“And so they went on to the Holy Land until they could see Jerusalem. And when this creature, riding on an ass, saw Jerusalem, she thanked God with all her heart, asking Him for His mercy that, just as He had brought her to see this earthly city of Jerusalem, He would grant her the grace to see Jerusalem the blissful city above, the city of heaven…Then, for the joy that she had and the sweetness she felt in conversing with our Lord, she was on the verge of falling off her ass, for she could not bear the sweetness and grace that God performed in her soul. Then two German pilgrims went to her and kept her from falling off. One of them was a priest, and he put spices in her mouth to comfort her, believing her to have been ill. And so they helped her onwards to Jerusalem.” The Book of Margery Kempe.
The English mystic Margery Kempe, whose Book I have been translating recently, was making her way from Ramla to Jerusalem in 1413. She felt such sweetness and grace when she saw the holy city that she nearly fell off her ass. From Kempe’s account it’s likely that this moment – of both spiritual glory and embarrassing awkwardness – would have taken place on Mount Joy, the highest point around Jerusalem. Mount Joy (Mons Gaudii, Monjoie) is now the Palestinian village of Nabi Samwil [or Samuil], just 7 miles north of the Old City of Jerusalem, and less than a mile from the edge of the large Israeli settlement of Ramot, now a suburb of Jerusalem. It was customary, in the later Middle Ages, for pilgrims to travel on foot or by ass from Jaffa via Ramla and Emmaus to Mount Joy, there to gain their first view of the city, hence the name Mount Joy. Pilgrims like Kempe were led from place to place by Franciscans and local guides. Before Kempe’s time – certainly by c. 1100 – Nabi Samuel had also become established as the burial-site, revered by Christians, Muslims, and Jews, of the prophet Samuel.
Mount Joy is interesting to me in the current context because of the ability of Jerusalem to be translated out of itself, which here extends to the hyper-mediated landscape around the city itself. In the later Middle Ages the view of Jerusalem from a hill known as ‘Mount Joy’ became as much a part of the pilgrimage route as visiting Jerusalem itself. In fact, medieval pilgrims would not have been able to see the now-iconic view of the Old City – the Dome of the Rock and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre – because these sites sit in a hollow, behind a hilly landscape. They would, however, have viewed the approaches to the city, and possibly some of the buildings on the suburban outskirts around the town.
The site itself is an interesting palimpsest of different religious traditions. Early Christians identified Mount Joy as ‘Ramatha’ (1 Samuel 25: 1) where Samuel died, although several other places (including the post-biblical, Arab town of Ramla, where pilgrims usually slept) were also identified with Ramatha. It is now controlled by the Israel Parks and Nature Authority (with a critique of the Authority’s control of the area, by alt-arch, here).
In the twelfth century, during the Crusaders’ establishment of a state in the Holy Land, a Premonstratensian monastery was founded at Mount Joy; but in 1187 it fell to Saladin and various battles were fought there. One story says that a hermit, named Elias, gave Richard I (the Lionheart) of England a relic of the True Cross there, which he had secreted at Mount Joy when Saladin took Jerusalem. Throughout this time, Jewish pilgrims often visited the site, and, possibly, a mosque was there in the thirteenth century. The Crusader church of St Samuel, photographed here, was significantly rebuilt in 1912 as a mosque, with the Crusader crypt and ruins incorporated into the new buildings (the tomb of Samuel itself, now a Jewish holy site, is in the basement, under the mosque).
The layers of different cultures came be seen very clearly and impressively now, following recent archaeological work there. Medieval Christian pilgrims always write about the view of Jerusalem from Mount Joy – like Mandeville, who says, ‘two miles from Jerusalem is Mount Joy, a pretty and delightful place. The prophet Samuel is buried there in a fine tomb. It is called Mount Joy because it is from there that pilgrims first see Jerusalem, a cause of great joy after their exertions’ (p. 49). The Christian pilgrims’ hearts and eyes were focussed on Jerusalem, shimmering in the distance and always full of spiritual promise. But, whilst pilgrims tend not to mention it, they must have noticed that they were taking part in something like cosmopolitanism: at Mount Joy, they would have seen Jews, Muslims, and non-Latin Christians praying, and the ruins left by the Crusaders who had been and gone before them.