An Ethiopian priest reflecting on Scripture in the rooftop monastery, Deir el Sultan. (photo: Gerald Ring)
An Orthodox procession before the tomb in the Rotunda. (photo: Gerald Ring)
An Orthodox priest during a service. (photo: Gerald Ring)
A Coptic priest stands outside the Copts’ chapel at the site of the tomb. (photo: Gerald Ring)
A Roman Catholic and an Orthodox converse in the basilica’s courtyard. (photo: Gerald Ring)
Ethiopian monks on the basilica’s roof. (photo: Gerald Ring)
The heavy thud of the Kawas metal-tipped staves resounds off the flagstones of the outside courtyard. An old Orthodox nun hastily places a kneeling cushion in position in front of the Stone of Unction. The Muslim doorkeepers clear tourists and pilgrims from the huge entrance. It is early afternoon, and the Greek Orthodox patriarch is about to offer prayers in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.
Led by two Kawas wearing the traditional red fez with gold tassle, the procession is little changed since those of Turkish times. As it enters the massive church, priests fan out around the Stone of Unction at the entrance. The patriarch approaches, kneels, and kisses it. Next the Kawas lead the procession into the Rotunda to the tombs entrance. While priests and officiating attendants wait, the patriarch enters the tomb to pray. He emerges, dons an embroidered red tunic, and the procession moves into the Catholicon opposite the tomb to celebrate the Greek Orthodox Mass.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is the scene of many such rituals each day. In this enormous complex of a building is found the rich diversity of Christianity which dates back prior to the Reformation. Protestants have no established rights in the church because of their late arrival here.
Latins, Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Syrian Jacobites, Copts, and Ethiopians each with its distinct rituals, languages, modes of worship, and forms of dress bring into this gloomy interior a color and variety unmatched in any other place of worship in the world.
Everyday life in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre depends on long-standing agreements among these Christians. The rights and privileges each denomination has over particular or shared areas of the basilica are jealously guarded. Jerusalems governing powers whether Turkish, British, or Israeli have refrained from interfering in this tangle of delicate arrangements.
Sadly, the Christian custodians of this shrine have frequently behaved with less than Christian decorum when disputes arose. In fact, these jealousies have been such a threat that for hundreds of years a Muslim family has held the keys to the church. From generation to generation, the key holder from the same Muslim family ceremoniously locks the churchs great doors around 7 p.m. each day and takes the keys home.
Competition for space in the shrine is so keen that the Coptic and Ethiopian churches are also present on the buildings roof. Here an Ethiopian monastery called Deir el Sultan is almost a small village. This roof area was probably once enclosed as part of the eleventh century Crusader church.
Tiny whitewashed stone cells, each with a green wooden door and a sink with a cold water faucet outside, make up the monastery. If the day is warm and sunny, the Ethiopian monks sit on the roof studying the Bible or other sacred texts. Some dress in yellow or purple robes; others in the more usual black habits.
A low door leads off the roof into the small, simple Ethiopian chapel, which is dominated by a tapestry portraying the meeting of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. According to tradition, it is from this meeting and its subsequent union that Ethiopians trace their origin as a God-fearing people.
Leading off the rooftop is another, larger door, which opens on the main Coptic area of the church complex. The ancient pillar outside the door is revered as the Ninth Station of the Cross, the place where Jesus stumbled for the third time. Coptic convents, schools, and their general administration for the Holy Land make up their area.
Unlike the Ethiopians, the Copts have an established presence within the basilica. At the back of the site of the tomb is a tiny chapel, into which protrudes a small portion of the rock on which Jesus body was laid. Here, surrounded by icons, other paintings, and lanterns, a Coptic priest constantly prays. This area is so small and cramped that the priest cannot stand upright in it.
At certain times in the day other Copts join him for worship. They sing and chant in their ancient tongue while incense burners sway and candles flicker. Their celebration is one of the most ancient forms of Christian ritual.
Distinctive black cassocks and pointed black hoods characterize the Armenians, who have extensive rights within the church complex. Their main possession is the Chapel of Saint Helena on the lower level. It was beneath it that Constantines mother discovered relics of the crucifixion, tradition claims. At least three times a week the Armenians wend their procession into this chapel for services. The black-hooded priests, assisted by choirboys in embroidered white tunics and officiating priests in red, pray at a richly decorated altar.
The Roman Catholics have a different presence in the church. North of the Rotunda, the chanting of monks heard behind closed doors identifies the Franciscan Chapel of the Apparition. Each afternoon their procession fills the church with their hymns and incense.
Franciscans with their brown cassocks and sandaled feet contrast vividly with the black-clad, fully bearded Greek Orthodox clergy. The site of Calvary shows the contrast sharply. The area is divided in two, with the Greek Orthodox controlling the site of the crucifixion and the Latins overseeing the place where Jesus was nailed to the cross.
The variety of Christian expression under and on the one roof of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is only appropriate. The rich diversity of Christian expression is united here in fidelity to Christ. The Christians who oversee these sites and pray here testify in their unique, characteristic ways to the central meaning of Jesus life, death, and resurrection. The sites of His death and resurrection more than commemorate the place where human history was transformed. They appeal to humanity to join in the continuing transformation of human history through the living presence of the Body of Christ in the world.
Gerald Ring, a free-lance writer and photographer traveling extensively in the Near East, is a frequent contributor to Catholic Near East.