my in-progress dissertation, or something drawn from the many other things I am interested in as a scholar. I am also committing myself to the regular writing and publishing of more personal essays, from a reflection on being drawn into the Palestinian-Israeli conflict to some thoughts on the intersection of fatherhood and ecology, and much more. I will also begin presenting at least two new poems a month- one by someone else, one an original composition of my own. Finally, I have a vast library of photographs I have taken and historical imagery I have accumulated that I want to begin sharing in earnest, so be on the lookout for more visual essays, starting with an exploration of the pious graffiti found in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

Part of my rationale for more writing is simply to improve my writing, in particular to refine my dissertation and the book project to come, God willing. Of a more philanthropic nature, I want to share the fruits of my scholarship with a wider audience, beyond the confines of the academy and of academic press paywalls. Finally, in order for this additional work I’m assigning myself to make some financial sense, I’ve decided to experiment with maintaining a Patreon account and soliciting supporters, as much as the thought of asking for money for my work grates on my genteel sensibilities and my resolute lack of entrepreneurship. If you’d like to sign up for a small, minuscule even, monthly donation- which you can of course cancel at anytime should you be dissatisfied with the quality or pace of my work- please head on over to my account, where you can also read my full spiel on why you should support me and what the benefits are: Jonathan Parkes Allen. New material will be posted here and on my Patreon page. I’d really, really appreciate any support you might be able to give!

That unfortunate business of soliciting money out of the way, I encourage you to check back into this space in the coming weeks and months, and to let me know if you have any topics that you think might be in my wheelhouse and which you’d like to hear something about.