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Women who built Jerusalem: Queen Melisende

Updated: Jul 27, 2022

As the previous ladies we don't really know what she looked like, so let us imagine her here with this painting of an Armenian medieval princess. We usually have representations of her in medieval manuscript miniatures, where she is mostly generically presented as a queen. She was the daughter of a French nobleman and an Armenian princess, one Armenian source claims she was very becoming, with dark hair, although in some miniatures she is presented as fair-haired

Melisende, Queen of Jerusalem, 1104-1161, was the fourth of our 'Women who Built Jerusalem' series, was an impressive historical figure to match her predecessors. Melisende is a classic example of a female character, written out of history. Until recently, all her achievements were attributed to her son, who was a 13-year-old boy when she took full power in Jerusalem ... She was the daughter of Baldwin II of Jerusalem and his wife, Morphia, who was an Armenian princess.

Just a few words about the Crusaders. In 1009, the ruler of Egypt (who then ruled Palestine) the Fatimid Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah, decided to demolish the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem because of what he deemed unworthy ceremonies held there. This caused great distress for Christians worldwide. Even when a Byzantine mission succeeded in rebuilding the church in 1034, it was not enough for the Christians of the West, and in 1099 after a four-year voyage on foot and by sea, a large Christian army led by many knights arrived from Western Europe and laid siege upon the Holy City. They went around the walls of Jerusalem seven times, as Joshua did in Jericho, then captured the city, massacring the Muslim and Jewish population.

Godfrey of Bouillon, a Frankish knight who led the army, was chosen to head the Holy Kingdom of Jerusalem. However, he died a year later, and the crown was offered to his brother, Baldwin I, who was Count of Edessa. He reigned for about 18 years, and when he passed away, leaving no heir, his cousin, Baldwin de Bourcq, was elected. He Was crowned and took the throne of Jerusalem as Baldwin II. He married Morphia, daughter of an Armenian prince, and had four daughters.

Melisende, his firstborn, was groomed to be his heir apparent. Since he knew that she could not, being a woman, reign alone over the religious Kingdom of Jerusalem, he tried to match her up with a nobleman who would not threaten her power completely. Fortunately for the father and daughter, the Haute Cour of Jerusalem, the clergy and nobility supported them. They chose Fulk of Anjou, a wealthy, elderly French knight. Fulk arrived in Jerusalem and the two married. Soon their first son was born and Baldwin II hurried to crown his daughter Melisende, along with Fulk and his .little grandson, who was then crowned Baldwin III as kings of Jerusalem.

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L: The Marriage of Melisende of Jerusalem with count Fulk of Anjou. R: Miniature presenting the deathbed of Baldwin II and declaration of Melisende, Fulk of Anjou and the infant Baldwin III as kings of Jerusalem. Underneath, the coronation of Fulk.

The father's premonition was right. He died about two years later, and as he had presumed, husband Fulk began to undermine Melisende's powers, trying to take over the kingdom and crown one of his sons as king. But the young queen is was of good mettle. A large party of the old Jerusalem knights and the clergy supported her against the new Frenchman in town, and his newly-come noblemen associates. Fulk had her accused of having an affair with another knight, but the court and clergy were not impressed and supported her. They had slowly pushed Fulk out and removed him from the reins of power. Finally, he found himself quite isolated and at her mercy. The couple then reconciled and she gave birth to another child - Amalric (Amaury).

Jerusalem in the medieval period and its main crusader sites. My photo of the city model at the Tower of David Museum. Melisende didn't build all of these edifices, but contributed and developed some. She inaugurated the Renovated Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher in 1149, built the monastery of Saint Anne, the three markets, refurbished the Tomb of the Virgin , where she was finally interred, restored and developed the Armenian Cathedral of Saint James supported the various Knight-orders' hospitals, and also the citadel plays a part in her story.

Fulk was killed in a hunting accident. William of Tyre, the historian who documented her life, states she was genuinely sorry. In any case, in 1143 Melisende became regent for King Baldwin III, her son, who was thirteen at the time. Although of Armenian origins, her family on her mother's side was of the Greek orthodox confession, while she herself was Catholic, like her father. All this certainly must have helped her to build bridges.

She was a very talented diplomat. Born in the Middle East , she was familiar with Arab and Muslim philosophy, as well as being knowledgeable about the local Christian churches and she knew how to form alliances. She became the patron of the arts, and encouraged massive construction in Jerusalem: She restored the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and brought it into its present form, she built the Church of Saint Anne, rebuilt the Tomb of the Virgin, rebuilt and developed St. James's Church and the entire quarter of her adoptive community, the Armenians, Who still see in Melisende, to this day, one of their own. She built the monastery at the tomb of Lazarus (Elazariya) for her younger sister Yvette, who became the abbess of the monastery. She also built the narrow markets in the heart of the Old City (Butchers' Market, Perfumer's and Jeweler's Markets) which exist and operate to this very day. She set up a scriptorium for copying manuscripts in Jerusalem, and her court was a center for intellectuals and artists.

Map of the Middle East and the Crusader states. Melisende was already on the throne with Fulk. It was the height of crusader power in the Holy Land. They Lost Jerusalem to Saladin already in 1187, and the Kingdom of Jerusalem survived for about a hundred years more, along the coast of the Levant, with Acre as capital. Finally, in 1291, the Egyptian Mameluks took the last crusader stronghold and put an end to the Kingdom of Jerusalem.

In 1144, in order to protect one of the Crusaders principalities (Edessa, where she was born, in northern Syria), she had asked the Pope to organize a second crusade, headed by Holy Roman emperor Conrad II, Louis VII of France and his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine, another formidable woman of the Middle Ages, met at the Acre Conference in 1148. Conrad advised Melisende's young son, Baldwin III, then 18 years of age and a hot-headed youth, to attack Damascus, who was the only Muslim ally of the Crusaders. Melisende was opposed to the idea, as was Eleanor. The two wise and experienced ladies advised them to attack Aleppo instead, but the young king knew better. Damascus was attacked, the attack failed and irreversible damage on an historical scale was done to the Crusader Kingdom, to be regretted for generations to come.

The clergy of the Latin Patriarchate, and the leaders of the Knight Orders in Jerusalem supported her and her rule, but it was clear that the affairs with her hot-headed son would eventually come to a head. Melisende refused to transfer to her son the real powers of government. Most of the court and clergy supported her, and following the refusal of the Jerusalem Patriarch to anoint him king, Baldwin crowned himself and paraded in Jerusalem. He brought his case to the Haute Cour and its ruling was to divide the kingdom in two. He was to reign in Galilee and Tyre and she in Nablus and Jerusalem. Both didn't think this was a viable solution. He gathered an army of knights and launched a civil war against his mother and her supporters. After some battles, she surrendered in the Tower of David citadel, where she was besieged with her supporters, and her young son, Amaury. Finally, she accepted Nablus and its surroundings as her fiefdom, and moved there in 1153.

It didn't take very long before he realized how much he needed her and the two had reconciled. He returned her to the position of senior advisor and more than once, when he went to war, trusted her with the reins of the government.

In 1161, she probably went through a stroke, and a few months later she died in Jerusalem. She is buried in a chapel inside the church of the Tomb of the Virgin in Jerusalem, which she renovated and rebuilt. Baldwin III died just two years later, and his brother Amaury became king. There used to be a Melisende Street in British Jerusalem, but its name was "judaized" and called after the first century Queen Heleni, convert to Judaism.

Renovation of the Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher

Rebuilding the Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher had started before her time, but when husband Fulk had passed away, Melisende received full powers, albeit as regent to her son of thirteen. It was she, of course, who supervised and authorized the building process, leading to the inauguration of the Church in 1149, on the jubilee of the 50th anniversary of the conquest of Jerusalem in 1099. In historical records, the reconstruction is attributed to her son, and this is very typical of the way women were written out of history. Romanesque style

Left: An altar in the Armenian section of the Holy sepulcher. Undoubtedly Melisende's Armenian roots helped maintain the rights of that congregation in the intercommunal struggles of the city. Right, top: Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher as it was built in Melisende's time. Bottom: Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher as it is today

Left: The Butchers market (Souq Al-Lahamin) which Melisende had constructed still sells food. It is one of the city's real markets – not touristy. Right:The parallel Perfumers market (Souq Al-Attarin) also constructed by her. Chinese tourist eating the local Kababs with chopsticks. In fact, there's an excellent Kabab eatery in the street!

Saint Anne's church near the Pools of Bethesda. The Abbey, which Melisende had built there. Her sister Yvette, who had taken the cloth, stayed the before becoming the Abbess of the Monastery Melisende had built in Bethany, today the suburb of Alazariya. It is in the same Romanic-Gothic style.

The Armenian cathedral of St James

Saint James Cathedral. This Armenian Church is one of Jerusalem's most impressive hidden gems. It is in the heart of the Armenian quarter, which is mostly monastic and secluded. Melisende helped the upkeep of this church. Although of Armenian extraction, she did not belong to this Church.

Saint James Cathedral and monastery. The church holds many treasures, amongst which are the relics of Saint James (The Great, Son of Zebedee) and Saint James (the Less, brother of Jesus). The Armenian Church is a distinct and ancient one in Christianity. It is the national church of Armenia, with very unique aesthetics and liturgies. Clockwise: The hidden cupola as seen from the western walls of Jerusalem, Novices sitting on the church's carpets during liturgy, the lovely corridors of the monastery, the treasure- room, fresco of Virgin and Child, and the interior of the cupola.

Liturgy at the Armenian Cathedral on St James' feast-day.

Melisende Psalter

The most renown enterprise in the arts, associated with her, is the "Melisende Psalter", an illustrated prayer book created in the Jerusalem scriptorium, probably ordered by her husband Fulk. It is still kept in the British Museum.

Melisende Psalter. An illustrated prayer book, probably ordered by Fulk for His wife, the Queen. It was produced in the scriptorium Melisende had founded in Jerusalem. It contains illuminated Psalms and other prayers. Left: the cover, made of ivory and gems. Center: Jesus entering Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. Today it is in the British Museum, but made in Jerusalem!

The Tower of David Citadel. Some of the arches date back to Crusader times. The minaret was added three hundred years after her time, but there Melisande remained with her younger son, Amaury and her supporters, under siege by her elder son, Baldwin III. Eventually, she capitulated.

Tomb of the Virgin and the Queen

After Melisende re-built the 5th century church in the Valley of Josaphat, near Gethsemane, she chose to be buried there, where she had buried her mother, Morphia. Their graves are in the niche, right in front. Saints Anne and Joachim, the Virgin's parents, are buried In the tombstone on the left.

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