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Saints and Feasts of November 16

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

British Archaeologist Charles Warren and the Holy Light

Sir Charles Warren was born in 1840 in Bangor, Wales and was an archaeologist, an officer in the British Royal Engineers, and later General of the British army which participated in battles in Africa and Asia.

In 1867 he went to Jerusalem as a member of the Palestine Exploration Fund and conducted a series of excavations that lasted until 1870. Amongst his findings is a network of galleries located under the Dome of the Rock, as well as an underground water supply system that was later named after him (Warren Shaft). He also completed a detailed topographical map of the old city of Jerusalem.

A portion of the results of his excavations was published in his work titled Underground Jerusalem that was published in 1876 in London. In a chapter of this work titled “Holy Fire,” Warren speaks of all he knows of the miracle of Holy Saturday which was of particular interest to him. In the first paragraph of this chapter he poses a crucial question: “What is that fire?,” and immediately responds to his question:

"What is that fire which on Easter-eve lights up the lamps in the Holy Sepulchre?... That a miracle attends the ceremony, there cannot be a doubt."1

The British archaeologist was an eyewitness to the ceremony all four years he stayed in Jerusalem and according to his assessment there is not a doubt in his mind that it was a miracle.

The first ceremony in which he participated was Holy Saturday of 1867. On the following Holy Saturday, through the intermediation of distinguished French scholar Charles Clermont-Ganneau, Warren secured a spot on one of the raised balconies of the Latins, from where he had an unobstructed view of the Holy Sepulchre. Situated at this salient and advantageous spot, he states the following:

"I had seen the miracle of the Holy Fire on a former occasion, but now I was to have a more complete view, through the influence of M. Ganneau, who had procured me a place in the Latin Gallery, to the north, and overlooking the Holy Sepulchre."2

And he continues, describing the moment when the Holy Fire appears:

"At last there is a feeling that the fire is at hand, masses of tow are thrust forward, a flash at the opening is seen, the tow is lighted… In a moment, as though by magic, the fire extends itself in all directions."3

Warren, even though he is a member of the Anglican Church, does not hesitate to acknowledge the miracle’s authenticity. Moreover, the miracle does not belong to the Greeks or to the Orthodox in general. It belongs to all Christians and everyone can partake in it. The Holy Fire cannot be imprisoned or caged within religious orders. It can, however, be enclosed in the hearts of all simple and virtuous people.

Rapturous from what he experienced, Warren is the fourth eyewitness to describe the descent of the Holy Fire as a flash that descends from above. As he states, the flash appeared at the opening of the dome, which at the time still had a small opening toward the sky.

Furthermore, he speaks of a torch that lights simultaneously with the appearance of the flash and immediately afterwards he describes a miraculous dissemination of the Holy Fire inside the church. He is not referring to the usual dissemination of the flame from candle to candle that needs quite a bit of time, but he describes a supernatural dissemination that was performed by the Holy Fire itself which, “in a moment, as though by magic,” flooded the entire Church of the Resurrection, extending in all directions at once.

The British archaeologist’s description is particularly revealing and in line with the testimonies of the previous centuries. Aside, however, from his personal account, in the same chapter of his book there are two more very important testimonies: that of Cypriot Bishop Meletios and that of Patriarch Kyrillos II, who led the ceremony the first two years in which Warren participated - the years 1867 and 1868 respectively.

The British archeologist, impressed by all he experienced during the ceremony, wished to further investigate the miraculous event and find out exactly what occurred inside the Sepulchre just as the Holy Fire appeared. The only people who could answer his questions were the two Greek hierarchs mentioned above. So, once he met with them at different times, he asked them to describe all they experienced inside the Holy Sepulchre. Let us examine exactly what they told him.

1. C. Warren, Underground Jerusalem, London 1976, p. 425.
2. Warren, op. cit., 430.
2. Warren, op. cit., 435.

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