Church of the Holy Sepulchre: Structure, Tomb of Jesus, Disputes

Home | Category: Passion, Death and Resurrection of Jesus / Early History of Christianity / Christian Prayers and Rituals


Entrance from a courtyard to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher

The Church of the Holy Sepulcher lies on the traditional site of Christ's crucifixion, burial and resurrection — Golgotha or Cavalry. All the historical and archaeological evidence seems to indicate it is in the right place. In Jesus’s time executions were carried out on a hill outside the city walls. The site was on a hill outside the walls in Jesus’s time. Furthermore, the niche style grave is consistent with that of Jesus’s time and there are written statements to its authenticity that date back to the A.D. 2nd century. Scenes from the life of Christ—including his infancy, triumphal entry into Jerusalem, and Last Supper—adorn a small Coptic Orthodox chapel in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

A room in the south-east corner of the church has been placed on top of Golgotha, or Calvary, where Christ according to tradition Christ was crucified. The gray rock mass of Golgotha is protected by a plexiglass case. Here, a narrow half circle of stairs leads to a chapel — with a Greek Orthodox side and a Roman Catholic side “placed over the spot where Christ was nailed to the cross.

Harriet Sherwood wrote in The Guardian: “The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, in the heart of the Christian quarter of the walled Old City, covers the assumed site of Jesus’s crucifixion, burial and resurrection. It is a huge attraction for pilgrims and tourists from all over the world, many weeping and clutching precious mementos or photographs of loved ones and forming long queues for the shrine. The shrine has been rebuilt four times in its history, most recently in 1810 after a fire.The structure had been held in place for almost 70 years by iron girders erected on the instructions of a British governor who ruled Palestine in the Mandate era. They have now been removed.” [Source: Harriet Sherwood, The Guardian, March 21, 2017]

Websites and Resources: PBS Frontline From Jesus to Christ ; BBC on Christianity ; Candida Moss at the Daily Beast Daily Beast;Christian Answers; Biblical History: Bible History Online ; Biblical Archaeology Society

Tomb of Jesus Christ

Tomb of Jesus inside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher

At the center of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher is Christ’s marble tomb. Reminiscent of an outdoor mausoleum, it can accommodate a half dozen or so people inside it. Visitors enter and exit a few at a time through a small opening that requires them to hunch over. Inside most people pray for a few moments and then leave. Near the entrance to the church is the Stone of Unction, where Christ’s body was cleaned, anointed and dressed before it was buried. It is often surrounded by weeping women dressed in black, bowing and kissing and rubbing oil into the stone. Some splash the stone with rose water and collect as much water as they can with sponges, squeezing the water into bottles to bring back home.

Kristin Romey wrote in National Geographic: “Standing shoulder to shoulder with holiday pilgrims waiting to enter the tiny shrine, I recall the nights spent inside the empty church with the conservation team, coming upon darkened nooks etched with centuries of graffiti and burials of crusader kings. I marvel at the many archaeological discoveries made in Jerusalem and elsewhere over the years that lend credibility to the Scriptures and traditions surrounding the death of Jesus, including an ornate ossuary that may contain the bones of Caiaphas, an inscription attesting to the rule of Pontius Pilate, and a heel bone driven through with an iron crucifixion nail, found in the Jerusalem burial of a Jewish man named Yehohanan. [Source: Kristin Romey, National Geographic, November 28, 2017 ^|^]

“I’m also struck by the many lines of evidence that converge on this ancient church. Just yards from the tomb of Christ are other rock-hewn tombs of the period, affirming that this church, destroyed and rebuilt twice, was indeed constructed over a Jewish burial ground. I recall being alone inside the tomb after its marble cladding was briefly removed, overwhelmed that I was looking at one of the world’s most important monuments—a simple limestone shelf that people have revered for millennia, a sight that hadn’t been seen for possibly a thousand years. I was overwhelmed by all the questions of history I hoped this brief and spectacular moment of exposure would eventually answer. ^|^

“Today, on my Easter visit, I find myself inside the tomb again, squeezed alongside three kerchiefed Russian women. The marble is back in place, protecting the burial bed from their kisses and all the rosaries and prayer cards rubbed endlessly on its time-polished surface. The youngest woman whispers entreaties for Jesus to heal her son Yevgeni, who has leukaemia. ^|^

“A priest standing outside the entrance loudly reminds us that our time is up, that other pilgrims are waiting. Reluctantly, the women stand up and file out, and I follow. At this moment I realise that to sincere believers, the scholars’ quest for the historical, non-supernatural Jesus is of little consequence. That quest will be endless, full of shifting theories, unanswerable questions, irreconcilable facts. But for true believers, their faith in the life, death, and Resurrection of the Son of God will be evidence enough. ^|^

Is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre Really Home of the Tomb of Christ?

Kristin Romey wrote in National Geographic, “While it is archaeologically impossible to say that the tomb recently uncovered in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is the burial site of an individual Jew known as Jesus of Nazareth, there is indirect evidence to suggest that the identification of the site by representatives of the Roman emperor Constantine some 300 years later may be a reasonable one. [Source: Kristin Romey, National Geographic, October 31, 2016 ^^^] “The earliest accounts of Jesus' burial come from the Canonical Gospels, the first four books of the New Testament, which are believed to have been composed decades after Christ's crucifixion around A.D. 30. While there are variations in the details, the accounts consistently describe how Christ was buried in a rock-cut tomb belonging to Joseph of Arimathea, a wealthy Jewish follower of Jesus. ^^^

“Archaeologists have identified more than a thousand such rock-cut tombs in the area around Jerusalem, says archaeologist and National Geographic grantee Jodi Magness. Each one of these family tombs consisted of one or more burial chambers with long niches cut into the sides of the rock to accommodate individual bodies. "All of this is perfectly consistent with what we know about how wealthy Jews disposed of their dead in the time of Jesus," says Magness. "This does not, of course, prove that the event was historical. But what it does suggest is that whatever the sources were for the gospel accounts, they were familiar with this tradition and these burial customs." ^^^

“The presence of other tombs of the period is important archaeological evidence, according to Magness. "What they show is that in fact this area was a Jewish cemetery outside the walls of Jerusalem in the time of Jesus." According to Dan Bahat, former city archaeologist of Jerusalem, "We may not be absolutely certain that the site of the Holy Sepulchre Church is the site of Jesus' burial, but we certainly 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.” ^^^

Early History of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

The site was discovered underneath a Temple of Aphrodite by Saint Helena, the mother of Byzantine Emperor Constantine, along with — tradition says — the True Cross, the Crown of Thorns and the lance used by a Roman Soldier to pierce Christ on his way to Calvary. Considering it was her first pilgrimage to the Holy Land, she didn't make out so bad. Upon her return, Constantine, the man who christianized Rome, ordered a building to "surpass the most magnificent monuments any city possesses." Ten years later in A.D. 335 the first Church of the Holy Sepulcher was finished.

Constantine and Helena and the True Cross

The site of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is venerated by most Christians as Golgotha, (the Hill of Calvary). The early Christian community of Jerusalem appears to have held liturgical celebrations at Christ's tomb from the time of the resurrection until the city was taken by the Romans in 66 AD. Less than a century later, in 135 AD, Emperor Hadrian filled in the quarry to provide a level foundation for a pagan temple. The site remained buried beneath the pagan temple until Emperor Constantin the Great converted to Christianity in 312 AD. He had the pagan temple to Venus torn down and set the plan to erect the monumental domed Church of the Holy Sepulchre. It soon to become Jerusalem's most sacred place of Christian pilgrimage and has been an important pilgrimage destination since at least the fourth century. [Source: Associated Press, November 10, 2008]

Kristin Romey wrote in National Geographic, “Jewish tradition forbade burial within the walls of a city, and the Gospels specify that Jesus was buried outside of Jerusalem, near the site of his crucifixion on Golgotha ("the place of skulls"). A few years after the burial is said to have occurred, the walls of Jerusalem were expanded, putting Golgotha and the nearby tomb within the city. When Constantine's representatives arrived in Jerusalem around A.D. 325 to locate the tomb, they were allegedly pointed to a temple built by the Roman emperor Hadrian some 200 years earlier. Historical sources suggest that Hadrian had the temple built over the tomb to assert the dominance of Roman state religion at the site venerated by Christians. [Source: Kristin Romey, National Geographic, October 31, 2016 ^^^]

Jesus's Tomb Undergoes $4 million Restoration

In March 2017, Jesus’s tomb — where Jesus’s body is believed to have been interred after his crucifixion — reopens after nine-month, $4 million restoration. Harriet Sherwood wrote in The Guardian: “A team of Greek scientists and restorers has completed the nine-month renovation project, which focused on a small structure above the burial chamber, known as the Edicule. It is the most sacred monument in Christianity. “If the intervention hadn’t happened now, there is a very great risk that there could have been a collapse,” Bonnie Burnham of the World Monuments Fund, which had oversight of the project, told Associated Press. “This is a complete transformation of the monument.” [Source: Harriet Sherwood Religion, The Guardian, March 21, 2017 ==]

“The delicate restoration was carried out by a team of about 50 experts from the National Technical University of Athens, which had previously worked on the Acropolis in the Greek capital and the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. The conservators worked mainly at night in order to allow pilgrims continued access to the shrine.

Dome Over the Tomb of Jesus

“The team also repaired and stabilised the shrine with titanium bolts and mortar, and cleaned thick layers of candle soot and pigeon droppings. The work involved the use of radar, laser scanners and drones. The structure had been held in place for almost 70 years by iron girders erected on the instructions of a British governor who ruled Palestine in the Mandate era. They have now been removed. The ceremony to mark the completion of the restoration will be in the presence of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, the spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians, and a representative of Pope Francis. The $4 million (£3.2 million) cost of the restoration came from contributions from the six denominations which share custody of the church, King Abdullah of Jordan, the Palestinian Authority, and Mica Ertegun, the widow of Atlantic Records co-founder Ahmet Ertegun, who gave $1.3m.” ==

Jesus's Tomb Exposed

In October 2016, a marble slab covering the rock-carved tomb was lifted for the first time in more than two centuries, as part of the $ million restoration, allowing restoration workers to examine the original rock shelf or “burial bed” on which Jesus’s body is thought to have rested. A small window was cut into marble slabs to allow pilgrims a glimpse of the rock. “The marble covering of the tomb has been pulled back and we were surprised by the amount of fill material beneath it,” archaeologist Fredrik Hiebert told National Geographic, which is a partner in the project. “It will be a long scientific analysis, but we will finally be able to see the original rock surface on which, according to tradition, the body of Christ was laid.”[Source: Harriet Sherwood, The Guardian, October 27, 2016]

“The tomb is situated inside a structure known as the Edicule.Antonia Moropoulou, the team’s chief scientific supervisor, said the removal of the marble slab, which measures about 3ft by 5ft, was a “critical moment” in the restoration of the Edicule. “The techniques we’re using to document this unique monument will enable the world to study our findings as if they themselves were in the tomb of Christ.”

Kristin Romey wrote in National Geographic, “Researchers have continued their investigation into the site where the body of Jesus Christ is traditionally believed to have been buried, and their preliminary findings appear to confirm that portions of the tomb are still present today, having survived centuries of damage, destruction, and reconstruction of the surrounding Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem's Old City. [Source: Kristin Romey, National Geographic, October 31, 2016 ^^^]

The Angel's Stone, a fragment of the stone believed to have sealed the tomb after Jesus' burial, in Jesus's Tomb

When the marble cladding was first removed on the night of October 26, an initial inspection by the conservation team from the National Technical University of Athens showed only a layer of fill material underneath. However, as researchers continued their nonstop work over the course of 60 hours, another marble slab with a cross carved into its surface was exposed. By the night of October 28, just hours before the tomb was to be resealed, the original limestone burial bed was revealed intact. "I'm absolutely amazed. My knees are shaking a little bit because I wasn't expecting this,” said Fredrik Hiebert, National Geographic's archaeologist-in-residence. "We can't say 100 percent, but it appears to be visible proof that the location of the tomb has not shifted through time, something that scientists and historians have wondered for decades." ^^^

“In addition, researchers confirmed the existence of the original limestone cave walls within the 19th-century Edicule, or shrine, which encloses the tomb. A window has been cut into the southern interior wall of the shrine to expose one of the cave walls. "This is the Holy Rock that has been revered for centuries, but only now can actually be seen," said Chief Scientific Supervisor Professor Antonia Moropoulou, who is directing the conservation and restoration of the Edicule.

“During the past few days, the burial bed has been resealed in its original marble cladding and may not be exposed again for centuries or even millennia. "The architectural conservation which we are implementing is intended to last forever," says Moropoulou. Before it was resealed, however, extensive documentation was performed on the surface of the rock. “Archaeologist Martin Biddle, who published a seminal study on the history of the tomb in 1999, believes that the only way to really know, or understand why people believe, that the tomb is indeed the one in which the Gospels say Jesus' body was laid, is to carefully review the data collected when the burial bed and cave walls were exposed. "The surfaces of the rock must be looked at with the greatest care, I mean minutely, for traces of graffiti," Biddle says, citing other tombs in the area that must have been of considerable importance because they are covered with crosses and inscriptions painted and scratched onto the rock surfaces. ^^^

“"The issue of the graffiti is absolutely crucial,” Biddle says. “We know that there are at least half a dozen other rock-cut tombs below various parts of the church. So why did Bishop Eusebius identify this tomb as the tomb of Christ? He doesn't say, and we don't know. I don't myself think Eusebius got it wrong—he was a very good scholar—so there probably is evidence if only it is looked for."” ^^^

Church of the Holy Sepulchre's Ancient Altar Rediscovered

During renovations in 2022, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre's ancient altar was rediscovered. Reuters reported: Pressed against a wall in a back corridor of Jerusalem's Church of the Holy Sepulchre, a stone slab bore testimony only to the graffiti etched on it by multitudes of pilgrims through the ages. But the 2.5 x 1.5 meter stone turned out to be far more precious when its other side was exposed during recent renovations at the church, the traditional site of Jesus's crucifixion and burial. [Source: Rinat Harash, Reuters, April 13, 2022]

Researchers believe the elaborate looping ornaments they found on the long-hidden part of the slab indicate it was once the decorated front of a medieval high altar that took pride of place centuries ago in one of Christianity's holiest sites. "You cannot see it now, but originally it was inlaid with pieces of precious marble, pieces of glass, pieces of small, finely made marble," said Amit Re'em, Jerusalem regional archaeologist for the Israel Antiquities Authority. "It was shining and this was a really amazing artefact," said Re'em, who conducted the research with Ilya Berkovich of the Austrian Academy of Sciences.

They identified the unique decoration method as "Cosmatesque", which combines Classical, Byzantine and early Islamic art in which finely cut tiles of colourful marble are used to fill in circular engravings on the stone. "It stood at the apex, at the sanctuary of the Church (of the Holy Sepulchre)," Re'em said. "All the eyes of the believers, of the pilgrims, (went) to this object. And right above it and around it, all the high priests, the priests and the monks of the church did all the liturgy, the main liturgy of the church, on the table, right here on the table of this altar," he said.

The altar was used by the Catholic clergy to celebrate mass until the Crusaders left Jerusalem, Re'em said. Afterwards it was used by the Greek Orthodox church until it was damaged in a fire in 1808, cast aside and forgotten until the recent renovations, he said. Similarly decorated altars have been found inside churches in Rome dating to the 12th and 13th centuries, the researchers said. They believe the relic in Jerusalem corresponds with past archaeological findings and with pilgrims' accounts of the consecration of the church by the Crusaders and the forming of its main altar in 1149. Research on the findings were scheduled to be published at the end of 2022 by Israel's Exploration Society.

Rivalry at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher

Harriet Sherwood wrote in The Guardian: “Six denominations – Latin (Roman Catholic), Greek Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic, Syrian Orthodox, Ethiopian Orthodox and Copts – share custodianship of the cavernous church. Bitter disputes over territories and responsibilities have erupted in the past, sometimes involving physical altercations. Disputes between the denominations have held up restoration work for decades. In a sign of the distrust between the different denominations, the keys to the church have been held by a Muslim family since the 12th century. [Source: Harriet Sherwood, The Guardian, March 21, 2017]

Stairway of Cavalry

Aviva and Shmuel Bar-Am wrote in the Times of Israel: To really understand the status quo of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher “it is helpful to examine the church’s interior. Divided both in terms of usage and in geographical area, its common areas include the church entrance, the Stone of Unction, the rotunda, its dome, and the sacred tomb of Jesus. Large and small candles belonging to each of the main communities flank the entrance to the tomb and indicate common rights. Every one of the huge pillars that surround the rotunda is assigned to a specific group; one column is divided between the Armenians and the Greek Orthodox. Other portions of the church are, in the main, divided among Greek Orthodox, Catholics and Armenians. Copts and Syrian Orthodox have fewer rights inside the church, although the Copts have a small chapel. [Source: Aviva and Shmuel Bar-Am, Times of Israel, September 7, 2012 /:]

“Until the 17th century, the Ethiopians controlled several chapels in the church. Later, however, they didn’t have enough money to offer bribes to the Turks and lacked a powerful patron who could offer support. As a result, they were relegated to the rooftop of one of the church chapels. During a single hour that I spent recently at the church, Franciscans held prayers at Jesus’ tomb to a background of loud organ music, and at the same time Armenians ascended to the Greek Orthodox altar. Both seemed to be singing at the top of their lungs. And on Sunday mornings as many as five different liturgies can be heard. But despite the seemingly deafening cacophony of their worship, this was actually an exercise in harmony. For east and west were worshiping, each in its own manner — but from separate, and previously allocated areas. /:\

“The British who ruled the Holy Land from 1920-1948 prepared meticulous guidelines meant to help clarify issues relating to the Turkish status quo. Still referred to today, their memorandum should keep problems to a minimum. Yet a curious atmosphere of distrust and suspicion remains. Bloody disputes have broken out between the communities over who would clean the bottom step of a flight of steps leading from the church courtyard – property of the Greeks – to the Chapel of St. Mary’s Agony – which belongs to the Catholics. /:\

“Unfortunately, the step is uneven: at its lowest point it seems like part of the courtyard; on its tallest side it is indisputably a step. Today, the Catholics sweep the step daily at dawn and the Greeks clean it when they are cleaning the courtyard. Heavy candlesticks, and sometimes even a cross, have been known to make excellent weapons when a fistfight turns into a first-class fracas. At one time someone even grabbed a beam that covered a crack in the Chapel of the Skull and cracked a few bones instead. /:\

“When the Church of the Holy Sepulcher required repairs, the groups had a hard time finding the right style. They knew that even the tiniest modification of the status quo could create irrevocable changes in their position. As a result, although much of the church has been restored and a new lead covering – with a 200-year guarantee — was placed over the rotunda, for decades the various communities were unable to agree on interior decoration. Scaffolding remained under the dome until the end of the 20th century, an ugly reminder of unsolved disputes. Then, as the new millennium approached, all the parties agreed on a design. Today a golden, star-shaped inner dome shines above the rotunda. /:\

“My favorite example of the status quo is the ladder that leans against the exterior wall of the Holy Sepulcher, right below one of the church’s second story windows. It was used nearly 200 years ago to haul food up to Armenian monks who were locked in the church. With the situation frozen, probably forever, the ladder seems destined to remain until the ravages of time and weather cause it to crumble.” /:\

Whose chapel? Whose step? Whose ladder? The squabbles among differing Christian denominations at the Holy Places can seem petty to outsiders. Yet for much of the Christian world, these issues are vital, and they have been known to provoke bloodshed

Status Quo Agreement

the Immovable ladder on a ledge over the entrance that has been moved since the 18th century

Since 1852, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre has been governed by a rigid power-sharing arrangement among the different Christian denominations known as the “status quo." A Muslim family has been entrusted with the keys to the church for at least 800 years. Under the arrangement, the various denominations have undertaken renovations of the chapels under their control, but collective action is needed to maintain shared areas and that was often elusive. A wake-up call came in 2015, when Israeli authorities briefly closed the Edicule, deeming it unsafe.

The status quo divides the Holy Sepulcher among the Armenians, Roman Catholics and the Greek Orthodox who have the largest share. The Coptic, Ethiopian Orthodox and Syrian Orthodox churches also have duties to maintain specific areas. According to the Gerusalemme San Salvatore Convento Francescano St. Saviour's Monastery: “The Status Quo is a collection of historical traditions and influences, of rules and laws, which establish the relations, activities, and movements that are carried out in those parts of the church where ownership is shared by different Christian denominations. [Source: Gerusalemme San Salvatore Convento Francescano St. Saviour's Monastery]

“For centuries, the different Christian communities have lived side by side under Islamic domination, despite their profound differences in dogma, ritual and language. The Franciscans, who have been in the Holy Land since 1335, had over time acquired ownership of numerous places within the Holy Sites, and from 1516 to 1629 were in fact the largest owners.

“Following the conquest of Constantinople by the Turks in 1453, the Greek Patriarch, who had thereby become a subject of the Ottoman Empire, was granted jurisdiction over all Greek Orthodox adherents throughout the Empire. With the Turkish conquest of Palestine in 1516, this jurisdiction expanded to include the Orthodox

“Christians of the Holy Land. From that point, with the approval of the Ottoman Sultan, the Orthodox Patriarchs of Jerusalem were Greek. In 1622, at a time of bitter conflict between the Western powers and the Ottoman Empire, a dispute arose over the ownership of the Holy Places. The Franciscans, vulnerable to accusations of being spies for foreign powers, were placed in a difficult position, and in order to protecttheir rights had to appeal to the ambassadors of the European powers. The Greeks had the support of Russia, and the Holy Places became almost a traded commodity, particularly in the period from 1690 to 1757. In the first half of the 19th century, the alliance between Turkey and Russia had direct consequences on the question of the Holy Places, and in 1852 the Sultan promulgated the Status Quo nunc, freezing the conditions existing at the moment of the agreement, as had been sought by the Greeks.

“The Status Quo was confirmed as a legal instrument and continues to the present day as the sole frameof reference for resolving litigations and disputes. In the absence of official texts, notes of a private nature have to be relied on, often leaving the legal situation confused and uncertain. Two Muslim families have the privilege of guarding the door of the church, which is opened according to a schedule agreed to by the three largest religious communities. At the end of the First World War, with the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire and with the Holy Land becoming a British Mandate, the problems of the Holy Places became international ones. The Mandatory Power was unwilling or unable to act, and the Jordanian Government, which succeeded it in 1948, continued the same policy. The United Nations intervened on numerous occasions, naming commissions and pleading for the internationalization of Jerusalem, but without achieving any concreteresults.

At present, the three principal communities – Greek, Franciscan and Armenian – have managed to reach an understanding for the restoration of the church. The restoration works, which began in 1961, continue to the present day, albeit at a relatively slow pace.”

Scuffles and Fist Fights at Church of the Holy Sepulchre

Fights are not uncommon between the six Christian denominations who are responsible for maintaining its different chambers in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The Greek Orthodox are regarded as the most powerful group, with the ancient church serving as the headquarters of the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem. The groups regularly fight over turf and influence, and police are occasionally forced to intervene. Such are the rivalries that the church keys have been entrusted for centuries to two Muslim families..

Fights over rights of worship at the church intensified in late 2000s, particularly between the Armenians and Greeks. On Sunday, Armenian and Greek Orthodox clergy accused each other of trying to violate the status quo. “Father Pakrad, an Armenian priest, accused the Greek Orthodox of trying to step on the Armenians' rights. "We are the weak ones, persecuted by them for many centuries," he told Associated Press.The Greek Orthodox Patriarch in the Holy Land, Theofilos III told Associated Press that the Armenians are becoming increasingly aggressive. "They are trying and claiming to acquire equal status and equal rights. They are not ready to admit that there are various communities there ... and that the Greek Orthodox is the main one in charge of the Holy Sepulcher and the head." [Source: Associated Press, April 20, 2008]

In April 2008, Israeli police had to break up a fight between Greek and Armenian priests and worshippers during Palm Sunday processions at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Associated Press reported: “In the fight, a Greek priest was pushed to the ground and kicked, according to witnesses from both sides. Two Armenian worshippers were briefly detained by Israeli police. Scores of Armenian supporters staged a protest outside the police station during the questioning of the two, beating drums and chanting. [Source: Associated Press, April 20, 2008 +++]

“Father Pakrad, an Armenian priest, said the incident started when several Greek priests insisted on being present during the Armenian ceremony in the traditional tomb area. Pakrad said the presence of the Greeks was a violation of Armenian rights under the status quo. The Armenians "couldn't tolerate the presence of a Greek priest during the procession," he said. "Our priests entered the tomb. They kicked the Greek monk out of the Edicule." +++

“Theofilos III, told The Associated Press the Armenians are pushing to change the rules governing prayers and services. "This behavior is criminal and unacceptable by all means," he said. "They wanted to trespass on the status quo concerning the order that regulates the services between the various communities."” +++

In November 2008, Greek Orthodox and Armenian worshippers and clerics traded punches at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre Associated Press reported: Israeli police and troops moved into the shrine to bring the brawl under control. They said they arrested two clerics - one from each side. Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said the incident flared during the Feast of the Cross, a ceremony in which the Armenian community commemorates what it believes was the fourth century discovery of the cross upon which Jesus was crucified. [Source: Associated Press, November 10, 2008 ]

“The police said the clerics were arrested after a fist-fight erupted during a procession of worshippers in the church, the traditional site of Jesus's crucifixion and resurrection. In the scuffle that took place, dozens of worshippers, dressed in the vestments of the Greek Orthodox and Armenian denominations, traded kicks and punches, knocking down tapestries and toppling decorations at the site in Arab East Jerusalem. At some point they literally kicked, punched and lashed out at each other with candles at the revered spots. Skynews said several followers were left with black eyes, bruises and cuts as priests tried to tear their rivals' robes off in the brawl.”

Layout of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre today

Church of the Holy Sepulchre’s Water Bill Dispute

In 2012, the BBC reported: “The Church of the Holy Sepulchre has warned that it may shut its doors to pilgrims in protest at a dispute with an Israeli water company. The church has had its bank account frozen at the request of Hagihon over an unpaid $2.3 million bill. The dispute has left hundreds of priests, monks and teachers unpaid. The church has traditionally not been charged for water, but Hagihon says it is owed money for the past 15 years. [Source: BBC, November 2, 2012 ^=^]

“According to the Israeli newspaper Maariv, there was a tacit agreement between the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem - which, along with the Armenian Orthodox Patriarchate and the Roman Catholic Franciscan Custos, is jointly responsible for the Church of the Holy Sepulchre's administration - and a former mayor of the city that the church would be exempt from water bills. ^=^

“But in 2004, Hagihon sent a demand to the church for 3.7 million shekels ($950,000; £590,000). It was backdated to when the company took over the water supply in the late 1990s. The Patriarchate reportedly believed it was a mistake because Hagihon did not press it to pay. The company is now demanding that the bill, which has risen to 9 million shekels ($2.3m; £1.4m) including interest, be settled. ^=^ “A Hagihon spokesman said Israeli law did not permit any exemptions. The company had not taken other enforcement steps, such as shutting off the water supply, in order not to disrupt activities at the site, he added. Father Isidoros Fakitsas, Superior of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, told the Associated Press that an agreement had been reached with Hagihon a few weeks ago. ^=^

“Under the deal, various denominations of the church would pay their monthly bill and the 9 million-shekel debt was to be forgotten, he said. But to his surprise the Patriarchate's bank account was blocked, making it impossible to pay stipends to some 500 priests and monks, 2,000 teachers and the running costs of more than 30 schools. ^=^

“According to Maariv, other services have also been affected, including telephones, internet and electricity, as well as companies supplying food. Father Fakitsas said the Patriarchate would be able to function despite the frozen bank account and that it would try to find an alternative if matters became too difficult, such as opening another bank account. Patriarch Theophilos III wrote a letter to Israel's prime minister and president warning that the "enforcement of this unjustified step undermines the sanctity and offends the sensitivity of the site". He told Maariv: "If nothing changes we intend to announce... for the first time in centuries, that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is closed." The other Christian denominations which jointly manage the church are said to support the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in its battle. The Israeli tourism ministry said the issue was between the Patriarchate and the Jerusalem municipality, but that it was trying to mediate between them and hoped that the dispute would be resolved quickly.” ^=^

Three Churches That Oversee of the Holy Church Promise to Cooperate

In 2022, the three Christian denominations in charge of taking care of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre — the Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Armenian Apostolic churches — said they were launching a large-scale project to restore the ancient stone floor of the Jerusalem basilica. The project includes an excavation that could shed light on the church’s history. The announcement marked a further improvement of ties among the three churches, known in the past for coming to blows over seeminly trivial matters. Three other denominations also have clearly defined access to the church as part of the their delicate arrangement that dates back to the mid-19th century..

“The cooperation among the three communities is the most important thing," said Rev. Francesco Patton, the head of the Catholic Franciscan order devoted to preserving Christian sites in the Holy Land. “It shows to the entire world that it is possible among Christians of different churches and communities to have a fraternal relationship." [Source: Areej Hazboun and Joseph Krauss, Associated Press, March 18, 2022]

The three communities came together in 2016 to restore the Holy Edicule on the site where Jesus is believed to have been buried in a cave tomb — the first large-scale renovation since the clean-up after an 1808 fire. The renovation of the Edicule pointed to the need for further repairs of the floor of the basilica, which includes stones from the Crusader era in the 12th century, recent additions from the 19th century and splotches of concrete and mortar, part of earlier and cruder renovations. The 1,200 square-meter (13,000 square feet) floor will be repaired in phases to allow liturgical services and visits to continue. The sewage and electricity lines running beneath the church, which is nestled in the heart of Jerusalem's densely populated Old City, will also be repaired.

Heading up the project is Osama Hamdan, a Palestinian Muslim architect from Jerusalem who has worked on the conservation of Jewish, Christian and Muslim sites across the Holy Land. He said it's a great honor to work at the church, which he sees as part of his own cultural heritage. “It’s a big part of the history of this territory, and we are the results of this accumulation of cultures," he said. "Before (we were) Muslims, we were Christians, and before we were Jewish, and before we were pagans.”

The $11 million renovation project will be funded through donations and is expected to be completed in May 2024 — depending on what the archaeologists find. The archaeological work will be undertaken by experts from the Sapienza University of Rome in coordination with the Franciscan Faculty of Biblical Sciences and Archaeology in Jerusalem.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: “Egeria's Description of the Liturgical Year in Jerusalem” ; Complete Works of Josephus at Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL), translated by William Whiston, , Wikipedia, BBC, National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Live Science,, Archaeology magazine, Reuters, Associated Press, Business Insider, AFP, Library of Congress, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2024

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from, please contact me.