In 1187 Saladin captured all the Holy Land from the Crusaders and took the Sanctuaries as his own possession. In the period immediately following his conquest they were closed to Christian cult. Only those pilgrims who paid the tax were permitted to enter. When peace was signed by Saladin and Richard the Lionhearted, King of England (September 1192), the Sultan gave permission to Hubert Walter, the Bishop of Salisbury, for two Latin rite priests and two deacons to be reinstated and closed in at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, in the Basilica of Bethlehem, and at Nazareth. This "benevolent concession" of the Sultan did not endure very long, probably because of the lack of other Latin clergy to follow the stipulations of the agreement which were tantamount to virtual imprisonment. (*9)
Shortly before this time, the very same concession, which was very expensive, was given to four religious of the Syrian Rite.
The Emperor of Constantinople, Isaac Angel (1186-1195) asked Saladin to restore all the Holy Places to the Greek clergy of Jerusalem. The Sultan absolutely refused this request.(*10)
The German pilgrim Wilbrand of Oldenburg (1212) found only four Syrian religious in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. (*11) By 1217 these four were no longer present. Later another German pilgrim named Thetmarus lamented the situation and wrote that the Holy Sepulchre stood "without lamps, without honor, without respect, and always closed".(*12)
(As a marginal note, it should be remembered that in this same year, 1217, the first group of Franciscan Friars arrived with Fra Elia at their head. With their base in Acre, they spread out to Lebanon and Syria in order to render religious service to European immigrants and Eastern Rite Christians.)
It appears that an exceptional situation continued in the Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem. The native population of Bethlehem was probably totally Christian. Despite the posting of government doorkeepers at the principal entrance to the Basilica, the Latin clergy with their bishop, along with the Eastern clergy, continued to officiate in the Sanctuary without any difficulties. (*13) This situation ended with the arrival of the ferocious Khawarismians in 1244.
Another noteworthy event of these years was the gift of Hetun, King of Armenia (which was still united to Rome at that time). He donated the internal door of the Basilica, a door made of inlaid wood with geometric designs and crosses, and an inscription with the date of 1227. (*14)
*10 - It is necessary to correct the title of the paragraph of R. Grousset in his Histoire des Croisades (II, Paris 1935, 821, and v. III, Paris 1936, 11) and to correct the mistaken conclusion of S. Runciman (II, 467-468). Likewise the untruths of Nicephore Moschopoulos (La Terre Sainte Athènes 1957, 143) ought to be corrected. To do this I cite here the original historical source of Beha ed-Din, Vie du sultan Yusuf (that is, Saladin) as it is found in Recueil des Historiens des Croisades, Historiens Orientaux, III, Paris 1884, 299. All three authors refer to this source:
*11 - Wilbrand von Oldenburg, Itinerarium Terrae Sanctae, 1.2, c.6 (De Sandoli, Itinera, III, 238): "Et nota, quia ipsa ecclesia et sanctum sepulcrum et omnia que intus sunt contenta, a quatuor sacerdotibus surianis, qui exire non permittuntur, in bona devotione custodiunt."
Describing the Cenacle, Wilbrand says: "In summo illius (Mount Sion) quia latus est mons, labetur quoddam largum et pulchrum aspectu cenobium, in quo manent eciam Suriani, Sarracenis tributarii, qui peregrinis illuc venientibus monstrant locum, in quo Dominus cenavit cum suis discipulisÓ. The monastery was entrusted to the Syrians by the Canons of St. Augustine before they left Jerusalem in 1187.
*12 - Thetmarus, Iter ad Terram Sanctam, A.D. 1217, c. 7 (De Sandoli, Itinera, III, 264): "Ecclesia dominici sepulchri et locus passionis sine luminaribus, sine honore, sine reverentia semper clausa existit, nisi forte gratia oblationum peregrinis aperiatur". On the other hand, the clergy at Bethlehem enjoyed a little more liberty. Cf. Thetmarus, c. 10 (p. 264): "Bethlehem... adhuc est integra nec a sarracenis devastata, quam quidem tenent christiani sarracenis subiugales... Sunt tamen quidam sarraceni custodes ad limina monasterii deputati quod a peregrinis et introeuntibus pedagium accipientes, qui tamen residenciam ibi non faciunt".
*13 - H. Vincent - F.-M. Abel, Bethléem, Paris 1914, 185: "Une preuve que les rites orientaux étaient alors tolérés dans la basilique est fournie par le témoignage de saint Sawa, archevêque de Serbia: "J'ai célébré, écrit-il à propos de son pèlerinage en 1227, la sainte messe avec les prêtres officiant dans la maison (the basilica) de la très sainte Mère... j'ai donné beaucoup d'or au clergé officiant au lieu de la Nativité du Christ, et j'ai fait inscrire les noms de mon père et de mon frère, le roi Stéphan, pour qu'on dise des prières pour le repos de leurs âmes' ".
*14 - For the Armenian and Arabic inscriptions, see: Vincent - Abel, Bethléem, 184-185; R. W. Hamilton, A Guide to Bethlehem, Jerusalem 1939, 40; B. Bagatti, Gli antichi edifici sacri di Betlemme, Gerusalemme 1952, 68.