Chapter Three


The Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society 1882 – 1917







St. Petersburg found itself in the last quarter of the nineteenth century on the margin of events in the Middle East. The Russian-Turkish war had hurt the relations between the two countries, while Britain occupied Egypt in 1882 and strengthened its institutions in Palestine during the era of Bishop Gobat. In his time, German religious societies also prospered and France and the Maronites established strong cooperation. French monks opened schools and hospitals, roads were opened, and trade prospered on the Syrian coast. Monsignor Bracco continued in 1872 the program of his predecessor Monsignor Valerga in opening parishes and Latin schools in Palestine and Jordan. But, “the Russians had succeeded only in squabbling among themselves, meanwhile the Orthodox community continued to decline.”[1]The Orthodox in Palestine were divided. There was a Greek-Russian conflict and a Greek-Arab conflict. The schools and hospitals of the Catholics and Protestants attracted the Orthodox families and youth.

In the mid-nineteenth century, there was an evident and gradual increase in the number of followers in the Catholic and Protestant Churches at the expense of the Orthodox. This phenomenon drew the attention of those in charge of the Orthodox Church. However, they did not tackle the problem effectively and were content with denouncing the phenomenon. The successive Russian missions performed limited activities that were not effective because the Greek clergy accused them of collusion with the Christian Arabs against the Greeks. The Russian Ecclesiastical Missions were also confused because they had to deal with a variety of references, such as the Russian Synod, the Russian Foreign Ministry, the Palestinian Committee, the Palestinian Commission and the Russian Consulate in Jerusalem.

In other words, the Russian presence was not coherent, and there was no single body that was responsible for sponsoring this presence. Moreover, the Crimean war (1854-1856) and the Russian-Turkish war (1877-1878) dictated on the Russians that they always start once again in building their entity and influence in Palestine. This however, did not mean that the Russian ecclesiastical and political position was very bad. Many Awqaf properties were purchased. The missions sponsored some schools and the Maskobia complex was built in Jerusalem. The only thing Russia had to do was to pump new blood into its existing institutions in Palestine and to unify their activities, efforts and goals in the Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society, which was founded by Vasil Nikolavich Khitrovo. The Society performed several fruitful functions, such as organizing the Russian pilgrimage to Palestine, archeological excavations, publication of Palestinian studies, and promoting Orthodoxy by opening schools and offering medical services. In particular, we will focus on what concerns the history of the Jerusalem Orthodox Church.

1- Founding of the Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society in 1882:

In 1871, Khitrovo visited Syria and Palestine like other Russian government officials did. “He felt during the visit the bad conditions of the visitors and the Orthodox nationals. He was deeply moved by what he saw and felt pity toward them. He decided to help them form a charitable society.”[2] Khitrovo wrote to Leonid Kavelin describing the condition of the Jerusalem Patriarchate: “I found the Patriarchate to be very unattractive. The patriarch himself (Kyrillos) is a good man, but what surrounds him is beneath all criticism… Care for the local Orthodox population is non-existent and its position is more than dismal…I may add that it has considerably worsened since your time. There is not one school, and it is better not to speak of the churches. The only concern of every Greek is to obtain more money to be able to intrigue, and the purpose of the intrigues is to become patriarch.”[3]

Khitrovo’s desire to establish the society did not have any specific landmarks or a clear picture about what kind of society it would be like. His desire to found the society could be traced back to his visit to Palestine in 1871. Circumstances then did not help the founding of the society. Therefore, the society was only founded in 1882 because of the bad Russian-Turkish relations that were the outcome of the Russian-Turkish war and because the Palestinian Commission and the Russian Mission did not accept a third partner to work in the Holy Land with them. Thus Khitrovo decided to study the history of Orthodoxy in the East and to follow up the news of the Jerusalem Patriarchate and its relevant developments. He corresponded with Antonin Kapustin, the head of the Russian Mission, and developed a good friendship with him. His private library became well known as one of the most famous libraries that included studies and books on the Eastern Church.[4]    

Khitrovo visited Palestine for a second time in 1880. The ties of friendship between him and Antonin grew stronger. The two friends exchanged views on the establishment of a private society for Palestine. On his return to Russia, Khitrovo found those who encouraged him to go ahead with his plans while others advised him to wait, or even to forget about the project. He left Russia once again on a new exploratory visit to Palestine in February 1881 and stayed there for nine months.

Meanwhile, critical developments occurred in Russia; Tsar Alexander II was assassinated and was succeeded by his son, Alexander III. Count Sergei Alesandrovich, the brother of the new tsar, and Pavel Aleksandrovich visited Palestine. Khitrovo had the feeling that a great deal of good would come out of these two persons. He viewed them as supporters of his proposed society. He presented to them and to the tsar a copy of a lengthy report prepared on Orthodoxy in Palestine. This was a custom followed by the Russian pilgrims, i.e. to present a book or a report to the leading figures of their country when they return home from their pilgrimage.

The most important thing that was contained in the report, which is similar to the report submitted by Mansurov in 1858, was the following:[5] The Orthodox were in a state of backwardness and decline compared to the Catholics and Protestants. In 1840, the Orthodox constituted 90 percent of the total Christian population of Palestine. This rate retreated to 67 percent later. The number of Latins and Protestants together totaled 13,000 people who had 86 schools while the Orthodox totaled 26,000 people and had only two schools. The Catholic and Protestant presence had a national connotation. There were for example, five French Catholic societies and three German Catholic societies.

The study of these societies, which Khitrovo touched on, is important because it was on these societies that the broad lines of the would-be Palestinian society were based. In its nature, goals and bylaws, the society provided for the most important services which these Protestant and Catholic societies combined were offering. The report attributed the deteriorating situation in the Holy Places to the spiritual bankruptcy of the Greek clergy. Some of the manifestations of this bankruptcy were the absence of an effective leadership and the neglect of the Arab parishes to a degree beyond description. The Greeks justified the existing conditions on the ground of lack of resources of the Patriarchate.

The impoundment of the Patriarchate’s Awqaf property in the aftermath of the crisis involving Patriarch Kyrillos made the Patriarchate lose two thirds of its income. Khitrovo estimated the remaining one third at 223,100 rubles, which was the sum total of the revenues of the Awqaf and the charity given by the pilgrims. This amount, in his view, was sufficient to meet the needs of the Patriarchate. The funds of the Patriarchate in Russia were released at the end of the reign of Patriarch Ierotheos (1875-1882).

The essence of the problem, then, was in the social structure of the Patriarchate, which was afflicted with racial segregation, and it was the Arabs who were the victims of this segregation that was practiced at the hands of the Greek clergy. Russia was undoubtedly the liberator of the vanquished Arabs. As for the Russian pilgrims who stopped coming in during the Russian-Turkish war and continued afterward, and who reached 2,000 pilgrims in 1880, they were subject to the extortion of the Greek clergy and guides. Russia had to organize and supervise their travel to Jerusalem, to take charge of matters pertaining to their pilgrimage, and to provide them with comfortable housing during their stay in the Holy Land.

Sergei and Khitrovo met following the latter’s return from Palestine. During the meeting, they drafted the broad lines of the society. Sergei arranged for a meeting between his brother, Tsar Alexander III, and Khitrovo. The Foreign Ministry and the Holy Synod revised the society’s law. The law was submitted to the emperor on 8 May 1882. The tsar introduced some changes to the law and endorsed it on 21 May 1882, and Sergei was appointed president of the Society. Khitrovo did not occupy a major post in the Society at the beginning, but was a member of the Administrative Committee of the Orthodox Palestine Society. We could define the St. Petersburg-based Society as a private organization enjoying imperial protection and not subject to the authority of the Foreign Ministry or the Russian Synod. The Society did not also receive material support from the government. For its motto the Society chose a verse from Isaiah  62:1: “For Zion’s sake will I not hold my peace, for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest.”

The motto shows the cherished status of the Holy Land for the Russians and their intention to take a new step that would elevate the status of Orthodoxy in Palestine. The motto is also an indication of the nature, bylaws and goals of the Society. At that era the Society was known simply as the ‘Orthodox Palestine Society.’

2- Goals of the Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society, its membership and budget:

The Society had three goals: “To strengthen Orthodoxy in the Holy Land, to help Russian visitors traveling to the Holy Land, and to publish the news on the Holy Land and to promulgate them to the Russians. The idea behind the last two goals in their final outcome reinforces the first goal.”[6]

The first goal directly pertained to the Orthodox presence in Palestine. Therefore, the Society sought to attain it by various available means, because in order to “elevate the status of Orthodoxy in Palestine, to improve the conditions of its residents, and to forestall the state of religious and moral decline, the Society started work on fulfilling the material and spiritual needs of these residents commensurate with its financial and moral resources. Meanwhile, the Society functioned in accordance with the political and ecclesiastical laws and the local conditions, and with whatever it deemed fit for the essential interests of Orthodoxy. The following were the means which the Society used to achieve its first goal: 1) to build schools in order to raise the young in the spirit of the right faith and to help the already existing schools, 2) to build new churches and to renew and help the churches which already exist,  3) to offer medical assistance to the inhabitants of the Holy Land in general, irrespective of the race or creed.”[7]

To achieve its goals and to secure its finances, the Society depended on the contributions and subscriptions of members. The number of the founders was 41 persons, including two princes from the ruling family, a number of educated people, people from the government and people who held high posts, notables and the wealthy.[8] All these founding members were honorary members who worked at posts related to Palestine. However, the official government figures, who were involved in sponsoring specific political stands during the crises which erupted between the Jerusalem Patriarchate and Russia, were excluded in order to protect the non-governmental and philanthropic nature of the Society. Nevertheless, the membership of Mansurov, head of the Palestinian Commission, was accepted.[9]

Membership in the Society was distributed into three levels;[10] First, honorary members: these included some members of the Royal Family, men of letters, writers, prominent ecclesiastics and Russian aristocracy. These were allowed to attend the general meetings and occupy senior posts at the Society. Each member of this segment would pay a subscription fee of 5,000 rubles as a permanent subscription for life. The second level of membership was the regular member, which accounted for 200 members. This membership was granted to those who were willing to accept it at the recommendation of two former regular members of the Society. A subscriber of this category would pay a subscription fee of 25 rubles as a minimum per year or 500 rubles for a permanent subscription. The third and last level was the supportive membership. A person seeking supportive membership should apply to the Council of the Society to be considered for membership. He shall pay an annual subscription amounting to 10 rubles as a minimum or 200 rubles as a permanent subscription. Members of this category are entitled to submit proposals to the sessions of the General Assembly, but they are not entitled to vote. Each member is granted the certificate and the medal of the Society in accordance with the level of his membership.

Applicants for membership in the Society should indicate which department they wished to join. In fact, the Society was divided into three departments representing the three goals of the Society. They were the Department of Studies and Publications, the Department of Pilgrimage, and the Department for Supporting Eastern Orthodoxy. The three departments were headed by figures who had a long and good knowledge in the nature of work of each department. The head of the first department was Dimitri Fomich Kobeko, a historian and a man of letters. The head of the second department was Feodor Petrovich Kornilov, an expert in the pilgrimage affairs. The head of the third department in charge of supporting the Orthodoxy in Palestine was Peter Alekseevich Vasilchikov.[11]

The three departments met once every two months. As for the general meeting, in which the honorary and regular members met, it was held once a year. Emergency meetings could be held if it was deemed necessary to do so. The administrative staff consisted of the president of the Society, his two assistants, the heads of the three departments, three elected members, the secretary and the treasurer. The most important posts were the president and the secretary, who were elected for a term of four years. If a member of the Royal Family sought to become president of the Society, a vice president should be elected.

The first president of the Society was Grand Duke Sergei of the Royal Family. He was not elected but his vice president Tertii Inanovich Filippov was. Khitrovo was elected assistant president of the Society, which included the elite of the Russian society. The establishment of the Society was declared on 21 May 1882. It was a strong youthful Society that included expert Russian personalities in Eastern Orthodox affairs, a Society that was determined to sponsor pilgrimages, to introduce Arabs to the Russians: “ The Arabs largely unknown in Russia, were presented as little Orthodox brothers.”[12] The Russian scheme was implemented in phases, during which some amendments were introduced to the form and content of the scheme.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         

3- Development of the Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society and its relationships with the Jerusalem Patriarchate:

The history of the Society is divided into three phases as follows:

A-     The first phase from 1882-1889:

The Society launched its work with unprecedented enthusiasm. However, questions were asked about its real intentions in Russia and Palestine. In Russia, it was viewed by the supporters of the Russian Commission and Mission as an alien body in the Russian presence in the East which could destroy this presence, all the more so because the Society enjoyed the satisfaction and protection of the tsar. In Palestine, the adversaries of the Society were the Greek clergy who developed hostile feelings toward the Slavs in the last 30 years. “French observers in Palestine shared these Greeks fears. The increasing Russian influence was a threat to the already diminishing French prestige in the Levant. The French encouraged Greek opposition to the Russians, hoping to stem any tsarist advance in the Holy Land.”[13]

In the first seven years of its life, the Society sought to implement its pre-planned goals with extreme enthusiasm. It kept its independence from the Foreign Ministry and the Holy Synod. “Efficiency, religiosity, optimism, this trinity characterized the first phase of the Society’s existence.”[14] The emperor himself and empress joined the membership of the Society. The number of honorary members thus became 43. Its bylaws, which allowed a maximum of 50 honorary members, were changed to allow 100. Its overall size in 1887 reached 873 members. The news and achievements of the Society in Palestine were circulated through booklets, bulletins and the talks of the pilgrims returning from Palestine.

In 1885, the Society decided to open branches in the various important Russian cities. The sources of the Society’s budget continued to be subscriptions and generous donations. The Holy Synod allowed the members of the Society to collect special donations in all the Russian churches on Palm Sunday. By comparison, when Khitrovo founded the Society in May 1882, its budget consisted of the 1,000 rubles collected by him. However, in the fiscal year 1889-1890, its budget rose to 721,730 rubles.[15] Thus the Society financed several archeological excavations in Palestine under the supervision of Antonin Kapustin.

The Society regulated pilgrimages to Palestine and reduced their prices. It also held agreements with the concerned enterprises to transport pilgrims. As soon as pilgrims arrived in Palestine, the Palestine Commission would undertake their supervision. To avert competition between the Commission and the Society, Grand Duke Sergei took over as head of the Commission in 1885. The step was an indication of the government’s desire to dissolve the Commission and to transfer its functions to the Society. This was done in 1889. In that year, the Society began the second phase of its history. It is noteworthy that the founding of the Society coincided with the election of Nikodemus as patriarch. Nikodemus was known for his friendship with the Russians. He expected that the Russians would establish a society to collect funds for the Patriarchate. Khitrovo wrote in a letter to Leonid Kavelin in 1883 casting light on this issue by saying: “I have come to the conclusion that sooner or later we shall have to enter into open struggle with the Greek clergy.”[16]

B-     The second phase from 1889-1900:

Within a period of seven years, the Society invaded the popular and official circles on equal footing, thanks to the benevolent impact which the Russians had felt. Emperor Alexander II was impressed with the achievements of the Society, particularly that the Society built the Mary Magdalen Church in Jerusalem in 1888. In his view, the best way to work in the East was to do this work from within the Church. The emperor heeded the advise of his brother Sergei, the president of the Society, and consensus was reached that the Society was the best means to represent Russia in the East. Meanwhile, the Society kept its unity and cohesion while division and competition occurred between the Mission and the Commission. The Mission was the loser because the Commission enjoyed the protection and support of the Foreign Ministry. Kapustin, head of the Russian Ecclesiastical Mission, was stripped of several responsibilities which he exercised in the past and his work was restricted to the performance of prayers for the Russian pilgrims and the monitoring of archeological excavations.

The Society spared the government enormous amounts of money, because it sold two-way travel tickets to Palestine and it would impound the amount for the way back. So if a pilgrim ran out of money during his pilgrimage, it would send him back home and cover his trip from the impounded funds. The Commission did not apply this method. It bought the ticket for the pilgrim and provided him with money at the expense of the Russian Consulate to send him back home. Perhaps these reasons as a whole were behind the issuance of the imperial decree on 24 March 1889 stating the following: [17]

-           To add the term ‘Imperial’ to the name of the Society. Thus it came to be called ‘The Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society.’

-          To dissolve the Palestine Commission and to transfer its functions to the Society.

      The most important effects of the Royal Decree were the following:

-           The Society lost some of its humanitarian charitable nature and was now under the influence of the tsars enjoying their further care. The evidence of this was that the word ‘Imperial’ was added to the name of the Society.

-           The emperor acquired the right to appoint the vice president of the Society and two members representing the Foreign Ministry and the Holy Synod.

-           The accounts of the Society became subject to the supervision of the State.

-           The number of the founding members or the honorary members doubled by becoming 100 members in 1889-1900. Many of them were supporters of the Slav nationalist trend. The Society’s budget also increased, reaching 995,730 rubles.

Thus it was no longer possible for the Society to avert the intervention of the politicians. The Russian Ecclesiastical Mission was officially attached to the Holy Synod, and the Palestine Commission was officially attached to the Asian Department at the Russian Foreign Ministry. Gradually, the Commission took over most of the functions of the Mission. When the Commission was dissolved and its functions were transferred to the Society, the trustees of the Holy Synod and the Foreign Minister had the right to voice their views on the projects and plans of the Society, because it was now two departments, one affiliated with the Holy Synod and the other with the Foreign Ministry.

Therefore, the emperor acquired the right to appoint the vice president and two members representing the Holy Synod and the Foreign Ministry.

Traditional Russian diplomacy then had a voice in the Council of the Society and a view on its affairs as a result of the expansion of its powers. These new powers were like a two-edged sword. The Society has become stronger on the level of the budget, members and projects, but it fell under the domination of the politicians. “The emperor’s act in bringing the Society under his wings was simply another step in the traditional policy of the tsars, who posed as champions of Orthodoxy in the Near East in order to promote political interests. Foreign observers received the news in that spirit, and soon began to speak of the Society as a state institution.”[18]

Paul Deplaissan described the Society as “a political league in terms of its presidency and major members, hiding itself under the guise of religion.”[19] The veiled goal of this league was the Russian domination of the Jerusalem and Antioch Patriarchates and the expulsion of the ruling Greek elements there. The crisis of the Antioch Patriarchate in 1898-1899, which led to the enthronement of an Arab patriarch confirmed these apprehensions by the Greek clergy and the major European Powers. A link was made between the educational policy of the Society and the goals of Russian policy. The reply of the Greek clergy was brutal compared to the incidents in the Balkans in 1870-1872 and the incidents of Syria in 1898-1899. “They began to call the Society the ‘Panslavistic Palestine Society,’ whose major purpose was neither religious nor philanthropic but political and anti-Greek.”[20]

The Society in the nineties of the nineteenth century was similar in many ways to the Mission in the seventies. Both of them supported the Arabs against the Greeks and the result was a confrontation between the Greek elements and the Orthodox locals. Ignatev led the Mission during the Bulgarian crisis, and the result was the independence of the Bulgarian Church, and Kyrillos was removed. Balyaev led the Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society through the Syrian crisis, the showdown between the Russians and the Greeks led to the defeat of the Greeks and the victory of the Russians and the Arabs by the arabization of the Antioch Patriarchate and the appointment of the first Arab patriarch to it. 

The Society did not receive an official financial support from the government until 1900. It depended on contributions and the subscriptions of members. In 1900, the government started to help the Society to encourage and support its projects or to cover a deficit in its budget as a consequence of the economic crises that befell Russia, and thus began the third phase of the history of the Society.

C-     The third phase from 1900-1914:

In May 1900, the government dispensed an annual grant to the Society estimated at 30,000 rubles. The support created the same impact as the imperial act made in March 1889. The number of the Society members increased, and the Society opened new branches. The Society also became more compliant with the policy of the State. In 1901, the emperor loaned the Society half a million rubles interest-free from the Foreign Ministry’s budget to be repaid at an average of 30,000 rubles per year.[21] However, the Society suffered from the drop of its revenues during the Russian-Japanese war in 1905. The government offset the deficit in the budget of the Society by loans and grants. Thus the Society managed to finance its projects, particularly in Syria in cooperation with the Arab leaders who took over the Antioch Patriarchate despite the economic crisis, which afflicted the Russian economy before the outbreak of World War I.

In this last phase of the history of the Society, four of its prominent figures died. Khitrovo died in 1903 after serving as secretary of the Society from 1889 until his death. Balyaev was appointed in his place and died in 1906. Aleksei Dimitrievskii, who served until the dissolution of the Society in 1917, succeeded him. Grand Duke Sergei, president of the Society, died in 1905 and was succeeded by his widow, Grande Duchesse Elizaveta Feodorovna, who served until 1917, when the Society was dissolved.

Within a period of one third of a century (1882-1914), the Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society achieved an old Russian dream. It raised the status of Russian presence in the Orthodox East politically and religiously. The most important achievement of the Society was that it supported the Orthodox Arabs against the Greek clergy. The Russians acted as the inheritors of Constantinople’s leading role among the Orthodox patriarchates.  The goals of the Society, as contained in its articles of association, were achieved in the best possible manner, i.e. promoting local Orthodoxy, acquainting the Russian people with the Eastern Christian heritage and with the Holy Places, and leading the collective Russian pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

4- Schools of the Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society:

“The school in the East has always been used to serve political influence and religious propaganda.”[22] This is the way a French writer, Exepi, described the schools of the Society in 1900. This comment is sound and does not apply to the Russian schools alone but also to the French, English, German and Italian schools. The sponsors and financiers of these schools were Christians who did so with the good intention of educating the youth and raising them properly. However, diplomats do not see things that way. No one can really acquit himself of this charge leveled by the French writer to the Russian schools.

It was difficult for an Arab child to find an elementary Orthodox school to go to, and Orthodox high schools were non-existent. The Orthodox Palestinians found their salvation at the hands of the Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society: “The Orthodox Palestinians requested that schools be opened for them, that their ruined churches be restored or new churches be built.”[23]  The Orthodox parish school in Palestine was “no more than a small group of children gathered round a priest who, as he was himself uneducated, could provide little education. These schools would spring up in a village on local demand and as quickly disappear.”[24]                                          

The al-Mjaidel school was opened in 1882. This village was chosen for the purpose of resisting the strong Protestant proselytism in the area. The teacher of the school was the parish priest, who had four students in his school. The Schools of al-Rama, Kafr Yasin and al-Shajarah were opened consecutively in 1883 and 1884.[25] 

A-    The appointment of Eskandar Kazma as superintendent of the Society’s schools:

It became evident to Khitrovo that enthusiasm alone cannot build schools. There was an urgent need, first, for efficient teachers. Therefore, he enlisted the help of the Damascene educator Eskandar Kazma, who was a graduate of the Moscow Ecclasiastical Academy. So he was appointed supervisor of the Society’s schools in Palestine. However, he was compelled to leave for Beirut. He says in this connection: “I started to do what I was requested in Palestine. However, unfortunately, as I took my first steps, I was faced with strong Palestinian difficulties. Therefore, at the orders of the Society, I was compelled to stop my work and to leave Palestine for Beirut, where I stayed until the crisis was over. I spent my time in Beirut in teaching Russian in the local Orthodox schools and in translating some school textbooks from Russian into Arabic as these textbooks were needed by the Society’s schools.”[26]

In Beirut, Kazma and Khitrovo discussed the issue of the Society’s schools and the need to upgrade them. “My stay in Beirut and suspension of work was a suitable opportunity during which the Society thought deeply about what should be done and about acting patiently to secure that we re-embark on fruitful work. I believed that we should prepare teachers before we open schools which could serve no purpose unless we have teachers who were prepared and had graduated from a legal school that loves the spirit of the Orthodox Church, particularly since such teachers were not available then.”[27]  

Kazma submitted two proposals: that the teachers be trained in Russia, or that a school be opened in Palestine for this purpose.  Khitrovo adopted the second proposal and referred it to the Society’s Council, which approved it. Commenting on the need to open a teachers’ training school, Kazma says: “had the Society been capable at that time to flood all of Palestine with schools, no result would have been achieved and we would be throwing our investment into the sea because of the inefficiency of the teachers.”[28] In light of the foregoing, the two schools of al-Shajarah and Kafr Yasin were closed down and it was decided to “expedite the establishment of a teachers’ training school before the elementary schools of the villages are established. I decided that Nazareth would be the venue for the girls’ school, which was badly needed.”[29] The Society made the necessary contacts for opening the two schools and secured the approval of the Patriarchate. “The patriarchal license was granted to open the two schools in one decree dated 13 July 1885, the license was addressed to Grand Duke Sergei, president of the Society.”[30]

B-    The Teachers’ Training School in Nazareth- the Boarding School:

The Society chose Nazareth because of “the presence of the Russian Visitors’ Hostel there, where for the most of the year, the home is empty. The choice was also prompted by the positive friendly environment toward the Russians in   Galilee, and the fact that the venue was midway between al-Mjaidel and al-Rama where the Society’s schools were opened.”[31] Instruction began in September 1886 at a rented house. Kazma headed the school administration and had a teacher called Nicola Abu Tabikh and six boarding students, who were later joined by six non-boarding students. “The students were accepted after being examined in Arabic reading, grammar, mathematics and hand-writing. The legal period of study consisted of four years divided into two parts. The educational subjects, which were introduced to its original curricula, were Christian education, Arabic, Russian, Greek, French, arithmetic, geography, history, Church singing, and Russian and Arab calligraphy.”[32]

No special building was built for the school as Khitrovo had hoped. The school remained accommodated in a rented house until it was transferred in 1904 to the Russian pilgrims’ hostel. In 1894, amendments were introduced to the system of the school, making the period of study six years. The teaching staff consisted of five Russian and four Arab teachers. Teaching of English and Turkish was made optional. The students were requested to speak to one another in Russian at specific times. The school also required its students to wear the popular Arab clothes while other schools required their students to wear Western-style clothes. Until 1906, some 170 students joined the school. This included 50 students who were still studying there. As for the remaining 120 students, 58 of them graduated with the school certificate and were appointed to the elementary schools of the Society. The graduates were 54 Palestinian and four Syrian students. The Society sent nine of these graduates to complete their studies in Russia.

Mikhael Noaima, a well known Lebanese writer, who studied in Nazareth for four years (1902-1906), was one of the students who were sent to Russia to pursue his studies. He says in this regard:

   “I had the dream to travel to Russia since I was in my first year of school in Nazareth. However, I could not dare announce this dream publicly. I had a colleague who competed with me very closely on who ranked first in class. However, he lacked imagination and taste in writing composition. Meanwhile, the inclination toward writing was the strongest of all my inclinations. I had written about every subject, whether in Arabic or Russian, and was greatly admired by my teachers. I can recall that our teacher, Jobran Fotteh, gave a mark of +5 on my composition describing  autumn. It was a mark that was never given to anyone, because it was above excellent. Yes. I slept and woke up while travel to Russia was the great hope that was living in the very depth of my heart. It was a great honor for me to be chosen from among my 20 comrades. It was also a rare opportunity for me to gain more education in a country that gave birth to Tolstoy. But, will the dream ever come true?”[33]

Noaima’s dream came true in the fourth year of his study in Nazareth:

   “finally, the examinations were over and the teachers completed reviewing them and giving the annual averages. Everyone was expecting the declaration of the great event. Sooner than we expected, the principal of the school invited us to a meeting in the big hall. The students queued on one side and the teachers on the other. The principal invited me to stand in front of him. He put his hand on my shoulder and in quiet paternal words, which penetrated to the marrow of my bones, he announced that as a reward for my attitude and diligence, the school had chosen me to pursue my studies in Russia. The dream had come true and this was a great event in my life.”[34]

Noaima studied at the Poltava Seminary in the years 1906-1911.

C-    The non-Boarding Model Nazareth School:

Grand Duke Sergei visited Nazareth in 1888. The Orthodox parish appealed to him to open a non-boarding school for boys, “because of the weak and failed schools they had at that time. His Royal Highness promised that he would look into their request. When he went back to Russia, correspondence started between the Society and the patriarch at his own instructions. The outcome was that the patriarch allowed the opening of the school, with the condition that the Society should build a church in al-Rama.”[35] The Society instructed Kazma to start his preparations to open the school, and this was done in February 1889. “On the day the school was opened, there were two students and three teachers. However, two weeks later, the school had 160 boys. The non-boarding school was known as the Model School, because since 1890, the first group of the boarding school completed its curricula, and a section at the non-boarding school was opened for them to practice teaching under the guidance of one of the boarding school teachers. There were 45 students divided into three classes. This section came to be known as the Model School and became the basis of the current non-Boarding Model Schools.”[36]

D- The Women’s Teachers Boarding School in Beit Jala:

In 1858, the Russian Mission opened a small school for girls in Jerusalem, and in 1886, Antonin Kapustin handed over the school to the Society. “Since that time, the school has been kept under the jurisdiction and financial responsibility of the Society, which appointed principals from Russia and teachers from Palestine and Syria.”[37] The Society realized that the Orthodox Church had no congregations for nuns like the Catholic Church or the societies of Protestant deaconesses. Nuns and deaconesses were willing to go to any place to work. Since it was difficult to hold contracts with many Russian teachers to work in Palestine, there was a need to train Arab women teachers to work someday at the girls’ schools that are run by the Society. The Beit Jala School was turned into a boarding school for teachers’ training. “Beit Jala was chosen because there was a vast plot of land owned by the Russians there. Within the land, there was the home built by Archimandrite Antonin. The Society utilized the land and the home for the purpose of opening the boarding school. The non-boarding school was transferred to a special location to be built for it. After the completion of all these preparations, the school was opened on 21 October 1890. Mrs. Trakanov was designated principal of the Beit Jala non-boarding school. The school had 10 girl students when it was inaugurated. The subjects it taught, the duration of studies and bylaws were like the boarding school in Nazareth.”[38]

The school enriched the cultural life of Palestine, because teaching of girls was rare and novel. Thus the school introduced new social habits to Palestinian society. “A minor revolution was brought about in the lives of those girls who remained as teachers with the Society. They had graduated from the school at eighteen and by the age of twenty one were still unmarried in a country where the usual age of marriage was considerably lower.”[39]

5- Cultural and intellectual impact of the Russian schools in Syria and Palestine:

There were 770 students in the Russian schools in 1889. The Society proved its success in the field of education. “If we go along with the estimates made by some that there were 30,000 Orthodox Palestinians in 1892 and that the children they had of school age were about 3,000, some 1,990 students would be receiving their education in non-Orthodox schools.”[40] According to the estimates made by Shokri Swedan, there were 1,100 students at the Russian schools. In 1893, there were 14 Russian schools, including 11 schools in Palestine and three in Beirut. By 1895, the number of Russian schools rose to 25, including 13 schools in Palestine and 12 schools in Syria and Lebanon. In 1896, the Society and the Antioch Patriarchate agreed that the Society would take over all the Patriarchate’s schools.

The opening of schools reached its climax in 1899, and the schools were divided into three geographic areas, namely, Galilee, Jerusalem and Syria. In the two areas of Palestine, there were 23 schools with a total number of 1,574 students, or an average of 47 students for each school. In Southern Syria and Beirut, there were 30 schools with a total number of 3,668 students, or an average of 122 students per school. By the year 1900, the Society supervised 68 schools with a total number of 9,998 students.[41] It seemed that the demand of the Syrians for schooling was much stonger than the demand of the Palestinians, “ The Syrians were eager to learn. The Russians found the young Syrians more alert than the fellahin of Palestine, and the average attendance in Syria was much higher than in Palestine schools.”[42]

The Ottoman government did not recognize the Russian schools. Therefore, the Society opened the schools usually in the name of the Patriarchate. For this reason, Khitrovo visited the region and the negotiations he held with Istanbul led to its recognition of the Society’s 87 schools on 1 March 1902. The recognition was the event of the hour in Russia, Syria and Palestine. Celebrations and festivities were held on this occasion.

The opening of a school in a Syrian, Lebanese or Palestinian village was a unique event that was imprinted on the memory of the children. Mikhael Noaima describes the opening of a school in his village of Biskinta in Lebanon by saying the following:

“Moscow and muscovite has become in our colloquial language ‘Maskobi’ and Russia has become known in our country as the ‘Land of the Maskob’. The Maskob has come to open a school in Biskinta. May God grant them victory. The news spread in the village as the light spreads at the break of dawn. The Orthodox community received it with joy and rejoiced. No wonder. It was taken for granted by the people of Lebanon that Russia was the traditional protector of the Greek Orthodox, France of the Maronites, Britain of the Protestants and the Druze, and Turkey of the Muslims.


However, Russia excelled over its competitors by opening free schools for the Greek Orthodox in Palestine, Syria and Lebanon. Its schools were coordinating their curricula and administration in the most modern fashion. Russia did not attach any conditions to Orthodox parishes in any town where a Russian school was opened other than the contribution by the residents to build a suitable building for the school. As for the teachers, books, notebooks, ink, pencils, furniture and the cost of administration, they were all free of charge. The Greek Orthodox in Biskinta made generous contributions. Those who could not offer money offered work. In a little more than one year, they had under their disposal a huge building topped with tiles and built on the edge of a stream that roars in the winter, but falls silent in the summer. They opened a courtyard for playing in front of the building. The school building was divided in a way to make the basement a classroom for the kindergarten. On the first floor there was a spacious hall and on the two sides of the hall there were six spacious rooms for teaching, numbered from one to six. This was in the year 1889 when for the first time Biskinta knew what could be called a model school. For the first time in its history, the girls of the village went to school alongside the boys.”[43]


   The students felt the greatness and prestige of Russia from their school. “We felt proud of our new school, because we felt that behind this school, there was a great country which was feared by other nations. Here we have the picture of Tsar Alexander II and his wife, Tzarina Alexandra, placed within two golden frames decorating the middle of the great hall.”[44] The Russian school enjoyed its own unique position and no one dared to transgress on it. “Every time we left the classrooms for a break or for prayers at the church, we went out in long, disciplined queues which no one dared to penetrate. It happened that a Maronite schoolteacher sought to penetrate the queue. However, the older students pushed him back after beating him with their hands and legs.”[45] 


   The school had its own holidays. “The biggest event in the life of the school was the holiday of Saint Nicholas, the patron saint of Emperor Nicholas II, on 6 December every year. On that day, celebrations were held and decorations were made, a great deal of gunpowder was consumed, balloons and fire works were shot at night. People tended to forget themselves because of their extreme joy. They usually forgot that they were living under the ‘Supreme State’ (Ottoman State). The Russians were too alert to overlook what the Greek Orthodox forgot in Biskinta. The school celebrated Sultan Abdulhamid’s accession to the throne every year.”[46]

Mikhael Noaima spoke enthusiastically and lovingly about his Russian school in Biskinta and about the Poltava Seminary in Russia where he spent the sweetest days of his youth, and this confirmed the popularity of the Russian schools in the Orthodox Arab circles.

The Russian schools constituted a link in the evolution of the Greek-Slav conflict in the East. Many Orthodox faithful have joined the Protestants and Catholics in quest of education. The Greek clergy were to blame for this conversion because they deliberately neglected education. Not educating the Arabs and keeping them ignorant, in the view of the Greek clergy, was the ideal way for subjugating them to the Greek rule. Proceeding from this fact, the Russians encouraged education that nurtured the national awareness and reminded the Arabs that they should become free. In contrast, schools, in the views of the Greeks, constituted a danger threatening their influence.[47]

We should point out however, that the Society’s schools were suffering from a weak academic standard. The Russians lacked the experience of the specialized Catholic and Protestant congregations, such as the Friars de la Salle and the Church Missionary Society. The Society made several attempts to unify its curricula and to raise its standards. It appointed for this purpose a Russian inspector general for the schools. Meanwhile, the wealthy class opted for the education of their children in the French and English schools that teach English and French in their curricula. Russian schools were usually elementary schools while the Catholic and Protestant schools opened secondary sections-high schools-, and this has encouraged the society’s elite to teach their children in such schools.

A hidden struggle erupted among the trustees of the Russian schools. There was a conservative team, which sought to make the Society’s schools similar to the traditional Russian schools. Meanwhile, there was a pragmatic progressive team, which sought to modernize the schools and make them like the English and French schools, teaching foreign languages so as to compete with the Catholic and the Protestant schools and to attract the rich and leading elite in the society. The Society also suffered from a shortage of qualified teachers. It sent Arab students to Russia. However, many of them were naturalized with Russian citizenship and opted to stay and work there. The Society encouraged Russian teachers to come to this region and granted them benefits and privileges. They were treated like the Russian army officers who were serving abroad. Despite all these incentives, most of them returned to their country after spending a short period of time in the service of the Society in the East. The conflict that erupted among some Society’s leaders of the Church, on the one hand, and the representatives of the Foreign Ministry, on the other, thwarted the educational process. The churchmen insisted on the religious role of the schools and the strengthening of the Orthodox doctrines, while some Foreign Ministry personnel were of the view that the schools should be political platforms that should be used to mobilize the public in Russia’s favor, particularly in its war with Japan.[48]   

Russian schools have undoubtedly served Arab culture and contributed to the rise of Arab national thought despite the charges which the Greeks and the French make by questioning the intentions of the Russians in establishing the schools and sending students to pursue their studies in Russia. The Russians were not content with granting Syrian and Palestinian youth the elementary school certificate that qualified them to teach in the elementary schools or granting them the medical degree from their universities. The Orthodox youth should also go to Russia to study theology in the Russian ecclesiastical seminaries and academic institutions, and were nurtured with Slav national thought. All this was intended to tighten their control on Syria and Palestine through their graduates. The students sent to Russia were not intended to be parish priests in the Syrian and Palestinian countryside, but were from the bourgeoisie of the cities, who were expected one day to become bishops and Church leaders.[49]

Among the famous graduates of the Russian schools and colleges who enriched Arab literature with Russian translations was Salim Qobain, who immigrated after his graduation from Russia to Egypt and translated several of Tolstoy’s books. He published several articles on Russian literature. Khalil Ibrahim Baidas translated books by Pushkin and Gogol and published in Jerusalem the monthly magazine al-Nafa’is, which specialized in publishing the translations of the Russian writers. A number of graduates from the Russian schools immigrated to the United States. They forged leagues and societies and published magazines to introduce Russian literature to the Arab immigrants. They included Abdelmassih Haddad, Nasib Aridah and Mikhael Noaima. The latter is known for his love of Russian literature. He says:

“The more knowledge I gain of the Russian language, the more I become inclined to read in it. While I was in Nazareth, I read some of the plays of Jules Verne translated into Russian. I have also read some novels by Chekhov and Tolstoy. I have read ‘Crime and Punishment’ by Dostoevsky, until the end, although I could not understand even half of what I was reading. The few things I read, although I missed much of their meaning, were enough to inflame my heart to go deeper into the origins of the Russian language and literature. The Russian language teacher helped in this. He was not the same Russian teacher I mentioned earlier. This new teacher came to us a short while after I was admitted to Nazareth. He was an Arab from Homs. He received his education in Russia. His name was Anton Ballan. I will always commend him for more than one reason.”[50]

 Noaima loved his teacher for his genuine patriotism, which stirred the emotions of his students: “What was more important than this was that teacher Anton Ballan was the first to awaken our nationalist feelings. Whenever it was opportune, he spoke to us about the misery which our country was suffering under the Turkish yoke, the despotism of Sultan Abdulhamid, the Bosphorus crimes and the corruption that was wide-spread in the government departments, starting from the Sultan until the last Mukhtar in the village. Therefore, if the Arabs want to live a life of independence and dignity, they should regain their land and usurped freedom. The Muslims, among the Arabs, should regain the usurped Caliphate. The Caliphate belongs to the Arabs and should not go to the Turks or other foreigners. May your soul rest in peace, Anton Ballan.”[51]

6- Building and restoration of churches:

The Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society sponsored the building and restoration of churches and supplied them with suitable furniture from its private budget, the donations of the benefactors, and the wealthy Russians whom the Society served as the medium for receipt of their donations to Palestine. Churches were of two types: Arab parish churches and the Russian churches which were built to commemorate a certain event or to honor some Russian dignitary, such as the church of Mary Magdalen, which was built in Jerusalem in 1888 in honor of the mother of Emperor Alexander III. The local inhabitants welcomed Russian aid to build their churches while coordination with the Patriarchate was stumbling: “There were insurmountable obstacles that strongly forestalled the restoration and renewal of the churches by the Society.”[52] Therefore, the achievements of the Society remained limited in this field.

7-Medical Services:  

The Franciscan Fathers were the first to offer medical services in Jerusalem. The Protestant and Catholic societies followed them. The purpose behind the opening of a hospital or a clinic was first to serve the sick and then to introduce them to the doctrines of the Church, which owned the hospital or the clinic through mixing with the locals and making friends with them. Therefore, Churches competed to open such hospitals and clinics, because the Ottoman government did not pay much attention to these humanitarian services. However, the Orthodox Patriarchate did not carry out such activities, because clinics and hospitals were usually sponsored by the monastic orders and charitable congregations, which did not exist in the Orthodox Patriarchate.

The Orthodox Patriarchate restricted its activities to offering some simple basic medical services compared with the services offered by the Latins and the Protestants. Under the title: ‘The current situation of the Patriarchate before World War I,’[53] Khoury says that the Patriarchate had a hospital in Jerusalem, which was the “hospital that was inaugurated by Patriarch Kyrillos, and two clinics, one in Jerusalem and the other in Bethlehem.”[54]

Therefore, the Society decided to enter into a new field, medicine, to forestall the shortage in the Patriarchate’s services, to offer medical care to the students of its schools and to the thousands of pilgrims who visited Palestine every year, and to protect the Orthodox from the temptations that were offered by non-Orthodox medical centers. “The Society was of the view that non-Orthodox missions took advantage of the need for medical assistance as an effective means to hunt the sons of the Holy Church and to attract them to their ideology. Therefore, you can find many of these missionaries treating diseases. In fact, some of them did not give the patient his treatment before the patient heard a religious sermon from them, and they often attacked the teachings and beliefs of our Church.”[55]

On the basis of this thinking, the Society opened a clinic in Nazareth in 1888; “It saw its own students being treated by the missionary doctors and being subjected to their golden sermons.”[56] The clinic was opened, “thanks to the help of Countess Olga Botyatina, who offered her moral and financial help. The countess made a contribution amounting to a great sum of money.”[57] The clinic offered medical services to 21,877 patients in 1906.[58] The Society had medical clinics in Beit Jala, Bethlehem and Jerusalem. The total number of cases, which the Society’s centers treated in Syria and Palestine from the years 1899-1900, reached 83,743.[59] The most important of these were the Russian Jerusalem Hospital. The date of its inauguration is not certain. There are sources which say that it was opened in 1856, while other sources say it was opened in 1859 or perhaps 1862. The hospital is located outside the walls of Jerusalem at the Maskobia complex, which later became the nucleus of the New Jerusalem, that extended beyond the walls. The hospital comprises a residence for a doctor, a pharmacist, nurses, a laboratory, a warehouse for medical equipment and two large rooms for the patients. It is equipped with the most modern medical equipment known at that age and can accommodate 30 patients.

The hospital treats Russian pilgrims and residents of the area, with the exception of the Jews. In 1872, there were 60 beds in the hospital, which rose to 75 beds in 1887. The hospital prospered under the sponsorship of the Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society, and became the largest hospital in Jerusalem (the German hospital 40 beds, the French hospital 32 beds, the English hospital 27 beds, the Greek hospital 24 beds, the Bikor Holim Jewish hospital 25 beds, and the Jewish Rothschild  hospital 18 beds). According to figures published by the Russian Church, the hospital hosted 2,905 patients from 1892-1893. Some 385 of these patients were admitted to hospital for in-patient treatment and these included 235 Russian pilgrims and 45 Arabs. The average stay in the hospital was 16 days per patient. One third of those admitted to hospital for in-patient treatment were suffering from malaria, tuberculosis or dysentery. The hospital had a total of 14 Russian employees and two Arab women. The hospital stopped functioning during World War I when Russian pilgrims stopped coming to Palestine.[60]

8- Palestinian studies and research, and the collective pilgrimage to the Holy Land:

Ever since its establishment, a number of historians, scientists and men of letters joined the membership of the Society. Russian historians and men of letters studied, under the supervision, encouragement and financing of the Society, the old history of Palestine, Byzantine history, the history of the Churches, and archeology. The most important figures who served in the field of Palestinian studies were Athanasios Papadopoulos Keramevs and Khitrovo. The writers published their research in the Society’s magazine: ‘Soobshcheniia Pravoslavnago Palestinskago Obshchestva’ (Bulletin of the Orthodox Palestine Society.)[61] This and other bulletins informed the Russian people about the achievements of the Society in Palestine and the news of the pilgrims. Thus it was the best means to encourage Russian pilgrimage to Palestine, which started a long time ago and reached its climax in the last quarter of the nineteenth century and the early twentieth century.

The Russian Mission and the Palestinian Committee and afterward the Palestinian Commission supervised the Russian pilgrimage to Palestine. When the Society was founded, it took charge of the pilgrimage, although it was the Palestine Commission, which was the official body responsible for pilgrimage in Palestine, so the Society undertook to organize the pilgrimage from Russia to Palestine and held agreements with train companies and ships to transport passenger at cheap prices.

In 1889, the emperor dissolved the Commission, and the Society supervised all phases of pilgrimage which prospered in its age: “It was now possible for the visitor to travel from St. Petersburg to Jerusalem and back at a fare that was equal to five and a half French Liras.”[62] The Society was interested in inflaming the desire of the Russians to visit Palestine and to improve the condition of the pilgrims. Therefore, it began repairing the hostels of the pilgrims, building new ones and doubling the number of Russian personnel working in the Society and its publications. Some 3,000 Russians visited Palestine from 1888-1889, and 6,000 in 1900.[63] In 1900 out of total 15,000 persons who visited Jerusalem, 9,000 were Russians. The last Russian pilgrimage before the outbreak of the war was in 1913, when 12,000 Russian pilgrims came.[64]

Most pilgrims were peasants and old women, and some of the aristocratic classes, such as Church people, government personnel, members of the royal family, and students of the Russian ecclesiastical academies. The Society made special arrangements that provided comfort for these groups in the ships and hotels. Some groups of pilgrims visited Mount Athos in Greece and St. Catherine Monastery in Sinai. However, most pilgrims were content with visiting Palestine.

There were two seasons for pilgrimage to Palestine. The first was before Christmas until the beginning of Lent and the second from the beginning of the Lent until the Ascension. Most pilgrims preferred the second season so as to attend the Easter celebrations in Jerusalem. In fact, the climax of the Russian presence in Palestine was on Easter Sunday.

The Society inherited from the Palestinian Commission hotels and hostels for pilgrims, which could accommodate 1000 pilgrims. Therefore, the Society began to build additional hotels and hostels to receive the increasing numbers of pilgrims. It built in 1889-1900 a new hostel outside Jerusalem’s walls, which could accommodate 400 pilgrims, two hostels for men and women near the church of the Holy Sepulcher on the spot where there was a Russian church, a hotel for Russian VIPs and offices for the Society. In 1895 it built a hostel that could accommodate 900 pilgrims, and in 1898 it built a tin hostel that could accommodate 130 tenants. In 1899, it constructed a wooden hostel, which could accommodate 1,000 pilgrims. In the same year, the Society managed to absorb 2,030 pilgrims, although it had to cope with a flood of pilgrims reaching 5,882. Thus it hosted in its hotels and hostels more than its normal capacity of accommodation.[65]

The Society regulated the pilgrimage process and thus it denied the Greek clergy the opportunity to exploit the pilgrims. If a pilgrim wanted to offer a sum of money to the holy shrines, he should give it to the Society, which would spend it in the appropriate way or give it to the body, which it believed worthy of aid. Even the food of the pilgrims was under the control of the Society, “by having its own Russian store and refectory, the Society kept pilgrims away from the local Greek and Jewish restaurants.”[66]

The Society also built special bathrooms for the pilgrims, water wells and sewerage, particularly since Jerusalem suffered a shortage of potable water. It supplied the pilgrims from its own water wells with quantities of water equal to double the quantity consumed by Jerusalem all the year.[67]

The major Russian proprieties and Awqaf were mainly in Jerusalem, and consisted of the Holy Trinity Church, the consulate, the house of the consulate dragoman, the residence of the Russian clergy, the pilgrims’ hospital and hostels. This complex was known to the people of Jerusalem as the Maskobia.[68] There are also St. Mary Magdalen church and a church near the Holy Sepulcher, which includes part of the old Jerusalem wall; moreover, a church and a pilgrims’ hostel and a monastery at the Mount of Olives. Buildings outside Jerusalem included al-Rama school, the Beit Jala school, two schools in Nazareth, the Ain Karem Monastery, a hostel and a monastery in Hebron and hostels in Bethlehem, Haifa, Nazareth, Jericho and al-Rama. [69]

The Orthodox Palestinians were impressed by encoutering the pious and meek Russian pilgrims. The Greeks and other Churches and societies in Jerusalem and the states that stand behind them warned of the impending danger. They viewed the peaceful Russian advance as a danger to the political and ecclesiastical balance in Palestine. Perhaps the best description of the Russian pilgrims was contained in Mikhael Noaima’s book, ‘Sab’oun,’ as he saw them near Nazareth and was impressed by their numbers and piety, like other Syrian and Palestinian Christians:

“We saw them coming to Nazareth in groups, in hundreds and thousands. They came walking on their feet. They were young and old, with beards and beardless, men and women. Most of them were peasants. We were pleased to see them wearing their peculiar, worn out clothes. On their shoulders or backs, they were carrying tin teapots. In their hands they were carrying long sticks to help them walk. We were happy listening to them talk about their impressions. Every time they mentioned the name of God or that of Christ, they would draw the sign of the cross on their faces and chests. They muttered in extreme piety: ‘Lord Jesus! Have mercy on us.’ We were proud that these people were of the same creed as ours from the very heart of Orthodoxy, and that there were millions of them in their country. We are not then a small people on this earth, but have our importance and weight in this life and in the afterlife. What I really loved about these pilgrims was their extreme simplicity, which was evident in their faces and the manifestations of piety in all their movements. They were very much like old boys. People looking at them could hardly believe that the country that gave birth to them also given birth to  geniuses whose names have filled the world. Perhaps their country gave birth to such geniuses because it also gave birth to these simple people.”[70]

Paul Deplaissan describes the Russian pilgrims as follows: They are pious and their influence on public life is much less than the influence of European pilgrims. They are poor, and they do not buy anything. They move from one place to another on foot. They are timid and silent. They pass by your side and you could hardly feel their presence while 50 French pilgrims in Jerusalem would display activity and vitality more than 1,000 Russian pilgrims would display.[71] Numbers surely draw the attention of other people. The Russians had the upper hand in pilgrimage because of their great numbers, which can drown in the Slavic sea the pilgrims of other nations. The Greeks lost the battle with the Russians on the collective pilgrimage under the strict control of the Society. The Greeks beat the drums of warning in their country to form groups of pilgrims. However, the answer was not encouraging and the Greek people did not respond to the cries of their representatives in Jerusalem. Patriarch Damianos commented on this phenomenon by saying, according to Paul Deplaissan, “The Greek people gave the smallest possible number of pilgrims among all the Orthodox peoples.”[72]

The last pilgrim journey to Palestine was in 1914 on the eve of World War I. It looked as if it was ‘The Farewell Journey.’ Holy Russia was bidding farewell to the Holy Places, which the Russian people loved and cherished for long.


On the eve of World War I, the Russian presence in Palestine was at its peak. Russia had schools, hospitals, clinics, hotels, and pilgrims. However, like the tsarist system, the Society suffered weakness and fragility in the aftermath of the Russian-Japanese war and the appearance of the Communists in Russia. Russia entered the war on the side of the allies against the axis alliance, which was joined by Turkey. Turkey announced that Russian properties were enemy properties and seized them. In the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, the Russian Empire fell and with it, the Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society.  Tsar Nicholas II and his wife Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna and the Grand Duchess Elizaveta Feodorovna, president of the Society, were executed in 1918. Some loyal friends found her body and took it to China in a journey, which was very much like the Odyssey. The body arrived in Jerusalem in 1921, and was buried in St Mary Magdalen Church on the Mount of Olives, meditating in her graveyard what the people of Holy Russia achieved in the Holy Land. 

Following the Bolshevik Revolution, “the remaining members of the Palestine Society in Russia continued  to publish modestly the Soobshcheniia, and between 1917 and 1926 there was only one thin volume which carried on its cover the transformed name of Petrograd instead of St. Petersburg. The name of the Society changed also. In 1917, after the fall of tsarism, it was renamed the Orthodox Palestine Society, but in 1926, the date when the last issue of the Soobshcheniia appeared, it was simply the Russian Palestine Society. In this guise it disappeared into history.”[73]

Orthodoxy lost its great people and protector when Holy Russia fell and the Arabs lost their most cherished friends, but only for sometime. Holy Russia became the first and largest communist atheist country. The Palestinians lost the support of Russia and the Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society. The Palestinians pinned their hopes on Orthodox Holy Russia and were proud of it: “We were proud that these people were of the same creed as ours from the very heart of Orthodoxy, and that there were millions of them in their country. We are not then a small people on this earth, but have our importance and weight in this life and in the afterlife.”[74]

Arab destiny was to venture into the labyrinths of the Alqadhia al’arabia alourthodoxia (Arab Orthodox issue) all by themselves without any support during the reign of Patriarch Damianos, who was a contemporary of the demise of two international entities: the Ottoman Sultanate and the Russian Empire. He also saw the soldiers of General Allenby occupy the Holy City and stand as arbitrators between the Arabs and the Greeks. The British Crown tried to be a fair judge. However, the British did not have the same sentiments or passion for Orthodoxy and the Arabs as the Russians did.