by Mike Azar
There are a few cities which stand as eternal monuments to mankind's spiritual evolution as a species. The holy currents of the Ganges River sanctify Varanasi in India, the Black Stone of Abraham absolves the sins of believers in Mecca. But one city stands alone as a singular example of the shared mythology that binds us: Jerusalem.
Today, the Old City sits at the top of a hill overlooking a sprawling settlement of Palestinian Arabs to the East and Israeli Jews to the West. It is surrounded by enormous limestone ramparts built and re-built multiple times over the last two millennia. Several large gates welcome visitors to the various Quarters of the city. Beyond the gates is an intricate network of narrow cobblestone streets, ancient buildings, and bustling marketplaces.
But I hadn't come to Jerusalem to buy trifles from the merchants nor had I come to wander aimlessly in its dark alleys. Jerusalem meant little to me as I was not particularly religious, nor did I feel any special kinship to the place. Nevertheless, I crossed the threshold at the Damascus Gate singular in purpose. My elderly grandmother was approaching the end of her life, and she wished for me to light her a candle at the site of Christ's burial and resurrection, where today sits the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.
After making my way through the Christian Quarter, I finally arrived at the entrance of the Church. There it was, towering above me menacingly like a Gothic Cathedral guarded by horrible gargoyles. I shuddered. The air was electric in that haunted place. I thought back to the aftermath of the Crusader conquest of the city in 1099 AD, when contemporary accounts described the narrow streets drowning in a river of blood from the indiscriminate slaughter. How many had been murdered before the doors of this very Church? I took in a deep breath and proceeded up the stairs. I had never broken a promise to my grandmother, and I would not start then.
The inside was eerily empty of people. The light from candles set in lanterns hanging overhead cast shadows that danced across the nave like a ghostly procession. These candles provided the only light in the Church and were a source of both comfort and anxiety. I walked up to the altar and made the sign of the cross as is my habit, having been raised Catholic. The votive candles were flickering in the corner to the right of the altar. I lit one after whispering a short prayer for my grandmother, then I promptly turned around and started back towards the entrance. I wanted out of this place.
After a few steps, I noticed a narrow stairwell leading down into the tunnels beneath the Church. I stopped for a moment. I had read about the residents of the city who had taken shelter in the basement of the Church when the Crusaders stormed the gates a millennium ago. They prayed that the Christian soldiers would not spill blood inside the walls of their holiest site. Their prayers were not answered that day. My curiosity was overwhelming. I turned towards the stairs and made my way down into the dark crypt below with nothing but the glowing light of my cell phone camera to guide me.
I followed a narrow passage to a room in the back. I walked into the room and began to shiver. The air was ice cold, stale, and smelled like a grotto deep inside of a mountain. The walls were distinctly older and more worn than the ones in the main hall and were covered in streaks of black residue. I wondered if these were ancient blood stains but quickly tore the thought out of my mind when my heart began to race in panic. I suspected that this room was part of the original Church built by the Byzantine Empress Saint Helena in the 7th century AD. In the back I made out a small altar with a single unlit candle resting above it. I flashed my cell phone light towards it and crept up to it slowly.
As I closed the distance to the altar, the light reflected against a mahogany box with a glass top. Small white objects were scattered about inside. I leaned over the glass top and shuddered at what I saw. They were human bone fragments. I looked for a placard identifying whose bones this container held but found nothing. At once, a divine revelation come upon me like an electric shock: these were the bones of victims from 1099 AD. Overcome again by curiosity, I desired to snatch the box and to run. I reached for it and lifted the top to examine its contents.
The moment my skin touched the bones, a shadow swept across my field of vision. I sprang up and scanned the room, but it was empty. There in the distance, I spotted a door that I had not noticed before. Looming over the entryway was an enormous painting of St. George and the Dragon. It was painted in the Early Netherlandish style of Hieronymus Bosch but appeared to be much older. It was a frightening thing and looked almost as if painted from life. Pangs of anxiety rippled like waves through my body, but still I bent my head forward and marched towards the door.
As I studied the chilling painting, a vision came to me. In it, a man in a black robe spoke to me of Father Jirjis, a Greek priest and member of the Order of the Dragon. Father Jirjis, he said, had been hunting a creature for nearly 500 years, from the day that Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II. When I asked him to which creature he referred, the man slowly lifted his arm from under his robe and pointed his long, emaciated finger at the Dragon in the painting above us. The Order of the Dragon, he continued, was a secret order of Eastern Christian mystics who had kept the beast confined deep inside the system of labyrinths underneath the St. Sophia when the church was first built in 537 AD. Some of the scattered Byzantine Greek families still living in Istanbul whispered that the Order had first imprisoned the beast even before the St. Sophia was built, when an earlier structure stood over that spot - the Church of Constantinus II, the Magna Ecclesia.
Some even claim a date as far back as the very founding of Byzantium in 657 BC. These rumors, however, were preserved in the oral tradition of a heretical Christian sect from Hungary, whose members were eliminated just before the Ottoman army bombarded the city's walls with its gargantuan iron cannons. The cannons that burst open the mighty Walls of Constantinople, which had stood firm for more than 1,000 years, thereby setting free the darkness from beneath its streets, were cast by the hand of a skilled Hungarian iron founder named Orban, a member of the same sect.
The robed man beckoned me to step through the archway under the painting, and I followed him. Upon crossing the threshold, I found myself in an open field, facing the Hagia Sophia, the name that the Turks gave to the St. Sophia after converting it into a mosque following their conquest of the city. But this was not the Hagia Sophia that I remembered from my pilgrimage to Istanbul ten years earlier. This was its cursed twin. It stood like a menacing ruler over the abandoned and decaying city below. Its ramparts were crumbling under the gray, cloud-covered sky. The facade, a once mighty monument to the Risen Christ and the Byzantine Emperors who claimed his mantle, was covered in a molten black discharge that rose and fell deliberately as though breathing. This was a land of tormented souls, the Earth, as it truly was, had humanity not purchased blindness for salvation.
The robed man was gone now, and I stood alone and afraid before this desecrated House of God. I reached back, hoping to find something of the door that had led me here. As my hands came up, I saw that my skin was gray beneath a heavy black robe and my fingers long and gaunt. Another revelation swept through me - I am Father Jirjis. I cast away my churchly robe and reached for St. George's spear. The Dragon was waiting for me inside.