It’s travel Tuesday, and time for me to share one of the most interesting (and moving) visits I have ever made: The Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This place of worship and pilgrimage has its origin in the Passion Story of Jesus, and the present building dates to immediately after the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD, and has expanded through the years until the 18th Century. It houses arguably the two holiest sites in Christendom: The Hill of Calvary, and the Tomb of Jesus.
Because of its importance in the Christian faith, it is a place of both pilgrimage and tourism. It is also administered by a wide swath of Christian traditions. With the Orthodox, Catholic, Armenian Apostolic, Ethiopian, and Coptic faiths all having areas of responsibility within the church.
No one sect/tradition has overall control, and even the entry to the building is managed by a Muslim family to promote peace. Saladin gave care of the key to the Nuseibeh clan in 1192, a responsibility they have had ever since.
This was not the only measure to promote harmony within the shared structure. In 1757 Sultan Abdul Hamid I decreed that nothing in the church can be moved by one Christian group without the consent of the others. This Status Quo had the effect consolidating the areas of responsibility (and setting positions of statues shrines, etc.) within the church. It had one unintended consequence as well: “Immovable Ladder.” This workman’s ladder has remained on a window ledge since the edict!
The church is open to all, but decorum and respect of its holy status is expected. Bare legs and immodest clothing are to be avoided. It was interesting during my visit to see a large group of East European men wearing sarongs over their shorts.
There are areas in which one can sit and contemplate, and there is a strictly adhered to schedule of religious services, each tradition showing respect to the others in the use of facilities.
There are multiple chapels and shrines for the various traditions, but the most important ones are The Aedicule (Tomb of Jesus), and site of Calvary. The Aedicule is an 18th Century shrine that surrounds the empty tomb site.
Other key features include the “Stone of Anointing” or unction table where it is believed that the body of Jesus was prepared for burial. There are some really beautiful mosaic murals within the church as well.
While not strictly an ecumenical triumph, the various faiths do get on (for the most part), and the faith of the pilgrims of all traditions is encouraging and uplifting. I spent several hours in the church, and made a point to see each of the areas, while showing respect to the various “high” church customs.
History is everywhere, here. The growth and diversity of the Christian family is evident, the stories of the Status Quo, and even graffiti left by Crusaders can be found within its walls.
Even for those of a non-Christian faith, or no faith at all, this is a fascinating place to explore, if for nothing else the art and history.