The column that was split by the Holy Fire (1579)
On Holy Saturday 1579, according to the Church chronicles of the city of Jerusalem, the Turkish governors forbad the Greek patriarch and the Orthodox faithful to enter the Church of the Resurrection for the customary rite of the Holy Fire.
The works that make reference to this event do not specify the exact date, but they mention that at the time the patriarch of Jeru salem was Sophronius IV, the patriarchs of Constantinople, Alexandria and An ti och were, respectively, Jeremiah, Silvester and Joachim, and the sultan of the Ottoman Empire was Murad III.
If we look at the official lists of these four patriarchates we shall find that the four Greek Orthodox patriarchs were indeed in office in the second half of the sixteenth century, and if we examine the exact period of each patriarch’s reign and that of Sultan Murad III, we discover that the only common year in which the leadership of the five men coincided was the year 1579.
The courtyard and entrance of the Church of the Resurrection.
According to written sources, on Holy Saturday of that year, a group of Turkish soldiers forbad the Orthodox entry into the Church of the Resurrection. The crowd of the faithful remained in the church courtyard throughout the entire day, and even after the sun had set.
The Greek Patriarch Sophronius IV was in the first year of his reign. It was the first time he would perform the most important rite of the year, but the Turks deprived him of his legal right. The patriarch stood in prayer at the left side of the church doorway, near a column. And suddenly, when night had already fallen, the column split and the Holy Fire leapt from its interior.
The patriarch immediately lit his candle and passed the Holy Fire to the faithful. Within a few minutes the sacred flame had spread to all those present and the courtyard of the church was illuminated. The awestruck Turkish guards then opened the doors of the church and the patriarch along with the rejoicing faithful poured in towards the Holy Sepulchre.
The split marble column to the left of the main entrance to the Church of the Resurrection, and beside it, the author. The fissure is 1.20 meters high and resembles a flame rising upwards.
The events of that day are recorded in all the so-called Proskynitaria of Jerusalem, guides for pilgrims to the Holy Land. The oldest of these proskynitaria in which the rupture of the column is mentioned is contained in a Greek manuscript found in the Bavarian State Library in Munich. It is the Codex Monacensis Graec. 346, which contains the Proskynitarion of Priest Ananias. The codex was written by the Cretan priest Akakios in 1634 and is a copy of the original work by the priest Ananias which was written in 1608, twenty-nine years after the miracle it describes. This means that Ananias was able to collect information from individuals who actually experienced the events.
An edition of the Bavarian State Library manuscript was first published in the original Greek in 1890 by Papadopoulos-Kerameus in St. Petersburg,1 together with a Russian translation. According to the account of the Cretan Akakios, the priest Ananias relates the following:
Outside the Holy Entrance, near the west side, there are three marble columns, and from the middle column, they say, a Holy Fire emanated in the olden days. And it is quite cracked and visible still to this day. And this miracle God showed in the following manner, as they say that back then those who gave orders to the patriarch did not allow [the Christians] to enter and celebrate the feast of the Resurrection, according to custom. The patriarch was outside with the people in the courtyard in the evening of Holy Saturday, and all were sad, holding the candles in their hands. And the patriarch was standing by the throne of Saint Helena, next to a column. And then they say that the Holy Fire came out of that column we said is still quite ruptured, and went to the column near where the patriarch was standing. Then the patriarch lit his candles from there, and then the people lit their candles from those held by the patriarch, as was the custom. Then, it is said that when those in control saw this miracle they opened the sacred door and the patriarch entered with the people and they celebrated the festal liturgy, according to the custom.
The same narrative, with more information, is included in many other proskynitaria published in subsequent centuries. The oldest edition of these pilgrimage guides, entitled Proskynitarion of the Holy City of Jerusalem, was published in Vienna in 1749 and was written by Symeon, archimandrite and warden of the Holy Sepulchre. The splitting and igniting of the column which took place at nightfall is confirmed by the work.
Symeon the archimandrite writes:
Then the patriarch stood outside in the church courtyard with the people on Holy and Great Saturday at nightfall, praying whole-heartedly and with great sadness to the Lord. And the patriarch went up to the throne of Saint Helena next to a column, praying with the people. O, for the Master’s love of mankind, a column split and the Holy Fire came out, and the patriarch rushed and lit the candles he held in his hands, and from his hands the people lit their candles for sanctification therefrom.2
The account of the split column in the proskynitarion
written by Symeon, published in Vienna, 1749, p. 19.
The Vienna edition also mentions another incident related to an Arab emir named Tunom, who at the time of the miracle was in the church courtyard. When he saw the igniting of the column he realized the truth of the miracle of the Holy Fire and confessed to his co-religionists the power of Jesus Christ. After he quarreled with them, his confession became the cause of the order for his execution, and subsequently for his body to be burnt.3 Today he is venerated as an official holy martyr of the Orthodox Church. His memory is celebrated on 18 April and his relics are kept at the monastery of the Virgin Mary, the Megali Panagia, in Jerusalem.
The holy martyr Tunom and, in the background,
the column which ignited, illustrated in an icon at the
Greek Orthodox monastery of Megali Panagia in Jerusalem.
Another important description of the miraculous splitting of the column is found in the chronicle of Moldavian monk Parthenius Ageev,4 who visited Jerusalem in 1845. In the second volume of his Chronicle, Parthenius mentions that the pillar was split and ignited, after it was first hit by lightning:
“This column is honored by Orthodox as well as non-Orthodox, and even by the Armenians. I would like to write a little about this incident, about how the Orthodox Eastern Christians speak of it unanimously and the Turks themselves confirm it. In the wall there is an inscribed marble slab, and they say that this incident is written on it; but we could not read it because it is written in Syriac letters and in the Arabic language; and I only heard about it, but did not read it.”
And he continues further on with a description of the miracle:
“Already a half hour had passed and more, but still the Holy Fire had not appeared. The day was clear and beautiful. The patriarch sat on the right-hand side. All of a sudden lightning struck and, on the left-hand side, the middle marble column cracked and out of the fissure a flame of fire came forth. The patriarch arose and lit his candles and all the Orthodox Christians lit theirs from his.”5
The account of the Moldavian monk is of great importance because it confirms that the splitting and igniting of the column was recorded on a marble inscription written in Syriac letters. What is of significance for our study is that in both cases – whether the pillar was struck by lightning or cracked and ignited on its own – it is a miracle because the patriarch who was standing next to it lit his candle from the fire that was produced.
If, however, a fire or electrical discharge struck the column with such great force 430 years ago, then the traces should still be visible. The rupture indeed appears to be burned and eroded by the fire; but to what extent can the traces of this erosion be verified and proven scientifically?
On Easter 2008, the cracked column was the subject of Andrey Volkov’s study. The Russian physicist sent high definition photographs of the crack to a scientific expert, Evgeny Michailovich Morozov,6 who is considered one of the top researchers in the world in the field of Fracture Mechanics7 and Physics of Strength of Materials.
Professor Evgeny Michailovich Morozov and his latest scientific work entitled Mechanics of Elastic-plastic Fracture,8 which presents the findings of contemporary laboratory research concerning the theory of fractures and examines issues of the behaviour of objects that have suffered fractures – from the criteria of their development to more complex problems of Fracture Mechanics.
This coincidence, that on exactly the Easter when the Fire did not descend, the fracture appeared – is that not a miracle? Of course one could say that all of this was a setup and that the fracture in the column had been created using artificial means. We turned for information to Evgeny Michailovich Morozov, who is a leading expert in the field of Fracture Mechanics not only in Russia, but in the entire world, and has written more than 800 scientific papers on this subject. Evgeny Michailovich examined the high definition photographs of the fracture and declared explicitly that this could only appear as a result of electrical discharge; such is its structure. What does this mean? That it was completely impossible for anyone to manufacture this fracture: imagine how powerful a transformer one would need, and particularly in the sixteenth century, when people had no idea about the existence of electrical energy!
Undoubtedly, the scientific opinion of Evgeny Morozov carries great weight and confirms the written sources that mention the miraculous splitting of the column. But I wanted a second opinion on the matter and so I turned to one of the leading Greek scientists in the field of Fracture Mechanics, Professor George Α. Papadopoulos10 of the University of Athens, to whom I sent high definition photographs of the fracture.
Professor George Α. Papadopoulos
Professor Papadopoulos, having examined the photographs, judged that the fracture of the column was indeed caused by an electrical discharge which occurred simultaneously with a seismic wave directed upwards. This combined pressure on the column – electrical discharge plus seismic wave – he believes to be inexplicable and he consequently arrived at the conclusion that “one could only speak of a miracle.”
Professor Papadopoulos, in response to a related email request from me, states the following:
“Dear Mr. Skarlakidis,
Thank you for your email dated 31/1/2010. I believe I can be of assistance to your worthy project.
For the last thirty-five years I have been working with Experimental Fracture Mechanics at the Physics of Strength of Materials Laboratory of the National University of Athens and I believe wherever there is no scientific explanation, there is a miracle.
I have no reason to doubt the Munich Library manuscript dated to 1634 which gives an account of the miraculous manner of the rupture of the column as well as what ensued: that the Greek patriarch used this Fire to light his candle. I do not believe it is possible to doubt a miracle and especially where there are related accounts.
By examining the fracture from the photographs, we could conclude that it is a result of combined pressure: a combination of electrical discharge (probably a strong lightning bolt) and a large seismic tremor. The electrical discharge, due to the high momentary temperature, embrittled the material in the column down the length of a narrow area (origin). The surface seismic wave put pressure on the column resulting in torsional oscillation (fatigue). This simultaneous pressure resulted in the fracture beginning at the base of the column and continuing upwards in a zigzag course (as it appears in the photograph the course of the fracture is not linear) along the length of the area made embrittled by the electrical discharge. If the above indeed occurred, in my opinion this simultaneous combined pressure of the column remains inexplicable. Therefore, one could speak only of a miracle.
Dear Mr. Skarlakidis I would like to offer my congratulations on your work and I wholeheartedly wish you great success.
George Α. Papadopoulos
Professor of Mechanics,
Physics of Strength of Materials Laboratory
National and Kapodistrian University of Athens”.
With the miraculous incident of the column that split and ignited we have completed our long journey through the centuries concerning the miracle of the Holy Fire. Our journey began in approximately the year 330, with the account of the lighting of the oil lamp that was placed at the Holy Sepulchre by Saint Gregory the Illuminator and finished in the year 1579 with the incident we have just examined. We have presented forty-three testimonies and each reader is free to assess them according to his or her own judgment.
In a brief overview of these testimonies, three particular characteristics are noteworthy. In all the attestations there is one common parameter: the account of a light, flame, fire, or lightning that descended from the sky before the people, at a time when the ability to reproduce electricity or related phenomena artificially did not exist.
The second important characteristic is the igniting of the ever-burning oil lamp and the illumination of a vacant, dark and sealed Tomb – an event that took place for at least six centuries. The illumination of the Tomb interior certainly did not occur just from the radiance of the ever-burning oil lamp, but primarily from the light that emanated from the actual stone where the body of Jesus had been placed.
The third important characteristic mentioned in many accounts is the synchronization of the two above-mentioned phenomena: both the descent of the heavenly light and the simultaneous igniting of the oil lamp and illumination of the Tomb interior. Such synchronization can only be achieved, both then and now, through divine intervention.
It has already been mentioned that the present work has not included attestations after the year 1579 (even though there are many) since there would have been a glut of information and, besides, the space required to accommodate all modern testimonies would need to be enormous. Furthermore, the structure of the book is clearly historical and strictly oriented to the first centuries in which the miracle was recorded.
Nevertheless, it was deemed necessary to include eleven more recent testimonies of particular interest. The first two come from eyewitnesses: the Moldavian monk Parthenius (1846) and the English archeologist Charles Warren who experienced the miracle in four consecutive years during 1867–1870. Including these two the total number of historical accounts amounts to forty-five.
The next seven attestations come from five Greek patriarchs and two bishops who had led the ceremony and described the miracle exactly as they experienced it in the Holy Sepulchre. In this manner we shall have a more complete picture of exactly what takes place inside the actual monument at the moment when the Holy Fire appears.
A tenth more recent testimony, also of exceptional interest, comes from the only man to experience the miracle inside the Sepulchre, although he had no right to do so. This is the Greek monk Mitrophanis who, on Holy Saturday 1926, hid in the ceiling inside the Holy Sepulchre in order to experience the miracle from up close.
The eleventh and still more recent testimony is the author’s and involves Holy Saturday 2008. Let us begin with this personal testimony.
* * *
1. Προσκυνητάριον της Ιερουσαλήμ και των Λοιπών Αγίων Τόπων, 1608–1634 [Proskynitarion of Jerusalem and the Οther Ηoly places, 1608–1634], ed. Α. Papadopoulos-Kerameus, with Russian trans. by G.S. Destounis, St. Petersburg 1890, p. 17.
2. Symeon, Προσκυνητάριον Αγίας Πόλεως Ιερουσαλήμ [Proskynitarion of the Holy City of Jerusalem], Vienna 1749, p. 19.
3. In the 1749 Vienna edition, p. 20, the following is noted concerning the Arab Tunom: “There are also some pins nailed into the ground, in front of the threshold of the sacred doorway from that time in the memory of the actual miracle, which they say were thrust by an emir, who seeing that magnificent miracle immediately believed in Christ, and exclaiming one is the faith of the Christians, and thrust those nails one by one in the stone, like in soft wax, and so he bore witness and surrendered to the fire.” The incident with the nails is also briefly mentioned in theMunich manuscript (fol. 87r) as follows: “There are also some pins nailed into the ground in front of the sacred door; they say they were thrust in from that time.”
4. Monk Parthenius (1807–1878) was born in Jassy in Moldavia (today Romania).
5. Monk Parthenius, “Holy Week and Pascha in Jerusalem,” Orthodox Life 34 (1984), pp. 28–29.
6. Professor Evgeny Morozov, born in 1927, is a graduate of the Moscow Aircraft Institute. He holds a doctorate in engineering sciences and is Professor of Physics of Strength at theMoscow Institute of Physical Engineering. He has developed mathematical equations computer programs (CAE) and specialized theories related to the characteristics of materials tolerance to the formation of fractures and the limits of materials tolerance. His academic and research career began in 1951 and he has received many distinctions and awards.
7. Fracture Mechanics is the science concerned with the study of fractures and the formation of ruptures in materials. It uses methods of analytical mechanics in order to calculate the force exercised during the formation of a fracture, as well as with experimental methods that calculate the tolerance of a material to fracture and its rupture.
8. The book was written by Morozov and Vladimir Parton and is entitled, Mechanics of Elasticplastic Fracture, Special problems of Fracture Mechanics, Moscow 2007.
9. Vera, 21 April 2009.
10. George Α. Papadopoulos is Professor of Materials Mechanics at the National Technical University of Athens and has written many papers and scientific articles on the field of Fracture Mechanics. See G.A. Papadopoulos, Fracture Mechanics: The Experimental Method of Caustics and the Det.- criterion of Fracture, London 1993.
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