The Status Quo

“I shall never concede any road improvements to these crazy Christians as they would then transform Jerusalem into a Christian madhouse.”

The Grand Vizier of the Ottoman Empire, Faud Pasha, was not straightforwardly calling for discrimination against a minority religion. The great European Christian powers, Britain, Austria, France, Russia, had suddenly decided that Jerusalem was a good location to outsource their rivalries. They had begun taking sides in the disputes between different Christian denominations over the use of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the supposed site of the crucifixion and tomb of Jesus.  The religious politics of Jerusalem had acquired the potential to undermine the power of the Ottoman Empire, who had ruled Jerusalem since 1517. This potential for disputes over the use of the holy sites in Jerusalem to disrupt the established power is the focus of a special exhibition at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, that I visited recently. The Ottomans tried to solve this problem by inventing the concept of ‘the status quo’, and this concept has been used by every power ruling Jerusalem to the present day. The story of how this concept came into being reveals what happened when the Europeans tried to ‘transform Jerusalem into a Christian madhouse’.

How do you regulate rival claims to use an important religious site? I write this on a day when Palestinian Muslims threw stones at Jews who entered al-Haram al-Sharif in Jerusalem, the third most holy site in Islam, so this is hardly an academic question. The Ottomans decided in 1852 the solution was to say they were maintaining the status quo. They tried to avoid religious disputes by saying that they were not changing the arrangements that already existed. This term, ‘the status quo’ was then enshrined in international law by its use in the 1878 Treaty of Berlin. The British, Israeli, Jordanian governments and the Palestinian Authority have continued to use it. It was an easy copout. Henry Luke, the Chief Secretary of Palestine in 1929, made a rather wonderful attempt to protect himself whilst not defining the status quo: ‘those charged with the delicate duty of applying one of the most fluid and imprecise codes in the world.’ Why bother making a decision about whether the Orthodox can repair a particular dome of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, or whether they must share the costs with other denominations? It is easier to say that nothing can change.


The most famous illustration of this principle is depicted in this sketch by the British artist David Roberts in 1849. The ladder below the upper right window of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre has not been moved for at least two centuries: its purpose and origin long forgotten. The ladder stood in place long before the Ottomans introduced the concept in an imperial firman (a decree issued by the Sultan) in 1852. Yet now nobody dares move it for fear of transgressing the principle of ‘the status quo’. Legal principles have replaced informal agreement. The ladder may be absurd; it is not used. Nevertheless it illustrates a shift in the imaginary landscape of the worshippers. Governments are now considered to have the right and the ability to control and manage sacred places.

The Ottomans had made previous arrangements but they had not enshrined these into law. The arrival of the Europeans triggered that change, in part because of how rapidly they became interested in Jerusalem. In 1808 a monk destroyed the Tomb of Jesus, accidentally. He fell asleep, a stove set alight and you can still see the fire damage on the walls of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The great European Christian powers took little interest in the question of rebuilding one of the most holy Christian churches. Jerusalem did not have the strategic or religious resonance for Britain, France and Austria to take their eyes off the Napoleonic Wars. Yet thirty years later the British established a consulate in Jerusalem, and seventy years later the Church of the Holy Sepulchre would receive its own clause in the Treaty of Berlin, one of the major international treaties of the nineteenth century.


The Europeans were taken aback by the Jerusalem they found. The edifying images presented by David Roberts, and other artists and writers, did not match reality. Solemn Anglican chanting of the psalms in majestic Oriental ruins were not particularly evident, as one English traveller reported: “The behaviour of the pilgrims was riotous in the extreme. At one point, they made a racecourse around the Sepulchre and some, almost in a state of nudity, danced about with frantic gestures, yelling and screaming as if possessed.” So what we see in Faud Pasha’s concern is the attempt to prevent the most powerful European states transforming Jerusalem into what they believed it should be: “Jerusalem the golden, with milk and honey blest, beneath thy contemplation sink heart and voice oppressed.”

The Ottoman Firman in 1852 happened because of the ‘crazy Christians’. The ‘road improvements’ shows though that the Europeans were not just interfering in who prayed at what time on Easter Saturday. The Europeans had begun building. Russia had threatened to invade the Ottoman Empire if the Sultan approved French demands about the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The local politics of Jerusalem had become married to imperial diplomacy. The result was the Ottoman government tried to impose order, and thus initiated a new conception of the range of the power of government.

The Ottoman decision initiated a way of managing rival religious claims. It is based on committees, rules, reports- in a word, paperwork. It is not clear that this paperwork has changed much. The Egyptian Coptic Christians position a monk siting on a chair on the roof of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to assert their right to the roof. One monk had decided to move the chair into the shade in 2002. The result: flying iron-bars and fists and one unconscious Ethiopian monk.  Promising to maintain the status quo, commissioning committees to um and ah without ever reaching a definition of the status quo, can only ever maintain resentments.


It is hard to think though of a different solution for the Ottomans. They faced governments with greater firepower, using religious disputes in Jerusalem to advance their strategic interests. Britain needed to keep the passage of trade to India through the Suez Canal secure. The Russians wanted Istanbul. The fabric of life in Jerusalem had begun unravel as governments, European and Ottoman, incorporated daily life into their power politics. Perhaps it would have been better if they had not bothered the actual status quo with the legal ‘status quo’.