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An Introduction to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher

Location – Church of the Holy Sepulcher

Map Coordinates - 31.778460, 35.229556

This is where the live Octagon Tour groups always start their journey through the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. It’s one of the most fascinating buildings anywhere in the world. But as you walk through the church, the parts really don’t seem to fit together, and that’s the result of its complicated history rather than the plan of architects. 


A Brief History.

Long before Jesus was born, this area used to be a quarry. About 100 years before He lived, the builders had abandoned the quarry, and it was converted to a garden. The Gospel of John even refers to this garden (John 19:41).


There are three ancient historians who tell us that Christians worshiped at this location up until 135 AD, when, in that same year, the Roman Emperor Hadrian built a pagan temple dedicated to the goddess Venus on this very spot. Hadrian did this to bury the memory of Jesus. 

The pagan Roman Temple honoring Venus, built in 135 AD.

In 160 AD a man named Melito of Sardis, who was a visitor in Jerusalem, was told by the Christians living here that Jesus had been crucified and buried at this very location. 


Fast forward to 324 AD, when the newly converted Christian Roman emperor, Constantine, sent his aged mother, Empress Helena, to the Holy Land to build churches. When she arrived, they found not only the tomb of Jesus, but also the hill on which He was crucified. The church that they built here was dedicated in 335 AD, and it stood for almost 700 years. It was actually three times larger than this current church.


The original Byzantine Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

During the Byzantine era this was a Christian country up until 634 AD, when the Muslims began their occupation of the Holy Land. For the next 465 years this part of the world was ruled by six Muslim caliphates. The first four of these caliphates were relatively lenient toward Christians. The last two were not.

In 1009 AD, the Muslim Calif, Al-Hakim from Egypt, tried to erase Christianity, by destroying many churches, including this one. 


The Egyptian Caliph Al-Hakim.

In 1095 AD all of this prompted Pope Urban the Second to start the Crusades, which was a series of wars waged by the Catholic church to repossess the Holy Land - an era that lasted about 150 years.

All of that means that during those 150 years this was a Christian country again. During this time the crusaders started a massive building program, starting with this church, which means that what we see today is primarily a Crusader construct.


In 1757 AD and also in 1852 the Turkish Ottoman Empire, which controlled the Holy Land, established what we call the Status Quo.

The Ottoman Empire military guard in the Holy Land.

Briefly, what is the Status Quo? 

There are about thirty chapels inside this church, and because there are six denominations who control them, there had to be some rules established that define who gets to do what inside. 

When the Status Quo went into effect it meant that whoever controlled certain rooms inside the church, would remain the custodian of that room from point forward.


Custodians of the Church.

There are three main denominations in this church – the Greek Orthodox, the Franciscan Catholics and the Armenian Apostolic Church. The minor players in the church are the Coptic Orthodox Church, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and the Syrian Orthodox Church. 

There are no protestant denominations who control any real estate in this church, simply because the chapels inside were parceled out before the Protestant Reformation.

The Blocked Door.

The blocked door of the church in the late 19th century.


Looking at the church one can see that the right door is blocked off. That happened in 1187 AD, shortly after the church was built. The Muslims, who were the custodians of the church at that time, tried to control who was entering, in order to charge an admission fee. They couldn’t do this very well when there were two doors, so they limited the entrance to only one door – the door that went past the money table as people entered the church.


The Chapel of the Franks.


The staircase on the outside leads to The Chapel of the Franks, which is always closed. The Franks were a collection of European tribes who became the political rulers of western Europe. They all converted to Catholicism, and it was the Franks who built this chapel. 

The conversion of the Franks to Catholicism in the sixth century.

Inside the Chapel of the Franks there used to be a door that led directly into the Chapel of the Nailing, but that door has been walled up. 

Incidentally, the Chapel of the Franks is considered to be the Tenth Station of the Cross, where it is said that Jesus was stripped of His garments just before He was nailed to the cross.


The Catholic Chapel of the Franks in one of the rare moments that it is open.

The Columns to the Left of the Door.


You will notice that the middle pillar has a crack at the bottom. Since the ninth century the Greeks have celebrated a ritual called Holy Fire inside the church at noon on each Saturday before Easter. This is where the Orthodox priest goes into the Holy Tomb, comes out with all of his candles lit, and the fire that he is holding is transferred from one person to the next. 


Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, Sophronius IV, in 1579 AD.

According to a Greek tradition, in the year 1579 AD, the Turkish soldiers who were in charge of the church did not allow any of the visitors to enter for the annual Holy Fire ritual. According to the legend, the Greek patriarch of Jerusalem, Sophronius IV, was standing outside in the courtyard praying. When the sky was dark this stone column in the center split open (you can see the crack), and holy fire came out of this fissure. Sophronius then used this fire to light all of the candles in the courtyard. Seeing this miracle, the Turks then allowed all of the worshippers to enter the church, and the Holy Fire celebration has continued to be observed every year to this day.

The Holy Fire celebration in the Rotunda of the Holy Sepulcher Church.

The Immovable Ladder.

While each denomination controls its own chapels, there are common areas in and around the church for which the three main denominations have joint custody. These include both common walkways and the exterior of the building. The three main denominations sharing joint control are the Greek Orthodox, the Franciscan Catholic Church and the Armenian Apostolic Church.

That brings us to the ladder that tourists see leaning against the window on a second-floor ledge. It’s called the Immovable Ladder, and it’s been on that ledge since the very moment that the status quo took effect. 

The Immovable Ladder.

There is an engraving of this church that was created in 1728, and the ladder is visible in this engraving, which means that it has been in this same spot for about 300 years. However, no one can touch the ladder because it rests outside the exterior of the church, which is a common area. That means that unless the three major denominations agree to reposition it, it will never be moved. It is likely that it will never happen because the Immovable Ladder is now both a symbol of the Status Quo, and its a tourist attraction.


A 1728 engraving of the Holy Sepulcher church showing the Immovable Ladder

The Holy Doors.

Right after the Islamic takeover in 637 AD, the Muslim Caliph Omar appointed the Muslim Nusseibeh family to open and close the doors of the church every day. After all, the Muslims were the custodians of the church at this time. After the Crusades, the Islamic ruler, Saladin, retained the Nusseibeh family to open and close the doors, but he also appointed the Muslim Joudeh family, to keep the key of the church in their home.

The key held by the Muslim Joudeh family that has locked and unlocked the door of the Holy Sepulcher every day for at least 800 years. This might be the same key that was used in 637 AD, which means that it may be 1400 years old.

The holy door that enters the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. 

Even though the Christians are now in total control of the church, the Muslims still open and close the church? Why? It’s part of the Status Quo, and the three main religious groups in the church have agreed to it. 

In the early 20th century a member of the Nusseibeh family unlocks the door of the Holy Sepulcher Church, while a Greek priest looks outside.

This rule serves another purpose as well. In this role, these two Muslim families have been peacekeepers between the six Christian communities inside the Holy Sepulcher Church, so that there wouldn’t be any conflict between them

In this photo you can see everything mentioned above: (1) The Holy Door with (2) the Holy Fire column to its left, (3) the blocked door, (4) the immovable ladder above it, (5) and the stairs to the domed Chapel of the Franks.

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