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The History of Deir-es-Sultan

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Within the last thousand years there have been eight instances where occupying governments in the Holy Land have conferred ownership of the monastery to the Egyptian Coptic Church.

There is a conflict that basically boils down to this: There is a landlord (the Egyptian Coptic Church) who owns the monastery, and there are tenants (the Ethiopians) who, because they have lived here for so long, believe that they themselves should own the monastery, to control access to it, and to hold the keys.

Let’s go back to the time when the Church of the Holy Sepulcher was rebuilt just after its destruction in 1009 AD.

Around 1050 AD. When the church was being rebuilt, the Muslims, who controlled the Holy Land at that time, designated this rooftop as belonging to the Egyptian Coptic Church. At that time, it was called Deir el-Malak, which is Arabic for The Angel Monastery. But after the Crusades, the Muslim Sultan Saladin renamed it Deir es-Sultan, which means the Monastery of the Sultan, and he likewise confirmed that the roof should belong to the Egyptian Church.

1309 AD.  Both the Ethiopians and the Egyptians have historically had a very close relationship with each other. After all, both are African countries.  However, because certain scandals and encroachments were committed by the Ethiopians, in 1309 AD the Muslim Turkish governor of Jerusalem wrote a letter indicating that Deir-es-Sultan was owned by the Copts, and that the Ethiopians (then called Abyssinians) should refrain from annoying the Egyptians.

Four Chapels of the Monastery.  Before the year 1654 AD the Ethiopians controlled two chapels inside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, and they were tenants of two other chapels that are currently adjacent to the monastery. These four chapels were

1. The Chapel of Saint John the Baptist (first floor next to the Chapel of Saint Michael)

2. The Chapel of Our Lady and of Saint John the Evangelist (opposite the Chapel of Saint John the Baptist)

3. The Chapel of Saint Michael

4. The Chapel of the Four Living Creatures

1654 AD.  In this year the Ethiopians lost the first two chapels due to their inability to pay taxes to the Muslim government. As a result, the Greeks and Armenians evicted the Ethiopians from these chapels. With nowhere to go, the Ethiopians approached the Copts, asking them permission to live in the monastery on the roof.  The Copts agreed, and gave them the keys.

1686 AD.  In this year the Copts made necessary repairs to the monastery, which would be considered typical of any responsible landlord.

1774 AD.  In this year the Ethiopians claimed that the Copts forced the Ethiopians to hand over the keys of the monastery to them.

1782 AD.  In this year the Copts locked the two chapels adjacent to the monastery, and they stayed locked for the next eighty years. With nowhere to worship, the Ethiopians were forced to erect a huge tent to celebrate their various festivals in the courtyard of the monastery.

1820 AD.  Once again, the Copts undertook a restoration project in the monastery, during which time they forced the Ethiopians to abandon their rooms. This made the Ethiopians suspicious, and they started conspiring to take control of the monastery.

1838 AD.  In this year a plague killed all of the Ethiopian nuns and all but two of their monks. In an apparent effort to cleanse the site from all contamination, the Copts and the Armenians burnt the entire monastery library, and all their valuable Ethiopian documents and manuscripts were lost, although it is claimed that some of the Christian communities in Holy Sepulcher that have possession of some of these books that are written in the ancient language of the Ethiopian Church.  Over the next twenty-two years, the number of Ethiopian monks grew.

1850 AD.  In this year the Ethiopians stole the monastery keys from the Copts, fearing that they would be expelled again.

1851 AD.  In this year an Ottoman ruler in Jerusalem confirmed that the monastery was the possession of the Copts, and the Ethiopians were forced to return the keys to them.

1862 AD.  In this year the Ethiopians once again stole the keys from the Copts, with which they opened the two adjacent chapels.

1863 AD.  Like before, the Ottoman ruler once again confirmed that the monastery was the possession of Copts. In November 1863 an order was issued by the Ottoman Ministry of Foreign Affairs to the Governor of Jerusalem. The order was for the Ethiopians to give the keys of the monastery back to the Copts.

All of this prompted the Turkish authorities to draft a rule in 1863 called "The Status Quo of the Holy Places." The rule prohibited any changes in designated religious sites without permission of the government. If this rule is violated, the breaching party could potentially lose all rights to the property in question.

1895 AD. In 1895 the Ethiopians tried a diplomatic maneuver to capture the monastery with the help of the Russians, who had an influence on the Ottoman Empire. This was ineffective.

1906 AD. The Ethiopians tried another approach.  They claimed that they wanted to restore the monastery, a maneuver, the optics suggesting that they were the custodians of the site.  This was not acceptable to the Ottomans.

1910 and 1919 AD.  In the years 1910 and again in 1919 the Copts once again expressed their ownership of the site by restoring and repairing the monastery, in accordance with the Ottoman and the newly appointed British Authorities.

1948 AD.  In 1948, Jordan assumed control of Jerusalem, including the area of the Holy Sepulcher.


1959 AD. In February 1959, the Ethiopians asked permission from the Jordanian governor of Jerusalem to grant ownership of the monastery to themselves.

1961 AD.  Two years later, on February 22nd the Jordanian Ministerial Cabinet issued a decision that gave Deir El Sultan to the Ethiopians. However, this decision led the Coptic Archbishop in Jerusalem to meet with King Hussein of Jordan on March 4th, 1961, where he clarified to His Majesty the documents and proof of the Copt's claim to the monastery, that the keys have been in the hands of the Copts throughout hundreds of years, and that the Ethiopians only have the privilege of residing there. In addition, the Head of the Coptic Church in Egypt sent a senior delegation to negotiate with the Jordanian officials.

This continuous Coptic contact with the Jordanians led the Jordanian cabinet to issue a decision on April 1st, 1961, to cancel the decision taken on February 22nd, 1961, and to confirm that the keys should stay in the hands of the Copts in fulfillment of the Status Quo.

1970 AD. After Jerusalem was seized by Israel during the Six-Day War, while the Copts were celebrating Easter Eve on April 25th, 1970 inside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the Israeli government gave the keys of the two Coptic chapels to the Ethiopians.

1971 AD. As before, the Coptic Archbishop made a petition, now to the Israeli Supreme Court, which issued a decision on March 16th, 1971, ordering that the keys be given back to the Copts. However, the Israeli Government until now has not fulfilled the decisions of the Israeli Supreme Court.

Only twelve days after their initial decision, on March 28, 1971, the Israeli government softened their stance by issuing an interim order, under which the keys to Deir El Sultan, “…are with the Ethiopian community, and the right of free access for members of the Coptic Community is preserved”.

The Present. The Ethiopian church currently resides in the monastery and its two chapels, and the Copts are allowed access to the church through the rooftop passageway during regular opening hours. As recounted in this article, the Ethiopians have violated the Turkish Status Quo, and even though the Copts complained to the Ministry of Religious Affairs, nobody heard nor headed them.

It is also a fact that the Copts still have the keys to the northwest main gate of the courtyard, near their patriarchate. Moreover, they control one cell at Deir El-Sultan, and that’s where one of the Coptic monks sleeps every day. However, because there is no water, no electricity and no sewage, they take turns staying there.

The Ethiopian monks believe that their presence at Holy Sepulcher represents people of African descent from all over the world. Should they lose their few remaining rights at the monastery, they believe that these same people will never again have the opportunity to represent part of the most sacred place on earth.

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