When we speak of the martyrs from centuries past who died willingly for Christ we have very little, excepting the written accounts, as evidence of their martyrdom. Maybe a monument in a European courtyard or town square designates the place of execution, but it is still hard for us to visualize with our 21st century eyes the true scene of 15th century violence. Which brings us to the unusual evidence of one such martyr named Geronimo. This is not the Geronimo of the 19th century American west; this Geronimo met his fate in the city of Algiers on the Mediterranean coast of Africa.
Beginning in the early 1500’s Algerians, with the assistance of the Turks, freed themselves from the oppression of Spain. Algiers became a city of Arabs, Berbers, Africans, Turks, and Moors, and their main method of obtaining wealth was through piracy. By the early 1800’s the pirates of the Barbary Coast were notorious for being unmerciful in their thievery and for enslaving their captives, especially Christians, and working many of them to an early death. It was commonly known that once you were made a slave in Algiers, you would never see freedom again.
The Geronimo in our story was a Moor, someone of Arab and Berber descent, and was undoubtedly raised a Muslim. What his Moorish name may have been is unknown but he probably took the name Geronimo, which is Spanish for Jerome, around the time of his conversion. The circumstances of his coming to Christ are not known though it’s possible he had oversight of Christian slaves who bore the witness of Jesus to him. Although placed between 1560 and 1620, even the year of his martyrdom is debated; there is much that is simply not known. What is known, mostly through oral history, is that the Pasha, or ruler of Algiers, had him arrested and gave him twenty-four hours to recant his Christian beliefs or be killed. Geronimo refused. The Pasha had him bound and buried alive in a huge mud block that was being made for the building of the fort Bab-el-Oued. It became one of the many blocks that made up the wall of the fort which soon came to be known as “the Fort of the Twenty-four Hours”.
It was during the French renovation of the city of Algiers in the 1850’s that the history of the fort was recounted and the block that had entombed Geronimo rediscovered. There was nothing much left of the Christian martyr after 250 years, but before breaking apart the block, they filled the space with plaster of Paris, for the hardened mud had made a perfect mold of him. According to accounts, he was lying on his face with his hands tied behind him. His youthful features could be easily seen, as were the cords with which he was bound. Even the texture of his clothing was easily discernible. Some sources regard this whole story as a fable, but popular author R. M. Ballantyne spent one winter in the early 1870’s in Algiers and claimed to have seen the plaster Geronimo on display in the museum at the Algiers library. Whether this plaster image still exists today I do not know.
To many of us, Christian martyrs of the past are just names, but in Algiers there was one who added a three-dimensional face to a name and was a living, breathing person who loved the Lord Jesus, even unto death. This is what a martyr looks like.