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Short Visit to Qustandi Church

al-3asha al-sirriChristopher Andrew Mazen Qustandi Karam. One thing that stands out is perhaps my Western appearing given name, Christopher Andrew, which feels out of place and awkward. To sort this mess out I decided to dive into a bit of onomatology. The results were not exactly surprising:

Christopher: Greek origin (Christ√≥foros) meaning carrier of Christ.

Andrew (maternal grandfather's name): Greek origin meaning manly and strong.
Mazen (dad's name): Arabic origin, most likely meaning rain clouds.
Qustandi (paternal grandfather's name): Latin origin (very similar to Constantine) meaning steady and firm.
Karam: Arabic origin meaning generous.

I say not surprising not for the (admittedly) sublime accuracy the na

mes bestow upon my personality, but for their accurate reflection upon my ethnic background. Situated in the Eastern Mediterranean, Palestine has long been exposed to the Greco-Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman empires, all of which have used the Latin, Greek, and Arabic languages. So really it's no surprise that my name represents an amalgamation of the Classical, Medieval, and Modern eras. I am however particularly interested in one part of my name, Qustandi. The name got me thinking when I was reading about Constantine the Great and the Roman Empire. Constantine is regarded highly in Orthodox Christianity due to the influential role he played in sponsoring the underground religion and its eventual spreading across various continents from 400AD onwards. I come from an Eastern Orthodox Arabic background (colloquially referred to as 'Ruum' Orthodox (Roman Orthodox) so expectedly the name Constantine eventually filtered through cultures and regions to become Qustandi.

Away from onomatology and my personal history and closer to something of more interest to me; how do Qustandi and Eastern Orthodox Christianity translate into the built environment form in Ramallah? This warrants a visit to the Ruum Orthodox church. I only had to drive less than a kilo meter far to get to the Church, which is located at al-Tireh neighborhood:

If you look closely at the picture you might notice that there is in fact no church; the crowded constructioncover most of the area. This is the site of the first place of Orthodox worship in Ramallah. The picture shows remnants of a monastery where Saint Stephen (the first Christian martyr) was said to be buried. For over a century ago Ramallah was home to seven Christian monasteries, one of which was St. Stephen's monastery. However, Ramallah was unknown city; it is appear in the 15th century, when the modern day city was inaugurated. The monasteries were thus a defining characteristic of the area at one point in history. Today only ruins remain and they are conserved by local municipalities in Ramallah and the adjacent city, al-Bireh.

The site of St. Stephen's monastery is still used till this day for ceremonial worship amongst Eastern Orthodox Christians.

Last summer (2013) new artifacts were discovered and so the site has been gated as archaeological work continues.

I continued my drive towards Ramallah and arrived at the Church of Transfiguration, the current site of the Ruum Orthodox Church in the historic district of Ramallah-Al-Tahta (literally lower Ramallah).

The church was built in the traditional architectural style of the Cathedral; with a large rectangular interior split into three rows by large columns. The construction Cathedral was the result of a direct order by Constantine the Great. If it weren't for him Cathedral or even churches might have never had existed. The church thus stands as a testimony to the strong and lasting influence of Constantine's Christianization of the Middle East.

The church is decorated with a selection of Christian artwork of Jesus, Mary and various saints. In Eastern Christianity religious artwork is referred to as 'icons' or 'ikonat' in Arabic, regardless of its form. Expectedly the artwork is very characteristic of traditional Eastern Christianity and Byzantine art. Here are a few pictures of some of the icons found in the church today:

If you think these icons are ugly, well done, you've probably complimented their respective artists. Byzantine Christian art departed from the sexualised fascination with the body epitomised in Pagan Classicist art and instead demoted humans to a more rudimentary, almost intentionally ugly form. Up until the Renaissance Christian artwork was very much about conveying religious meaning and disregarding pagan traditions of glorifying the image of human beings.

If you compare Leonardo Da Vinci's Last Supper portrait to the Byzantine version shown before you can notice a stark contrast in style. The former portrait was drawn during the Renaissance period, when there was a reemergence of Classical art. The faces in the portrait are much more rounded and feel more 'real', in fact most of the concentration in the picture is on Jesus and his disciples. However the Byzantine version in the Church of Transfiguration chooses not to concentrate on the human figures, instead the icon is essentially trying to tell the story of the Last Supper with no frills.

The East-West Schism during the Middle Ages might well have had a massive influence on Christian art in Ramallah, and Orthodox Christianity in general. After the schism, Orthodox Christianity remained highly conservative in its art forms and icons. When the Renaissance eventually came about in later years the Catholic Church was more recipient and gradually re-adopted the Classical models of architecture and art, unlike its Orthodox counterparts who remained closer to the Byzantine models. What makes the Church of Transfiguration in Ramallah very Orthodox is thus the lack of any artwork resembling of the Renaissance/Enlightenment/Modern era?

The Church of Transfiguration is probably only one dimension of the influence Constantine the Great has had on Ramallah's culture and built environment, however it is perhaps the most vivid living example in the city.

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