Armenian Jerusalem
the tomb of Christ in the Holy Sepulchre
In 631 CE, the Caliph Omar Ibnul Khattab conquered Jerusalem. Flanked by his generals, he marched to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the placed considred the most sacred by his enemies, the Franks. He gazed in awe at the church, but when his entourage urged him to enter the building and pray there, he told them no. Rather, he said, pray where this stone drops. And he picked up a stone and threw it as far as he could, away from the church. Moslem armies were once again at the gates of Jerusalem, when Salah ud din (Saladin) overran it in 1187. In a bid to ensure fraternity and peaceful co-existence betwen his Moslem and Christian subjects, he established a protocol, still adhered to today, whereby the custody of the keys to the Holy Sepulchre is entrusted to Moslems. Since that day and those times, when combatants knew how to honor the precepts of chivalry, control over access to the Holy Sepulchre has remained with the Moslems. In our days, it is two venerable Moslim families, the Joudeh and Nusseibeh, who hold the keys to the imposing gate of the church. Every morning, precisely at 4:30 am, a member of the Joudeh family picks up the key to the door from where he keeps it at his residence, a legacy he has inherited from his father and his forebears. Once he arrives at the church, he entrusts the key - which looks like an iron wedge a foot long - to a member of the Nusseibeh clan, who then proceeds to knock on the door to alert the priests and pilgrims who had spent the night inside the precinct of the church in prayer. One of the priests inside then passes a wooden ladder through a porthole so the Nusseibeh guardian can use it to climb up and unlock the upper part of the towering gate. He then he unlocks the lower part before handing the precious key back to the Joudeh representative. And every evening, at 7:30 pm, the ritual is repeated, in reverse. But despite Omar's and Saladin's well-intentioned efforts, harmony among the various Christian denominations remains elusive as each tries to defend its territorial jurisdictions and rights and privileges against attemtps at encroachment. More than once monks have resorted to fists to make their point. Perhaps Saladin foresaw this turn of events and ordered the second front gate of the church sealed. A different protocol, which was intorudced at the end of the 19th CE, applies during Passion Week. On Maundy Thursday, the Nusseibehs and Joudehs give the key to the Holy Sepulcher to the local Franciscan friars, for as long as it takes to walk to the church in a procession and to open the door after the morning liturgies. When those are completed, the friars return the key to the families. This ceremony, which confirms in practice the validity of the Moslim families’ custodianship, is repeated with the Greek and Armenian communities (members of the Eastern church which celebrate the feasts on a different day), on Orthodox Good Friday and Holy Saturday, respectively.