Saving the Holy Sepulchre
by Raymond Cohen
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. 320 pp. $34.95
Reviewed by Rachel Hallote
Purchase College, SUNY
Middle East Quarterly
In Saving the Holy Sepulchre, Cohen of Hebrew University of Jerusalem offers a full account of the repairs, begun in the 1950s, to Jerusalem's Church of the Holy Sepulchre, purported to be Jesus's burial site. Cohen is well-versed in the political details of the repair project as well as the religious and international struggles that accompanied it.
Most of Cohen's story involves the arguments, claims, and counterclaims that carried the project from its multiple planning stages to eventual completion. After a particularly strong earthquake in 1927, it was clear that the church would need repairs. Even before the earthquake, the church had been damaged by fire and by some significant sectarian fighting within the building. Despite this clearly perceived need, several decades passed before actual construction got underway.
Cohen conducted over twenty interviews with people involved with or knowledgeable about the reconstruction. He also relied on archival sources, newspaper articles, and scholarly literature on the church. He concentrates his historical effort on the Status Quo agreement of 1852, which assures the custodianship of the church to several religious (and nationally associated) groups, and the ways in which it was upheld (and disputed) in the century that followed. While all of the claimants understood that repairs were necessary, none wanted to allow the others to move forward for fear of somehow ceding their own rights. One of the more interesting sub-stories Cohen relates is of an Italian-based plan to demolish the entire building and rebuild it from scratch. Almost all parties involved objected to this plan.
The volume reads well as a narrative although subheadings and dates on the chapters would have helped the historically-oriented reader interested in a full chronological overview. Cohen also skims over the architectural history of the building, which would have been of interest to art and general historians. That said, Saving the Holy Sepulchre is a complete and very useful accounting of the modern history of the church. It is more than just a story about fixing a building; it is one that reflects the contentious nature of centuries-old claims of religious dominance in Jerusalem and international claims on holy places.
Related Topics: Summer 2010 MEQ
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