Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land - 06/03/2000 info: custodia@netvision.net.il

The Cenacle
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The Cenacle is the site of the institution of the Eucharist, the Apparition of the Risen Christ and the Descent of the Holy Spirit.

The upper room of the house, placed at the disposal of the Master by a disciple for the celebration of the last Pesach, became, after the Passion, the refuge and the centre of reunion of the disciples.

Bishop Epiphanius, a native of Palestine (310-403), basing himself on documents of the 2nd century, writes "Hadrian... found the city entirely rased to the ground and the Temple of God destroyed and trampled upon, with the exception of some houses and a certain small church of the Christians, which had been constructed in that place, in which the disciples, after the Saviour was taken up to heaven from the Mount of Olives, betaking themselves, mounted to the Cenacle".

The Christian community that had fled to Pella in 66 AD before the first jewish revolt and the subsequent siege by the Romans, would surely have returned to the centre around which, with the Apostles, the first community had arisen and which preserved, among so many memories, the seat of the first bishop, St. James.

The jewish temple of Sion had passed away but the new Christian Sion had arisen. The Christians saw in the words of Isaiah: "For the law shall come forth from Sion: and the words of the Lord from Jerusalem", an indication of their own church whence "the word of the Gospel of our Saviour Jesus Christ and his Apostles is spread to all men" (Eusebius). Even the pilgrim Egeria describes the liturgy that was celebrated "in the church on Mount Sion" in memory of Christ's appearance after his resurrection and of Pentecoste. Restored by St. Maximus (331-349) it seems that the church was restored or rebuild by the bishop of Jerusalem John II (386-417). From now on it is called "Holy Sion" (Hagia Sion).

Burned by the Persians in 614 "the mother of all Churches" was restored by the Patriarch Modestus. Later itineraries give more abundant descriptions of the place and they point out, from now on, that on the left we have the place of the Dormition of the Virgin, while to the right was the Cenacle.

It had been an ancient tradition that Mary lived here after the death of her Son. Modestus, Patriarch of Jerusalem (634), John Moschus (620) and St. Sophronius, patriarch of Jerusalem (636) venerated there the stone on which the Mother of God lay down to "end her earthly journey".

2. From the Crusades to the Franciscans

When the Crusaders arrived in Jerusalem they found in ruins the area of Sion where only the two storey chapel of the Cenacle had survived. It is here that Raymond of Tolouse put camp to protect the area from the intruding enemy.

The Crusaders raised on the ruins of the old church a monument worthy of the title Mater omnium Ecclesiarum. The edifice was divided into three naves. In the northern nave stood an edicule in memory of the Dormition of the Virgin. In the southwest angle of the centre nave arose the Cenacle composed of two superimposed chapels and divided in the centre in such a way as to form as it were four chapels, two below and two above. Thirty steps led up from the lower to the "Upper" room, where the Institution of the Eucharist and the Descent of the Holy Ghost were represented in mosaic.

When Saladin captured Jerusalem in 1187, the basilica of Sion was one of the few churches that was not destroyed or turned into a mosque. It was given into the care of the local clergy, Syrians. During this period the western pilgrims were permitted to visit the Cenacle and priests allowed to celebrate the Eucharist. In 1192 the Basilica and the monastery were enclosed by walls, but in 1219 by order of Malek el Muadden the place was in part destroyed.

3. Franciscan Sion

Fr. Roger Garin between 1335 and 1337 acquired the site of the Cenacle. Two papal bulls of 1343 tell the Catholic world that "after difficult negotiations and huge expenses", entered into between the Sovereigns of Naples, and the Sultan of Egypt Malek al Nasir Mohammed, the Franciscans had taken possession of the Cenacle of the Lord, the Chapel of the Descent of the Holy Ghost, the Chapel of the Apparition of the risen Jesus, and around these sanctuaries Queen Sancha had built a convent. It was probably in 1336 that the Friars took over possession, for ever after pilgrims find the friars there in their convent of Sion, from which the Superior took the title, still retained, Guardian of Holy Mount Sion.

When in 1365 Peter I of Cyprus attacked Alexandria the Sultan had his revenge on the Christians, and the Franciscans of Mt. Sion were conveyed to Damascus, where they died in prison. Peace was concluded in 1370 and new Friars arrived from the west to take their place on Sion and at the Holy Sepulchre. The Franciscans were deprived of the Chapel of David in 1492. This was accomplished through an alliance between the moslems and the jews who on their part invested money with the intention of transforming this chapel into a Synagogue. The friars were thrown out but instead of becoming a synagogue, it remained in the hands of the Moslems. This usurpation led to reprisals against the jews in Europe and it was through the efforts of Venice that the local authorities returned the place to the Friars the next year.

In 1438 the Sultan Jaqmaq (1438-63) succeeded and he ordered the closing of all Christian churches and the removal of the Friars of Sion to Cairo. The Negus of Abyssinia protested and threatened to divert the Nile, which calmed the Sultan. Between 1439 and 1446 two firmans were obtained for the worthy reconstruction of the Chapel of the Holy Ghost.

While the work was proceeding, an order came in 1462 to destroy all the newly constructed building and to retake the Chapel of David. The orders were carried out brutally, even the bones of the friars buried near the cenotaph of David were disinterred. The Chapel of David was definitely lost to the Friars. The Friars again rebuilt (1462) the Chapel of the Holy Ghost but it was again destroyed in 1468 by the Moslems.

Under the Sultan Qait-Bay (1468-96) all trouble ceased and the Friars got back all their rights due to the friendship of the Emir Azbach. Moudjir ed Din, the author of the history of Jerusalem, tells how the Christians built in 1489 the oratory of the Virgin, with the help of money given by the Emir and others.

4. The first attempts against the Franciscans

The nearness of Moslem families, placed there to guard the Chapel of the Holy Ghost and that of David, rendered almost impossible the lives of the Friars on Sion, who held on to officiate in the church of the Cenacle and the subterranean chapel of St. Francis. Every day brought greater trials, and the Friars had no better hopes when Palestine passed to the Ottoman Turks in 1517.

An order was issued from the Porte on March 18,1523 to the Governor of Damascus to expel forthwith the infidels who desecrated the whole place by processioning according to their false creed over the tomb of David, worthy of Moslem veneration, and to hand over the place to the bearer of the order, Mohammed el Adjami. This Adjami did not hand over the order immediately, but tried to sell it to the European merchants who protected the Friars. The Friars got to know of the order and Venice made representations to the Sublime Porte, which agreed to annul the order. The pilgrims from Europe, among them St. Ignatius of Loyola, on embarking in Oct. 1523, were aware of the revocation, but before it reached Damascus, the Governer, Khurrem Pasha, had expelled the Friars in January 1524.

A new order of March 26 1526, allowed the Friars some rooms in their convent and the Chapel under the Cenacle. Many attempts were made by the European powers, especially Venice and France to undo the injustice, but all in vain. The Friars were accused of harbouring important Europeans of warlike intent, which finally brought a new and final order of expulsion in 1551.

The friars betook themselves to the nearby bakery, where they lived until 1560 when they transferred to the Georgian monastery El Amud, called St. Saviour's, where to this day resides the Superior of the Holy Land, who still retains the title of Guardian of Holy Mount Sion.

The Upper Room of the Cenacle was transformed into a Mosque dedicated to king David and access to the christians was totally forbidden. This situation lasted until the end of last century when this "Upper Room" was partially reopened for christian pilgrims to visit, nonetheless forbidding the celebration of the Eucharist or of any other devotion. Later on the Franciscans were permitted to visit officialy the site on Maundy Thursday and Pentecoste but still they were forbidden to celebrate any liturgy.

On March 29, 1936 the Franciscans returned to within a few yards of the Cenacle, having bought the old bakery from the Dejani family that held the Cenacle and transformed it into the Convent of St. Francis, and the Church ad Coenaculum. This is an oasis of peace, serenity and tranquillity overlooking the place of so much sacred events and travail. The whole area of Christian Sion has been in the hands of the jewish authorities since 1948 and all around the Christian monuments has been taken up by jewish Torah Schools, and nothwitstanding the "empty crusaders' cenotaph" made it a national pilgrimage site for the jewish people in memory of King David.

More information and pictures available at our Cenacle site



Created / Updated Monday, March 06, 2000 at 10:46:31