In the year 636 AD, a boat without oars or sail appeared in the mouth of the river Liane, the location of present day Boulogne-sur-Mer. There was nobody on board, nothing save a statue of Our Lady and a copy of the Gospels in Syriac. Locals found the boat and the precious cargo, which was bathed in a brilliant light, and upon hearing a voice saying, ‘I choose your city as a place of grace,’ carried her up to a chapel in the upper town. Over the centuries, the statue has been hidden and stolen many times and always returned – until 1793 when she was finally destroyed, save for one hand. More recent models of the statue, along with the precious hand, can be seen today in the crypt beneath the huge basilica that now adorns the site. So why did she appear at this time, what was the gift of the Black Madonna of Boulogne for humanity?
As it happens, around the year 636 AD the Western World was at a crossroads. The opulent empires of antiquity had fallen leaving in ruins the beautiful cities and temples that had once been the cultural centres of the Mediterranean. The Holy Roman Empire had yet to exist, and the Franks were ruled over by the Merovingian kings, the most famous of which, Dagobert I, was ruling at the time. Christianity was in the throes of cementing its grip in the West, and across the Levant a brand new religion was emerging and spreading like wildfire. Just four years after the death of the prophet Mohammed, one of the most significant and decisive battles in world history took place at Yarmouk, a river situated along the borders of modern day Syria and Jordan/Israel. It was here where the Muslim forces of the Rashidun Caliphate met the might Byzantine Empire, ending Byzantine rule in Syria once and for all and establishing a hegemony that lasts to this day.
636 AD was also the year that the Caliphate set siege to Jerusalem. In April 637 the city submitted to the Caliph Umar, making Jerusalem a holy site of Islam. Saracen control was to last until the First Crusade over four hundred years later, until Godefroi de Bouillon led the Frankish armies into the city, retaking in blood what had been lost. It is no coincidence that Godefroi was born in Boulogne, to Count Eustace and Countess Ida. It was through is mother that he became the Duke of Lower Lorraine, the title he held upon his conquest of Jerusalem. His brother Baldwin was also present on the Crusade and it was him, not Godefroi, who was to be crowned the first Frankish king of Jerusalem in 1100 AD.
The family are steeped in esoteric history, linked not only to the Crusades but to the Knights Templar, and the controversial Priory of Sion. Picking through the web of fact and fiction, it is widely accepted that the Countess Ida rebuilt the basilica in Boulogne in 1104 and established the Black Madonna as Our Lady of the Holy Blood. As Baigent, Lincoln and Lee describe in some detail in their best selling and seminal work of the 1980s, this holy blood, or Sangreal, could have been a direct reference to the bloodline of Jesus and Mary Magdalene – the bloodline to which Baldwin and Godefroi were said to belong.
Whatever the truth, it is undeniable that the First Crusade was the beginning of centuries of conflict and blood shedding between the Saracens of the Levant and the Franks of the West, the scars of which endure to this day. But there is also something deeper in this story to which the original essence of the black Madonna is linked. The reference to the gospels in Syriac is intriguing, especially as Christian rule in Syria affectively ended with the Battle of Yarmouk. Like a seventh century version of the World Wide Web, the Black Madonna seems to be a guardian and transmitter of knowledge, a conveyor of documents from one part of the world to another in order to preserve them. The Syriac Christian churches were amongst the earliest in Christianity, repositories of early and pure teaching (e.g. Nestorianism), many of which have been wiped out and declared heretical by subsequent ecumenical councils. Sadly many of these churches in Syria and Turkey have not survived, and those that have are in peril.
In 637 when the Caliph Umar was given the keys of Jerusalem, he is said to have entered the city humbly, wearing white robes and riding a camel. He cleared the Holy of Holies of rubbish to create a place to pray and established two qiblas, one for Moses and one for Mohammed. He is also said to have established the Umariyya Covenant, or treaty of Umar, guaranteeing a measure of religious freedom. Though it is disputed whether the covenant existed, nobody is denying that there was some inter connection and tolerance between the People of the Book at this time. Maybe it is this essence of tolerance and respect for knowledge that the Black Madonna of Boulogne is preserving?