Orthodox Easter: Crusader-era Holy Fire Ceremony lights up Jerusalem

Pilgrims wait for the holy fire ceremony to start.

Pilgrims wait for the holy fire ceremony to start.

JERUSALEM — Tens of thousands of Eastern Orthodox Christians, pilgrims and tourists crowded around Jesus’ burial site on Saturday to witness a more than 1,200-year-old ceremony in which a patriarch emerges from Christ’s tomb to pass on a flame believed to miraculously come from the marble stone inside.

While Catholics and Protestants celebrated Easter Sunday on April 21 this year, for hundreds of millions of Eastern Orthodox in Russia, Eastern Europe, Greece, the Holy Land and elsewhere, the highlight of Easter came on Saturday.

A patriarch outside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

A patriarch outside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

Holy Saturday, also called the Saturday of Light by some eastern churches, is observed according to the Julian calendar that the Orthodox observe. The pageant was already established in the ninth century when Bernard the Wise was told that an angel lit the fire on Easter night, according to historian George Hintlian, who lives in Jerusalem's Armenian Quarter.

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. The colorful ceremony is broadcast live in countries like Serbia and Bulgaria, and throughout much of the former Soviet Union.

During the annual ritual at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, attended by thousands of Armenian, Greek Orthodox, Coptic and Assyrian faithful, top clerics carrying an extinguished torch 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.

At 2 pm, amid mounting tension in the darkened medieval basilica, a flame of “holy fire” – said to be miraculously descended from Heaven – is thrust out one of the portals of the shrine, considered the Omphalos mundi – the navel of the world. Details of the flame’s source are a closely guarded secret. Some believe the flame is relit every year, and some say the flame came miraculously at the start and has never stopped burning. The “divine” spark is then quickly passed from candle to candle in a wall of flame while the faithful bathe in its glow and pass their hands unharmed through the fire.

For Frieda Batarseh, born in Old Jerusalem’s Armenian Quarter but today living in London, UK, this year marks the first time in 45 years she has returned to her homeland.

“It was never like this,” she said. Before, it was “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.

Two pilgrims hold candles they will distribute for the holy fire ceremony.

Two pilgrims hold candles they will distribute for the holy fire ceremony.

“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 ahead of the ceremony, disappointing many pilgrims who hoped to witness the miracle but didn’t make it inside the walls soon enough. Unlike in previous years, this ceremony was free of violence. Many episodes of violence in the past were Christian-on-Christian; others were Muslim-Christian conflicts. For Arabic-speaking Christians, the church building is al-Qiyama – The Church of the Resurrection. But Muslims deride the shrine as al-Qamama – The Church of the Dung.

One of the most famous riots was in 1834, when Egyptian Muslim leader Ibrahim Pasha came to the Holy Sepulcher fire ceremony. The Greek patriarch emerged from the aedicule with the flame to pass to Pasha, but then a bloody fight broke out for the fire, with several pilgrims falling to their deaths from upper balconies and in a stampede. Then Pasha’s guards drew their swords and sliced a path through the crowd, and 400 people died.

More recently, 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 – is skeptical of its miraculous nature.

“It’s an easy trick we used to do in grade 8 chemistry,” he said. “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.”