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The Sites

Israel and Palestine – In Jerusalem

Israel and Palestine – Outside Jerusalem




Holy Family in Egypt


The Gospel account of the Holy Family seeking refuge in Egypt is unsupported by archaeological evidence, but to Coptic Christians it is affirmed by their oral tradition, a fifth-century patriarch’s vision, the locations of early desert monasteries — and the claimed confirmation of modern-day apparitions.

Only Matthew’s Gospel records that Joseph, Mary and Jesus fled to Egypt to escape King Herod’s massacre of young children. In a few short paragraphs, Joseph is warned in dreams to leave Bethlehem and later, when Herod dies, to return to Israel (2:13-23).

Holy Family arriving in Egypt, by Edwin Longsden Long (Wikimedia)

Holy Family arriving in Egypt, by Edwin Longsden Long (Wikimedia)

Egypt was a logical refuge. It was part of the Roman empire, but outside Herod’s domain, and some cities had significant Jewish communities. The well-trodden Via Maris (“way of the sea”) through Gaza and the northern Sinai coast made travel easy and relatively safe.

Biblical scholars W. F. Albright and C. S. Mann affirm that “there is no reason to doubt the historicity of the story of the family’s flight into Egypt. The Old Testament abounds in references to individuals and families taking refuge in Egypt, in flight either from persecution or revenge, or in the face of economic pressure.”

Major source inspired by vision

Outside of the New Testament, in the second century the anti-Christian Greek philosopher Celsus accused Jesus of “having worked for hire in Egypt on account of his poverty, and having experimented there with some magical powers, in which the Egyptians take great pride”.

Map of Holy Family's itinerary signed by Coptic Pope Shenouda III (Orthodox Wiki)

Map of Holy Family’s itinerary signed by Coptic Pope Shenouda III (Orthodox Wiki)

In the third century the Holy Family’s flight to Egypt was noted by the theologian Hippolytus of Rome, who even gave a time frame of three and a half years.

A major source for the Coptic Orthodox Church is a homily attributed to the fifth-century Coptic Pope Theophilus, 23rd Patriarch of Alexandria, and said to be inspired by a vision of the Virgin Mary. He described the Holy Family fleeing from the Milk Grotto in Bethlehem and detailed numerous miracles performed by Jesus in the towns of Lower and Upper Egypt.

Some accounts say that Salome, possibly a relative of Mary (and often mistakenly referred to as her midwife) accompanied the family.

Miracles or fantasies?

The Arabic Infancy Gospel, from the fifth or sixth centuries, narrates supposed incidents from the family’s travels in the land of the pharaohs — including several miracles, often fantastical, wrought by the child Jesus.

In this account, trees bowed before the infant, animals paid homage to him, pagan idols tumbled at his approach, spiders weaved a thick web to conceal Mary and Jesus in a tree, and there was even a chance encounter with the two criminals who would be crucified alongside Jesus.

List of locations keeps growing

How long the family was in Egypt, where they went or what they did there, is not reported in Matthew’s Gospel. But by the eighth century, building on local traditions, Bishop Zacharias of Sakha had already established a Holy Family path in the Nile Delta.

In the 12th century a scribe called John ibn Said al-Kulzumi drew up a geographical list of nine sites visited by the holy refugees. A century later, when the Coptic priest Abu l-Makarim referred to 14 locations, the outline of an itinerary had clearly been established.

The presence of early monasteries and churches was seen as confirming local traditions, which were also celebrated in Coptic liturgies and art.

Government mosaic commemorating Holy Family's visit (State Information Service of Egypt)

Government mosaic commemorating Holy Family’s visit (State Information Service of Egypt)

A patriarchal commission of hierarchs and scholars has published an “official” map of the route of the Holy Family, but the popular list of holy locations keeps growing, sometimes stirring rivalry between adjacent sites.

With an eye on boosting “spiritual tourism”, the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities for Egypt (a predominantly Sunni Muslim state) has launched the Holy Family Trail — a 3220-kilometre route for four-wheel drive adventurers.

Promoters of the trail display unexpected precision: “The Holy Family arrived in Egypt on the 24th day of the Coptic month of Pshnece, or on 2 June . . . . They stayed in Egypt for three years and 11 months,” according to former Minister of State for Antiquities Affairs Zahi Hawass.

Nile was crossed and re-crossed

The popular list of locations suggests the Holy Family — travelling by foot, donkey or boat, and moving often — crossed and re-crossed the forks of the Nile Delta, then travelled south (upstream) as far as Gebel Qussqam, before returning by boat down the Nile to the Cairo area and retracing their steps overland to Israel.

Some of the best-attested sites, with their associated Coptic traditions, include:

Bubastis: After arriving through the customary entry point of El-Farama — following in the footsteps of Abraham and Jacob — the Holy Family came to the city of Bubastis in the eastern Nile delta, a centre of worship for the cat goddess Bastet.

Ruins of Bubastis (Einsamer Schütze / Wikimedia)

Ruins of Bubastis (Einsamer Schütze / Wikimedia)

Coptic tradition says the arrival of the infant Jesus caused a temple’s foundations to shake and all the idols to fall on their faces — echoing Isaiah’s prophecy that “the idols of Egypt will tremble at his presence” (19:1). A field of fallen idols remained in modern times in the ruins of Bubastis, now within the modern city of Zagazig.

Mostorod: In this city, now part of greater Cairo, Mary needed to bathe her son and wash his dusty clothes. Jesus extended his hand to bless the place and a spring of water arose where a well beside the Virgin Mary Church remains.

Granite bowl at Samunnud believed to have been used by Mary (© Blessedegypt.com)

Granite bowl at Samunnud believed to have been used by Mary (© Blessedegypt.com)

Belbeis: As they entered the town, the Holy Family met the funeral procession of a widow’s son. Foreshadowing the miracle at Nain in Luke 7:11-17, the infant Jesus raised the dead man to life.

Samannud: Backtracking north-west, the family crossed the Nile at Samannud. Here Mary baked bread and the Coptic community displays a large granite bowl she is said to have used.

Sakha: In this town near the centre of the Nile Delta, tradition says Jesus left a footprint on a rock. Rediscovered in 1984, the rock was authenticated by Coptic Pope Shenouda III and several miracles have been attributed to it.

Rock at Sakha on which Jesus is believed to have left a footprint (© Blessedegypt.com)

Rock at Sakha on which Jesus is believed to have left a footprint (© Blessedegypt.com)

Wadi El Natrun: Travelling through this long valley in the Western Desert, 24 metres below sea level, the family were approached by two lions. With a wave of his hand, Jesus told them to leave and, bowing their heads, they obeyed. The holy infant also caused a sweet-water well to open up among lakes saturated with natron salt. From the third century the Wadi El Natrun desert attracted thousands of hermits, and it remains the most important centre of Coptic monasticism.

El Matareya: Leaving the desert behind, the Holy Family crossed to the eastern bank of the Nile and headed for the ancient city of Heliopolis, now El Matareya — a name thought to have come from the Latin word “Mater” in recognition of Mary’s presence. On the way they would have passed the pyramids of Giza, built 2500 years earlier.

Heliopolis as envisaged by early 20th-century German landscape painter Carl Wuttke (Wikimedia)

Heliopolis as envisaged by early 20th-century German landscape painter Carl Wuttke (Wikimedia)

At Heliopolis they lived in the Ain Shams neighbourhood, where there was a large Jewish community. According to one tradition, two brigands pursued the family but a fig tree opened its trunk to conceal them.

Zeitoun: Coptic tradition says Mary was so exhausted from fleeing Herod’s soldiers that she had to stop at Zeitoun, in Old Cairo, for several hours to rest. Mary is also believed to have promised a farmer at nearby Klot Bey that her son would bless his farm so that melons sown on one day could be harvested the next day.


Photograph of an apparition taken on April 9, 1968, by architectural engineer Fawzi Mansour at St Mary’s Church, Zeitoun

Zeitoun attracted international attention when apparitions of Mary were seen on the roof of the Church of the Holy Virgin during a period of about three years from April 2, 1968.

The visions were pronounced authentic by the Coptic Orthodox Church and a statement from the Muslim government declared: “Official investigations have been carried out with the result that it has been considered an undeniable fact that the Blessed Virgin Mary has been appearing on Zeitoun Church in a clear and bright luminous body seen by all present in front of the church, whether Christians or Muslims.”

Babylon Fortress: Joseph is believed to have worked at this Roman fortress in Old Cairo to support his family, who lived in a cave that is now the crypt of the 11th-century Church of St Sergius and St Bacchus (known locally as the Abu Serga Church). The cave, within the walls of the fortress, floods when the level of the Nile are high. Tradition marks the area as the place where the baby Moses was discovered by the pharaoh’s daughter (Exodus 2:3-5). The church also has a well believed to have been used by the Holy Family.

Stone steps in Church of the Virgin, Maadi, believed to have been used by the Holy Family to descend to the Nile (John Sanidopoulos)

Stone steps in Church of the Virgin, Maadi, believed to have been used by the Holy Family to descend to the Nile (John Sanidopoulos)

Maadi: Moving south, the Holy Family reached Maadi, now a leafy suburb of Cairo but then home to a large Jewish community, and boarded a papyrus felucca sailboat to take them up the Nile towards southern Egypt. The stone steps they used to reach the river are still accessible to pilgrims through the Virgin Mary Church.

Ishnin al-Nasara: On reaching this village, the infant Jesus felt thirsty. There was a well but the water level was too low. His mother took his finger and held it over the well, which then rose to the top. (A rival tradition locates this event at nearby Al-Bahnasa.)

Deir Al-Garnous: Here, where the family rested for four days, Jesus is said to have left a well with water that not only cured every disease but foretold the height of the Nile’s annual inundation.

Gabal Al-Teir: The Holy Family crossed the Nile to use a cave at Gabal Al-Teir, a nesting place for thousands of birds. As their boat passed a cliff, a rock threatened to fall on them but Jesus held it back, leaving his handprint on the rock. (When Almeric, King of Jerusalem, invaded Upper Egypt in the 12th century he is reported to have had the rock chiselled out and taken with him.)

Crypt in Abu Serga Church (© Günther Simmermacher)

Crypt in Abu Serga Church, Cairo, where the Holy Family is believed to have lived (© Günther Simmermacher)

El Ashmunein: On arrival, according to the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, the family did not know anyone from whom they could seek hospitality, so they went into a temple with 355 idols. All the idols prostrated themselves on the ground. When the governor saw what had happened, he said: “Unless this were the God of our gods, our gods would not have fallen on their faces before him; nor would they be lying prostrate in his presence . . . .” and “all the people of that same city believed in the Lord God through Jesus Christ”. The fifth-century historian Sozomenos said there was a tree in the town that bowed to the ground to worship Jesus.

Deir Abū Hinnis: Just outside this Christian village is Kim Maria (“hill of Mary”) where Mary is believed to have rested. Sixth-century wall paintings by monks in a cave church nearby include perhaps the earliest illustrations of the flight into Egypt.

ElQusiya: This town (formerly called Cusae or Qesy) has the reputation of not only being visited by the Holy Family but also of being cursed by the infant Jesus. According to Theophilus, this happened after idols fell down when the family arrived, the pagan priests told the family to leave, and townspeople chased them away with rods and axes.

Gebel (Mount) Qussqam: Coptic tradition says the Holy Family’s longest stay in one place was in a cave at Mount Qussqam, 1942 kilometres south of Cairo — and precisely dates its duration on the Coptic calendar from the 7th of Barmoudah to the 6th of Babah, a period of 185 days. It was here that an angel revealed to Joseph that Herod was dead and it was safe to return to Israel, fulfilling Hosea’s prophecy “Out of Egypt I called my Son” (11:1). And it was here that Theophilus received his vision of the family’s travels. Around the cave spreads the fortress-like Monastery of the Holy Virgin of Al-Muharraq.

Monastery of the Virgin in Durunka (Landious Travel)

Monastery of the Virgin in Durunka (Landious Travel)

Durunka: A rival view maintains that the Holy Family travelled 50 kilometres further south to get on a sailboat for their return down the Nile. Here the massive Virgin Mary Monastery of Durunka stands 100 metres high on a mountain side above the Nile Valley. Though no ancient text suggests Durunka as a Holy Family site, Coptic studies expert Otto Meinardus explains that the local bishop began to promote it as such from the 1950s after the Al-Muharraq monastery was riven by internal disputes. Business interests backed the development of the site and it has became a major venue attracting a million pilgrims and tourists a year.

In Scripture:

Joseph is warned to flee to Egypt: Matthew 2:13-15

Joseph is told to return to Israel: Matthew 2:19-23



Albright, W. F., and Mann, C. S.: Matthew (The Anchor Bible Commentaries Series, 1971)
Curtin, D. P.: Vision of Theophilus: The Flight of the Holy Family into Egypt (Dalcassian Publishing Company, 2023)
Davies, Stevan: The Infancy Gospels of Jesus (Skylight Paths, 2009)
Gabra, Gawdat (ed.): Be Thou There: The Holy Family’s Journey in Egypt  (American University in Cairo Press, 2001)
Hawass, Zahi: “The Holy Family in Egypt” (Al-Ahram Weekly, January 3, 2023)
Meinardus, Otto F. A.: The Holy Family in Egypt (American University in Cairo Press, 1987)
Perry, Paul: Jesus in Egypt (Ballantine Books, 2003)


External links:

Apocrypha: First Infancy Gospel of Jesus (Interfaith Online)
Flight into Egypt (Wikipedia)
Holy Family Trail: A new path through Egypt’s holiest sites (BBC)
Holy Family Trail Unites Coptic Sites Where Jesus Once Traveled (Religion Unplugged)
Milk Grotto (Seetheholyland)
Nain (Seetheholyland)
The Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew (The Gnostic Society Library)
The Holy family in its Journey to Egypt (Egypt State Information Service)
The Journey of the Holy Family (Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities of Egypt)
The Journey of the Holy Family to Egypt (Egyptian Tourist Authority)
The Sources of Egypt’s Traditions Related to The Flight of the Holy Family (TourEgypt)

Churches in the Holy Land

Eastern Orthodox

Oriental Orthodox

Eastern Catholic

Roman Catholic


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.


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.



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


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. This was to be undertaken during a two-year project to restore and conserve the pavement stones inside the church that began in March 2022.

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.



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)
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)
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