Six denominations share the Holy Sepulcher, but not all between them is peace and love.
- The Church of the Holy Sepulcher is not just the holiest site in Christianity; it is also emblematic of the religion's deep divisions.
- As the map below shows, six denominations each control part of the church, with only some parts held in common.
- Each "territory" is jealously guarded and sometimes fought over. The church's keys are held by… two Muslim families.
On a ledge over a church door in Jerusalem stands a simple cedarwood ladder. It's been there for perhaps three centuries. Since nobody remembers who put it there, nobody knows who is authorized to remove it. If anyone would try, there'd be immediate trouble with whomever would feel slighted — and there are plenty of candidates. This is the Immovable Ladder, and it is a fitting symbol for the deeply-entrenched divisions within Christianity, and within that church building itself.
The most sacred place on Earth
Those religious divides matter here more than anywhere else because this is the most significant church in the world. For Christians of any denomination this is the most sacred place on Earth. This is the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, and according to tradition, it contains both Golgotha (or Calvary in Latin; both mean "skull"), the place where Jesus died on the cross. Just a few feet further is the tomb (a.k.a. sepulcher) where his body was laid to rest and where according to the faithful he was resurrected three days later.
Yet despite its supreme religious importance, there is no single authority managing this holiest of church buildings. The care over the sprawling, multi-level complex is divided between various denominations.
The church's history goes back to the fourth century, when Roman emperor Constantine, newly converted to Christianity, sent his mother Helena to Jerusalem to locate places and things associated with the life and death of Jesus. This is the spot where she found the True Cross, a sign that this must have been Golgotha. The place of Jesus' burial was identified nearby. Constantine razed the pagan temple built here by his predecessor Hadrian, and a church on this spot, the first commissioned by a Roman emperor, was consecrated in the year 335.
In continuous use for 1700 years
The church has survived earthquakes, fires, invasions, and demolition by decree. It has been in continuous use for nearly 1700 years, even if the building standing there today is mostly a renovation and reconstruction dating to Crusader times. Over the centuries, various Christian traditions latched on to the church. Ownership became a constant source of dispute.
In 1852, the Ottoman Sultan decreed that the church was to be managed by the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Armenian Apostolic churches and apportioned parts of the building to each denomination. Over time, smaller parts of the building came under the authority of three smaller Orthodox denominations: the Coptic, Syriac, and Ethiopian churches.
Six churches sharing one church. The result: a bit of a mosaic.Credit: British Cartographic Society
- Most of the building is under control of the Greek Orthodox church (in blue on the map). They manage the Katholikon (which is slightly ironic), the North Transept, the Seven Arches of the Virgin, a small Orthodox monastery, and various chapels, among other bits.
- The Latins (a.k.a. Roman Catholics, in purple) manage the Franciscan Monastery on the north side (which includes the Chapel of the Apparition and the Chapel of Mary Magdalene), the Grotto of the Invention of the Cross, a small area north of the Parvis, and a tiny space between the Katholikon and the Rotunda.
- The Armenians (in yellow) manage the Chapel of St. Helena, the Chapel of St. James, and the Armenian Gallery next to the Rotunda.
- The Copts (in red) have the care of various chapels near the Rotunda, including a small annex to the Edicule (i.e., the Holy Sepulcher) itself.
- The Ethiopian monastery is spread out on the roof, and the Ethiopians also manage an area called Deir al-Sultan, the Chapel of the Four Living Creatures, and the Chapel of St. Michael (all in orange).
- The Syriac church has the smallest part (in green): the Chapel of St. Nicodemus. But at least it's very close to the Sepulcher.
The Ottoman edict is the basis for the status quo, which is scrupulously maintained. A complex set of rules determines how the church is managed — such as who is allowed where and when, who cleans and repairs which parts of the building, and which areas are held in common (by the Greeks, Latins, and Armenians but not by the other three).
- The Rotunda is common territory, as is a chapel to the north.
- The Parvis (i.e. the courtyard at the entrance) is also common, as is an adjacent part of the church that contains the Stone of Unction (where according to tradition, Jesus' body was prepared for burial).
But some of the rules are disputed, and conflicts occasionally erupt. Two examples:
- The Copts have a long-standing claim over part of the roof, which is occupied by Ethiopian monks. To maintain their claim, Coptic monks take turns to sit on a chair on the roof. But on a particularly hot day in 2002, when a Coptic monk moved the chair a few inches into the shade, the Ethiopians interpreted that move as a violation of the status quo. The ensuing fight sent 11 monks to the hospital.
- And in 2008, Greek and Armenian monks got into a violent argument over the procedure of a religious procession. The brawl was caught on camera and pasted all over the news.
Can't we all just get along?
In recent years, however, the churches seem to be getting along a little bit better, although partly out of necessity. Significant parts of the building are in extreme need of repair. In 2017, the three main denominations (Catholic, Greek, and Armenian) agreed to fix the Edicule, which was in danger of collapsing. And in 2019, the three churches signed an agreement to renovate parts of the church's infrastructure (floor, foundations, and sewage pipes) and even to share ownership of any archaeological artifacts that might turn up during the work. However, the agreement excludes the three other denominations, which under the status quo have no say in the management of shared spaces.
Which brings us back to the Immovable Ladder. Despite its nickname, it has proven to be very movable indeed. It was stolen twice in the 20th century. Both times, it was soon recovered by the police and returned to its original position. In 2009, it was moved again, this time with the agreement of all relevant denominations, in order to accommodate scaffolding for renovations.
Upon completion of the works, it was again put back. And there it will remain until, as Pope Paul VI suggested in 1964, the divisions between the various Christian denominations are resolved. Or until Christ returns — whichever happens first.
Meanwhile, the keys to the church building itself will remain where they have been for centuries: in the possession of the Joudeh and Nuseibeh families, who by virtue of their Muslim faith are accepted by all Christian denominations as neutral guardians of the entrance to the church.
Strange Maps #1081
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Well preserved coffins hint towards more discoveries in a famed necropolis.
- Archaeologists in Egypt have discovered more than two dozen sarcophagi in the last month.
- Experts predict more discoveries in the coming weeks.
- Their discovery is another credit to Saqqara, the necropolis of the old capital of Memphis.
The combined blows of political instability, terrorist attacks, and the COVID-19 pandemic have taken a toll on Egypt, driving down its yearly tourist numbers to unacceptably low levels. In response, the county has amplified archaeological work in hopes of keeping tourist interest alive.
The work paid off. This week, investigations of a necropolis south of Cairo revealed more than two dozen mummies buried more than 2,500 years ago.
More mummies than a horror movie
The first 13 coffins were found stacked on top of one another in a shaft 11 meters deep. All of the sarcophagi were completely sealed and apparently hadn't been tampered with since there were buried. In some cases, the paint on the wooden coffins is still visible, giving them a vibrant appearance.
Shortly after that find, the ministry of antiquities announced the discovery of 14 more coffins at the same site in a similar shaft. Similarly to the previous find, these coffins were remarkably well preserved and featured painted hieroglyphics.The finds were also detailed in a Facebook post by the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities. At the moment, we don't know who these mummies were, what kind of lives they lived, or what items they decided to take to their graves. This information is expected to turn up soon. More details on the mummies are expected next month.
The remains were found at the Saqqara Plateau, known to have housed the necropolis of the city of Memphis during that era of Egyptian history. It is well known for its Step Pyramid of Djoser, perhaps the earliest example of cut stone construction at such a scale in human history. Located a mere 16 kilometers (10 miles) south of the better known Great Pyramid at Gaza, Saqqara has been a site of significant archaeological interest for more than a century.
The earliest burials there date back to the first dynasty, some 5,000 years ago. The site remained in use as a burial ground and religious center to the rise of Islam in the 7th century C.E. It's six thousand years of service has given it a unique collection of monuments, pyramids, and tombs for high ranking officials and pharaohs, alongside galleries for the mummies of pets, statues of Greek philosophers and poets, and the remains of monasteries.
Of course, while the mummies of pharaohs (and the massive wealth they were buried with) capture public interest, mummification was not just for royalty. Many tombs are filled with the remains of middle-class Egyptians, rather than those of royalty, and feature simpler variations of the elite's burial practices.
The Ministry of Antiquities expects more sarcophagi to be found at the site and has already announced further excavations.
'Battlefield maps' show continent under attack from hostile invaders.
- Maps aren't objective. And migration maps aren't innocent.
- Consciously or not, their content and form can confirm anti-migrant prejudices.
- Alternative mapping options are available – but perhaps the answer isn't a map at all.
Don't believe the map
Satellite picture showing a scirocco blowing desert dust across the sea from Libya to southern Europe. Most of the irregular migration into Europe takes place across this part of the Mediterranean, either from North Africa to Italy or from Turkey to Greece.
Image: NASA, public domain
One map can say more than a thousand words. That's why we shouldn't believe all they're telling us. See, maps have a problem. They appear neutral, objective, authoritative. But that's exactly all that they're not. Each map reflects the many choices the cartographer has made, consciously or not, both in terms of content and form.
And so, without us even noticing it, maps can confirm bias, entrench prejudice and perpetuate injustice. Take for instance the topic of migration, guaranteed to raise the volume of the after-dinner conversation at any party. In a recent article, Dutch news website De Correspondent argues that the cartographic depiction of migrant flows into Europe reinforces the negative attitudes many Europeans have towards migrants.
The Frontex map
Illegal border crossings at the EU's external borders in 2019: just under 142,000 (down from around 150,000 in 2018 and almost 205,000 in 2017). Most came in via the Eastern Mediterranean route (83K, up from 57K in 2019), followed by the Western Mediterranean route (24K, down from 56K), the Western Balkan route (15K, up from 6K) and the Central Mediterranean route (14K, down from 23K). Relatively minor routes: the Western African route (3K, up from 1K), the Circular Route from Albania to Greece (2K, down from 5K), the Eastern Borders route (700, down from 1K) and the Black Sea route (2, up from zero).
Image: Frontex - Risk Analysis for 2020
Here's a map taken from the 2020 annual report by Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, showing the illegal border crossings into the EU for 2019. As part of the official report on illegal immigration, this map is the source of many others in the European media.While it may seem nothing more or less than a factually correct cartographic representation of objective data contained in the report, De Correspondent argues that there are several things wrong with this image.
- The arrows are reminiscent of battlefield maps, suggesting that Europe is under attack. This is aggravated by the use of the color red, which signals danger.
- The arrows are huge – larger than some countries. This homogenises a diverse group of people, and inflates the perceived size of the issue.
- The 'straightness' of the arrows indicates a clear purpose; but most migrants experience a much more circuitous and dangerous path, not always concluded successfully (or alive).
- The title refers to 'illegal border crossings', not mentioning that migrants hardly have legal means of entering the EU.
This all serves to affirm certain preconceptions about migration into Europe: the continent is being flooded by a huge influx of hostile aliens. "It's no coincidence that political parties opposed to migration use maps like these in their communication," the article states.
Red map vs. blue map
The blue map tries to confer the same information as the red one, without confirming the underlying biases.
Image: De Correspondent, reproduced with kind permission.
Can maps confer the same information without confirming those biases? De Correspondent took the Frontex map and translated it into its own house style; and then produced a kinder, gentler alternative:
- The colour is a more soothing blue rather than the aggressive red.
- The map's new title ("These are the routes via which irregular migrants reach the EU") no longer focuses on the illegal aspect of the entries.
- The military-style arrows are replaced by circles.
Thinking beyond the map
Number of migrants reaching Europe via the Mediterranean. The numbers have been declining since 2015.
Image: De Correspondent, reproduced with kind permission.
Perhaps a map is not the right way at all to present information on migration, De Correspondent argues. Here's another illustration: a simple bar chart, showing the number of irregular border crossings for each of the preceding six years. Following the dramatic refugee influx of 2015, that number has gone down significantly and consistently for each of the following years.
This offers a radically different perspective on the same reality – and one less likely to be reproduced by anti-immigration parties.
For more background (and more maps), see the original article at De Correspondent (in Dutch), which was based on an article in the journal Mobilities: The migration map trap. On the invasion arrows in the cartography of migration (in English).
Strange Maps #1045
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Pew Research Center data shows that most people think diversity improves lives in their countries.
A glance at news headlines could lead one to believe our world has lost to tribalism and hate. In just the last few years, we've seen white supremacists march openly in American streets, extremist forces target cultural sites serving as reminders of humanity's shared heritage, places of worship terrorized, minorities blamed and assaulted over myths about novel coronavirus's origins, and leaders propose a myriad of attempts to reject refugees and migrants.
This is a part of today's reality, but it's worth remembering that news headlines aren't a trend analysis. They are a collection of reports and instances that tell only one side of our story—often the scariest and most extreme part.
Far from being pushed to the fringes, cosmopolitanism and the ethics of diversity may be enjoying a heyday according to Pew Research Center data from 11 emerging countries.
Does diversity improve lives?
The center surveyed more than 28,000 peoples across Columbia, India, Jordan, Kenya, Lebanon, Mexico, Tunisia, Venezuela, Vietnam, South African, and the Philippines on their opinions of diversity within their borders. These countries were chosen based on their middle-income status, differing degrees of technology ownership, and high levels of migration (internal or external).
The survey asked respondents how they viewed increasing numbers of other races, religions, and nationalities and what effect that had on the quality of life in their countries. Additional questions were tailored to a country's unique demographics and circumstances.
For example, respondents in the Philippines were asked how favorably they viewed Muslims and Christians, while Tunisians were asked about Sunnis and Shiites. Others, such as Mexico and Lebanon, were asked about asylum seekers fleeing to their countries.
Pew found that "[a]cross the 11 countries surveyed, more said their countries are better off thanks to the increasing number of people of different races, ethnic groups, and nationalities who live there." A minority said the increase made no difference, and an even smaller minority said their country was worse off.
Lebanon and Jordan took in millions of Syrian refugees during the civil war, helping to explain their complex relationship with diversity in their borders.
When looking at results from individual countries, the picture becomes much more nuanced. A majority of respondents from India, Columbia, the Philippines, Kenya, and Venezuela agreed with the statement that increased diversity made their countries better places to live. Conversely, a minority agreed with the same statement in Tunisia, Mexico, Jordan, and Lebanon.
The reasons for these divergences seem to stem not only from deep historical divides but also current events. Lebanon, which held the most negative views of diversity among the eleven, took in an estimated 1.5 million Syrian refugees, a massive influx for a country of around 7 million. Jordan too saw a massive wave of asylum seekers from the civil war; likewise, its respondents held that increasing numbers of different peoples made life in their country worse.
Mexico has also seen a surge of asylum seekers from Central American countries, yet its overall view wasn't as unfavorable as either Jordan or Lebanon. However, it was the only country in the set to have a majority hold that increasing ethnic and religious diversity made no difference to the quality of life. And about half those surveyed did hold negative views toward refugees.
But while current unrest in some regions has strained relations, it's not the whole story that refugees and migrants generate negativity toward others. Views differ widely.
Kenya, for example, maintains large refugee camps housing asylum seekers from Somalia and South Sudan, yet half of the country's respondents believed this multicultural status improved life in their country. And a majority held approving opinions of refugees.
Similarly, about half of respondents from Venezuela, Vietnam, and Jordan rated migrant and refugee groups favorably. Yes, Jordan.
Though a majority of Jordanians believe increasingly diverse peoples make their country worse, they nonetheless hold agreeable views of refugees. The researchers speculate this divergence may stem from the fact that Jordan hosts two large refugee groups—recent Syrian refugees and Palestinian refugees who have been in the country since the conflicts of the mid-20th century. They found that Jordanians who self-identified as Palestinians viewed refugees more favorably.
Getting used to each other
So, what leads to improved views of multiculturalism? According to Pew's data, those with the most positive views on racial, ethnic, and religious diversity were those who interacted most with these groups. More contact equaled more positive views.
In all of the countries, younger adults were more likely to interact with people of different backgrounds, and except for Jordan, they also held more favorable views of others. The same held true for those who attained higher levels of education.
This data mirrors another Pew survey in which researchers asked Americans their views on increased racial and ethnic diversity.
Around 58 percent of Americans said increasing numbers of diverse people would make the United States a better place to live. Only 9 percent said it would make the country worse, while 31 percent said it didn't make a difference. Opinions were split along partisan lines, with more Democrats viewing the statement favorably than Republicans.
But like the 11 emerging countries, Americans varied by age and education, too. Fifteen percent of respondents 65 and older believed growing multiculturalism made the U.S. worse—the highest of any age group. And 70 percent of college graduates saw diversity in a positive light, compared to 45 percent of those with a high school diploma or less school.
A future toward acceptance
These data suggest that the world hasn't succumbed to a new era of tribalism and hate. Far from it. The beliefs of cosmopolitanism and ethics of diversity are, in fact, spreading across many of the world's emerging countries and will likely increase as subsequent generations become more educated and integrated. That progress may be uneven, but it's real and measurable.
An appreciation of, even desire for, diversity won't end the tragic events that generate eye-catching headlines, but it can make our shared futures more manageable. As Kwame Anthony Apiah wrote in his book "Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers": "I am urging that we should learn about people in other places, take an interest in their civilizations, their arguments, their errors, their achievements, not because that will bring us to agreement, but because it will help us get used to one another."
That's not frankincense you smell at the "holy of the holies."
- Cannabis and frankincense were discovered at the "holy of holies" shrine in Tel Arad, Israel.
- Both substances were mixed with animal dung to promote heating.
- This marks the first time cannabis has been found in the Kingdom of Judah.
In an extensive review of the history and pharmacology of psychedelics, American chemist David E. Nichols writes that this class of serotonergic hallucinogens "may be the oldest class of psychopharmacological agents known to man." Three thousand year old hymns to soma—a tea likely brewed with psilocybin mushrooms—are recorded in Vedic literature; the Eleusinian mysteries almost certainly involved a hallucinogenic brew.
Humans have been tripping for a long time.
This isn't surprising. Our ancestors undoubtedly tasted every plant and fungus available. If you're seeking food and stumble into a plant that breaks open the head (as the Bwiti describe the African rainforest shrub, iboga), you'll likely cultivate it. You might even create a ritual or two based on its consciousness-expanding qualities. Maybe a religion springs up devoted to plant life.
Indian scriptures point to cannabis as often as psilocybin. The god Indra loved drinking bhang, a milky beverage containing enough marijuana to make him trip. Shiva imbibed as well. The Vedas praise cannabis as a "divine nectar" that bestows long life and divine visions. Further north, Chinese Taoists combined cannabis with ginseng in a ceremony that helped monks portend the future. Herodotus praised cannabis steam baths built by the warrior clan, the Scythians.
As it turns out, Jews loved cannabis as well. An excavation at an Israeli shrine in Tel Arad has uncovered an altar filled with cannabis and frankincense. According to new research published in the journal, Tel Aviv, the "holy of holies" shrine dates back to 750-715 BCE. As the researchers—Eran Arie, Baruch Rosen, and Dvory Namdar—write, the ritual usage appears to be hallucinogenic.
A black, resinous substance was discovered on two small altars. On one of them, a laboratory analysis found residues of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), cannabidiol (CBD), and cannabinol (CBN). According to Arie, this marks the first time cannabis has been identified in the Ancient Near East. The article notes that another material was discovered in the resin.
"Organic residues attributed to animal dung were also found, suggesting that the cannabis resin had been mixed with dung to enable mild heating."
The frankincense altar also contained animal fat, which promotes evaporation. Both frankincense and cannabis were likely mixed with animal products to promote burning. The fragrant incense was inhaled—frankincense for its aroma, cannabis for its psychoactive properties.
Frankincense dates back to the 15th century BCE and has long been used ceremonially. In the Bible, this tree resin is as valuable as gold and precious stones. Frankincense is one of the earliest known commodities, dating back 6,000 years on the Arabian peninsula; it fetched a high price as it was traded around the ancient world. While the smell is pleasing it doesn't have the same effect on consciousness. Enter cannabis.
"As the terpenoids detected are not unique to cannabis and may be found abundantly in many other local plants, it is likely that the cannabis burnt on the altar was not imported for its smell or therapeutic virtues but for its mind-altering abilities, expressed only by heating."
The authors are aware of hallucinogenic rituals in neighboring lands. This is the first time cannabis has been discovered in the Kingdom of Judah, however. The evidence proves what fans of psychoactive pharmacology have long known: Breaking open the head is an ancient tradition, regardless of ethnicity or religious belief.