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This excerpt reminds me of my own trip to the Holy Land several years ago. I witnessed the same sort of intense devotion (if not the more extreme manifestations of it) in the pilgrims there. It is disturbing to see — but maybe we should also ask ourselves why we’re so detached, and why we’re not that way. Food for thought. (ht: delanceyplace)

In today’s encore excerpt – in the 1800s, Russia had a highly
religious culture with a devotion to Jerusalem and a frantic passion that
repelled European Catholics and Protestants-Russian religious rituals were
viewed as “barbaric” and sometimes involved frenetic dancing in a state of near
nudity-and left those Europeans feeling they had more in common with the
“reserve and dignity” of Muslims. It was this separation that helped lead
England and France to side with the Muslim Ottoman Empire against Russia in the
Crimean War-the bloodiest European war of the nineteenth century:

“In the
early decades of the nineteenth century, the Russian Orthodox Church sent more
pilgrims to Jerusalem than any other branch of the Christian faith. Every year
up to 15,000 Russian pilgrims would arrive in Jerusalem for the Easter festival,
some even making the long trek on foot across Russia and the Caucasus, through
Anatolia and Syria. For the Russians, the holy shrines of Palestine were objects
of intense and passionate devotion: to make a pilgrimage to them was the highest
possible expression of their faith.

“In some ways the Russians saw the
Holy Lands as an extension of their spiritual motherland. The idea of ‘Holy
Russia’ was not contained by any territorial boundaries; it was an empire of the
Orthodox with sacred shrines throughout the lands of Eastern Christianity and
with the Holy Sepulchre as its mother church. ‘Palestine,’ wrote one Russian
theologian in the 1840s, ‘is our native land, in which we do not recognize
ourselves as foreigners.’ Centuries of pilgrimage had laid the basis of this
claim, establishing a link between the Russian Church and the Holy Places
(connected with the life of Christ in Bethlehem, Jerusalem and Nazareth) which
many Russians counted more important-the basis of a higher spiritual
authority-than the temporal and political sovereignty of the Ottomans in

“Nothing like this ardor could be found among the Catholics or
Protestants, for whom the Holy Places were objects of historical interest and
romantic sentiment rather than religious devotion. The travel writer and
historian Alexander Kinglake thought that ‘the closest likeness of a pilgrim
which the Latin Church could supply was often a mere French tourist with a
journal and a theory and a plan of writing a book’. European tourists were
repelled by the intense passion of the Orthodox pilgrims, whose strange rituals
struck them as ‘barbaric’ and as ‘degrading superstitions’. [English social
commentator Harriet] Martineau refused to go to the Holy Sepulchre to see the
washing of the pilgrims’ feet on Good Friday. ‘I could not go to witness
[rituals] done in the name of Christianity,’ she wrote, ‘compared with which the
lowest fetishism on the banks of an African river would have been

“For the same reason, she would not go to the ceremony of
the Holy Fire on Easter Saturday, when thousands of Orthodox worshippers
squeezed into the Holy Sepulchre to light their torches from the miraculous
flames that appeared from the tomb of Christ. Rival groups of Orthodox-Greeks,
Bulgarians, Moldavians, Serbians and Russians-would jostle with each other to
light their candles first; fights would start; and sometimes worshippers were
crushed to death or suffocated in the smoke. Baron Curzon, who witnessed one
such scene in 1834, described the ceremony as a ‘scene of disorder and
profanation’ in which the pilgrims, ‘almost in a state of nudity, danced about
with frantic gestures, yelling and screaming as if they were

“It is hardly surprising that a Unitarian such as Martineau
or an Anglican like Curzon should have been so hostile to such rituals:
demonstrations of religious emotion had long been effaced from the Protestant
Church. Like many tourists in the Holy Land, they sensed that they had less in
common with the Orthodox pilgrims, whose wild behaviour seemed barely Christian at all, than with the relatively secular Muslims, whose strict reserve and
dignity were more in sympathy with their own private forms of quiet prayer.
Attitudes like theirs were to influence the formation of Western policies
towards Russia in the diplomatic disputes about the Holy Land which would
eventually lead to the Crimean War.”

Author: Orlando Figes
The Crimean War: A History
Publisher: Metropolitan Books, Henry Hold
and Company, LLC
Date: Copyright 2010 by Orlando Figes
Pages: 3-5