2 - 8 May 2002
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This Easter in JerusalemIt's Easter week. Amr Shalakany, in Jerusalem, recalls another Easter 32 years ago, and tells the story of the Copts' little piece of the holy city
It is an odd name for a Coptic monastery. Deir Al-Sultan translates as "the Sultan's Monastery," a decidedly Islamic name for a decidedly Christian institution. All the Coptic monasteries I ever visited in Egypt were named after a saint, an angel, or at least a geographic location of some Christian significance. But not this one. The Coptic monastery in Jerusalem happens to carry the name "Sultan". The name flaunts a deep connection with things political. It tells you from the start: mess with me and you mess with the fountainhead of politics, the epitome of government, the pillar of the regime. Mess with me and you mess with the Sultan himself.
And if you connect your name to politics in such a manner, then it's fair perhaps to expect that your fortunes will go through the same roller-coaster ride of political upheavals as that of the sovereign with whom you've come to be associated. If the sultan is strong, then so is the monastery. And if the sultan's powers grow feeble, his monastery will most likely fall prey to his political foes. And so it was with Deir Al-Sultan. Egyptians lost full control over the monastery twice: once at the hands of the Crusaders when Jerusalem fell to their armies in 1099, and almost a millennium later at the hands of the Israeli police on Coptic Easter 1970. In both cases, the sultan (or his modern variant) was suffering from serious weaknesses. In both cases, Egyptians paid the bill, Copt and Muslim alike.
You hear a lot of tales about Deir Al-Sultan in Jerusalem. While no reference book will tell you for certain which date the monastery was established, most agree it seems to have been functioning by the year 684 when it served as a rest house for "the sultan's" envoys crossing Jerusalem en route between Cairo and Damascus. When the Crusaders conquered Jerusalem in 1099, Copts were forced to leave the city and their monastery was handed over to the Augustine monks. In recognition of Coptic aid to Salaheddin (Saladin) in his battles against the Crusaders, the sultan restored the monastery to the Copts when he recaptured Jerusalem in 1187.
The monastery seems subsequently to have fallen into disrepair, particularly during late Mameluke rule over Jerusalem. One tale tells of a sultan who offered his Coptic scribe a handsome gift in return for his long years of dedicated service. The Copt allegedly refused the gift, and instead requested the sultan to direct the gift towards restoring the run-down monastery to its former glory. Another tale claims the monastery, in its current form, was founded during the rule of the Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent. This time around, however, it is the sultan's wife who is given credit for the restoration of the monastery. The willful Sultana Roxelana is the hero of this particular story -- her benevolence, allegedly an act of penance for having plotted the murder of her husband's grand vizier.
While there is probably little historical truth in much of these stories, they all serve to explain in different ways where the name "Deir Al-Sultan" may have come from. Whether originating as a rest house for the sultan's envoy, a reward to his Coptic allies, a gift to his dedicated scribe or an act of atonement by his wife, in all these stories the sultan turns out to have close personal ties to the monastery, close enough to merit its politicised name: the Sovereign's Monastery.
Less than open: an ancient portal at Deir Al-Sultan, witness to better times
The monastery's ties with politics have persisted into modern times. Ever since Salaheddin restored the monastery to the Copts, the place has remained in Egyptian hands under the sequential rule of Ayyubid, Mameluke and finally Ottoman sultans. But the latter eventually grew weak -- weak enough to be called "the Sick Man of Europe". And the sickness reflected on the monastery. From the latter part of the 16th century onwards, the various Christian communities in Palestine (Armenians, Greek Orthodox, Catholics, Syrians, and of course Copts, among others) had been clashing over holy sites in Palestine. By the mid-19th century, various European imperial powers extended their protection to the different Christian communities living in Palestine. Naturally, this protection extended to the rights of possession and access these communities enjoyed over Christian holy sites. Such a formula soon brought the question of Christian property rights in Palestine to the stage of international politics. The question was one of the causes of the Crimean War (1855), and lasted long after the Russo-Turkish War (1878). In order to avoid future problems on the subject, the Ottoman sultan issued a series of firmans (imperial decrees) which sought to diffuse the conflicting Christian claims to the holy sites by essentially freezing the situation. This came to be known as the Status Quo, basically a legal regime restating the different rights and powers enjoyed by the various Christian denominations over seven holy places in Jerusalem and Bethlehem. The places covered by Status Quo are the Church of the Nativity, the Milk Grotto, and the Shepherds' Field in Bethlehem, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Sanctuary of the Ascension, the Tomb of the Virgin Mary and, finally, the monastery of Deir Al-Sultan in Jerusalem. The Status Quo obtained international recognition at the 1856 Conference of Paris and by the 1878 Treaty of Berlin. Thus the legal regime regulating the use and possession of Christian holy places in Palestine became enshrined as international law. According to the Status Quo, Deir Al-Sultan was undisputedly the exclusive property of the Egyptian Coptic Church.
The Sick Man of Europe finally lost Jerusalem to the British in 1917. As mandatory power, the latter pledged to uphold the Status Quo in accordance with Article 13 of the mandate. In 1947, when the United Nations proposed the division of Palestine under Resolution 181, the international organisation also affirmed the Status Quo by decreeing that "existing rights" with regard to the holy places were not to be denied or impaired. Jordanians ruled over East Jerusalem between 1948 and 1967, and in turn affirmed their commitment to observing the Status Quo. Finally, when East Jerusalem fell under Israeli occupation after the June 1967 war, the Israelis in turn promised to uphold the Status Quo.
But neither the Jordanians nor the Israelis kept their Status Quo promises when it came to Deir Al-Sultan. To put it mildly, both countries had a bone or two to pick with Egypt. Jordan's King Hussein hated and often actively conspired against Gamal Abdel-Nasser's regime, and the Israelis had fought two wars with the Egyptians before they finally conquered East Jerusalem in 1967. Both Jordan and Israel followed the same strategy: as a way of settling political scores with Egypt, both countries set out to challenge Coptic rights over Deir Al-Sultan -- and both countries found in the Ethiopian Church a willing collaborator to this end.
The Copts had long treated the Ethiopian Church as a dependent denomination. Constantly facing financial crises, the Ethiopians finally became too poor to pay their taxes to Jerusalem's Ottoman rulers in the 17th century. In response, the Ottomans in 1668 confiscated the Ethiopian Church's properties in Jerusalem. Although the Armenian Church initially extended its support to the Ethiopians, it eventually had to hand over their religious properties to the Greek Orthodox Church. Now too poor for either of these two Eastern Churches to accept them, the Ethiopians finally turned to the Copts for help. From that time onwards, the Egyptians seem to have provided the Ethiopians with free accommodation in Deir Al-Sultan. This seemingly charitable act was mitigated by two rather uncharitable factors. First, by sheltering the Ethiopians, the Coptic Church was seeking to confirm its supremacy over an Ethiopian vassal. Free accommodation at Deir Al-Sultan was thus the price of ecclesiastical submission to Coptic religious authority.
Second, accommodation at Deir Al-Sultan was far from comfortable. The Ethiopians were housed in a series of mud huts which none of the Egyptian monks would deign to live in. Over the next three hundred years, many a European pilgrim to Jerusalem commented with sympathy on the rather pitiable conditions in which the Ethiopians had to live. By the time Jerusalem fell to the Jordanians in 1948, the poverty-stricken Ethiopians seem to have developed a somewhat large chip on their shoulders towards their far more affluent Egyptian hosts. And the Jordanians capitalised on the chip.
Throughout the 1960s, relations between Egypt and Jordan were strained at best. The tension was played out in Arab Summit meetings, in competing alliances between Soviet and Western blocks, and finally in a thinly-veiled political battle over Deir Al-Sultan. In September 1960, the Jordanian governor of Jerusalem summoned the heads of the Coptic and Ethiopian clergy in Jerusalem in order to discuss a complaint submitted by the latter regarding the Ethiopian claim to property in Deir Al-Sultan. The Copts insisted there was nothing to discuss: the monastery was theirs under the Status Quo which the Jordanians had pledged to uphold. This was only a temporary respite: the dispute erupted again in February 1961 as relations worsened even further between Egypt and Jordan. The governor this time informed the Copts of a Jordanian ministerial decree ordering them to hand over the monastery's keys to the Ethiopians. When the Copts refused, the Jordanian police forcefully broke open the monastery's locks and handed the new keys over to the Ethiopians. Religious shuttle diplomacy ensued between Cairo and Amman until the Jordanian king personally intervened and ordered that the monastery be restored to the Coptic Church. But then the Jordanians lost Jerusalem to the Israelis in June 1967, and the dispute erupted yet again. This time, however, things were far more complicated.
Much like the Jordanians, the Israelis had promised to uphold the Status Quo. Much as with the Jordanians, politics prevailed over international legal obligations and the Israelis set out to use Jordan's early ploy, the Ethiopian card, in order to get back at the Egyptians. But unlike the Jordanians, Israel had just come out of a war with Egypt, and their politicisation of Deir Al-Sultan was far more ruthless than anything the Jordanians had tried before. Israel enjoyed good relations with the pre-revolutionary regime in Ethiopia -- part of a long-standing Israeli strategy intended to break the Arab regional cordon by developing strong alliances with non-Arab states in the region, namely Turkey, Iran and Ethiopia. By handing over Deir Al-Sultan to the Ethiopian Church, Israel would both strengthen its ties with the Ethiopian regime and introduce a new negotiating card against the Egyptians.
On Coptic Easter 1970, while the community was busy at midnight prayers in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Israeli police and border guard forcefully changed the locks at Deir Al-Sultan and handed over the monastery's new keys to the Ethiopians. When the Coptic Patriarch learnt of the news, he cut the prayers short and headed out to the monastery where armed Israelis refused him and his retinue entry. A court battle ensued, and on 16 March 1971, the Israeli High Court condemned the actions of the Israeli police and ordered it to return the monastery back to the Egyptians by 6 April 1971. The Israeli government refused to obey the court ruling, however, and instead formed a committee on 28 March with the purpose of investigating the issue. When the committee did nothing, the Copts returned to the High Court again in 1977. This time, however, the Israeli government argued openly that its dispute with the Copts was political, not legal, and that the judiciary should therefore desist from pressuring the government to resolve the case in court. The judges obliged, did nothing, and limited themselves to reiterating earlier criticisms of the government's action. The court ruling remains unresolved to this day. Despite Sadat's historical visit to Jerusalem in 1977, despite signing the Camp David accords in 1978, despite the signing of a peace treaty between Egypt and Israel in 1979, the Israeli government still refuses to hand over the monastery to the Copts.
I learnt all this history from books. But books hardly tell you what is actually happening on the ground, what kind of relations connect the Copts with the Ethiopians today in Jerusalem, whether they greet one another in the morning, or just ignore each other and go on with Sunday-mass-as-usual? So off to the monastery I went, armed with pen, paper and camera, crossing Qalandia checkpoint where the runway of Jerusalem's old airport used to function and where it has now been replaced with cement blocks and gun-toting Israeli soldiers.
Qalandia exists midway on the road between Ramallah and Jerusalem, and the checkpoint effectively functions to stop the absolute majority of Palestinians, Muslim and Christian alike, from reaching Jerusalem and praying at its holy sites -- yet another Israeli infringement on the right to freedom of worship decreed by the Status Quo. Unlike most Palestinians, my foreign passport allowed me to cross Qalandia and reach Jerusalem. I ended up going to the monastery three times, each visit exposing yet another angle to understanding how the sultan and his monastery got to where they are today.
THE FIRST VISIT: STUMBLING ON THE MONASTERY: "I've been here before... ", it suddenly hit me. The place is so small and unassuming, you can glide through it several times without ever realising you had crossed Deir Al-Sultan -- as I have indeed on many occasions. Last time was in the company of Egyptian novelist Ahdaf Sweif, when she came to the occupied territories to write her article on the Intifada. I entered, as we did last time, from the small chapel door on the very right-hand corner of the main entrance to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The door takes you into the chapel of the Archangel Michael, and you are immediately greeted with an air of light-hearted dilapidation. Just like last time, an Ethiopian priest was sitting by the door looking rather stern and preoccupied at prayer. When he didn't return my greeting, I soon I realised he wasn't deep in prayer at all -- just deep in slumber in the dark and poorly-lit chapel.
It was quite small, and basically empty of visitors: the wooden altar at the very end, and the row of benches in front of it, all bear an uncanny resemblance to your run-of-the-mill Coptic chapel in many of the mediaeval churches of Old Cairo. The altar, in particular, was made of an arabesque wood carving with inlaid ivory in the pattern of intersecting crosses, all fitting together in the 'ashiq-wa-ma'shoq style -- literally "lover-and-beloved," the name of a carpentry technique used in constructing old Coptic altars, whereby a slab of wood penetrates a cavity in another slab of wood and thus provides stability to the entire wooden structure without using any glue or nails (and also provides many a religious item with a somewhat indecent metaphor for technical expertise). Just as I entered, a large brown plastic clock hanging from the altar blithely started to hum the cheery notes of a Disney-like tune: lalalala lala lala. It was three in the afternoon. I didn't even try to think how the clock hung there on the altar -- by a nail probably, effectively flouting the entire rationale behind my lover-and-beloved altar.
A small staircase at the end of the chapel leads you up to the even smaller Chapel of the Four Creations. The Ethiopian priests had covered the lovely marble floor with Formica, an ugly laminated plastic featuring a geometric design set in dark and light shades of brown. Another made-in-Taiwan alarm-clock hung on the lovely arabesque altar at the end of the chapel, this time shaped in the over-extended design of a wristwatch. It was humming yet another generically cheery tune, and from the ceiling two plastic lampshades, brown also, dangled precariously on top of our heads. The chapel had the feel of a kitchen poster removed from some 1970s art et décoration magazine -- and though terribly kitschy, it also exuded the kind of warm and reassuring presence I remember feeling in my mother's old kitchen before she redecorated in the 1990s. Another Ethiopian monk was there, looking very stern as he similarly dozed off. At the far left corner of the chapel a door opens up and leads you to a large open-air courtyard. Another Ethiopian priest, equally sleeping, sat there at the very end of the courtyard, surrounded by as many as 20 bright carpets, left to air in the afternoon sun.
The courtyard is located right on the roof of the Chapel of the Finding of the Cross, where Queen Helena is believed to have found the Holy Cross and which is today part of the complex constituting the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. A dome in the centre of the courtyard gives light to the chapel below, and the sound of an Armenian liturgy and incense came floating up from there. The courtyard used to house the Cloister of Cannons, a crusader building long destroyed. All that is left of it is a number of pillars scattered here and there, providing an excellent sunny perch for the Ethiopian monks to hang their carpets. Across the courtyard are a number of poverty-stricken mud huts, and at the very end is another gate leading out to the Coptic Patriarchate buildings.
So this was Deir Al-Sultan: the chapel duplex, the courtyard on the roof of the Holy Sepulchre, and the huts surrounding it. I had been there several times before, but had never realised this was the deir. On leaving the Chapel of the Four Creations onto the courtyard, I saw a small bookcase holding some postcards on the left-hand side. And then I remembered: Ahdaf had wanted to buy some of them as gifts last time we were here. She had whispered respectfully to the indolent Ethiopian monk sitting in the chapel, not wanting to disturb his prayer/nap, and asked him if she could buy some of the cards. His reply shocked us with its unpredictable energy: he irreverently cried to the monk downstairs at the Chapel of the Archangel, asking him what we assumed was "How much do the cards cost?!" Another loud cry came from downstairs, and then we were informed that the cards were ten shekels each.
Very expensive if I may say so, and besides, this loud exchange of commercial information had dissipated any semblance of other-worldly religiosity the place may have possessed. I was again left with the same impression of my mother's old kitchen: warm, fuzzy, and out of fashion.
(Clockwise from top left) An Ethiopian monk dozes in the monastery's courtyard -- which also serves as the rooftop of St Helena's Chapel; the internal staircase leading to the Coptic Patriarchate; the monastery's locked-up electricity box; Father Abdel-Malak (seated)
photos: Amr Shalakany
THE SECOND VISIT: HEAR THE OTHER SIDE!: There's another way to reach the monastery. Instead of walking down to the Church of the Sepulchre and entering Deir Al-Sultan from the Chapel of the Archangel, you can instead walk around the Holy Sepulchre to Khan Al-Zeit street, walk up about 50 steps and reach another walled street from which the dome of the Holy Sepulchre becomes very visible. At the end of this street lies the Coptic Patriarchate, to the left of which there is a small gate leading to the courtyard of Deir Al-Sultan, the courtyard where the carpets were hanging on my last visit.
Having surveyed the monastery on my own last time, today I wanted to hear what the Copts and Ethiopians had to say about the disputed place. Coptic Easter was about six weeks away, and Coptic Easter was when the Israelis forcefully handed over the monastery to the Ethiopians, so memories must be rife. Again with pen, paper and camera in hand, I walked up another staircase leading to the Coptic Patriarchate proper. In a glass booth I was greeted by a man whose accent immediately gave him away as Egyptian, while a sweet-looking monk nodded to me from across the booth. Having exchanged greetings and established that I was Egyptian too, a broad look of suspicion took over their faces: they are not used to having Egyptians just pop up like that in the middle of the Intifada. And so we set off on the tedious process of cultural identification.
The monk started by asking me, "Are you originally from Egypt?" to which I replied with an emphatic "YES". "Where from?" "Cairo." "Where in Cairo?" "Dokki." "Where?" "Do you know where the Sheraton Hotel is? My home is close by... " "What are you doing here?" "I teach at Birzeit University, work for the PLO, and occasionally write for Al-Ahram. That's why I'm here. To figure out what happened to Deir Al-Sultan." On hearing this, more suspicion descended upon his priestly face, but this time laced with a new air of impending danger. "Why Deir Al-Sultan?" I explain what the article is about and then decide to take the offensive myself: "And you, abouna, where are you originally from?" It turned out he had been in Jerusalem for more than two years and originally came from Giza, but was based at Mar Girgis Monastery in Beheira before coming here.
Intimacy and trust, Egyptian-style, started building up as the abouna (Father) embarked on a long-winded explanation of Mar Girgis' location in Egypt: "You see, the monastery used to be in the Delta governorate of Beheira, but then President Sadat cut off a part of Beheira and gave it to the governorate of Menufiya so that they could have access to the highway. You know Sadat was from Menufiya, right? So Mar Girgis is now in Menufiya, but really it's Beheira, because all the monastery's electricity bills still come from Beheira, not Menufiya. The water bills too, I believe. Or maybe not. Definitely the electricity is still Beheira though, even though Mar Girgis is in Menufiya technically, but then Beheira... "
OK, this tediously long-winded monologue about the shifting boundaries of Egyptian governorates in the Nile Delta is not why I came here. But also, it is clearly the only way that we will establish a regime of mutual trust before we can start talking about the deir. So I willingly persevere as I feel myself transported back to Egypt.
Abouna eventually invites me to have tea in the Coptic Church of St Helena, part of the Patriarchate complex and located right opposite the gate leading to the courtyard of Deir Al-Sultan. As we enter the church, an Ethiopian priest crosses over from the gate and asks if he may come in as well? He has heard there is a cistern under the church and can he see it? Abouna exchanges polite greetings with the Ethiopian priest, they pat one another warmly on the back, and I follow the two to the cistern thinking I had just witnessed an instance of good neighbourly relations between Copt and Ethiopian. When I shared this after the Ethiopian priest had left, abouna immediately dismissed him as "the most devious one of the whole lot of them!" He left me for a minute to fetch the tea and showed me how to turn on the lights at the cistern should any visitors come to the Church while he was away. And then he added with a wry smile, "And don't let the Ethiopians steal the church from you while I'm away!"
The tea further confirmed my metaphysical flight from Palestine to Egypt: a heavy ink-like liquid, South-Egypt style, which abouna confirmed even further when he produced a sugar bowl from the side pocket of his habit and proceeded to add what felt like ten spoonfuls of sugar. The result was a pure taste of Egypt, a caffeine/sugar bomb that bonded us in a common sense of national belonging I had seldom shared with such intensity before. He told me of Queen Helena, in whose church we were now sitting: the mother of the Emperor Constantine, she was also a Copt from Alexandria. Copts had been generous to the Ethiopians, he said, giving them free accommodation at the deir, only to have the place stolen from them with the Israelis' assistance. Other Egyptians started flocking in, and the conversation became far more warm and hospitable than I had first thought possible when we were still discussing the Delta governorates. First there was Bolbol, who runs errands around the church. Dark, middle-aged and portly, he was sent by the Church in Cairo six months ago, and lives, like everyone else, in the Patriarchate. The door closes at 7.00pm, and all must be inside before then. Then Abouna Abdel-Malak joined us. An elderly man with a sweet smile, he came walking towards us from the direction of Deir Al-Sultan's courtyard.
I soon discovered that Abouna Abdel-Malak was technically the abbot of Deir Al-Sultan. He is the only Copt living inside the deir, in the single room still under the control of the Coptic Patriarchate. Under the Status Quo arrangements, the door between the deir and the patriarchate closes after the maghreb call for prayers, by which time Abouna Abdel-Malak must walk back to the deir and spend the night there cooped up away from his Coptic brothers. The Ethiopians have installed electricity in the entire deir, except for his room, which he has fitted with a rechargeable battery light.
"And aside from cutting you off without electricity, how are your relations with the Ethiopian priests?" I ask. "We are nice and polite and civil to each other. We exchange good mornings and evenings. But deep down, they know they stole the monastery."
I can see why they'd have to maintain civil relations: they are living right across from each other, effectively sharing the same space. A strong smell of fried onions came floating across. "They're cooking," Abouna Abdel-Malak commented absentmindedly. "You have to taste their food. You know, Ethiopian cuisine is one of the best in the world. Very tasty indeed." When I told him I was a lawyer by training, he became excited and insisted I read the Coptic legal rights which the Israelis have completely violated. "It's all in the Easseeteecoo, you must read it!" he hollered. "The what?" I asked politely, feigning deafness. "The Easseeteecoo, the easseeteecoo, it gives us rights over the monastery, rights which the Israelis refuse to enforce!" Then it finally hit me, he means the Status Quo, and he is totally right.
On that note, I decided to cross back into the deir and interview some of the Ethiopian priests. It turned out that none of them spoke English or Arabic, except for the brother who had gone down the cistern with me. I immediately took a dislike to him, since he proceeded to reproduce the Coptic narrative of Deir Al-Sultan, only substituting the Ethiopians' role for that of the Copts. He argued gently that the monastery was always Ethiopian, that the Copts were only guests there, and that when the Ethiopians asked for their property rights, the Copts refused to comply and that was why the Israelis handed over the monastery to the Ethiopians.
He proceeded to extol the late Jordanian King Hussein, for whom he prayed every night that his soul might rest in peace, since he was the only man before the Israelis who tried to do the Ethiopians justice. He insisted he had supporting documents to prove the Ethiopian right to Deir Al-Sultan, and he promised to give them to me when I visit the monastery again the following week.
THE THIRD VISIT: EASTER 1970 RECALLED: Miss Hilda was in the Holy Sepulchre during the Easter mass of 1970. Earlier that day, she had seen hundreds of Israeli gunmen on the rooftops of Deir Al-Sultan. When asked the reason for this heavy military presence, the Copts were told it was security precautions for the Easter mass. Miss Hilda was praying among the Coptic congregation when news reached them that the Israelis had changed the locks to Deir Al-Sultan and were handing the new keys to the Ethiopians. The congregation left the Holy Sepulchre and tried to enter the deir through the Chapel of the Archangel. Metal wedges were installed outside the gate, and Israeli gunmen from the police and border guard pointed their guns at the congregation and refused them entry. Israeli reinforcements soon came, and the Copts found themselves surrounded on all sides by Israeli gunmen. They were then forced to leave the area and escorted at gunpoint back to the Patriarchate building through the back streets of Jerusalem. When some refused to move, the Israelis used physical violence to force them away from the deir.
The Ethiopians proceeded to make some minor alterations to the iconostasis in the two chapels of the deir, hiding the construction and dedication dates which were written in Arabic and Coptic across the chapels' altar. The Coptic Patriarch could not immediately relay the news to Cairo since Egypt was at war with Israel and there was no way of telephoning Cairo from Jerusalem.
I had come to Jerusalem today specifically to meet Miss Hilda and pick up the papers promised to me by the Ethiopian priest. In the end, the Ethiopian never gave me any papers. Miss Hilda, on the other hand, presented me with a bunch of documents and explained the deir's logistical importance beyond the question of property rights.
Apparently, Deir Al-Sultan acts as the main conduit between the Coptic Patriarchate and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. It takes two minutes to walk between these two points, and the Copts would go through the Deir's courtyard, down the staircase connecting the two chapels, and into the Holy Sepulchre courtyard. However, since the Ethiopians took over the monastery, Copts can no longer reach the Holy Sepulchre this way. Instead, they must exit the Patriarchate down to the market place, cross the main street, and walk round the buildings until they finally reach the Holy Sepulchre.
"It is not just a question of property," she explained, "it's about getting to church in a dignified way."
Miss Hilda is a member of the small Coptic Palestinian community in Jerusalem. Her mother and father are both originally from Egypt. Her family went through the same cycle of dispossession experienced by ordinary Palestinians. Before the 1948 war, her parents lived in Ramallah and she attended boarding school in Yaffa. The war made them refugees in Jerusalem, where they eventually settled. Miss Hilda is today the headmistress of the Coptic St Demiana school, located in the Coptic Patriarchate building in Jerusalem. All the students are Palestinian, some teachers are Egyptian, but most of them are Palestinian Copts. More than half of Miss Hilda's students are Muslim, the rest are Coptic, Catholic or Greek Orthodox. When I asked her about her hybrid identity, was she "Copt" "Palestinian" or "Egyptian"? she answered quite simply that she was first and foremost a Jerusalemite. "A Palestinian Jerusalemite who is Coptic and comes originally from Egypt... "
This Easter, as on every other Easter since 1970, Miss Hilda and her Coptic congregation will attend mass in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This Easter, as on every other Easter, she will not be able to cross Deir Al-Sultan to go to mass. Instead, she will have to take a circuitous route around the deir, a route which poignantly marks the loss of the sultan's power over his monastery.
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