Israel travels

1,000 years of rivalry — and a little bit of harmony — at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher

Whose chapel? Whose step? Whose ladder? The squabbles among differing Christian denominations at the Holy Places can seem petty to outsiders. Yet for much of the Christian world, these issues are vital, and they have been known to provoke bloodshed

Ethiopian clergy at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Ethiopian clergy at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

One chilly November morning in 1847, Catholic clergy entered Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity to pray. As was their custom, they continued into the grotto that had once held a stable. Imagine their dismay when they discovered that the silver star on the floor, which marked the spot of Jesus’ birth, had disappeared.

The Catholics immediately blamed the Greek Orthodox community, which had been upset with the star ever since it was incorporated into the floor over 100 years earlier. What bothered them was the star’s Latin inscription, which seemed to give the Catholics property rights to the Grotto.

But the Orthodox said that the Catholics had stolen the star, claiming that they were raring for a fight. And, indeed, both Russia (the Orthodox sponsor) and France (which looked after Catholic interests) were incensed over the affair. Even the Sardinian consul got involved.

Quickly becoming a dispute over control of the Holy Places, the controversy heated up so rapidly that in 1852 the sultan of Turkey, ruler of the Holy Land, issued an edict that effectively froze all of the religious arrangements in effect at the time — including rights of possession, lighting, decorations and hours of worship. This freeze, specific to the Holy Land’s sacred sites, was called the status quo. It remains in effect to this day.

Christians began jockeying for control of the Holy Places after the Crusaders conquered Jerusalem in 1099. Until that time a variety of Christian denominations — mainly eastern Orthodox — apparently worshipped peacefully in the Holy City. But when the Crusaders took over Jerusalem, the Catholic Church gained control of the sacred sites. The result has been a thousand years of out-and-out rivalry.

The most volatile period was during the era of Turkish rule, from 1517 to 1917, when the success of each religious group depended on the political climate and on how much money passed into the pockets of the authorities. Sometimes the Turks would decree in favor of the Catholics, at others in favor of the Orthodox. Once they even tried giving two communities rights to the same holy site – and told each that it was to be theirs alone. Nobody was ever pleased with the results.

Provocation was the order of the day, and fights even erupted within Orthodox ranks. In Bethlehem, the Greek Orthodox placed a carpet in front of the Armenian (Orthodox) altar. When Armenians came to worship, the Greek Orthodox assaulted them for stepping on their rug.

Like many disputes between bickering couples, neighbors and nations, the squabbles among differing Christian denominations often seem petty and trivial to outsiders. Yet for much of the Christian world these issues are as vital as the air they breathe. This is especially true in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, foremost among the sites governed by the status quo.

Greek Orthodox priests at Easter, at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Greek Orthodox priests at Easter, at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

In fact, to really understand the status quo it is helpful to examine the church’s interior. Divided both in terms of usage and in geographical area, its common areas include the church entrance, the Stone of Unction, the rotunda, its dome, and the sacred tomb of Jesus. Large and small candles belonging to each of the main communities flank the entrance to the tomb and indicate common rights. Every one of the huge pillars that surround the rotunda is assigned to a specific group; one column is divided between the Armenians and the Greek Orthodox.

Other portions of the church are, in the main, divided among Greek Orthodox, Catholics and Armenians. Copts and Syrian Orthodox have fewer rights inside the church, although the Copts have a small chapel.

Until the 17th century, the Ethiopians controlled several chapels in the church. Later, however, they didn’t have enough money to offer bribes to the Turks and lacked a powerful patron who could offer support. As a result, they were relegated to the rooftop of one of the church chapels.

During a single hour that I spent recently at the church, Franciscans held prayers at Jesus’ tomb to a background of loud organ music, and at the same time Armenians ascended to the Greek Orthodox altar. Both seemed to be singing at the top of their lungs. And on Sunday mornings as many as five different liturgies can be heard. But despite the seemingly deafening cacophony of their worship, this was actually an exercise in harmony. For east and west were worshiping, each in its own manner — but from separate, and previously allocated areas.

Tourists at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Tourists at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

The British who ruled the Holy Land from 1920-1948 prepared meticulous guidelines meant to help clarify issues relating to the Turkish status quo. Still referred to today, their memorandum should keep problems to a minimum. Yet a curious atmosphere of distrust and suspicion remains.

Bloody disputes have broken out between the communities over who would clean the bottom step of a flight of steps leading from the church courtyard – property of the Greeks – to the Chapel of St. Mary’s Agony – which belongs to the Catholics.

Unfortunately, the step is uneven: at its lowest point it seems like part of the courtyard; on its tallest side it is indisputably a step. Today, the Catholics sweep the step daily at dawn and the Greeks clean it when they are cleaning the courtyard.

Heavy candlesticks, and sometimes even a cross, have been known to make excellent weapons when a fistfight turns into a first-class fracas. At one time someone even grabbed a beam that covered a crack in the Chapel of the Skull and cracked a few bones instead.

Latin mass at the 11th Station of the Cross at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Latin mass at the 11th Station of the Cross at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

When the Church of the Holy Sepulcher required repairs, the groups had a hard time finding the right style. They knew that even the tiniest modification of the status quo could create irrevocable changes in their position.

As a result, although much of the church has been restored and a new lead covering – with a 200-year guarantee — was placed over the rotunda, for decades the various communities were unable to agree on interior decoration. Scaffolding remained under the dome until the end of the 20th century, an ugly reminder of unsolved disputes. Then, as the new millennium approached, all the parties agreed on a design. Today a golden, star-shaped inner dome shines above the rotunda.

My favorite example of the status quo is the ladder that leans against the exterior wall of the Holy Sepulcher, right below one of the church’s second story windows. It was used nearly 200 years ago to haul food up to Armenian monks who were locked in the church. With the situation frozen, probably forever, the ladder seems destined to remain until the ravages of time and weather cause it to crumble.

Aviva Bar-Am is the author of seven guides to Israel. Shmuel Bar-Am is a private tour guide.

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