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Jerusalem's Muslim Key Keepers of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

In the heart of Jerusalem’s Old City lies Christianity’s most sacred and arguably most contested building: the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Adherents to the many denominations of Christianity who lay claim to the ancient structure believe that the church is built over the empty tomb of Jesus Christ, from which he was resurrected after his crucifixion. Visited by four million people each year, the church’s history is as complicated as are the traditions and rituals that maintain its often-precarious peace.
 
Emperor Constantine was the first Roman ruler to openly convert to Christianity; he did so more, scholars presume, out of a sense of political expediency rather than a profound belief in the teachings of Jesus Christ. His mother Empress Helena, on the other hand, was a true believer and she earned herself a place in history as one of the world’s most significant archeologists. Constantine authorized his mother to use imperial funds to locate all of the relics pertaining to Jesus and claim them in the name of Rome. Helena arrived in the Holy Land in 326 CE and began her search among the ruins of Jerusalem.  She soon hit the proverbial jackpot, uncovering three wooden crosses, which after extensive testing she declared to be the True Cross and those on which the two thieves crucified with Jesus had suffered. Helena declared the site where she had found the relics to be Calvary (also known as Golgotha,) and it was here that the original Church of the Holy Sepulchre was consecrated in 335 CE.
 
Subsequent centuries found the church at the crux of fierce contention, not only between Christians and non-Christians, but also between different sects of Christians themselves over control of the religion’s holiest site. The bloody First Crusade (1096-1099 CE) was primarily motivated by the papacy’s campaign to wrest control of the sacred sites of the Holy Land from the infidels. This initial clash between Christian and Muslim sowed the seeds of dissent that is very much prevalent today. Arguably the fiercest fighting over the church has been the internecine struggles between different Christian sects. A handful of major denominations compete for control of the church, most prominently: the Armenian Orthodox, Roman Catholic (Franciscans), Greek Orthodox, and to a lesser extent the Syrian Orthodox, Egyptian Copts, and a tiny group of Ethiopian Christians. The Protestants have no role at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. 
 
To keep the peace, the great Muslim ruler, Saladin came up with an ingenious solution. Writing to Richard the Lionhearted in 1191 CE, he outlined his plan to invite a prominent Muslim family, the Nuseibehs to become the custodians of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Later, this system was refined to the present-day solution: The Muslim Judah or Joudeh family is the keepers of the twelve-inch iron key that opens the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Each morning, a representative of the Joudeh family brings the key to the church, where he surrenders it to a representative of the Nuseibeh family. In a 1300-year tradition, handed down from father to son, the Nuseibehs then use the key to open the church with the help of the monks and priests inside, who have spent the night in prayer. A similar ritual takes place to lock the church again at night, and the key is returned to the Joudehs. This unbroken tradition has endured through the tumultuous break-up of the Ottoman Empire, the devastation of World War I, the British Mandate, and today is overseen and protected by the police force of the State of Israel.
 
In a land where Jews, Muslims, and Christians fight over even square inches of territory, the tradition of the Keepers of the Keys at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is a poignant example of how these three religions can coexist in harmony. 
 
Explore the fascinating traditions of the Holy Land on Alexander + Roberts popular itinerary of the same name, which includes a unique opportunity to meet one of the Keepers of the Keys.  

Posted: 7/25/2016 11:57:54 AM by Alexander + Roberts