The ladder

The Greek monk extends the two wings of the gate. The early morning sunlight shines on the façade of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. The square is still empty. Only a few hours later it will be filled with pilgrim groups, Peruvians and Africans in colorful clothes, Uyghurs in long white robes, Syriac monks with embroidered caps, from every nation under heaven.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre towers in the middle of Jerusalem like an often-truncated thousand-year-old olive tree, like an old elephant full of scabs. The nave of the former fourth-century basilica, which encompassed the rock of Golgotha and the tomb of Jesus, once reached to the north-south main street of the city, the cardo, today’s Suq Khan ez-Zeit or Beit Habad, the Cloth Street of the bazaar. However, through the devastations of centuries, it was gradually converted into a sturdy building only half its former length, but expanded with many additions. Its main façade, facing the square, is in fact only the former southern side entrance, which took its present form via the destructions of the Fatimid caliphs in 1009, and the reconstructions by the Crusaders a hundred years later. This is how we see it in an early surviving portrait, in Bernhard von Breidenbach’s Holy Land guide of 1486, which we have already written about.

The complex of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and, in front of it, the Cistern of Hezechias, seen from the Ottoman fortress called the Tower of David. The complex is dominated by the Rotunda (or Anastasis, that is, the place of the Resurrection) rising above Jesus’s tomb, and the Crusades-era truncated belfry to the left of the main entrance.

The structure of the complex of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre today (above) and in the fourth century (below). The ancient basilica was accessed via the Propylaeum and the eastern Atrium, whose place is now covered by the bazaar. The southern side entrance, to the left of the rock of the Golgotha, was later expanded into today’s main façade.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre from Bernhard von Breidenbach’s 1486 Mainz edition

The façade of the church in a photochrome of the Detroit Publishing Company (ca. 1890-1900)

The main façade of the church did not change much during five centuries. The right gate was walled by Sultan Saladin, just like the Frank Chapel to the right of it, which was accessed by stairs, and offered the only direct entrance to the rock of the Golgotha. But the double window of the Armenian chapel on the first floor is still open, just like the smaller window of the Latin Golgotha Chapel to the right. Above the upper ledge we can see the lower dome of the church. The top floor of the belfry with its dome fell victim to an earthquake, and since 1890 it also received an almost flat roof. There is only one interesting detail that does not yet figure in the Breidenbach woodcut, but it does in the 1890 and all later photos. A ladder beneath the right-hand window, supported by the ledge.

The double window around 1890…

…and on Christmas of 2017.

The ladder seems to be just casually leaned against the wall, perhaps for some repair, soon to be taken away. But we know well that temporary things are often the most permanent. The ladder figures in every photo already before 1890. And even before the age of photography, as on the cover of the orientalist David Roberts’ 1839 Holy Land album.

Palm Sunday procession, ca. 1900. Library of Congress

Photo of the American Colony, between 1898 and 1914. Library of Congress

A photo of 1895, from here

In another versions of the Detroit Publisher Company, between 1890 and 1900

Illustrerad verldshistoria, tredje delen, Stockholm 1892, 240.

Picturesque Palestine, Sinai and Egypt, New York, 1881-1884

Drawing by Josiah Wood Whymper, who illustrated books on Palestine published in 1874 and 1878

Félix Bonfils: Merchants at the gate of the Church of Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, ca 1865

Photo by James McDonalds, 1864

6 April 1862. Journey of the Prince of Wales to the Middle East, 1862, Part 1.

Photo by James Robertson, 1857

Photo by Auguste Salzmann, 1854

The Holy Land… from drawings made on the spot by David Roberts, 1839.

Adrien Egron, La Terre-Sainte et les lieux illustrés par les apôtres: Vues pittoresques, Paris 1837. The preface is dated July 1836, the picture was probably made around 1832.

In a photo of 1958 by the renowned Armenian photographer family Kahvedjian, it is visible even behind the scaffolding of the façade under restoration, and it does not disappear with it after the works. Thus it has been an integral part of the building complex for at least one hundred and eighty years.

The problem of the “abandoned” ladder was first examined by James E. Lancaster in his study first published in 1998, and then expanded several times. Since then, many more details have been clarified by other authors.

The churches in the Holy Land, built on the main places of Jesus’s life and the history of redemption, are the most sacred places for every Christian denomination. The question is therefore how to share them amongst these groups. Since the Ottoman conquest of the Holy Land, this was regulated by the Porta and the Ottoman authorities, whose fundamental interest was to divide the Christian denominations by inducing their rivalry for the holy places, and thus strengthening their dependence on Ottoman power. The Porta primarily supported the demands of the Greek and Armenian churches, considered to be Ottoman subjects. The spiritual care of the Catholic pilgrims was provided by the Franciscan order, tolerated by the Turks, and they were also supported by the French embassy in Constantinople, which regarded itself as the representative of the whole Catholic population in the Ottoman empire. And there were also the smaller denominations, the Syriac Jacobites and Nestorians, the Maronites, the Georgians, the Egyptian Copts and the Ethiopian Orthodox, whose rights always depended on how much they could bribe the Ottoman authorities.

“In my distress I called on the Lord / He heard my voice from His temple” (Psalm 18:6-7). Coptic monk in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

From the 1750s, the interest of the European great powers turns more and more avidly towards the weakening Ottoman Empire, and the support of the Christian minorities becomes one of the tools of gaining influence. The Russian Empire acts as the representative of the Orthodox believers, who therefore start to demand a greater share of the holy places. For this reason, in 1757 the Porta proclaims a status quo, that is, the unchangeability of the ownership relations between the denominations in the holiest Christian places. When a hundred years later the Russian advance is counterbalanced by the growing influence of the French in the Ottoman Empire and the strengthening of the Catholics, supported by them, in the Holy Land, in 1853, on the eve of the Crimean War, which was just the result of this conflict, the Sultan reaffirms the status quo with a new decree. Despite the many subsequent changes of political power in the Holy Land, this status quo has remained essentially in force, with the relevant denominations as its most jealous guardians. Even today there are frequent verbal, and even physical clashes due to overly or real abuses of competences. In 2004, during the celebration of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, the Greek monks and Franciscan friars fought because of a door left open in error. In 2002, a Coptic monk pushed his chair from the sun to the shade, into Ethiopian territory. After the subsequent clash, eleven monks had to be hospitalized.

Clash of Greek monks and Franciscan friars in front of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Drawing of Fortunino Matania in L’Illustrazione Italiana 1901/48, December 1. The story from the same journal here.

The two fermans of the sultan, of 1757 and 1853, merely stated that everything should remain as it is. But as to how it is, remains unclear in many detail issues, and each denomination has a different tradition of it. The story, customary law and problems of the status quo in the nine most important holy places was first summarized in 1929 by L. G. A. Cust for the British Governor of Palestine in the memorandum The Status Quo in the Holy Places, and it is still the best summary of the matter. The description of the division of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre between the denominations and of the conflicts resulting from it embrace twenty-three pages, including footnotes. To illustrate the nature of the conflicts, it is worthwhile to fully cite the introductory overview of this chapter.

The present ownership relations between the denominations in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

“As in the other Holy Places, the three Patriarchates of Jerusalem alone are considered as having possessory rights in the Church with the exception of the small Chapel in the possession of the Copts. They alone have the right to require the entrance door to be opened on their behalf, to enter in religious procession and to officiate regularly at their will. As is again the case elsewhere, of the Latin Orders, only the Franciscans of the Custodia di Terra Santa have the right to officiate independently. The Copts after a long period of penetration succeeded in establishing an independent foothold in the 16th century, but have no formal residence. They do not hold daily services, but have the right of censing at the shrines : similarly, the Syrian Jacobites have no formal residence and officiate only on Holy Days. Neither the Copts nor the Syrian Jacobites may hold processions unless in company with the Armenians, with the exception that on Good Friday afternoon they each hold a pro­cession independently, after giving prior notification to the Orthodox and the Latins. The Abyssinians have no residence or accommoda­tion of any sort and hold no offices within the precincts of the Holy Sepulchre, excepting their Easter services on the roof of St. Helena’s Chapel, around which they reside.

In the various component parts of the Church the position at the present moment can be summarized as follows:

(1) The Entrance Doorway and the Facade, the Stone of Unc­tion, the Parvis of the Rotunda, the great Dome and the Edicule are common property. The three rites consent to the partition of the costs of any work of repair between them in equal proportion. The Entrance Courtyard is in common use, but the Orthodox alone have the right to clean it.

(2) The Dome of the Katholikon is claimed by the Orthodox as being under their exclusive jurisdiction. The other Communities do not recognize this, maintaining that it is part of the general fabric of the Church, and demand a share in any costs of repair. The Orthodox, however, refuse to share payment with any other Community. The same conditions apply mutatis mutandis to the Helena Chapel, claimed by the Armenians, and the Chapel of the Invention of the Cross claimed by the Latins.

(3) The ownership of the Seven Arches of the Virgin is in dispute between the Latins and the Orthodox, of the Chapel of St. Nicodemus between the Armenians and the Syrian Jacobites, and of the Deir al Sultan between the Copts and Abyssinians. In these cases neither party will agree to the other doing any work of repair or to divide the costs.

(4) The Chapel of the Apparition, the Calvary Chapels, and the Commemorative shrines are in the sole possession of one or other of the rites, but the others enjoy certain rights of office therein. Any projected innovation or work of repair is to be notified to the other rites.

(5) The Katholikon, the Galleries and the Chapels in the Courtyard (other than the Orthodox Chapels on the West) are in the exclusive jurisdiction of one or other of the rites, but subject to the main principles of the Status Quo as being within the ensemble of the Holy Sepulchre.

The three Patriarchates of Jerusalem are each represented by a Superior and clergy permanently resident within the precincts of the Church, and no other rite is entitled to be thus represented.”

The clergy and believers of the Church of the Holy Spirit. Daily scenes on early 20th-century postcards

The memorandum also speaks in detail about the ownership of the façade. The windows belong to the Armenian Chapel of St. John, but the affinity of the ledge beneath it is controversial. The ledge itself belongs to the Greeks, but the Armenians consider its surface theirs, onto which they can descend from the window with the ladder, and use it as a viewpoint on large festivals. Apart from this seldom used practice, the ladder primarily serves to visually perpetuate the demand of the Armenians to some additional square meters of the holy place.

The Greek Orthodox ceremony of the Footwashing in front of the main façade in the early 1900s, with viewers on the ledge beneath the windows of the Armenian chapel. Two versions, probably from two different years.

But when was the ladder put beneath the window? We could say that it was when the Armenian monks first descended to the ledge to watch a ceremony in the square in front of the church. But why were they not repelled then by the otherwise so bellicose Greeks, thus preventing further piracy? Or we could say what is assumed by Lancaster, that once a mason made some repairs on the façade, and then forgot his ladder here, which in time became a part of the status quo, and thereby immovable. But whoever had any serious business with masons, knows well that they just do not forget a cedar tree ladder in any place. Rather, they even take yours with them.

The explanation is provided by the continuation of Cust’s text. For centuries, not only the Christian denominations, but also Muslims, quite precisely the Muslim gatekeepers, were also part of the status quo of the Holy Sepulchre. When, in 637, Caliph Omar conquered Jerusalem, he generously did not pray in the main church – thus preventing his followers’ converting it into a mosque –, but in front of it, where now the Omar Mosque stands in memory of this. He returned the church to Patriarch Sophronius, and placed it under the protection of Muslim gatekeepers. This custom has remained for centuries. Since the 1289 conquest, the gate was guarded by the El Insaibi family, and after the Ottoman conquest they had to share this job with the Judeh family. The latter kept the key, and the El Insaibis opened the gate. Of course, this cost money. Opening one gate wing was 80 mils, opening both was 180 mils, which was shared in a 1:2 proportion between the Judeh and El Insaibi families. And this was no little money. The 50-mil coin was already made of silver. Therefore traditionally the church was not opened many times, only for the great feasts. According to the status quo, for example, the Orthodox paid for the gate opening on Holy Thursday, the Catholics for Good Friday, and the Armenians for Holy Saturday.

A fifty-mil silver coin from the time of the British mandate. For this, one of the gate wings would have been opened  two-thirds of its width.

The gate of the church today, with Arabic inscription

On weekdays, however, writes Aviva Bar-Am in her Beyond the Walls: Churches in Jerusalem, 1998, it was not worth it for the monks to have the gate opened. They themselves did not have to walk in and out. They needed food and drink, though. This is why the Armenians descended to the ledge beneath their window, where they pulled up with rope the food brought for them from the square in front of the church. Before the status quo, the Greeks could not protest against this. And the status quo was already laid down with the ladder beneath the window, so they could have said no word against it.

In the various photos and drawings you can also see that the ledge, and even the ladder was used for the cultivation of potted vegetables. Although the ladder was immovable, the pots could freely move on the ledge, the status quo did not apply to them.

A chronological overview of the photographs of the main façade also makes it evident that, at least from 1854 to the 1890s, the ladder was tied with iron straps and nails to the wall of the church. On the one hand, this excludes the forgetful mason theory. On the other hand, it suggests that the ladder might have been in use at that time, and it was important to safely keep the down-and-up traffic, or to prevent its being pushed with a bad move to the square, on the heads of the pilgrims and merchants. From 1895, however, we see an unsteaded ladder here. And in the past ten years even the window was closed with a grid. Thus, the ladder remained with a purely representative purpose beneath the window.

Nowadays, the gate of the church is open every day. The ladder standing on the façade has lost its practical function. It only symbolizes the rights acquired over an impractical good, but it will stay there as long as not only the lamb and the lion, but also the Greek and the Armenian monk will consider each other as brother.

There is something metaphorical in this building tinkered from an once spacious and undivided basilica, where six denominations are fighting for life and death for square meters and symbolic priorities upon an empty tomb and an invisibly walled rock. And that, nevertheless, this huge building, like a tough old olive tree, like an elephant full of scabs, has been towering for two thousand years over the holy city, guarding and displaying its essence, the memory of the resurrection.

The resurrected Christ between His apostles. An icon, long worn by the fingers of the believers, in the Greek Orthodox sacristy of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

The manger

It is raining in Bethlehem. It had started in Jerusalem early this morning, and the Wall, which so effectively impedes everything else, has not stopped this one. The channels have already been clogged, it streams down the sloping streets, the strong gusts make ripples on it. The pilgrims climb from the bus garage to the Church of Nativity with umbrellas turning inside-out, walking on water. In the tiny stone gate of the huge ancient basilica you have to bend deep to enter. There is still silence inside, two hours before midnight, only a few people are sitting in front of the iconostasis. But in the crypt under the iconostasis, the air is stifling, devout Chinese, Malay and Philippine pilgrims are pressed in, singing strange melodies, kissing the great octagonal silver star, through whose circular glass window you can look down into the cave. In front of the star, an aggressive nun is scolding those who came down the upway stair, instead of having put a sign up there to distinguish between the two. Up, in front of the Armenian altar, an Arab policewoman is praying, she ready lifts the cordon to let me take close photos. In the Catholic church, built beside the Greek basilica, they are gathering for the midnight mass. I pass the security ceremony, they take away my umbrella, they will return it when I leave. In the cloister, young Franciscans stand in my way, we are looking for the common language, we find it in Spanish. They are asking for a ticket. There is no ticket. It could have been bought online from September, it has long gone. Behind me are coming together those who also have not heard about this. The young Franciscans are helpless, every five minutes they ask for one minute of patience. A half-hour later, a huge Arab scout commander comes out, screaming out all the uninvited visitors of the little Jesus. On the way out, I’m looking for my umbrella, but someone has taken it. The security guards are grunting, they do not care much about it. As I am persuading them, they put someone else’s in my hand. I accept it, I cannot go out without an umbrella to the heavy rain. The outcasts are standing helplessly in front of the church. I go back to the basilica, because while walking around it, I oserved, that the Catholic and Greek churches are connected with a large iron gate, through which they can directly pass from the Catholic church to the holy cave. Standing in the gate, you can see the Latin Mass. I am hovering at the gate, slowly others find their way here too, the vaulted doorway slowly gets filled. The Latin Patriarch and clergy, led by three odd beys in Ottoman clothes, walk into the church. They start the Office, and then the Mass. The choir is underperforming, their voices are straining in the higher regions. In the church to the left and right of the entrance columns, two large screens are hung up, and the believers fix their attention on them, because it can be better seen than the altar. Everyone is photographing uninterrupted, making selfies, and videos of the TVscreen. In our doorway, a red-nailed, blond-haired woman breaks through the people, to take with her mobile phone a lot of pictures, on which almost nothing can be seen. When questioned about her intrusion, she shouts outrageously: “I represent the Iraqi Christians!”

The Patriarch’s English-language sermon is applauded, and then most of the crowd starts out. It is half past twelve, the tourist buses go back to Jerusalem at 12:40, so whoever wants to stay on the second half of the Mass, should look for a taxi for himself. I go out of the church. It is still raining, splashing on the wheels of black limousines, the potentates have started to go home from the church. I go in, nobody is in may way any more. The Mass is still going on in the sanctuary of the slowly abandoned church. Nobody takes selfies any more, everyone who remained are paying attention to the priest. I sit down in a side chapel, facing the manger. I offer the ones I bring with myself.