8/2/12 - russian orthodox "almost in a state of nudity"

In today's encore excerpt - in the 1800s, Russia had a highly religious culture with a devotion to Jerusalem and a frantic passion that repelled European Catholics and Protestants—Russian religious rituals were viewed as "barbaric" and sometimes involved frenetic dancing in a state of near nudity—and left those Europeans feeling they had more in common with the "reserve and dignity" of Muslims. It was this separation that helped lead England and France to side with the Muslim Ottoman Empire against Russia in the Crimean War—the bloodiest European war of the nineteenth century:

"In the early decades of the nineteenth century, the Russian Orthodox Church sent more pilgrims to Jerusalem than any other branch of the Christian faith. Every year up to 15,000 Russian pilgrims would arrive in Jerusalem for the Easter festival, some even making the long trek on foot across Russia and the Caucasus, through Anatolia and Syria. For the Russians, the holy shrines of Palestine were objects of intense and passionate devotion: to make a pilgrimage to them was the highest possible expression of their faith.

"In some ways the Russians saw the Holy Lands as an extension of their spiritual motherland. The idea of 'Holy Russia' was not contained by any territorial boundaries; it was an empire of the Orthodox with sacred shrines throughout the lands of Eastern Christianity and with the Holy Sepulchre as its mother church. 'Palestine,' wrote one Russian theologian in the 1840s, 'is our native land, in which we do not recognize ourselves as foreigners.' Centuries of pilgrimage had laid the basis of this claim, establishing a link between the Russian Church and the Holy Places (connected with the life of Christ in Bethlehem, Jerusalem and Nazareth) which many Russians counted more important—the basis of a higher spiritual authority—than the temporal and political sovereignty of the Ottomans in Palestine.

"Nothing like this ardor could be found among the Catholics or Protestants, for whom the Holy Places were objects of historical interest and romantic sentiment rather than religious devotion. The travel writer and historian Alexander Kinglake thought that 'the closest likeness of a pilgrim which the Latin Church could supply was often a mere French tourist with a journal and a theory and a plan of writing a book'. European tourists were repelled by the intense passion of the Orthodox pilgrims, whose strange rituals struck them as 'barbaric' and as 'degrading superstitions'. [English social commentator Harriet] Martineau refused to go to the Holy Sepulchre to see the washing of the pilgrims' feet on Good Friday. 'I could not go to witness [rituals] done in the name of Christianity,' she wrote, 'compared with which the lowest fetishism on the banks of an African river would have been inoffensive.'

"For the same reason, she would not go to the ceremony of the Holy Fire on Easter Saturday, when thousands of Orthodox worshippers squeezed into the Holy Sepulchre to light their torches from the miraculous flames that appeared from the tomb of Christ. Rival groups of Orthodox—Greeks, Bulgarians, Moldavians, Serbians and Russians—would jostle with each other to light their candles first; fights would start; and sometimes worshippers were crushed to death or suffocated in the smoke. Baron Curzon, who witnessed one such scene in 1834, described the ceremony as a 'scene of disorder and profanation' in which the pilgrims, 'almost in a state of nudity, danced about with frantic gestures, yelling and screaming as if they were possessed.'

"It is hardly surprising that a Unitarian such as Martineau or an Anglican like Curzon should have been so hostile to such rituals: demonstrations of religious emotion had long been effaced from the Protestant Church. Like many tourists in the Holy Land, they sensed that they had less in common with the Orthodox pilgrims, whose wild behaviour seemed barely Christian at all, than with the relatively secular Muslims, whose strict reserve and dignity were more in sympathy with their own private forms of quiet prayer. Attitudes like theirs were to influence the formation of Western policies towards Russia in the diplomatic disputes about the Holy Land which would eventually lead to the Crimean War."


Orlando Figes


The Crimean War: A History


Metropolitan Books, Henry Hold and Company, LLC


Copyright 2010 by Orlando Figes


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