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.
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, in the pre-modern world, and in Jerusalem well into the 19th century, such pious graffiti was an acceptable way of participating in a holy place, for Christians, Muslims, and Jews alike. Covering much of the stone work of the columns around the door are inscriptions in Syriac, Greek, Latin, Armenian, Arabic, Georgian, and Slavonic, left by pilgrims from all over Eurasia, reflective of a common culture of pious inscriptions, one that in fact transcended confessional boundaries, and a reminder of the incredible diversity of Christianity and the historical density a church like that of the Holy Sepulchre embodies.
Why did pilgrims leave their mark- literally- on holy places? Most fundamentally, such an inscription was a literal and a more metaphorical inscribing of one’s self (and perhaps also of other people, family members, fellow clergy, and so forth) in a holy place, accompanied by prayer to God, offered up perpetually simply be virtue of being sunk in the stone of a holy site. A pilgrim might also hope that future pilgrims from his community would see his mark and would also pray for him, the graffiti serving as a long-term means of memorializing one’s self. Finally, I think that these sorts of inscriptions should also be seen as a type of life-writing, of autobiographical production. Even when very short, they tell a person’s story, an important part of his life history- visiting Jerusalem venerating the holy places, and taking the pilgrimage into his identity. He could leave a part of his self, of his life story, at the church. For some pilgrims, a part of Jerusalem would return home in the form of an added title, similar to the addition of ‘Ḥājjī’ to a Muslim’s name upon his or her return from the pilgrimage to Mecca.
The content of these inscriptions varies- some are quite short, as the following late medieval Georgian inscribed texts, translated by Tamara Pataridze:
‘The tomb of Christ, have a mercy on Sopron.’ ‘God have mercy on Niḳoloz G(r)ʒeli.’ ‘The Cross of Christ and the tomb of Christ, have mercy on Ǯeaʒe.’
Others are somewhat longer, such as the following early modern Syriac and Arabic (in Syriac script) pious graffiti, translated in the article ‘The Syriac Inscriptions at the Entrance of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem’:
‘Remember, our Lord, your servant, the sinner Wanis the monk, son of Isaac, from the region of the people of Gargar. The year one thousand e hundred ninety of the Greeks.’ ‘Remember, O Lord, your servantsthe deacon Daudand his son + in the year 2031 (?) the deacon Badra. Remember, O Lord, the deacon, your servant, ‘Isa.’ ‘Isaiah, s[on of] the priest. Have pity on him in your compassion. Please, let everyone who reads pray for him.’
The following photos are a sampling of these inscriptions and other carvings on the portals. The photographs give you a good idea of how these inscriptions are situated, the level of visibility they have, and the skill in writing and carving some of them betray. Age-wise, most are undated, but there are other ways of getting at ages. Early modern inscriptions are probably most common on the portals, but medieval ones appear as well. More inscriptions once existed, effaced by time and circumstance. The medieval doors to the church, for instance, sported abundant pious graffiti, all of which were lost in an early 19th century fire. In time many of the inscriptions in these photographs may well disappear under the effects of weather, renovations, and the hands of visitors passing over the stone, gradually wearing it down year after year.