Forschung Neuere Geschichte

Navel of the World

Navel of the World.
Cross-Cultural Encounters at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, 1400–1600

SNF-Ambizione research project at the Department for Early Modern History
from January 2018 to December 2021
Funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation

William Holman Hunt: The Miracle of the Sacred Fire, Church of the Holy Sepulchre, 1892-1899 (Wikipedia Commons).

This project revises the history of ethnography in the late medieval and early modern period. This will be pursued by analysing how Christians of the fifteenth and sixteenth century dealt with other, rival Christian communities. The focus will be the one prominent point of contact where people from all over the Christian cosmos quarrelled, coexisted, and mingled with each other on an institutional and even ritual basis: the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (CHS), traditionally considered the navel of the world.

For nearly two millennia, pilgrims from all over the Christian world have flocked to Palestine in order to get a sense of sacred history. Central to every pilgrimage was a visit to the city of Jerusalem and the site where Jesus allegedly was buried. The CHS does not belong to a single Christian denomination—in fact, two Muslim families are in charge of the key. Christians from different churches and different continents (Africa, Asia, Europe) worship each according to their specific rite, side by side with other Christians. The massing of culturally and denominationally diverse persons from all directions at the CHS would invite modern anthropological fieldwork. From an historical point of view the CHS is unique because exponents from all the cultures involved would produce written sources over long stretches of time. Despite—or because—of its exceptional nature the CHS  as a place of pre-modern ethnography has not received much attention.

In order to achieve a plurality of perspectives, travelogues and other sources from the three most prominent communities at the CHS are included: Armenian, Greek, and Latin (ie Western). The project is comparative in a threefold way. First, the method consists in comparing a large number of travelogues with a disciplined focus on a specific topic or location. Second, individual pilgrims and travellers are studied as ‘comparatists’ by analysing how they represented the Christian microcosm at the Sepulchre. Third, the approaches of different ethno-religious communities are compared.

Overall, the project will present a distinctly novel account of the early modern Middle East and shed light on the intra-Christian complexities in the Holy Land. The unconventional, resolutely comparative take on pilgrimage and travel will yield quantitative as well as qualitative results. Passing across the medieval/early modern as well as the pilgrimage/travel divide will allow to pin down major epistemological shifts in the ways other Christians were perceived. The project’s outcome will be a comprehensive, comparative study of pre-modern Christian comparatisms.