After 700 years, the Knights of St. Lazarus return to Jerusalem… riding electric buggies
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After 700 years, the Knights of St. Lazarus return to Jerusalem… riding electric buggies

A Swiss count from a Christian military order that left the Holy Land in 1291 is spearheading a peaceful drive inside the Old City walls

Count Philippe Piccapietra of the Order of St. Lazarus, this week (photo credit: Matti Friedman/Times of Israel)
Count Philippe Piccapietra of the Order of St. Lazarus, this week (photo credit: Matti Friedman/Times of Israel)

When the Military and Hospitaller Order of St. Lazarus of Jerusalem last departed the Holy Land, the order’s fighting monks and healers were armed with broadswords and rode warhorses.

Seven hundred and twenty-two years have passed, and the order and its eight-pointed green cross are back on the streets of Jerusalem’s Old City. But this time they come with environmentally friendly electric buggies, armed only with good intentions.

'We were born here. We decided to come back,' says the count. (photo credit: Courtesy)
‘We were born here. We decided to come back,’ says the count. (photo credit: Courtesy)

“We are not Crusaders,” the order’s grand chancellor, Count Phillipe Piccapietra of Zurich, said this week, scooting soundlessly across Old City paving stones in a two-seat cart of a type that would not, it is fair to say, strike fear into the hearts of the infidel.

The 52-year-old count can be found these days in the vicinity of Jaffa Gate, in his white adventurer’s scarf and khaki jacket emblazoned with the green cross of St. Lazarus. His buggy is one of the vehicles the order is introducing in a new project aiming to ease movement for the handicapped in the notoriously inaccessible Old City of Jerusalem.

The project is being launched in cooperation with the municipality as part of a conference next week on environmentally friendly pilgrimage. Ahead of the conference, another member of the order is set to arrive in Jerusalem on a pilgrimage from Sweden — on foot.

The buggies also serve to announce the return of the Order of St. Lazarus, or at least a distant and barely recognizable descendant of the order, to the city where it was founded nine centuries ago.

“We were born here. We decided to come back to Jerusalem and establish our headquarters back in this city,” the count said.

The order sees the buggies as linked to its historic mission, he said.

“This is one of the traditional duties of people in orders — to host, welcome, protect the soul and mind and body of pilgrims, so we’re actually back in our essential and traditional role,” he said. “Jerusalem is a holy city, but the most unholy city for the handicapped.”

Since last June, the order’s new and temporary headquarters — the “grand magistral seat,” in the parlance of its 400 mostly European members — have been in a hotel near Jaffa Gate, and will remain there while the count seeks more permanent real estate.

The door is emblazoned with the order’s seal and motto, Atavis et Armis, “With ancestors and arms.” Inside, one can find a state-of-the-art Mac and a giant 250-year-old sword from France.

Piccapietra on a buggy at Jaffa Gate, this week (photo credit: Matti Friedman/Times of Israel)
Piccapietra on a buggy at Jaffa Gate, this week (photo credit: Matti Friedman/Times of Israel)

Several Crusader-era orders survived in Europe after the collapse of the Christian kingdom in the Holy Land in 1291 and exist to this day — the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulcher, for example, or the Sovereign Military Order of Malta. They tend to involve noble titles both inherited and bestowed, elaborate uniforms and ceremonies, and a dedication to the ideals of chivalry.

The roots of the Order of St. Lazarus are in a leper hospital outside the walls of Jerusalem after the arrival of the First Crusade in 1099. The order says its origins are actually much older, in a 4th-century CE hospital run by Armenians and named for St. Lazarus — a leper cured by Jesus in an episode recounted in the New Testament — and whose work was continued later by European monks.

The count was inducted into the order in a 1984 ceremony at a house in France that tourists and locals call Chateau Civray-de-Touraine and the count calls ‘my uncle’s castle’

The order eventually accepted leper knights from other Crusader orders of monk-warriors like the Templars, and thus became a military organization that both cared for the sick and fought wars.

After the final Muslim victory over the Christians at Acre at the end of the 13th century, the order’s knights decamped to Sicily and France, where they continued to tend to the sick. Over the centuries, the order was caught up in European politics, banned by a pope, split several times, all but disappeared, and was revived in curious circumstances by noblemen of dubious parentage, and by the 20th century there were several orders linking themselves to St. Lazarus.

Today, the Military and Hospitaller Order of St. Lazarus of Jerusalem is a charitable organization dedicated to carrying out good works around the world. Count Piccapietra is the order’s grand chancellor, equivalent to a CEO. (The order is currently led by an Anglican bishop, and its “spiritual protector” is a Roman Catholic cardinal.)

Membership had been in his family for generations, he said. The count was inducted in a 1984 ceremony at a house in France that tourists and locals call Chateau Civray-de-Touraine and he calls “my uncle’s castle.”

“It’s family tradition. Someone said, ‘It’s your turn now,’ and I was not fast enough to say no,” said the count.

Piccapietra undertook projects to help orphans in Romania, and later accompanied aid missions to places like Cambodia, where he remembered meeting a real leper for the first time.

The order's motto means, "With ancestors and arms" (Courtesy of the Order of St. Lazarus)
The order’s motto means, “With ancestors and arms” (Courtesy of the Order of St. Lazarus)

He owes some of his concern for the disabled, he said, to breaking 36 bones in a 1991 paragliding accident in the Alps — “I was almost disabled myself.” Five years later, he was injured again when he crashed an ultralight aircraft in the Egyptian desert.

He has yet to crash one of the electric buggies.

The buggies currently in Jerusalem are Israeli-made two-seaters that can go 19 miles on an overnight charge. Another four vehicles — four-seaters custom made in Spain — are currently held up at Israeli customs because of a bureaucratic snafu.

The Jerusalem municipality has taken steps to limit the number of cars in the Old City, allowing only cabs, residents and religious officials to drive through the gates. Eventually, Deputy Mayor Naomi Tsur said this week, the city hopes to further cut the number of cars in the narrow streets and alleys. She sees the order’s buggy endeavor as a step in that direction. 

The St. Lazarus project aims to carry people around all four quarters of old Jerusalem, fostering a “common language” inside the walls, Tsur said.

“People walking in Jerusalem should have tranquility, the quiet to think, uninterrupted by the noise of cars. The buggies brought in by the Order of St. Lazarus fit into our vision for the Old City,” she said.

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