Tuesday, July 15

Church of the Holy Sepulchre

Accepted by most Christians as the site of Golgotha, where Christ was crucified, and the site of his sepulcher (spelled Sepulchre by our Latin-loving-Oldy-Anglish European churches). Hailed as the "most holy site in all of Christendom," thousands of pilgrims pay homage to the location every year.

Our faculty hoped we would not only tolerate, but learn to appreciate and love the faiths of others. And though it would never have occurred to us to be disrespectful, we knew that anything irreverent in one of their holy places would result in severe punishment, likely over-our-dead-bodies. But like I said, that never would have been a problem with us. Every denomination received the same quiet respect from all of us.
For myself, I felt Islam and Judaism easier to respect than the many varied branches of Christianity. My closest friends voiced similar opinions. One friend joked about wanting to write an essay entitled, "Are Mormons Muslim?" as a play on words to the common topic "Are Mormons Christian?"

For those of you who may not know, "Mormon" is a nickname for members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day-Saints. We are encouraged by our church leaders to say we are members of the Church of Jesus Christ to dispel the belief that mormons are not Christian; faith in Christ and devotion to him is the center and core of our religion. At orientation I learned that for the next four months in the holy land I had a new mantra: "We aren't Christians. We're Mormons." While not changing our beliefs in any way, we hope that by making the distinction between us and what the rest of the world sees as followers of Christ. And now, having seen the difference between how Mormons and Christians interact with Muslims and Jews, I understand why. Particularly the difference between Mormon leaders and Christian clergy.

Okay, I'm coming across clear as mud, I'm sure. Sorry. I can't really explain it in words. The best example, I think, is given by Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof when he indicates the Catholic priest and says "we don't bother them and so far they don't bother us." Muslims treat the Christians in mostly the same way. If they were to ask a direct question, sure, they'd talk to you. But on the other hand, Muslims and Jews talk to Mormons much more freely. Now having said this I can think of a dozen exceptions to this example--mostly involving the difference between Jews and Jews, Muslims and Muslims, Catholics and Born-again-Christians. No matter what your religion, some people just won't socialize with you. The easiest example of this are the Orthodox Jews, who don't talk to anyone else, make eye contact with anyone else, and will walk around you as if you aren't there. Still, I'd get the same level of disdain from some Christian tourists while walking through the Christian quarter--one glance at my Mormon fanny-pack and they'd look the other way (not kidding). Once in the middle of small-talk with a preacher from Alabama who, seconds after learning I was a student from Utah, perceptibly changed his cordiality to distant formality. Contrast that to the woman who saw Mormon students reading the New Testament outside the Garden tomb and was moved to tears, crying "bless you kids!" But that's another story. For now just pretend to understand what I can't seem to explain, and I'll move on. Pfffff.

Sorry. Obviously I got carried away. The difference between Mormons and Christians is a passionate subject for me. Which brings me back to the subject I meant to discuss: Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

Basic Information:

Who originally built the church is a touchy subject, as many factions claim to have been responsible. For centuries the Church of the Holy Sepulchre has been managed by a joint collection of religions:

Greek Orthodox (mostly in charge)
The Eastern Orthodox
Armenian Apostolic
Roman Catholic
Coptic Orthodox
Ethiopian Orthodox
Syriac Orthodox

In 1555 when the church was renovated, control of the church oscillated between the factions, often through outright bribery or violence, neither of which were uncommon. In 1767 a temporary solution was reached: a territorial division of the church between the different factions. In 1852 the situation became permanent. Times and places of worship for each community are now designated and strict, though many areas are labeled "common ground."

Sadly, even this tense situation could not stop the violence, which continues to break out every so often--"in 2004 during Orthodox celebrations of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, a door to the Franciscan chapel was left open. This was taken as a sign of disrespect by the Orthodox and a fistfight broke out. Some people were arrested, but no one was seriously injured (Wikipedia)."

Many holy sites are managed the same way, including Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem (which had a fist fight between priests this Christmas after someone cleaned a part of the church that wasn't part of their jurisdiction). This situation really is no joke. But it does have some amusing results. The "immovable ladder" for instance.

My first day in Jerusalem I asked my teacher about a small wooden ladder over the door of the church that I thought made the place look rather shabby. My teacher Richard Draper said, "I wondered that myself when I first came here in the 70's." That got my attention. What did he mean that the ladder had been there since the 70's? I did some research and discovered that all anyone knows about the ladder is that it was placed on that window ledge "sometime before 1856," but no one knows how long it was there before that. Here's a picture of the ladder in 1891. You see, no one church faction controls the entrance to the church, and the ledge beneath the windows above the door are "common ground," and thus cannot be altered unless all factions agree to the change. Will they ever agree? Who knows.

In sum, the best description of the Holy Sepulchre is that it is a strange collection of shrines. Both gaudy and primitive, frequented and forgotten, humble and resplendent, antiquary and modern, all can be found within its many spaces.


1. Do not underestimate the staircase. You risk your life (at least your future mobility) climbing up or down the perilous flight. Most dangerous staircase in Jerusalem. BEWARE!

2. The church has its own crest.

3. In 1808 a fire (not the first inside the church but hopefully the last) collapsed the dome, which then had to be rebuilt.

4. Constantine decreed that the church should be built.

5. I took a few slightly-used candles out of their trash cans and brought them home. Shocking! ...and now you know. I hesitate to use the word "took" as that implies that I stole them, when they were in the trash and thus unwanted. I do not, however, deny that I removed them.

6. You can worship at FOUR different calvary sites under one roof. Take your pick.

7. The "Stone of Unction" is traditionally where the body of Jesus was anointed and prepared for burial. The stone is kissed by AT LEAST a hundred different people every day. I never touched it.


The Cooks said...

Oh the things you have seen. On a grander scale....oh the things that you know. That is stuff that can't even find a dusty corner in brain to live in. Nice to know I have a someone to come to in case I have questions about the middle east region and its history. I am Mideleasternly challenged and proud of it!

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Best Regards,