The facts on Mount Sion and the crusaders

Ever since the Priory of Sion (or Zion) was made famous by popular literature as well as a recent relaunch of a similarly named association, Sion rings a bell with people interested in the crusades in general and Templars in particular. What are the facts?

When the Crusaders arrived in Jerusalem in 1099, they found on Mt. Zion (Zion III) the Byzantine Church of Hagia Sion (Holy Zion) that had been destroyed. In the better-preserved annex south of the church, they discovered not only what had been identified as David's tomb, but also the tomb of his son Solomon and the tomb of St. Stephen. Both of the latter were attached to David's tomb.

The Crusaders disregarded the tradition concerning Stephen's tomb, because a Byzantine Church of St. Stephen containing a reliquary of the martyr already existed north of the Damascus Gate. The Crusaders focused their attention instead on the tradition of David's tomb that placed it on Mt. Zion (Zion III), and they erected an enormous Gothic cenotaph (a sepulchral monument, in this case an empty sarcophagus) to mark it.

But the Tomb of David was, for the Crusaders, of less importance than the much older tradition, also found by the Crusaders, that this sanctuary was the site of Jesus' Last Supper, of the resurrection appearances, of the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the apostles on Pentecost and of the dormition (passing away) of Mary. (...)

On the south part of the ruins of the Hagia Sion, the Crusaders in the 12th century built a new church, which they named St. Mary of Mt. Zion, in memory of the tradition that Mary had lived on Mt. Zion after the resurrection of her son and had also died there. (...)

The southwest corner of the church is in an exact alignment with the southern wall of the building of the ancient Judeo-Christian synagogue (see Crusader remains). (...) Thus, it was the Crusaders who first included the walls of the ancient Judeo-Christian synagogue, which had become the Church of the Apostles, into their own basilica. (...)

Above the remaining walls of the Church of the Apostles, the Crusaders built a second floor. The room on this floor, known as the cenacle, commemorated both the Last Supper and the Pentecost event described in Acts 2. This may have been the actual site of the Upper Room, referred to in Acts, where the Last Supper was held. This room is still visited today by Christian pilgrims. On the lower floor, next to the pseudo-tomb of David, the Crusaders commemorated the place where Christ washed the feet of his disciples (John 13:1-20).

When the Crusaders were forced to leave Jerusalem after their defeat at the Horns of Hattin near Tiberias in 1187, they entrusted their church on Mount Zion to Syrian Christians.

The Syrian Christians were forced to abandon the Last Supper room when the entire complex on Mount Zion was destroyed by order of one of the Ayyubic sultans of Damascus a few decades later (1219). Christian pilgrims of the 13th and early 14th centuries lament in their journals that the Church of the Apostles and the cenacle were in a state of disrepair.

Between 1335 and 1337 the Franciscan fathers, who had just recently arrived in the Holy Land, purchased the site on Mt. Zion from the Saracens. The king of Naples served as an intermediary in this affair. Thus Mt. Zion became the first convent of the Franciscans in the Holy Land. Since then the Franciscans have been entrusted with the care of the holy places. To this day the Superior of the Franciscans carries the title Custos Sancti Montis Sion, "Custodian of Holy Mt. Zion." (...) By the middle of the 16th century, however, the Franciscans were violently forced to abandon Mount Zion completely.

Adapted from; Illustrations: top: Church of the Dormition, Mount Sion, Jerusalem, source, Fair Use intended; bottom: location of Mount Sion in Jerusalem, based on a drawing bij Zero0000, source Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 4.0

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