When learning about a place, one can focus on the physical – stone upon stone – what we see. And while it is true that physical remains can tell a story, the people behind the objects often tell a much more interesting tale.
Sophronius, the Patriarch of Jerusalem from 634 C.E. until his death in 638 C.E. was one such character. His life was filled with failure, and yet we still remember him. We don’t know where Sophronius was born or what his racial background was. He ended up at the age of 20 in Egypt and then went to join a monastery outside of Bethlehem. He latched onto a monk who was much more famous than he was, and traveled with him through the Byzantine empire. When his traveling companion died on him in Rome, Sophronius made sure to accompany the body back to Jerusalem for a proper monk’s burial.
Sophronius believed strongly in the doctrine of dualism and tried to dissuade Patriarchs in the church from competing philosophies, but he was unsuccessful. His writings from this time period on this topic are lost. After he became Patriarch of Jerusalem, he continued his quest to champion dualism. These writing from this time period are also lost.
Sophronius did not oppose the Moslem advance on Jerusalem and, indeed, toured the city with the visiting conqueror, Omar, in 637 C.E. Sophronius invited Omar to pray in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher during the tour, but Omar declined. Omar was worried about setting precedent for future Moslems who may want to mark the place where he prayed and would take over the Church, converting it to a mosque. As a token of his sensitivity, Omar received the keys to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher from Sophronius. He gave the privilege of opening and closing the church to a trustworthy Moslem family, who continue to perform this duty until today. It is hard for us to remember that there were Moslem leaders once who were sensitive to other religious narratives.
Sophronius, who was beatified, suffered many losses: losses of his written work, losses of his philosophical arguments, loss of the keys to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher; but his memory remains as the one who tread through the transfer of Jerusalem from the Byzantine Empire to Moslem control. Sometimes it’s not whether you win or lose, but when and where you stand which determines your historical significance.
- Church of the Holy Sepulcher
- Temple Mount
- St. Avtimius Monastery
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