Updated: Dec 10, 2020
Chapter I - Religious Symbols & Emblems in Jerusalem
Raise your eyes as you walk through the streets of the Old city of Jerusalem, looking at gates and doors and you'll see there are a host of symbols all over. Some of them chiseled into stone, some flying on flags, as here at The St. Francis Ad Coenaculum Monastery on Mount Zion: the Jerusalem Cross in stone and on the flag.
The city of Jerusalem is seen by many as the center of the earth. In normal times, one sees the massive number of pilgrims and tourists of most world religions, make their way to the holy city. For some it is a spiritual journey, for others, interest in the city's rich history. Throughout the ages, these religious societies left their marks, buildings and houses of prayer. Jerusalem and in fact, the entire country, are a mosaic of real-estate ownerships, belonging to a whole range of national and religious institutions. Most of all, this matter is apparent in Jerusalem itself, where the various bodies sought to mark their presence and delineate their real estate and land ownership. Hundreds of churches, mosques and synagogues mark themselves out with religious and national symbols. This is the start of a new three-episode series on the symbols seen in Jerusalem and elsewhere in the country, whether in stone or on flags flying in the wind. Everyone who enters the Old City sees a host of national and other flags. Hopefully this will make the city more accessible and understandable.
Now, something personal. Ever since I was a kid I have loved flags and symbols. Maybe something in their colors and expression, maybe the deeper meanings of the colors and shapes. Undoubtedly, every flag and every symbol is a fascinating lesson in History ! Come join me.
The first chapter will deal with religious symbols, the second with secular symbols of sovereignty and government and the last chapter will deal with the Israeli and Palestinian symbols. All these will be connected with field trips. In this first chapter you will see Christian religious symbolism more extensively, and less of the Jewish and Muslim. One of the reasons is that these two religions have a certain aversion from figurative expression to avoid idolatry, and have used the written letter and calligraphy as aesthetic expressions. I will expand more on Jewish and Muslim symbols in Chapter Three.
Ancient Jewish symbols.
Jewish prohibitions of statues and masks have reduced the Jewish symbols to a mere four to five, although the Bible does tell of a set of basic heraldic  symbols (the banners of the tribes of Israel, the copper serpent of Moses, etc.), but we have no clear visual remains or portrayals of these symbols, only symbols from later periods. The most characteristic symbols, which due to their presence ancient synagogues are identified, are very few: The Menorah, seven-branched lamp, which is the oldest and most distinctive symbol of Judaism, usually accompanied by a shofar (ram's horn), the Tablets of the Law , palm leaves or the ritual coal shovels used in the old Temple.
 Heraldry is the visual language of European aristocracy's symbolism: a systematic set of forms and colors signifying origin and status. This visual idiom has very strict rules and regulations, and it is at the basis of contemporary national and political flags and symbols. Some of the titles and images created in the holy land were transferred to European nobility.
Above: Mosaic at the ancient synagogue in Jericho (third century AD) The seven-branched lamp, shofar and palm leaf with the inscription 'Peace upon Israel'. The seven-branched lamp on the wall of a house at the Herodian Quarter in Jerusalem, probably first century AD (Photo: Evi Horowitz). Below: The stone and glass mosaic floor of a fifth century AD synagogue, was found in Beit She'an. To the left of the menorahs, the ritual shovels of the temple, to the right are ram horn shofars. In the center there is a symbolic representation of a synagogue holy ark of the period, according to some shcolars.
We will further elaborate on Jewish symbols in the third and final chapter.
Christian Symbols of the Holy Land
The symbol of the cross is the most essential and effective of the religious symbols and appears from the fourth century onwards. It was preceded by other symbols in Christianity. The most important of the preceding symbols is the Chrismon christogram: a combination of letters and symbols that incorporate the name of Jesus. It is an extremely common symbol in the churches of Jerusalem and, like the cross itself, popular with all Christian churches and denominations, perhaps because of its antiquity. It is the chi-rho.
From top: The amazing fresco by Piero della Francesca in St. Francis Church in Arezzo, describing this ominous moment: Constantine's vision of the Angel, with the pensive page boy at his bedside. Then a popular depiction of the vision as told by Eusebius: that it happened in full daylight with the presence of Soldiers. The bust of Constantine. The Chi Rho symbol -the Chrismon, with the Letters A&Ω. The Roman labarum with the Chrismon, finally a Christogram Latin, in the style of the western churches. J H S for Jesus Hominum Salvator (Jesus the Saviour of Men) on the altar in Christ Church, in front of the entrance to the tower of David, Jerusalem.
Above: Raphael's epic painting Battle on the Milvian bridge, with the inscription: "With this sign you will conquer" in Greek: Εν Τούτῳ Νίκα
There are many Christograms in churches around the Holy Land. Some examples: From above: The three symbols above the entrance to the Basilica of Gethsemane in East Jerusalem. The next Christogram is the emblem of the Russian Imperial Delegation to the Holy Land at the Sergei Hotel in the Russian compound. The Red Christogram is in the courtyard of the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth.
It is the Christogram chi-rho (χ ρ) a combination of Greek letters symbolizing the name Christos, that, according to legend, appeared in the dream of Constantine (337-272) who faced a complex battle for the title of Roman emperor. Finally, he was left with one rival, Maxentius, with whom he reached an inevitable confrontation at the gates of Rome, in a ground breaking battle called the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, in 312 AD. Roman historians, especially Eusebius, tell of a dream, a vision, Constantine had the night before the battle: an angel appeared to him, handing him the symbol of the cross and saying to him, "In this symbol you will conquer!" In Greek: Εν Τούτῳ Νίκα. It is said that it was his mother, who had already converted to Christianity, who influenced him and through whom he became familiar with Christian symbolism. This symbol is found on almost every church in Jerusalem as a unifying Christian symbol.
At the end of the second century and beginning of the third, the common cross became the all over symbol of Christians and Christianity. As Christianity split into different churches in the fifth century, they began to develop symbols that distinguished them from the others. Since Jerusalem has been the center of all Christian churches for more than two thousand years, there is a huge presence of the symbols of these international churches in Jerusalem. The Crusaders have developed a European heraldic system here, and it is also apparent in the ancient stones and buildings of Jerusalem, Jaffa, Acre and other cities and villages where they were present. When the European powers arrived to the Holy Land in the 19th century, they brought with them their national symbols and national church symbols.
The Greek Orthodox Church
The Greek Patriarchate of Jerusalem is one of the five founding patriarchates of Christianity. It was one of four which operated in the Roman-Byzantine Empire. The fifth was Rome, in the West.
Coat of arms of the Jerusalem Greek Patriarchate. Above - the crown of the emperor. At the center of the symbol - the inner structure of the Holy Sepulcher, the Aedicule, located inside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher (Resurrection). Above it, the dove (an image of the Holy Spirit, holding a cross in its beak, symbolizing a new covenant). Below the symbol, the keys received by Peter - and symbolize the kingdom of heaven and earth.
The cross on the flag of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate is that of St. George, red on a white background, defaced with two golden Greek letters, Tau and Phi TΦ symbolizing the word ‘tafos’, tomb. The flag represents the Fellowship of the Holy Sepulcher and is hoisted over all Greek Orthodox churches all over the country in conjunction with the Greek flag and sometimes the yellow-black flag of the Byzantine Empire, with the two-headed eagle. The Tafos sign is seen chiseled in stone over doors or cast in iron on gates of Greek properties.
The Jerusalem Cross
Disputes and hostilities between the four patriarchates of the East: Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem and the Roman Patriarchate have developed over the centuries, with Rome, led by the Pope claiming primacy. This was opposed by the Eastern churches, who maintained their independence and autonomy. Things came to a head in 1052 when a split erupted between Catholics and Orthodox, a chasm that has not healed to this day. In 1099, representatives of Western Catholics arrived to the Holy Land in the first crusade, to liberate the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, which was then under the rule of the Fatimid Muslims from Egypt. The Crusaders established the Holy, Catholic Kingdom of Jerusalem.
Their leader, Godfrey of Bouillon, created a new emblem and chose a special cross for him and his kingdom that has since been known as the Jerusalem Cross. It is characterized by a square cross potent, surrounded by four square crosslets. There are a few interpretations: some claim that these are the wounds of Jesus on the cross: the four wounds of the nails and the wound of Longinus' spear. Others claim that the cross symbolizes Jesus and the four apostles. Either way, the uniqueness of the emblem and flag is in its colors. According to the Rule of Tincture in heraldry (Règle de contrariété des couleurs) one should never place metal upon metal. Gold is represented as yellow, silver as white. There is no sufficient contrast between them. The other colors are green, blue, sable (black), red and purple. Godfrey, however, pleaded for breaking the rules. "Because Jerusalem is the redemptive city of humanity, it deserves the two precious metals as an exception." There are others, who claim the source of the colors in Psalms 68:13 "Even while you sleep among the sheep pens, the wings of my dove are sheathed with silver, its feathers with shining gold." This emblem was adopted as the emblem of the Kingdom of Jerusalem and exists to this day on emblems of several European royal and aristocratic families, claiming the titular crown of the Holy Kingdom of Jerusalem, which actually ceased to exist as early as 1291.
Above: Jerusalem cross: "Argent, a cross potent between four plain crosslets or" - the precise heraldic definition. It is now clear where the Vatican flag gets its particular colors of yellow and white: continuing the heritage of Jerusalem. Another interpretation of the colors is based on the keys of heaven and earth transferred from Jesus to Peter, (Matt. 16:19). The golden key for the kingdom of heaven, the silver key for the believers on earth. On the Papal Flag: the keys and the triple crown of the bishop of Rome. in next illustration, the Habsburg imperial eagle of emperor Joseph II, 1780 with the arms of all his estates on the shield. On the bottom right of the field, the emblem of Jerusalem. The top crown is that of the Holy Roman Empire, the lower on the left of Austria and on the right of Hungary. Finally, the national emblem of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies (19th century) is also there, at the bottom of the shield - the flag of the Kingdom of Jerusalem.
Custody of the Holy Lands (Custodia Terrae Santae)
A flag flying over most Catholic churches in the country is that of the Custudy of the Holy Land, commonly known as Custodia Terra Sancta, the Jerusalem Cross in red on a white field. In 1219 Saint Francis of Assisi traveled to Cairo, during the Fifth Crusade and met Sultan al-Malik al-Kamel, who granted him worship rights in the Holy Land, and the custody over possessions of the Latin church. The matter was further solidified in 1333, about forty years after the expulsion of the Crusader kingdom from the country, that the Franciscan order would gain control of all Catholic assets in the country which they managed, until the return of the Latin Patriarch to Jerusalem in 1837. By then, Catholic clerical orders, such as the Benedictines, Dominicans and others, had begun to acquire independent possessions.
The emblem of the Custody has similar elements to the symbol of the Greek Patriarchate: the divine crown, from which emerges a dove, symbolizing the Holy Spirit. Here, on a cloud, stands a cross symbolizing the resurrection and two hands. The bare one, is that of the crucified Jesus, with the nail wound. The other, is that of St. Francis, who it is said, received the "stigmata," the appearance of the crucifixion wounds. Below it, the red Jerusalem Cross. This is the most common Catholic symbol in the country, and millions of pilgrims buy pendants with this symbol as testimony of their pilgrimage to Jerusalem. The Custody controls churches, educational institutions, research institutes, economic assets and lands throughout the region: in Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Jordan, and Cyprus. Its administrative center is located in the Church of the Saint Savior (San Salvador) in the Christian Quarter of Jerusalem. The custos, (the guardian) is the representative of the Franciscan order in the land. All the Christian orders, however, are represented by the Latin Patriarch.
As in many locations, the Cross of Jerusalem is carved into the stone fence and on the iron gate of the Garden of Gethsemane, in the Valley of Josaphat.
The flag of the Franciscan custody, is widely seen in Israel, the Palestinian Territories, Jordan and Cyprus on Churches schoolsand charities belonging to and run by the Franciscans in the Holy Land.
Other Christian churches in Jerusalem
Since the dawn of the existence of the Church in Jerusalem, there have been many denominations and sects. As early as 451 AD, at the Council of Chalcedon, a divergence was formed in the Christian religion between the mainstream and some Eastern Orthodox churches, regarding the nature of Jesus. The Orientals were "monophysites" who argued that Jesus possessed one nature, in which his divine and human qualities merged, while the mainstream held that he had two separate natures, divine and human, but these did not merge, but existed simultaneously within one entity. Due to this the Orientals split away from the mainstream. They included the ancient Coptic Church of Egypt, the Assyrian-Aramaic Church of Syria, the Armenian Church, and the Ethiopian Church. All of this is of some importance in Jerusalem, because these four churches are very prominent in the Holy City.
The Armenian Patriarchate
There has been an Armenian community and church in Jerusalem from Roman times, and they acquired a prominent position in Jerusalem. They consider themselves to be the first people who have ever converted to Christianity, anteceding the Roman Empire which did so in 330.
The seal of the Armenian patriarchate (photo: Alex Albion). Like on the Greek and Latin emblems, the dove of the holy spirit emanates from the divine Triangle, over the Holy Sepulcher aedicule on the left, and the Armenian Church of St James, seat of the Patriarch. In the Crest: the bishop's mitre and staffs of the patriarch. Finally, the flag of the Armenian Patriarchate, usually flown paired with the national flag of Armenia, here at the Tomb of the Virgin in Jerusalem, and in other Armenian churches and buisnesses.
The Egyptian-Coptic Patriarchate
The Egyptian Coptic church is one of Christianity's most ancient churches. Based in Egypt, it was almost always present here, as this country was ruled by Egypt for long periods of History.
The typical Coptic cross with the inscription in the ancient Coptic alphabet "Jesus Christ Son of God".
The Entrance to the patriarchate near the nineth station of the Cross. There the church uses the Cross Crosslet.
The Ethiopian patriarchate
is in the Old City, and there are quite a few Ethiopian churches and properties strewn across Jerusalem, both east and west. The relationship of the Ethiopians with Jerusalem goes way back to the visit of the Queen of Sheba to the biblical King Solomon. That visit resulted in the emergence of the Solomonic dynasty in Ethiopia. Until recently, the Ethiopian church was closely associated with the Coptic church of Egypt.
Emblem of the patriarchate, as it is presented over the entrance gate to the Kidna Meherat church on Ethiopia Street in West Jerusalem. Note the Lions of Judah guarding the entrance. Inside, the elaborate crosses and the flag of Ethiopia.
The Syriac Patriarchate
One of the most fascinating groups is the Syriac Aramean church. The see themselves as related to the ancient biblical Arameans, and although most are native Arab speakers today and affiliate themselves with the Palestinians, they pray in Aramaic and identify with the Aramean people. Most church members live in Lebanon and Syria, although there are some scant congregations in Israel. A few thousands live in Bethlehem, the old city and the village of Jish in the galilee.
The flag of the Aramean Syriac nation and the emblem and flag of the patriarchate. The emblem is seen on the Aramean scouts' uniform and their bagpipe band. They have even got their own Jerusalem tartan! At Jaffa gate on the Palm sunday procession.
English, Russians, Germans and Romanians.
These are the more veteran churches. The Anglicans arrive at the middle of the 19th century as the "Mission for the Conversion of the Jews", aligned English and German Protestants. They finally split up and the German Lutherans build a separate center around the Church of the Savior in the Old City, consecrated by the German Emperor Wilhelm II in 1898. The Russians are made extensive purchases from 1850 onwards see here and their institutions bear the chi-rho Christogram as the emblem of the Russian Imperial delegation to Jerusalem. The German Lutherans adopted a symbol that includes the Lamb of God with the black cross of the medieval Teutonic Knights. The Romanian Orthodox Patriarchate built a beautiful church near the Mea-Shearim neighborhood. In recent years, the presence of evangelical organizations from around the world as well as other churches has been increasing. Prominent among them is the Mormon Church, whose arched university building overlooks Jerusalem from the slopes of Mount Scopus.
The Emblems: The Anglican Episcopalian church of Jerusalem, then the Russian Imperial Mission, the Lutheran Episcopalian church of Jordan and the Holy Land, finally - the Romanian Patriarchal mission.
While Christian European symbols often use figurative images (animals, human figures, plants, and objects) the Muslims, like the Jews, use very few symbols and emphasize the written letter and its artistic design as a central aesthetic element, along with abstract geometric or floral elements. Among these few symbols, the most prominent is undoubtedly the Crescent. There are some inanimate objects adopted by royal princes, but almost exclusively, the name of Allah ﷲ and His Prophet ﷴ and the names of his stylishly written friends formed the basis of symbols. The Muslim Ottomans also adhered to these rules.
Above, the adorned and decorated name of Allah and Prophet Mohammad pbuh. The Arabic calligraphy and abstract decorations have been developed to great heights along the centuries. Much creativity and imagination have been expressed there, as was the fascination with aesthetic patterns created through geometrical calculation. This, of course was a very ancient and classical aesthetic tradition which developed in all world cultures since pre-history, but Islamic artists developed it into complex intricate patterns, as this was seen to be the revelation of Allah's creation, the laws of nature. There are intricate and complex Arabic calligraphic styles (fonts, nowadays), such as Kufi, Naskh, Thuluth, Ru'qa, Muhaqqaq Diwani and Nasta'liq, which are used to catch the eye for aesthetic and religious insight. These Calligraphic styles are also used as decorations.
The embellished calligraphy medallions of the Rashidun Caliphes names, usally appear at the four corners of the mosque near the dome, with the names of Allah and Prophet Mohamad up front, as here in the Mosque in the town of Acre in Northern Israel. Next the names of the Rashidun caliphs in the Yeni Cami Mosque in Istanbul.
Some exceptional symbols are allowed, such as the crescent-star, present on the flags of some muslim countries and on the filials of mosques. It is commonly recognized as a symbol of Islam although some Muslim scholars reject using the crescent moon to identify their religion, claiming the faith of Islam has no symbols, refusing to accept what they regard as essentially an ancient pagan icon. It is not in uniform use among Muslims. Its use was popularized by the Ottomans.
In Jerusalem therefore, there are few Muslim symbols. One of them was the heraldic crest of 14th century mameluk viceroy of Syria, Sayf ad-Din Tankiz, who built extensively in the Levant and Jerusalem. the symbol represents a cup, to commemorate the ablution fountain of the same name which he build at the Al Aqsa mosque. This emblem was adopted by the current Center for Jerusalem studies.
As we see in the photos above and below, calligraphy, especially that of Quranic verses, is a central aesthetic element in Muslim art. Verses around the dome of the rock and calligraphy as decoration over the 1933 Palace Hotel in central Jerusalem (today the Waldorf Astoria)
We will further expand on Arabic and Palestinian national symbols in the next chapter.