Nearly one millennium ago, a group of Armenian monks established a hospital outside the walls of Jerusalem to treat victims of leprosy, a chronic disease that was widespread during the Middle Ages. The hospital, known as the Military and Hospitaller Order of Saint Lazarus of Jerusalem, eventually served the Knights of St. Lazarus -- European knights who had contacted leprosy or had been permanently wounded in Crusade battles from the point of the First Crusade in 1099.
When the Muslim conqueror Saladin invaded the Holy Land in 1187, the Order of St. Lazarus lost its main hospital and convent as well as many of its knights in Jerusalem. After moving to Acre, the order was eventually expelled by Muslim forces at the end of the 13th century, which terminated their 200-year presence in the Holy Land.
Throughout the centuries, the order, made up of an international community of Christians, has continued on with its medical and hospital care as well as charitable and orphanage work across the world.
"But now we've come back home," says the order's grand chancellor and delegate for the Holy Land, Count Phillipe Piccapietra, referring to the decision to move the order's headquarters back to Jerusalem last year after a 720-year-old exile in France.
In a recent interview with Tazpit News Agency earlier this week, Piccapietra explained that "no one can understand the move [back] better than the Israelis."
"Israel is the center of the world and here you can meet the whole world," said the count, originally from Switzerland.
While the functions of the Order of St. Lazarus are slightly different today in Jerusalem -- it no longer treats lepers and wounded knights -- the organization seeks to heal minds, spirits and bodies regardless of religious and political borders, says Piccapietra.
The order's new project is to make Jerusalem's Old City accessible to the handicapped via environmentally friendly electric-run vehicles and mobility scooters. This is currently being carried out together with the Jerusalem municipality, which seeks to limit the number of cars driving through the narrow streets of the Old City and encourage the use of these smaller, more eco-friendly vehicles.
The order is also taking an active part in the Jerusalem municipality's first international Jerusalem Symposium on Green and Accessible Pilgrimage this week, headed by Deputy Mayor Naomi Tsur. The symposium seeks to welcome millions of pilgrims and eco-friendly travelers to Jerusalem every year as well as promote the city's conservation of unique cultural, biblical and natural heritage of all faiths.
The first pilgrim that the symposium welcomed was none other than a member of the Military and Hospitaller Order of St. Lazarus, Jorgen Nilsson, a Swede who walked 5,000 kilometers in six months to make his pilgrimage to Jerusalem.
"I wanted to make this journey to mark the order's return home, and to bring a message for peace and take a stand against xenophobia," Nilsson told Tazpit News Agency.
"It's my first time in the Holy Land and the first time that a member of the order has ever made this trek by foot to Jerusalem in our history," Nilsson said.
Nilsson left Sweden in November, trekking through Denmark, Germany, France, Italy and Greece before taking a boat to Cyprus and onto Haifa. In Israel, the 39-year-old Swedish engineer did some more walking, from Haifa to Jerusalem, in time for the green symposium.
"I'm so happy to be in the Holy Land -- I love the people and food, especially the hummus and falafel," Nilsson added.
"I would love to come back again to the Holy Land, but next time not by foot."
Photo Credit: Tzuriel Cohen Arazi, Tazpit News Agency / Description: St. Lazarus member, Jorgen Nilsson walked 5,000 kilometers over six months to make his pilgrimage to Jerusalem from his native Sweden.