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Dier Es Sultan

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Life on the Roof of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher

Location – Church of the Holy Sepulcher

Map Coordinates - 31.778460, 35.229556

Jerusalem speaks with many voices. Nowhere is this more in evidence than in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Ever since the fourth century AD, there have been monks from the African country of Ethiopia who have lived in Jerusalem. Ethiopian monks are still here in a very primitive monastery.

Where is it? Somewhere close to the Holy Sepulcher church? No. They actually live on the roof of the church. The monastery is called Deir es-Sultan, and the Ethiopians have been here on the roof ever since the year 1654 AD.

The Huts.

About twenty monks live here in tiny little huts that resemble the kind of clay homes that you might find in Africa. They’ve been on this roof since the sixteenth century. But because this little monastery receives almost no help from their mother country, Ethiopia, the monks here live quietly in poverty, and life for them changes very slowly. It’s very cold here in the winter. Sometimes there is no running water or electricity. And when it rains the water pours into the rooms where the monks live. 

The Dome.

The entire monastery occupies a little less than half an acre. In the middle of this courtyard is a small domed structure, part of the roof of the Chapel of Saint Helena directly below. It is believed that this rooftop used to be the dining room of the Crusaders when the Church of the Holy Sepulcher was rebuilt in the 11th century. During festivals, such as Easter, this rooftop is filled with Christians who make a pilgrimage from Ethiopia to Jerusalem.


The Doors In and Out of the Monastery.

There is a door on the north side of this courtyard that leads not only to the Egyptian Coptic Patriarchate, but also the Ninth Station of the Cross, where it is said that Jesus fell a third time. The Coptic church actually has the keys to this door, because they own this monastery, and they allow the Ethiopians to live and worship here.

There has been constant conflict between the Ethiopian Church and the Egyptian Coptic Church as to who owns this monastery, who should live there, and who should hold the keys. At this very moment, the Ethiopians live here, and the Egyptians have access to the main church through all of the doorways inside the monastery.

There is a doorway that leads into the two chapels in which the Ethiopians worship. The first is the Chapel of the Four Living Creatures, and down a flight of stairs is the Chapel of the Archangel Michael. At the very bottom visitors exit into the courtyard of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

The Chapel of the Four Living Creatures (upper level)

The Chapel of the Four Living Creatures is technically owned by the Egyptian Coptic Orthodox Church, but it is currently being used as a place of worship by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. It is a very simple and humble chapel.

The Iconostasis.

In the front of the church is a wall with a door, leading into a small area called the sanctuary where there is the main altar of the chapel. It is a simple version of what we see in every eastern Orthodox church. The main worship hall represents the earth and its inhabitants. The sanctuary behind the wall represents heaven, and the wall between them marks the separation between earth and heaven. Only the Ethiopian priests are allowed to go through that door and access the main altar.

The Queen of Sheba Painting.


On the wall is a 20th-century painting - a scene that is based on a Biblical story from 1 Kings 10:1-13 and in 2 Chronicles 9:1-9. It’s a picture of the Queen of Sheba visiting King Solomon, and she is bearing gifts for him. She came from Ethiopia to the land of Israel, and she wanted Solomon to “prove his wisdom” by asking him some very difficult questions.

According to tradition, the queen then converted to Judaism, and went back to her home country in northern Ethiopia, where she required that her entire country follow all of the Jewish laws. 


Jesus talks about this Queen of Sheba, calling her the queen of the south. Even the first-century Jewish historian, Flavius Josephus refers to her. (Antiquities 8:165–173). Although this woman isn’t named in the Bible, the Ethiopians call her Makeda.

According to the legend, the queen also had a son by King Solomon, called Menelik, who was destined to become the first Ethiopian emperor. According to the Ethiopians, when the boy came of age he was sent by the Queen of Sheba to Jerusalem to meet his biological father, King Solomon. In the course of his visit, according to the legend, somehow or other, Menelik either stole the Ark of the Covenant, or it was given to him by Solomon. We don’t know if Menelik got away with the real ark, or an exact replica of it. Nonetheless, this ark was taken back to Ethiopia, where it is supposedly hidden today, in an ancient church in the town of Axum.

The Orthodox Jews in the Painting. 

Standing just to the left of Solomon in this painting are two ultra-Orthodox Jews, wearing modern dress. The artist apparently wanted to include the most Jewish-looking people in his work.

Modern Orthodox Jews are pictured in this painting (see the upper left corner).

The Four Living Creatures.

I’ve described the room, but I haven’t explained to you what the four living creatures are. After all, this chapel is named after them. The Ethiopians have two chapels here in the Holy Sepulcher, and both of them are dedicated to angels.

The four living creatures are mentioned twice in the Old Testament book of Ezekiel (1:5, 15), and eleven times throughout the New Testament book of Revelation. They aren’t really animals, but they are understood to be angels. Each of these creatures have four faces – the face of a man, a lion, a bull and an eagle. They have wings and many eyes. They know everything. They see everything. They are everywhere at the same time, and when they move, they are locked together in unison. They receive the prayers of all Believers. They go back and forth throughout the earth, and together they worship Christ as God Himself, always speaking about His holiness, and always testifying of the truth of the Gospel.

Some people think that the four living creatures are symbolic of the worldwide Gospel of Jesus Christ. Some people have equated them to the four Gospels, all locked in unison. Four voices - One Gospel. 

Since the second century the four Gospel writers have each been assigned one of the faces of four living creatures. Matthew is the man, Mark is the lion, Luke is the Bull and John is the Eagle. Just like the four living creatures, the four Gospels are fused together, canonized as a set, and wherever the Gospel goes, they all go together as a witness to the story of Jesus.

The Chapel of Saint Michael (lower level).

The chapel dedicated to the Archangel Michael is one of two chapels at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem that are in the custody of the Egyptian Coptic Orthodox Church, but which are currently occupied by the Ethiopians. 

This chapel is part of the Deir es Sultan rooftop monastery where Ethiopian monks live. The Ethiopians used to be the custodian of four chapels in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, but almost 400 years ago, because they were unable to pay their taxes, they lost all of these chapels, and now they are allowed to use this chapel for their own worship, but they don’t own it.

The Ethiopian community here is very poor. They receive little help from their parent country, Ethiopia. And so the look of the chapel shows the poverty in which the community is submerged.

This chapel is accessible from the courtyard of the main church, and it is used for prayers, and for collecting money from pilgrims who pass through on their way to or from the Ethiopian monastery on the rooftop.

While the Ethiopians claim to own not only this chapel, but the rest of the monastery upstairs as well, historical records indicate that they are only tenants here, and that the Egyptian community is the rightful landlord of not only this chapel, but of the entire monastery above it.

Even though the Ethiopians are Christian, their worship is very Jewish. They have services on both the Jewish Sabbath of Saturday as well as the Christian Sabbath of Sunday. Like the Jews, they circumcise their male children on the eighth day of their lives. Their worship is much more emotional than the other Orthodox churches, with dancing, and ornate ceremonial attire. Their cultural music is very tribal and spontaneous, and their worship services can also last a very long time.

Who was the Archangel Michael? Michael was the warring angel for the nation of Israel, and he is mentioned three times in the Old Testament book of Daniel, once in the book of Jude and in Revelation 12:7. His name, when it’s translated, is actually a question. Michael means, “Who is like God?”

Michael is the angel who cast Satan out of heaven, and according to Jude verse 9, Michael has been prevailing over the Devil ever since. While the archangel Gabriel often comes to mind as the angel in charge of communication, Michael is a warrior, and in the Orthodox Church, he is seen as the highest-ranking angel in heaven.

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