The Custodians Of The Holiest Place In Christendom Are Two Muslims —
It is a little known fact, but a fact nevertheless: the custodians of the key to the holiest place in all Christendom (the Church of the Holy Sepulcher) are two Muslims.
Nuseibeh Opening The Door Of The Church
History Of The Church Of The Holy Sepulcher
The Church of the Holy Sepulcher was built in the year 335 CE by Helena the mother of Emperor Constantine. Tradition has it that she was the one to locate the site of the crucifixion of Jesus. However very little remains of the original structure. The external façade that is seen today is from the 12th century – the Crusader period. This church is said to enclose the place where Jesus was crucified – Golgotha or Calvary as well as the tomb of Jesus.
About 130 years ago the Protestants went to Jerusalem. They claimed that the Church of the Holy Sepulcher could not be the burial place of Jesus stating that this site was within the city walls and that Jews did not bury their dead within the walls. The Protestants were right about the Jewish practice. But they were wrong about the site being within the city walls. The site was in fact outside the walls of the old city.
The Protestants who have no claim over the Holy Sepulcher found an alternative site which they claimed was the place where Jesus was buried. This was the Garden Tomb. Whether or not this place is the burial place of Jesus, it has the serenity and peaceful atmosphere that befits a holy burial site.
The Church Of The Holy Sepulcher
The Different Denominations Sign A Status Quo Agreement
The Church of the Holy Sepulcher doesn’t belong to any specific Christian denomination. In fact the supposed burial place of Jesus was divided between six different denominations. Most of the site is in the hands of the Roman Catholics (Franciscans), the Eastern Orthodox, and the Armenians. A small portion of what was left over was divided between the Syriac Orthodox, the Copts, and the Ethiopians. In spite of that the different denominations never really lived in peace with each other.
Around 1852-53, after hundreds of years of squabbling, disagreements, and wars, the Ottomans compelled the different factions to sign a Status Quo agreement in which they swore to accept the existing arrangement. The agreement was very detailed and included not only partitioning of the territory, but also specified who is allowed to pray where and when, and even who has the right to switch on the lights.
The highlight of the extent to which the status quo was specific is the case of the Immovable Ladder. This is a wooden ladder leaning against the façade of the church beneath the upper right window. There is a history behind the ladder. It seems that when Muslims shut the doors with the Armenian monks still inside the monks used to climb out the window and down this ladder onto a small porch where a rope was kept. The Armenians in the city provided food and drink for the monks which they placed in a pail on the ground. The monks then hauled up the pail using the rope.
Today the church is open every day, and the wooden ladder has become redundant. So why is the ladder still kept there? The ladder is still there because that is a right given to the Armenians in the status quo agreement. The Armenians still cling to this right and replace this ladder with a new one when an old ladder rots or breaks.
The Opening And Closing Ceremonies
The two Muslims, belonging to Palestinian clans: one man from the Joudeh family and another man from the Nuseibeh family have been the custodians of the entrance to the Holy Sepulcher since the 12th century.
Every morning – 5:30 in the summer, 4:30 in the winter – representatives from the Eastern Orthodox, the Roman Catholics, and the Armenians who sleep inside the church gather in front of a door inside the building. Only Orthodox representatives are permitted to open the small window in the door. The an individual from one of the denominations passes a small ladder through this window. This ritual is performed by the different denomination in turns.
A member of the Joudeh family who is the keeper of the key hands it over to a member of the Nusseibeh family. He then climbs up the ladder to open the lock. After that he climbs down the ladder to open the doors of the church and returns the keys to the Joudeh family member. Every evening at 7:30, after hundreds of tourists and pilgrims have left the church, there is a door locking ceremony which follows the same steps but in the reverse order.
During holidays, such as Holy Week, which ends on a Sunday with the Christian Easter, the intricate opening and closing ceremonies are performed several times a day. According to Joudeh this is an honor that has been with his family since Saladin from 1187.
Why are two people involved in the opening and closing ceremonies? As per Joudeh “My ancestor who was given the keys was a sheik, a highly respected person, who was not supposed to perform physical labor, such as climbing the ladder to open the gate,” Joudeh explained. “That’s why the Nuseibehs were called in to perform this duty.”
Picture credits: 1) Wajeeh http://www.sfgate.com/news/article/Muslim-family-holds-key-to-sacred-sepulchre-For-2720014.php
2) Church of the Holy Sepulchre https://www.google.co.in/search?q=Opening+of+Church+of+the+Holy+Sepulchre&biw=1280&bih=639&source=lnms& tbm=isch&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwj7yoTRs5fMAhXLm5QKHauzA_4Q_AUIBigB#imgrc=7gL64uZW14wkOM%3A