Poverty, Infighting, and a Conflagration in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre
Napoleon had failed to capture Jerusalem, but victory had a bitter taste. Ruled by a decaying Ottoman government, the city was mired in poverty and strife. Muslims and Christians were continually at odds, and both disdained the Jews. And then to add fuel to the existing tensions, a highly destructive fire in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre worsened the already shaky relationships between the different Christian sects of the church. Simply rebuilding the church would lead to politically charged and intense infighting.
Most community life in Jerusalem of the nineteenth century gravitated around the religious sites: The Muslims around Haram al-Sharif, the Christians around their churches, and the Jews around the Western Wall and later, the Hurva Synagogue.
In its entirety, the population of Jerusalem was less than 9,000 inhabitants consisting of Muslims, Jews and Christians of various denominations.
Fire Ignites Tensions Within the Church of the Holy SepulchreTensions between the eastern Christian denominations that controlled the Church of the Holy Sepulchre were already running high by the beginning of the nineteenth century. But when a devastating fire occurred in the church 1808, these tensions exploded into full-fledged hostilities.
First there was the internal placing of blame. The Armenian Christians were accused of having set the fire in order to change the status quo of the church; the Greek Orthodox were accused of having set the fire by accident during a drunken rampage. All the denominations vied for the privilege of rebuilding the damaged areas, because this would confer ownership upon that denomination.
After years of controversy, the Greek Orthodox acquired the rights to repairing the church in 1819. This gave them control of the Sepulchre itself, and to safeguard their claim, a Greek guard stood on constant watch. The various denominations within the church were now each confined to different specific areas.
The Greek Orthodox took the opportunity to destroy or otherwise eradicate the presence of Latin Christian aspects of the church, which included disposing of the graves of Godfrey of Bouillon and King Baldwin I.
Such was the antagonism between the Christian denominations in the church that a Muslim family had to be appointed to hold the key to the church in safekeeping, lest it become another point of contention. Turkish guards stood outside the church, ready to burst in and intervene if a brawl were to start.
So Jerusalem was a poor and difficult place, with a small and passionate population. It was only when a new ruler wrested control of the city from the Ottomans that the atmosphere of Jerusalem began, subtly, to change.