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The Sites

Israel and Palestine – In Jerusalem

Israel and Palestine – Outside Jerusalem

Jordan

Egypt

Extras

Church of St James

Jerusalem

Church of St James

Vespers service in Church of St James (Seetheholyland.net)

 

Nestled within a walled compound in the ancient Armenian Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City, the Church of St James is one of the most ornately decorated places of worship in the Holy Land.

This ancient church, part of which dates to AD 420, is the cathedral of the Armenian Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem.

Armenia — a land-locked country in south-west Asia — was the first nation to adopt Christianity as its state religion, in AD 301, and Armenian Christians established the first “quarter” in Jerusalem.

The Church of St James is dedicated to two martyred saints of that name — St James the Great, one of the first apostles to follow Jesus, and St James the Less, believed to be a close relative of Jesus, who became the first bishop of Jerusalem.

Church of St James

Artwork at entrance to Church of St James (Seetheholyland.net)

St James the Great was beheaded by Herod Agrippa I, grandson of Herod the Great, around AD 44 (Acts 12:1-2). St James the Less was martyred by Temple authorities about 20 years later by being thrown from the Temple platform, then stoned and clubbed to death.

According to Armenian tradition, within the church are buried the head of St James the Great (the rest of his body is believed to be in the Spanish pilgrimage shrine of Santiago de Compostela) and the body of St James the Less.

Most of the cathedral dates from the 12th century, though it incorporates the remains of two chapels built in the 5th century. This is one of the few remaining Crusader-era churches in the Holy Land to have survived intact.

 

Interior provides splendid spectacle

Church of St James

Monk sounding symandron outside Church of St James (Seetheholyland.net)

Entry from Armenian Orthodox Patriarchate Road is through a dog-legged porch leading to the church courtyard. Stone crosses (called khatchkars) carved in relief on the walls include early Armenian examples of the so-called Jerusalem cross.

The church is open to the public only during services. Lengths of wood and brass hanging outside the entrance are hammered with mallets to call the faithful to prayer. Called symandra, they were introduced when a 14th-century Muslim edict forbade churches to ring bells.

Church of St James

Dome of Church of St James (Seetheholyland.net)

The interior, under a vaulted dome, offers a splendid spectacle of gilded altars, massive chandeliers, myriad lamps with ceramic eggs attached to them, paintings, carved wood, inlaid mother-of-pearl, bronze engravings, and blue and green wall tiles. The marble floor is usually covered with purple, green and red carpets.

Rich vestments, incense and chanting give the cathedral a mystical Eastern character during services.

High-set windows, oil lamps and candles are the only light sources, since there is no electricity. Sunlight produces dazzling reflections on the church’s treasures, but cloudy days cloak the interior in darkness. There are no pews.

 

Shrine on reputed site of beheading

Church of St James

Entrance to Chapel of St James the Great, in Church of St James (Seetheholyland.net)

On the left side of the church, opposite one of the four square piers supporting the vaulted ceiling, is its most important shrine, the small Chapel of St James the Great. A piece of red marble in front of the altar marks the place where his head is buried, on the reputed site of his beheading.

Also on the left side are doors leading to other chapels that are seldom open to visitors. The Chapel of St Menas, an Egyptian martyr (to the left of the Chapel of St James the Great), is the oldest part of the building. Further forward, the Church of St Stephen serves as the cathedral’s sacristy and baptistery.

In the front of the cathedral are two thrones. The larger, intricately carved and topped by an onion-shaped baldachino, is dedicated to St James the Less. A low iron grille behind it encloses the saint’s reputed burial place. The smaller throne is the seat of the Armenian Orthodox patriarch.

Church of St James

Reputed burial place of St James the Less, in Church of St James (Seetheholyland.net)

A doorway near the centre of the right-hand wall, also generally closed to the public, was the original 12th-century entrance to the church. It leads to the Etchmiadzin Chapel, formed in the 17th century by blocking a long and narrow portico.

The Armenian city of Etchmiadzin (now known as Vagharshapat) is the seat of the Catholicos of All Armenians, head of the Armenian Orthodox Church.

Vividly coloured wall tiles in the chapel, illustrating scenes from the Bible and lives of the saints, were made in Turkey in the 18th century for repairs to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre but were not used.

 

Compound is like miniature city

Church of St James

Entrance to Convent of St James (Shmuliko / Wikimedia)

The compound of St James Convent, which contains the Church of St James, is like a miniature city with residences for more than 1000 families. Behind its fortress-like walls are the patriarchate, a hospice, living quarters for nuns and priests, a school, social clubs and a printing press — the first in Jerusalem, established in 1833.

Across the street from the main gate is an Armenian Orthodox seminary. Some scholars believe this the site of Pilate’s praetorium, formerly the palace of Herod the Great. In that case, the judgement seat where Jesus was condemned (John 19:13) would have been on an open square where the Church of St James now stands.

Church of St JamesVisitors may normally enter the compound only with an Armenian guide, but two institutions are open to the public:

• The Mardigian Museum (open 10am-4.30pm Mon-Sat) contains exhibits on Armenian art, culture and history, with a section devoted to the tragic genocide of perhaps two million Armenians by Ottoman Turks in the early 20th century.

• The Gulbenkian Library (open 3.30-6pm Mon-Fri) has more than 100,000 volumes and extensive files of Armenian periodicals and newspapers.

 

Armenians have long presence in Jerusalem

An Armenian presence existed in Jerusalem in the first century before Christ. After Armenia became Christian in 301, pilgrims began coming in large numbers.

Church of St James

Old City’s Armenian Quarter and St James Monastery (David Bjorgen / Wikimedia)

By the 7th century there were 70 Armenian monasteries in Palestine. For several hundred years the Armenian patriarch was considered to be the most senior Christian dignitary in the Holy Land.

The Armenian Orthodox still have jurisdiction over part of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and also over the Chapel of St Helena in the crypt of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The peaked hoods worn by their priests, shaped like the dome of a typical Armenian church, are intended to make the priest look like a walking church in the world.

The Armenian Quarter began taking shape in the south-west of Jerusalem before 1100. After expansion of the Jewish Quarter in 1968, it now occupies about one-sixth of the Old City.

The Armenian Quarter is the only one that largely looks like it did when it was founded, says author Mariam Shahin. “The ceramic and pottery shops, the delicatessens and the pubs, and the Armenians’ almost medieval sense of community make the quarter a unique and precious part of the mosaic that is old Jerusalem.”

Church of St James

Armenian monastery cloister (© Israel Ministry of Tourism)

The Convent of St James takes up two-thirds of the quarter. The remaining third includes churches of four other denominations: Syriac Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, Maronite and Anglican.

Many of the residents of the convent compound are descendants of survivors of the Ottoman Turkish genocide who sought refuge in Jerusalem. A note on the menu at the nearby Armenian Tavern restaurant observes: “From the unkind cup of history they have drunk wisdom not bitterness.”

 

In Scripture:

St James [the Great] is beheaded: Acts 12:1-2

Jesus is condemned: John 19:13-16

 

Administered by: Armenian Patriarchate of St James

Tel.: 972-2-6282331

Open: 6.30-7.30am and 3.00-3.40pm Sun-Fri; 6.30-9.30am and 3.00-3.40pm Sat. Modest dress required.

 

References

Bar-Am, Aviva: Beyond the Walls: Churches of Jerusalem (Ahva Press, 1998)
Bourbon, Fabio, and Lavagno, Enrico: The Holy Land Archaeological Guide to Israel, Sinai and Jordan (White Star, 2009)
Freeman-Grenville, G. S. P.: The Holy Land: A Pilgrim’s Guide to Israel, Jordan and the Sinai (Continuum Publishing, 1996)
Hilliard, Alison, and Bailey, Betty Jane: Living Stones Pilgrimage: With the Christians of the Holy Land (Cassell, 1999)
Mackowski, Richard M.: Jerusalem: City of Jesus (William B. Eerdmans, 1980)
Murphy-O’Connor, Jerome: The Holy Land: An Oxford Archaeological Guide from Earliest Times to 1700 (Oxford University Press, 2005)
Prag, Kay: Jerusalem: Blue Guide (A. & C. Black, 1989)
Shahin, Mariam, and Azar, George: Palestine: A guide (Chastleton Travel, 2005)
Wareham, Norman, and Gill, Jill: Every Pilgrim’s Guide to the Holy Land (Canterbury Press, 1996)

 

External links

Armenian Patriarchate of St. James, Jerusalem
The Armenian Quarter (Jewish Virtual Library)

Churches in the Holy Land

Eastern Orthodox

Oriental Orthodox

Eastern Catholic

Roman Catholic

Anglican/Protestant/Evangelical

More than a score of Christian churches and denominations have a presence in the Holy Land — not always co-existing in harmony. In fact the scandal of the disunity of Christians is perhaps more evident in the land where the Church began than anywhere else on earth.

In the early centuries, when the Judaeo-Christian Church was still one and undivided, its expansion required organising into geographic units. Bishops of important centres became known as patriarchs — the title accorded Old Testament leaders such as Abraham.

The earliest patriarchates were Antioch (where the name “Christian” was first used), Alexandria and Rome, with Rome (the see of Peter) accorded primacy of honour. Each brought its own culture and traditions to its church-community.

Two more patriarchates, Constantinople and Jerusalem (the “Mother Church”), were later recognised, with Constantinople eventually being accorded second place after Rome. All were Greek-speaking except for Latin-speaking Rome.

Holy Land Christians

Church leaders of East and West at an ecumenical meeting (© Custodia Terrae Sanctae)

From the 4th century, theological disagreements arose over the nature of Christ. Often exacerbated by political and social tensions, these led the Assyrian Church of the East and what we know as the Oriental Orthodox churches (Armenian, Coptic, Ethiopian, Syriac) to break away. They are still not in communion with either Constantinople or Rome.

In the 11th century, long-standing disputes between the Eastern (Greek) and Western (Latin) branches of Christianity incited the Great Schism between Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism.

From the 16th century, groups within several Oriental and Eastern Orthodox churches re-established communion with the Roman Catholic Church. These became the Eastern Catholic churches.

The 16th century also saw dissent within the Western (Roman) Church spark the Protestant Reformation, resulting in a multitude of new denominations.

The main Christian groupings in the Holy Land today are Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Eastern Catholic, Roman (Latin) Catholic and Evangelical or Protestant.

Eastern Orthodox

Holy Land Christians

Greek Orthodox procession in Jerusalem (© Deror Avi)

Greek Orthodox form the largest Christian church in the Holy Land, their patriarch claiming direct descent from St James, the first bishop of Jerusalem.

Leadership in Israel is predominantly expatriate Greek, with married parish clergy and mainly Arab laity (in Jordan and Syria the leadership is largely Arab).

The Greek Orthodox holds major rights to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

The community’s St John the Baptist Church on Christian Quarter Road is one of the oldest in Jerusalem, built originally in the 5th century, and today below street level.

Russian Orthodox pilgrims from Russia visited the Holy Land from the 11th century, but the church did not establish its own institutions in Palestine until the 19th century, when an area now known as the Russian Compound on the Jaffa Road was developed.

Holy Land Christians

Russian Church of St Mary Magdalene (Seetheholyland.net)

The Russian Revolution of 1917 ended pilgrimages from Russia and also led to a Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia, in opposition to the Orthodox Moscow Patriarchate. The two churches signed an act of canonical communion in 2007.

The best-known property of the Church Outside Russia is the onion-domed Church of St Mary Magdalene on the Mount of Olives. The main Moscow Patriarchate church is the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity in the Russian Compound.

Romanian Orthodox, with their headquarters in Bucharest, established themselves in Jerusalem in 1935. The interior of their church, St George’s, at 46 Shivtei Israel Street, outside the Old City, is covered with frescoes in neo-Byzantine style.

A small number of clergy look after a big number of Romanian guest workers in Israel.

Oriental Orthodox

Holy Land Christians

Armenian Orthodox ceremony in Church of the Holy Sepulchre (Seetheholyland.net)

Armenian Orthodox form the world’s oldest national church, since Armenia was the first nation to adopt Christianity as a state religion, in AD 301.

Large numbers came to Jerusalem, where they claim the longest uninterrupted Christian presence. The Armenian Quarter occupies about one-sixth of the Old City.

St James’s Cathedral, in Armenian Orthodox Patriarchate Road, is on the site of the original church built over the place where the Armenians believe the head of the apostle James the Great is buried.

The community holds dearly to the memory of the genocide of more than a million Armenians by Ottoman Turks at the time of the First World War.

Holy Land Christians

Entrance to St Mark’s Syriac Orthodox Church (Seetheholyland.net)

Syriac Orthodox trace their church back to first-century Antioch (in present-day Turkey) and claim the apostle St Peter as their first patriarch in AD 37. Before going to Rome, Peter served seven years in Antioch.

The word “Syriac” is not a geographic indicator, but refers to the use of the Syriac Aramaic language, a dialect of the tongue Jesus spoke in first-century Palestine, in worship.

The Syriac Orthodox (often called “Jacobites”, after an early bishop) believe their St Mark’s Church is on the site of the Last Supper and the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Their Patriarch of Antioch is based in Damascus.

Holy Land Christians

Coptic Orthodox chapel in Church of the Holy Sepuchre (James Emery)

Coptic Orthodox make up the largest Christian church in the Middle East, founded in Alexandria by the evangelist St Mark. Their leader, with the title of pope, is in Egypt. The liturgy is in Coptic, the ancient language of Egypt, with readings in Arabic.

The Jerusalem patriarchate and St Antony’s Church are close to the Ninth Station of the Via Dolorosa. The Coptic Orthodox also have a tiny chapel at the back of the Tomb of Christ in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

Ethiopian Orthodox trace their connection to Jerusalem back 1000 years before Christ, when the Ethiopian Queen of Sheba visited King Solomon (1 Kings 10:1-13, 2 Chronicles 9:1-12). She embraced his Jewish faith — and apparently Solomon too, since tradition credits them with a son named Menelik, who became emperor of Ethiopia.

Christianity is believed to have been introduced into Ethiopia by the eunuch finance minister of Queen Candace who came to Jerusalem to worship and was baptised by the apostle Philip (Acts 8:26-40).

Holy Land Christians

Queen of Sheba bringing gifts to Solomon, in Ethiopian Orthodox chapel (© Deror Avi)

The Ethiopian Orthodox retain some Jewish practices, including circumcision, and use freshly-baked bread for Communion.

Their biggest church in Jerusalem is the circular Dabra Gannat Monastery on Ethiopia Street, just off Prophet’s Street. They also occupy two chapels in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and a mud-hut village on its roof.

Eastern Catholic

Greek Catholics, known as Melkites (a word meaning “royalist”), form the second largest Christian church in the Holy Land — after the Greek Orthodox, whose Byzantine liturgy they share. Their Patriarch of Antioch is in Damascus.

Holy Land Christians

Street sign for Greek Catholic Patriarchate Road (Yoav Dothan / Wikimedia)

This Arab church has big numbers in the Galilee region and a small community in Jerusalem.

The fresco-covered patriarchate Church of the Annunciation, inside the Jaffa Gate and up Greek Catholic Patriachate Road, is described in the Living Stones Pilgrimage guidebook as “arguably the most representative Byzantine church in Jerusalem and . . . perhaps the best place to introduce yourself to Orthodox places of worship”.

Within the patriarchate building is a museum of Eastern Church traditions in the Holy Land (open 9am-12pm daily, except Sunday).

Chaldean Catholics separated from the Church of the East (also known as the Nestorian Church) in 1552. Most members are in Iraq (where they are the largest Christian church) and Iran, with a refugee Iraqi community in Jordan and emigrant communities as far away as Australia and New Zealand.

Holy Land Christians

Chaldean Catholic refugees in Jordan (© Tasher Bahoo / Wikimedia)

The patriarchal seat is in Baghdad. In Jerusalem the patriarchal exarchate is at 7 Chaldean Street (off Nablus Road).

Syriac Catholics broke away from the Syriac Orthodox Church and have been in communion with Rome since the 1780s. They also trace their origins to the See of Antioch established by St Peter and retain much of the liturgy (in Aramaic) of their Orthodox counterpart.

Their Patriarch of Antioch is in Beirut. The Jerusalem patriarchal exarchate Church of St Thomas is at 2 Chaldean Street (off Nablus Road).

Armenian Catholics, who separated from the Armenian Orthodox Church, have been in communion with Rome since 1742. They have kept much of the Orthodox liturgy (in classical Armenian) and, like the Armenian Orthodox, suffered in the genocide by Ottoman Turks during the First World War.

Their headquarters is in Bzoummar, Lebanon. The Jerusalem patriarchal exarchate is at the Third Station of the Cross on the Via Dolorosa.

Holy Land Christians

St Maron, who gave the Maronite Catholics their name

Maronite Catholics, the largest Christian community in Lebanon, form the only Eastern church which has always been Roman Catholic, without an Orthodox counterpart.

Founded by St Maron, a 5th-century Syrian hermit, they use Aramaic in their worship and their patriarch is in Beirut. Their membership base in the Holy Land is in Galilee, which is just south of Lebanon.

The patriarchal vicariate is in the Old City on Maronite Convent Road, Jaffa Gate.

Roman Catholic

A Latin patriarchate was established in Jerusalem in 1099, 46 years after the East-West schism, during the Crusades. When the Crusaders were routed 90 years later, the Latin hierarchy fled the Holy Land.

Holy Land Christians

Franciscan friars in a Jerusalem market (© Custodia Terrae Sanctae)

In 1342 Pope Clement VI gave the custodianship of the holy places to the Franciscan order, whose founder, St Francis of Assisi, had visited the Holy Land in 1219-20.

The brown-robed Franciscans are still a familiar feature of the Holy Land, caring for holy places and active in parishes, schools and social works. Their Custody of the Holy Land is based at St Saviour’s Monastery on St Francis Street, New Gate, where St Saviour’s Church is the only Latin parish church in the Old City. They also retain possession of some chapels in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

Holy Land Christians

Congregation in St Saviour’s Church (© Custodia Terrae Sanctae)

About 100 other Roman Catholic religious orders (70 of women and 30 of men) serve in the Holy Land.

In 1847 Pope Pius IX re-established a Latin patriarchate in Jerusalem, with headquarters in Latin Patriarchate Road. Latin-rite Catholics are predominantly Palestinian Arabs (as is the patriarch), though their numbers have been boosted by migrant workers from Asia and Latin America.

Since the mid-1950s there has also been a Hebrew-speaking Catholic community — including convert Jews, Catholic spouses of Jews, and immigrants who have assimilated into the Hebrew-speaking society — which now has its own patriarchal vicar.

Anglican/Protestant/Evangelical

The Anglican and Lutheran churches jointly set up a Jerusalem-based diocese for the Middle East in 1841, though this joint missionary venture ended in 1886. Today both churches have separate bishops (both Palestinian Arabs).

The Anglicans, usually referred to as “Evangelicals” or “Episcopals”, have St George’s Cathedral on Nablus Road, with both Arab and expatriate congregations. St George’s College, a continuing education centre, is within the cathedral compound.

Until the cathedral opened, the bishop’s seat was Christ Church, near the Jaffa Gate in the Old City. The first Protestant church in the Holy Land when it was completed in 1849, it serves Messianic Jews among its charismatic congregation.

Holy Land Christians

Hebrew-inscribed altar in Christ Church (Ian W. Scott)

Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany built the Church of the Redeemer in Muristan Road for the Lutherans and personally dedicated it in 1898.

The church has Arabic, German, English and Danish congregations, and its tall bell tower offers an overview of the Old City.

Several other Reformed churches are established in the Holy Land. They include Baptist, Christian and Missionary Alliance, Christian Brethren, Church of God, Church of the Nazarene, Church of Scotland (Presbyterian), King of Kings Assembly, Pentecostal and Seventh-Day Adventist communities. Most evangelical Protestant churches are not recognised by the state of Israel.

Among those who identify as Jewish there are groups of Messianic Christians whose theology is conservatively evangelical and whose politics is predominantly Zionist, seeing the modern state of Israel as a fulfilment of biblical prophecies.

Related articles:

Inside an Eastern church

The Holy Land’s Christians

How to contact churches in Jerusalem

PHOTO CREDITS: Where the images above are not created by Seetheholyland.net, links to the sources can be found on our Attributions Page.

 

References

Bailey, Betty Jane and J. Martin: Who Are the Christians in the Middle East? (William B. Eerdmans, 2010)
Bausch, William J.: Pilgrim Church: A Popular History of Catholic Christianity (Twenty-Third Publications, 1993)
Caffulli, Giuseppe: “Jordan’s Christians: A Living Force” (Holy Land Review, Winter 2010)
Cragg, Kenneth: The Arab Christian: A History in the Middle East (Westminster/John Knox, 1991)
Doyle, Stephen: The Pilgrim’s New Guide to the Holy Land (Liturgical Press, 1990)
Eber, Shirley, and O’Sullivan, Kevin: Israel and the Occupied Territories: The Rough Guide (Harrap-Columbus, 1989)
Faris, John D.: “Peter’s First See” (CNEWA World, March-April 2003)
Hilliard, Alison, and Bailey, Betty Jane: Living Stones Pilgrimage: With the Christians of the Holy Land (Cassell, 1999)
McCormick, James R.: Jerusalem and the Holy Land: The first ecumenical pilgrim’s guide (Rhodes & Eaton, 1997)
Macpherson, Duncan (ed.): A Third Millennium Guide to Pilgrimage to the Holy Land (Melisende, 2000)
Marchadour, Alain, and Neuhaus, David: The Land, the Bible and History: Toward the Land That I Will Show You (Fordham University Press, 2007)
Pentin, Edward: “Leading Efforts to Keep Christians in Holy Land” (Holy Land Review, Spring 2009)

 

Church of the Holy Sepulchre chapels

Jerusalem

Church of the Holy Sepulchre chapels

Pilgrims at the Stone of Anointing (Seetheholyland.net)

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Old City of Jerusalem — venerated as the place where Jesus Christ died and rose again — contains a bewildering conglomeration of 30-plus chapels and worship spaces. There are no helpful signs.

This article describes the most significant areas that are not covered in the main Church of the Holy Sepulchre article.

The description begins at the main door (on the south side of the church) and circles the church in a roughly clockwise manner.

Immediately inside the main door is the Stone of Anointing, a slab of reddish stone flanked by candlesticks and overhung by a row of eight lamps. It commemorates the place where the body of Jesus was prepared for burial (though this stone dates only from 1810). It belongs
jointly to the Greek Orthodox, Catholics
and Armenian Orthodox.


On the wall behind the stone, a Greek mosaic depicts (from right to left) Christ being taken down from the cross, his body being prepared for burial, and his body being taken to the tomb.

To the left of the Stone of Anointing is a small circular slab with four pillars surmounted by a marble canopy. This shrine is the Armenian Station of the Holy Women. It commemorates Jesus’ mother and her companions who viewed the crucifixion.

On the wall behind the shrine, a large mosaic recalls the scene. The Armenians’ sacristy is on the left.

 

‘Little house’ encloses tomb

Church of the Holy Sepulchre chapels

Dome above edicule of the Tomb of Christ (Seetheholyland.net)

From this position the Tomb of Christ can be seen. A stone edicule (“little house”) encloses the sepulchre where it is believed Jesus lay buried for three days — and where he rose from the dead. (It is described in more detail in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre article.)

The lofty circular stone structure encompassing this whole area is known as the Rotunda. Above it is a huge dome decorated with a starburst of light.

Opposite the entrance to the Tomb, a triumphal arch built by the Crusaders leads to the basilica’s central worship space, the Katholikon. Originally the choir of the 12th-century Crusader church, it is now the Greek Orthodox cathedral.

A highly decorated screen called the iconostasis partially hides the altar from view. On the polished marble floor stands a goblet marking the “omphalos” (navel), the legendary centre of the earth. There are thrones for the patriarch of Jerusalem and the patriarch of Antioch.

 

Jewish tomb from 1st century

Behind the Tomb is a tiny Coptic chapel attached to the edicule.

Church of the Holy Sepulchre chapels

First-century Jewish tombs adjacent to Chapel of St Joseph of Arimathea and St Nicodemus (Seetheholyland.net)

Directly opposite this tiny chapel, walk between two of the pillars of the Rotunda into a dilapidated room, the Syriac Orthodox Chapel of St Joseph of Arimathea and St Nicodemus. On Sundays and feast days it is furnished for the celebration of Mass.

On the far side of the chapel is the low entrance to two complete 1st-century Jewish tombs. Since Jews always buried their dead outside the city, this proves that the Holy Sepulchre site was outside the city walls at the time of the crucifixion. There is a tradition that Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus were buried here.

Catholic Chapel of the Apparition

Church of the Holy Sepulchre chapels

Chapel of the Apparition of Jesus to his Mother (Seetheholyland.net)

Returning to the Rotunda, the area to the left (on the north side of the church) belongs to the Catholics. There is an altar dedicated to St Mary Magdalene, then double bronze doors (donated by the people of Australia in 1982) lead to the Franciscan Chapel of the Apparition. It commemorates the ancient tradition that Jesus appeared to his mother after his Resurrection, an event not found in the Gospels.

On the right inside the entrance of the chapel is a section of a column, said to be the one to which Jesus was tied when he was scourged. Along the far wall, scenes of the Way of the Cross are depicted in wrought iron.

 

Greek and Armenian chapels

Returning past the altar of St Mary Magdalene, turn left into a rather dark gallery, known as the Arches of the Virgin (commemorating a belief that Mary made visits to her son’s Tomb). It contains pillars and other remains from earlier constructions.

Church of the Holy Sepulchre chapels

Prison of Christ chapel in Church of the Holy Sepulchre (Seetheholyland.net)

At the far end, on the left, is a small Greek chapel called the Prison of Christ, apparently based on a belief that he was temporarily confined here before the crucifixion.

Further around the semi-circular aisle are two chapels on the left. The first is the Greek Chapel of St Longinus. It is dedicated to the Roman soldier who pierced Jesus’ side with his spear and then accepted him as the Son of God.

Further along is the Armenian Chapel of the Division of the Raiment, recalling that the Roman soldiers divided Christ’s clothes among them.

Next on the left is a stairwell, its walls inscribed with hundreds of crosses by pilgrims in past centuries.

 

Two chapels are underground

The 29 steep steps descend to the underground Armenian Chapel of St Helena. This was the crypt of the emperor Constantine’s 4th-century basilica and is therefore the oldest complete part of the entire building.

The Armenians have re-named the chapel to honour their national patron, St Gregory the Illuminator. The left-hand altar is dedicated to St Dismas (the Good Thief).

In an ancient quarry behind a wrought iron gate (open only with permission from the Armenians) is the Chapel of St Vartan and the Armenian Martyrs.

On a stone in a second-century wall is a drawing of a sailing vessel with a Latin inscription usually rendered as DOMINE IVIMUS (“Lord, we will go”). One interpretation is that it is a pilgrim’s reference to Psalm 122 (“I was glad when they said to me, “Let us go to the house of the Lord’.”

Church of the Holy Sepulchre chapels

Statue of St Helena holding the Cross of Christ, in Chapel of the Finding of the Cross (Seetheholyland.net)

From the right of the chapel, another steep staircase of 22 steps leads to the Franciscan Chapel of the Finding of the Cross. This rough-walled area has been built within part of the ancient quarry, apparently later converted into a cistern for water storage.

Here, according to tradition, St Helena (Constantine’s mother) discovered the True Cross and other instruments of the Passion and crucifixion. A statue behind the altar shows her holding the Cross.

Remnants of 12th-century frescoes are displayed behind glass walls.

After ascending all the steps to the ground floor again, immediately on the left is the Greek Chapel of the Derision. It commemorates the mocking of Jesus by the Roman soldiers. Under the altar is a fragment of a column, said to be the one Jesus sat on when the crown of thorns was put on his head.

 

Rock of Calvary can be seen

Further along, on the left, a glass screen protrudes slightly into the aisle. Through it can be seen the natural rock of Calvary.

Church of the Holy Sepulchre chapels

Rock of Calvary on display in Church of the Holy Sepulchre (Seetheholyland.net)

Next to it is a small area called the Chapel of Adam. It is directly beneath the Chapel of Calvary upstairs, and an ancient tradition suggests that Adam was buried here and that the blood of Jesus tricked down to his skull.

Here the rock of Calvary can be seen again, with a fissure running through it. Some believe the fissure was caused by the earthquake at the time Christ died. Others suggest that the rock of Calvary was left standing by quarrymen because it was cracked.

From this chapel, a door leads to the Greek Treasury, holding relics including one of the True Cross. The treasury is usually closed.

 

Rights of possession are jealously guarded

Under a decree called the Status Quo imposed by the Ottoman Turks in 1757, ownership of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is shared between the Greek Orthodox, Catholics (known in the Holy Land as Latins) and Armenian Orthodox. Three minor communities, Coptic, Syriac and Ethiopian Orthodox, have rights to use certain areas. All the churches jealously guard their rights.

One effect of the Status Quo can be seen by looking above the main entrance on leaving the church.

Church of the Holy Sepulchre chapels

Immovable ladder over entrance to Church of the Holy Sepulchre (Seetheholyland.net)

The wooden ladder leaning against a window ledge has been there since early in the 18th century. Nobody knows why it is there, but because it was in place when the Status Quo began in 1757, it must remain there.

As one faces the main entrance, to the right is a disused stairway that was the Crusaders’ entrance to Calvary. At the top of the stairs is the Chapel of the Franks. Beneath it is the Greek Orthodox Chapel of St Mary of Egypt — a prostitute who was converted in the church courtyard in the 4th century and spent the rest of her life as a hermit.

Related article:

Church of the Holy Sepulchre

In Scripture:

The crucifixion: Matthew 27:24-56; Mark 15:16-41; Luke 23:1-49; John 19:1-37

The burial of Jesus: Matthew 27:57-66; Mark 15:42-47; Luke 23:50-56; John 19:38-42

The Resurrection: Matthew 28:1-10; Mark 16:1-8; Luke 24:1-12; John 20:1-10

Administered by: Confraternity of the Holy Sepulchre (Greek Orthodox), Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land (Catholic), Brotherhood of St James (Armenian Orthodox)

Tel.: 972-2-6267000

Opens: Apr-Sep 4am, Oct-Mar 5am. Closes: Apr-Aug 8pm, Mar and Sep 7.30pm, Oct-Feb 7pm.  Sunday morning liturgies are usually: Coptic 4am, Catholic 5.30am, Greek Orthodox 7am, Syriac Orthodox 8am; Armenian Orthodox 8.45am on alternating Sundays with a weekly procession at 4.15pm.

References:

Bar-Am, Aviva: Beyond the Walls: Churches of Jerusalem (Ahva Press, 1998)
Benelli, Carla, and Saltini, Tommaso (eds): The Holy Sepulchre: The Pilgrim’s New Guide (Franciscan Printing Press, 2011)
Freeman-Grenville, G. S. P.: The Holy Land: A Pilgrim’s Guide to Israel, Jordan and the Sinai (Continuum Publishing, 1996)
Gonen, Rivka: Biblical Holy Places: An illustrated guide (Collier Macmillan, 1987)
Inman, Nick, and McDonald, Ferdie (eds): Jerusalem & the Holy Land (Eyewitness Travel Guide, Dorling Kindersley, 2007)
Murphy-O’Connor, Jerome: The Holy Land: An Oxford Archaeological Guide from Earliest Times to 1700 (Oxford University Press, 2005)
Wareham, Norman, and Gill, Jill: Every Pilgrim’s Guide to the Holy Land (Canterbury Press, 1996)
Wright, J. Robert: “Holy Sepulchre”, Holy Land, spring 1998)

External links:

Holy Sepulchre (Custodia Terrae Sanctae)
Church of the Holy Sepulchre (Wikipedia)
Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem (Sacred Destinations)
Holy Sepulchre (Franciscan Cyberspot)
Church of the Holy Sepulchre panorama (Jesus in Jerusalem)
Church of the Holy Sepulcher (Jerusalem Virtual Tours)
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre Virtual Tour

Church of the Holy Sepulchre

Jerusalem

Church of the Holy Sepulchre

Domes and cropped bell tower of Church of the Holy Sepulchre (Seetheholyland.net)

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Old City of Jerusalem covers what Christians believe is the site of the most important event in human history: The place where Jesus Christ rose from the dead.

But the pilgrim who looks for the hill of Calvary and a tomb cut out of rock in a garden nearby will be disappointed.

• At first sight, the church may bring on a sense of anticlimax. Looking across a hemmed-in square, there is the shabby façade of a dun-coloured, Romanesque basilica with grey domes and a cut-off belfry.

• Inside, there is a bewildering conglomeration of 30-plus chapels and worship spaces. These are encrusted with the devotional ornamentation of several Christian rites.

This sprawling Church of the Holy Sepulchre displays a mish-mash of architectural styles. It bears the scars of fires and earthquakes, deliberate destruction and reconstruction down the centuries. It is often gloomy and usually thronging with noisy visitors.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre from above, huddled in by surrounding buildings (Ilan Arad / Wikimedia)

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre from above, huddled in by surrounding buildings (Ilan Arad / Wikimedia)

Yet it remains a living place of worship. Its ancient stones are steeped in prayer, hymns and liturgies. It bustles daily with fervent rounds of incensing and processions.

This is the pre-eminent shrine for Christians, who consider it the holiest place on earth. And it attracts pilgrims by the thousand, all drawn to pay homage to their Saviour, Jesus Christ.

 

Church replaced pagan temple

Early Christians venerated the site. Then the emperor Hadrian covered it with a pagan temple.

Church of the Holy Sepulchre

Parvis (courtyard) of Church of the Holy Sepulchre (Seetheholyland.net)

Only in AD 326 was the first church begun by the emperor Constantine I. He tore down the pagan temple and had Christ’s tomb cut away from the original hillside. Tradition says his mother, St Helena, found the cross of Christ in a cistern not far from the hill of Calvary.

Constantine’s church was burned by Persians in 614, restored, destroyed by Muslims in 1009 and partially rebuilt. Crusaders completed the reconstruction in 1149. The result is essentially the church that stands today.

Making sense of the church

Of all the Christian holy places, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is probably the most difficult for pilgrims to come to terms with.

To help make sense of it, this article deals with the church’s major elements and its authenticity. A further article, Church of the Holy Sepulchre chapels, deals with its other devotional areas.

1. The main access to the church, on its south side, is from the Souk el-Dabbagha, a street of shops selling religious souvenirs. Visitors enter the left-hand doorway (the right one was blocked up by Muslim conquerors in the 12th century).

Church of the Holy Sepulchre

Climbing steps to Calvary (Seetheholyland.net)

2. Instead of following tourists into the often-gloomy interior, immediately turn hard right and ascend a steep and curving flight of stairs. You are now ascending the “hill” of Calvary (from the Latin) or Golgotha (from the Aramaic), both words meaning “place of the skull”. The stairs open on to a floor that is level with the top of the rocky outcrop on which Christ was crucified. It is about 4.5 metres above the ground floor.

3. Immediately on the right is a window looking into a small worship space called the Chapel of the Franks. Here the Tenth Station of the Cross (Jesus is stripped of his garments) is located.

On the floor of Calvary are two chapels side by side, Greek Orthodox on the left, Catholic on the right. They illustrate the vast differences in liturgical decoration between Eastern and Western churches.

4. The Catholic Chapel of the Nailing to the Cross is the site of the Eleventh Station of the Cross (Jesus is nailed to the cross). On its ceiling is a 12th-century medallion of the Ascension of Jesus — the only surviving Crusader mosaic in the building.

Church of the Holy Sepulchre

Greek Orthodox Chapel of the Crucifixion (Seetheholyland.net)

5. The much more ornate Greek Chapel of the Crucifixion is the Twelfth Station (Jesus dies on the cross). Standing here, it is easy to understand a little girl’s remark, quoted by the novelist Evelyn Waugh in 1951: “I never knew Our Lord was crucified indoors.”

6. Between the two chapels, a Catholic altar of Our Lady of Sorrows commemorates the Thirteenth Station (Jesus is taken down from the cross).

7. A silver disc beneath the Greek altar marks the place where it is believed the cross stood. The limestone rock of Calvary may be touched through a round hole in the disc. On the right, under glass, can be seen a fissure in the rock. Some believe this was caused by the earthquake at the time Christ died. Others suggest that the rock of Calvary was left standing by quarrymen because it was cracked.

8. Another flight of steep stairs at the left rear of the Greek chapel leads back to the ground floor.

9. To the left is the Stone of Anointing, a slab of reddish stone flanked by candlesticks and overhung by a row of eight lamps.

Stone of Anointing from above (Seetheholyland.net)

Stone of Anointing from above (Seetheholyland.net)

Kneeling pilgrims kiss it with great reverence, although this is not the stone on which Christ’s body was anointed. This devotion is recorded only since the 12th century. The present stone dates from 1810.

10. On the wall behind the stone is a Greek mosaic depicting (from right to left) Christ being taken down from the cross, his body being prepared for burial, and his body being taken to the tomb.

11. Continuing away from Calvary, the Rotunda of the church opens up on the right, surrounded by massive pillars and surmounted by a huge dome. Its outer walls date back to the emperor Constantine’s original basilica built in the 4th century. The dome is decorated with a starburst of tongues of light, with 12 rays representing the apostles.

12. In the centre is a stone edicule (“little house”), its entrance flanked by rows of huge candles. This is the Tomb of Christ, the Fourteenth Station of the Cross.

This stone monument encloses the tomb (sepulchre) where it is believed Jesus Christ lay buried for three days — and where he rose from the dead. A high-tech photogrammetric survey late in the 20th century showed that the present edicule contains the remains of three previous structures, each encasing the previous one, like a set of Russian dolls.

The Edicule after restoration in 2017 (Ben Gray / ELCJHL)

The Edicule after restoration in 2017 (Ben Gray / ELCJHL)

13. At busy times, Greek Orthodox priests control admission to the edicule. Inside there are two chambers. In the outer one, known as the Chapel of the Angel, stands a pedestal containing what is believed to be a piece of the rolling stone used to close the tomb.

14. A very low doorway leads to the tomb chamber, lined with marble and hung with holy pictures. On the right, a marble slab covers the rock bench on which the body of Jesus lay. It is this slab which is venerated by pilgrims, who customarily place religious objects and souvenirs on it.

The slab was deliberately split by order of the Franciscan custos (guardian) of the Holy Land in 1555, lest Ottoman Turks should steal such a fine piece of marble.

An agreement between the major Christian communities at the church enabled work to begin in May 2016 to reinforce and restore the edicule. The work was undertaken by a team of scientists from the National Technical University of Athens.

Inside the restored tomb chamber, with the window exposing the rock wall of the burial cave at left (© Custodia Terrae Sanctae)

Inside the restored tomb chamber, with the window exposing the rock wall of the burial cave at left (© Custodia Terrae Sanctae)

In October 2016 the team removed the marble slab, exposing a layer of fill material covering another slab of marble with a small Crusader cross etched on it. Beneath it was the bench on which the body of Jesus lay.

When the team restored the marble cladding and resealed the burial bed, they also cut a small window into the southern interior wall of the shrine to expose one of the limestone walls of the burial cave.

The multi-million-dollar restoration was completed in March 2017. The reddish-cream marble of the edicule emerged cleaned of centuries of grime, dust and soot from candle smoke, and freed from a grid of iron girders that had held it together since 1947.

But scientists warned that even more work would be necessary to shore up the unstable foundations of the shrine and the surrounding rotunda to avoid the risk of collapse.

Three denominations share ownership

Ownership of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is shared between the Greek Orthodox, Catholics (known in the Holy Land as Latins) and Armenian Orthodox.

The Greeks (who call the basilica the Anastasis, or Church of the Resurrection) own its central worship space, known as the Katholikon or Greek choir. The Armenians own the underground Chapel of St Helena which they have renamed in honour of St Gregory the Illuminator.

Katholikon (or Greek choir), the central worship space in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (Seetheholyland.net)

The Catholics own the Franciscan Chapel of the Apparition (which commemorates the tradition that the risen Christ first appeared to his Mother) and the deep underground Chapel of the Finding of the Cross.

Three minor Orthodox communities, Coptic, Syriac and Ethiopian, have rights to use certain areas. The Ethiopian monks live in a kind of African village on the roof, called Deir es-Sultan.

The rights of possession and use are spelt out by a decree, called the Status Quo, originally imposed by the Ottoman Turks in 1757. It even gives two Muslim families the sole right to hold the key and open and close the church — a tradition that dates back much further, to 1246.

 

Ladder symbolises Status Quo

Each religious community guards its rights jealously. The often-uneasy relationship laid down by the Status Quo is typified by a wooden ladder resting on a cornice above the main entrance and leaning against a window ledge.

Chapel of the Finding of the Cross (Seetheholyland.net)

Chapel of the Finding of the Cross (Seetheholyland.net)

The ladder has been there so long that nobody knows how it got there. Various suggestions have been offered: It was left behind by a careless mason or window-cleaner; it had been used to supply food to Armenian monks locked in the church by the Turks; it had served to let the Armenians use the cornice as a balcony to get fresh air and sunshine rather than leave the church and pay an Ottoman tax to re-enter it.

The ladder appears in an engraving of the church dated 1728, and it was mentioned in the 1757 edict by Sultan Abdul Hamid I that became the basis for the Status Quo.

Immovable ladder on ledge over entrance to Church of the Holy Sepulchre (Seetheholyland.net)

It would be too much to expect that the ladder seen today has resisted the elements since early in the 18th century. In fact the original has been replaced at least once.

In 1997 the ladder suddenly disappeared for some weeks, after a Protestant prankster hid it behind an altar. When it was discovered and returned, a steel grate was installed over the lower parts of both windows above the entrance. And in 2009 the ladder mysteriously appeared against the left window for a day.

The ladder, window and cornice are all in the possession of the Armenian Orthodox. And because the ladder was on the cornice when the Status Quo began in 1757, it must remain there.

 

Archaeology supports authenticity

Visitors may easily be disillusioned by the church’s contrasting architectural styles, its pious ornamentation and its competing liturgies.

If these man-made elements could be removed, as biblical scholar John J. Kilgallen has written, “we would stand between two places not more than 30 yards [90 feet] apart, with dirt and rock and grass under our feet and the open air all around us. Such was the original state of this area before Jesus died and was buried here.”

Church of the Holy Sepulchre

Inside the Tomb of Christ (© Adriatikus)

But is this the place where Christ died and was buried? “Very probably, Yes,” declares biblical scholar Jerome Murphy-O’Connor in his Oxford Archaeological Guide The Holy Land. Eusebius, the first Church historian (in the 4th century), says the site was venerated by the early Christian community.

And the Israeli scholar Dan Bahat, former city archaeologist of Jerusalem, says: “We may not be absolutely certain that the site of the Holy Sepulchre Church is the site of Jesus’ burial, but we have no other site that can lay a claim nearly as weighty, and we really have no reason to reject the authenticity of the site.”

One major objection raised is that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is inside the city walls, while the Gospels say the crucifixion took place outside. Archaeologists have confirmed that the site of the church was outside the city until about 10 years after Christ’s death, when a new wall was built.

Some favour a competing site, the Garden Tomb. Though it offers a more serene environment, the tombs in its area predate the time of Christ by several centuries.

Further article:

Church of the Holy Sepulchre chapels, dealing with the other devotional areas.

 

In Scripture:

The crucifixion: Matthew 27:27-56; Mark 15:16-41; Luke 23:26-49; John 19:16-37

The burial of Jesus: Matthew 27:57-66; Mark 15:42-47; Luke 23:50-56; John 19:38-42

The Resurrection: Matthew 28:1-10; Mark 16:1-8; Luke 24:1-12; John 20:1-10

Administered by: Confraternity of the Holy Sepulchre (Greek Orthodox), Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land (Catholic), Brotherhood of St James (Armenian Orthodox)

Tel.: 972-2-6267000

Opens: Apr-Sep 4am, Oct-Mar 5am. Closes: Apr-Aug 8pm, Mar and Sep 7.30pm, Oct-Feb 7pm.  Sunday morning liturgies are usually: Coptic 4am, Catholic 5.30am, Greek Orthodox 7am, Syriac Orthodox 8am; Armenian Orthodox 8.45am on alternating Sundays with a weekly procession at 4.15pm.

 

 

References:
Bahat, Dan: “Does the Holy Sepulchre Church Mark the Burial of Jesus?” (Biblical Archaeology Review, May-June 1986)
Bar-Am, Aviva: Beyond the Walls: Churches of Jerusalem (Ahva Press, 1998)
Benelli, Carla, and Saltini, Tommaso (eds): The Holy Sepulchre: The Pilgrim’s New Guide (Franciscan Printing Press, 2011).
Charlesworth, James H.: The Millennium Guide for Pilgrims to the Holy Land (BIBAL Press, 2000)
Cohen, Raymond: Saving the Holy Sepulchre: How Rival Christians Came Together to Rescue their Holiest Shrine (Oxford University Press, 2008)
Freeman-Grenville, G. S. P.: The Holy Land: A Pilgrim’s Guide to Israel, Jordan and the Sinai (Continuum Publishing, 1996)
Gonen, Rivka: Biblical Holy Places: An illustrated guide (Collier Macmillan, 1987)
Hadid, Diaa: “Risk of Collapse at Jesus’ Tomb Unites Rival Christians” (New York Times, April 6, 2016)
Herman, Danny: “Who Moved the Ladder?” (Biblical Archaeology Review, January/February 2010).
Kilgallen, John J.: A New Testament Guide to the Holy Land (Loyola Press, 1998)
Mackowski, Richard M.: Jerusalem: City of Jesus (William B. Eerdmans, 1980)
Murphy-O’Connor, Jerome: The Holy Land: An Oxford Archaeological Guide from Earliest Times to 1700 (Oxford University Press, 2005)
Notley, R. Steven: Jerusalem: City of the Great King (Carta Jerusalem, 2015)
Powers, Tom: “The Church of the Holy Sepulchre: Some perspectives from history, geography, architecture, archaeology and the New Testament” (Artifax, Autumn 2004-Spring 2005)
Prag, Kay: Jerusalem: Blue Guide (A. & C. Black, 1989)
Simmermacher, Günther: The Holy Land Trek: A Pilgrim’s Guide (Southern Cross Books, 2012).
Wareham, Norman, and Gill, Jill: Every Pilgrim’s Guide to the Holy Land (Canterbury Press, 1996)
Waugh, Evelyn: “The Plight of the Holy Places” (Life, December 24, 1951.
Wright, J. Robert: “Holy Sepulchre” (Holy Land, spring 1998)

External links:

Holy Sepulchre (Custodia Terrae Sanctae)
Church of the Holy Sepulchre (Wikipedia)
Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem (Sacred Destinations)
Holy Sepulchre (Franciscan Cyberspot)
Holy Sepulchre (Christus Rex)
Church of the Holy Sepulchre panorama (Jesus in Jerusalem)
The Church and the Ladder: Frozen in Time (James E. Lancaster)
Unsealing of Christ’s reputed tomb turns up new revelations (National Geographic)
Jesus’ tomb reopens in Jerusalem after multi-million dollar restoration (Haaretz)
Tomb of Christ at Risk of ‘Catastrophic’ Collapse (National Geographic)

Tomb of Mary

Jerusalem

Tomb of Mary

Steps down to the Tomb of Mary (Seetheholyland.net)

The New Testament says nothing about the death and burial of Mary, the Mother of Jesus, but a strong Christian tradition places her tomb in a dimly-lit church at the foot of the Mount of Olives.

The large crypt containing the empty tomb in the Church of the Assumption is all that remains of an early 5th-century church, making it possibly the oldest near-complete religious building in Jerusalem.

The location of the Tomb of Mary is across the Kidron Valley from St Stephen’s Gate in the Old City walls of Jerusalem, just before Gethsemane.

The Church of the Assumption stands partly below the level of the main Jerusalem-Jericho road. It is reached by a stairway leading down to an open courtyard.

Entry is through the façade of a 12th-century Crusader basilica that has been preserved intact. To the right, a passageway leads to the Grotto of Gethsemane.

 

Tomb resembles Holy Sepulchre

Tomb of Mary

Petitions and prayers in the Tomb of Mary (Seetheholyland.net)

A wide Crusader stairway of nearly 50 steps leads to the crypt. Partway down, on the right, is a niche dedicated to the Virgin Mary’s parents, Anne and Joachim. This small chapel was originally the burial place of Queen Melisande, daughter and wife of Crusader kings of Jerusalem, who died in 1161.

Almost opposite is a niche dedicated to Mary’s husband, St Joseph. Here three women connected to Crusader kings were buried.

The crypt, much of it cut into solid rock, is dark and gloomy. The smell of incense fills the air, the ceiling is blackened by centuries of candle smoke, and gold and silver lamps hang in profusion.

To the right, a small edicule houses a stone bench on which Mary’s body is believed to have lain. The edicule is richly decorated with Eastern Orthodox icons, candlesticks and flowers, but the interior is bare.

Narrow openings on two sides allow access, and three holes in the wall of the tomb enable pilgrims to touch the bench.

Because the emperor Constantine’s engineers cut away the surrounding rock to isolate the Tomb of Mary in the middle of the crypt, its appearance strongly resembles her Son’s tomb in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

Floods in 1972 enabled excavations by the archaeologist Bellarmino Bagatti, who concluded that the place where Mary had been buried was clearly located in a cemetery used during the first century.

 

Several denominations share site

The church belonged to the Catholic Franciscans from 1363 until 1757. When they were expelled it passed into the hands of the Eastern Orthodox churches.

The Greek Orthodox Church now shares possession with the Armenian Orthodox. The Syriac Orthodox, the Coptic Orthodox and the Ethiopian Orthodox have minor rights.

Muslims also worship here. In the wall to the right of the Tomb of Mary is a mihrab niche giving the direction of Mecca. It was installed after Saladin’s conquest in the 12th century.

The place is holy to Muslims because they believe Muhammad saw a light over the tomb of his “sister Mary” during his Night Journey to Jerusalem.

 

Early writers describe death and burial

Tomb of Mary

Icon of Mary’s death at the Tomb of Mary (Seetheholyland.net)

The New Testament may be silent on the end of Mary’s life, but several early apocryphal sources, such as Transitus Mariae, describe her death and burial in Jerusalem.

These works are of uncertain authenticity and not accepted as part of the Christian canon of Scripture.

But, according to biblical scholar Lino Cignelli, “All of them are traceable back to a single primitive document, a Judaeo-Christian prototype, clearly written within the mother church of Jerusalem some time during the second century, and, in all probability, composed for liturgical use right at the Tomb of Our Lady.

“From the earliest times, tradition has assigned the authorship of the prototype to one Lucius Carinus, said to have been a disciple and fellow labourer with St John the Evangelist.”

By the reckoning of Transitus Mariae, Mary would have been aged no more than 50 at the time of her death.

 

Ephesus claim not supported

A competing claim is made that the Virgin Mary died and was buried in the city of Ephesus, in present-day Turkey. This claim rests in part on the Gospel account that Christ on his cross entrusted the care of Mary to St John (who later went to Ephesus).

But the earliest traditions all locate the end of Mary’s life in Jerusalem, as the Catholic Encyclopedia recounts:

“The apocryphal works of the second to the fourth century are all favourable to the Jerusalem tradition. According to the Acts of St John by Prochurus, written (160-70) by Lencius, the Evangelist went to Ephesus accompanied by Prochurus alone and at a very advanced age, i.e. after Mary’s death.

“The two letters B. Inatii missa S. Joanni, written about 370, show that the Blessed Virgin passed the remainder of her days at Jerusalem. That of Dionysius the Areopagite to the Bishop Titus (363), the Joannis liber de Dormitione Mariae (third to fourth century), and the treatise De transitu B.M. Virginis (fourth century) place her tomb at Gethsemane . . . .

“There was never any tradition connecting Mary’s death and burial with the city of Ephesus.”

 

Assumption mentioned in early sources

The name of the Church of the Assumption reflects the Christian belief that Mary was bodily assumed into heaven. This belief is mentioned in early apocryphal sources, as well as in authenticated sermons by Eastern saints such as St Andrew of Crete and St John of Damascus.

The Assumption of Mary has been a subject of Christian art for centuries (and its feast day was made a public holiday in England by King Alfred the Great in the 9th century). It was defined as a doctrine of the Catholic Church by Pope Pius XII in 1950.

The Eastern Orthodox churches celebrate the feast of the Dormition of the Mother of God on August 15, the same day that the Catholic Church celebrates the feast of the Assumption of Mary.

 

Related site:

Church of the Dormition

Administered by: Brotherhood of the Holy Sepulchre

Tel.: 972-2-6284613

Open: 5am(6am Oct-Mar)-12 noon, 2.30–5pm

 

References

Bar-Am, Aviva: Beyond the Walls: Churches of Jerusalem (Ahva Press, 1998)
Cignelli, Lino: “Our Lady’s Tomb in the Apocrypha”, Holy Land, spring 2005.
Freeman-Grenville, G. S. P.: The Holy Land: A Pilgrim’s Guide to Israel, Jordan and the Sinai (Continuum Publishing, 1996)
Gonen, Rivka: Biblical Holy Places: An illustrated guide (Collier Macmillan, 1987)
Inman, Nick, and McDonald, Ferdie (eds): Jerusalem & the Holy Land (Eyewitness Travel Guide, Dorling Kindersley, 2007)
Murphy-O’Connor, Jerome: The Holy Land: An Oxford Archaeological Guide from Earliest Times to 1700 (Oxford University Press, 2005)
Wareham, Norman, and Gill, Jill: Every Pilgrim’s Guide to the Holy Land (Canterbury Press, 1996)

 

External links

Mary’s Tomb (BibleWalks)
Mary’s Tomb (Christus Rex)
Tomb of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Catholic Encyclopedia)

Church of the Nativity

West Bank

Church of the Nativity

Entering Church of the Nativity (Seetheholyland.net)

Entering the church that marks the site of Christ’s birthplace means having to stoop low. The only doorway in the fortress-like front wall is just 1.2 metres high.

The previous entrance to the Church of the Nativity was lowered around the year 1500 to stop looters from driving their carts in. To Christians, it seems appropriate to bow low before entering the place where God humbled himself to become man.

Today’s basilica, the oldest complete church in the Christian world, was built by the emperor Justinian in the 6th century. It replaced the original church of Constantine the Great, built over the cave venerated as Christ’s birthplace, and dedicated in AD 339.

Before Constantine, the first Christian emperor, the Romans had tried to wipe out the memory of the cave. They planted a grove dedicated to the pagan god Adonis, lover of Venus, and established his cult in the cave.

As St Jerome wrote in AD 395, “The earth’s most sacred spot was overshadowed by the grave of Adonis, and the cave where the infant Christ once wept was where the paramour of Venus was bewailed.”

 

Invading Persians spared the church

Church of the Nativity

Grotto of the Nativity (Darko Tepert)

The Gospels do not say that Jesus was born in a cave, but there are written references to the Nativity cave as far back as AD 160. Even today in the Judean hills, families live in primitive houses built in front of natural caves used for storage or to shelter animals.

When the original Church of the Nativity was built, the cave was enlarged to make room for pilgrims and a silver manger was installed.

St Jerome did not approve: “If I could only see that manger in which the Lord lay! Now, as if to honour the Christ, we have removed the poor one and placed there a silver one; however, for me the one which was removed is more precious . . . .”

Persians invaded Palestine in 614 and destroyed many churches. They spared the Church of the Nativity when they saw a mosaic on an interior wall depicting the Three Wise Men in Persian dress.

In 1482 King Edward IV sent English oak and tons of lead to renew the roof. In the 17th century the Turks looted the lead to melt into bullets. The roof rotted and most of the rich mosaics on the walls of the nave were ruined.

When Unesco put the basilica on its list of world heritage sites in 2012, it was also deemed to be endangered because of damage due to water leaks. A $US15 million restoration of the church’s roof, walls and mosaics began in 2013.

Christmas is observed on January 7

Church of the Nativity

Columns of red limestone in Church of the Nativity (Seetheholyland.net)

Today’s Church of the Nativity is cool and dark, its interior bare with no pews. Wall mosaics from the 12th century — depicting saints, angels and Church councils — have had their original sheen restored.

The restorers even uncovered a 2-metre mosaic of an angel that had been lost for centuries.

Trapdoors in the floor allow glimpses of the mosaic floor of Constantine’s basilica. The red limestone pillars were quarried locally. Many are adorned with Crusader paintings of saints.

Steps to the right of the iconostasis (the carved screen, adorned with icons, that stands in front of the main altar) lead down to the Grotto of the Nativity.

As the ornamentation, icons and lamps in the front of the church suggest, the basilica is now almost wholly a Greek Orthodox place of worship. The Armenian Orthodox own the northern transept. The Catholics have the site of the manger and the adjoining altar next to the Nativity grotto.

So while Christians in the Western world are celebrating Christ’s birthday on December 25, the church at his birthplace still has 13 days to wait for the Orthodox observance on January 7 and a further 12 days for the Armenian Christmas.

So where does the televised Christmas Eve service come from? The adjoining Church of St Catherine of Alexandria, which is Catholic.

Other sites in the Bethlehem area:

Bethlehem

Grotto of the Nativity

St Jerome’s Cave

Church of St Catherine of Alexandria

Milk Grotto

Shepherds’ Field

Tomb of Rachel

Field of Boaz

Herodium

In Scripture:

The birth of Jesus: Luke 2:1-20; Matthew 1:18-25

The visit of the Wise Men: Matthew 2:1-12

Administered by: Greek Orthodox Church, Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land, Armenian Apostolic Church

Tel.: 972-2-2742440

Open: Apr-Sep 6.30am-7.30pm, Oct-Mar 5.30am-5pm (grotto closed Sunday morning)

 

 

 

References

Baldwin, David: The Holy Land: A Pilgrim’s Companion (Catholic Truth Society, 2007)
Bastier, Claire, and Halloun, Nizar: “Restoration: Revealing the glories of the Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem”, Holy Land Review, winter 2016
Blaiklock, E. M.: Eight Days in Israel (Ark Publishing, 1980)
Brownrigg, Ronald: Come, See the Place: A Pilgrim Guide to the Holy Land (Hodder and Stoughton, 1985)
Chabin, Michele: “Church of the Nativity’s Face-Lift Reveals Ancient Treasures”, National Catholic Register, June 15, 2016
Freeman-Grenville, G. S. P.: The Holy Land: A Pilgrim’s Guide to Israel, Jordan and the Sinai (Continuum Publishing, 1996)
Gonen, Rivka: Biblical Holy Places: An illustrated guide (Collier Macmillan, 1987)
Inman, Nick, and McDonald, Ferdie (eds): Jerusalem & the Holy Land (Eyewitness Travel Guide, Dorling Kindersley, 2007)
Joseph, Frederick: “Bethlehem”, Holy Land, winter 2002
Martin, James: A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Holy Land (Westminster Press, 1978)
Murphy-O’Connor, Jerome: The Holy Land: An Oxford Archaeological Guide from Earliest Times to 1700 (Oxford University Press, 2005)
Wareham, Norman, and Gill, Jill: Every Pilgrim’s Guide to the Holy Land (Canterbury Press, 1996)

External links

Bethlehem (Obethlehem.com)
Church of the Nativity (Wikipedia)
Bethlehem (Custodia Terrae Sanctae)
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