This Day in Jewish History

1009: The 'Mad Caliph' Destroys Jewish, Christian Sites in Fatimid Empire

Wanting to convert the empire to Islam, Abu Ali-Mansur found the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to be a particular irritant.

Olivier Fitoussi

On or about October 18, 1009, the so-called “Mad Caliph” of the Fatimid Empire flouted a long-standing policy of religious tolerance. With the ultimate aim of converting the empire’s Jews and Christians to Islam, Abu Ali-Mansur ordered the destruction of non-Muslim buildings and objects throughout the empire and specifically in the city of Jerusalem – including synagogues, Torah scrolls, Jewish artifacts and especially the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, also known as the church of Jesus’ resurrection.

The original church had been built at the orders of Queen Helena, the mother of the Roman Christian emperor Constantine, in 330 C.E. In fact, the building destroyed by the caliphate was not the original church. That had been destroyed by the Persians in the year 614. What the caliph’s soldiers pulled down to the ground four centuries later was the second version.

The destruction in Jerusalem was effected at the orders of the enormously powerful Fatimid caliph ruling from Egypt, who ordered competing religious symbols such as synagogues and churches destroyed throughout Palestine, Egypt and Syria. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre was reportedly of specific irritant, supposedly housing the cave in which Christ was thought to have lain before his resurrection.

Certain sections of the church did survive the assault, chiefly by virtue of being buried under rubble as the ceilings and walls were pulled down, according to the Custodia Terrae Sanctae. But while the church would be rebuilt within a century – at the inspiration of the caliph’s own son – much of the original design would be lost forever.

Sudden intolerance

At its peak, the Ismaili Shi’ite empire of the Fatimids, centered in Egypt, spanned almost the entire Mediterranean coast of Africa, the lands of the Berbers, and the Levant, including all of today’s Israel. The rulers claimed to have descended from the Prophet Mohammed’s daughter Fatima, though certain opponents at the time claimed that if they descended from anybody, if was from the Jews (a claim brought in the Baghdad Manifesto, published two years after the destruction in Jerusalem, in 1011).

Prior to the advent of Abu Ali-Mansur, in general – if not religiously – the caliphate had demonstrated tolerance of other religions, at least non-pagan ones, including Judaism and certain forms of Christianity. Adherents of these religions could even get jobs with the administration (though they were taxed). That tolerance would take a hiatus with the so-called “Mad Caliph,” who, some sources said, had a Christian mother (and, ironically, was accused by some of bending over backward to help non-Muslims).

Altogether there were 14 Fatimid caliphs through the empire’s lifetime. The Fatimid caliph who razed the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was the sixth, Abu Ali-Mansur, born in 985 C.E. and better known by his title: Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah, which simple means “Ruler by God’s command.” Revered by some, including the Druze, Ali-Mansur was named to the caliphate at age 11 upon his father’s death in 996 and would become a controversial figure, viewed as divine by some, insane by others. His entire reign (until 1021) was beset by unrest as tribal groups, chiefly the Berbers and Turks, struggled for regional power.

There is little information about the destruction of Jerusalem’s synagogues, but the story of the church’s destruction was told in detail by the fabled Christian doctor and historian Yahya ibn Sa’id of Antioch, writing in the decades after the event (in Arabic): “They seized all the furnishings they found in the church and completely destroyed it, leaving only those things whose destruction would have been too difficult. They also destroyed Calvary and the church of St. Constantine, and all that was located within its confines, and they tried to destroy the sacred remains. This destruction began on Tuesday the fifth day before the end of the month of Safar in the year 400 of the Hegira.”

The remains of the church, including the parts hidden beneath fallen stones, would remain off-limits to Christians for some 40 years. Only then did the Muslim rulers of the region agree to let the Christians rebuild the site, albeit in a more modest fashion than the second version built after the Persian invasion.