It is the week before Easter and the cool night winds off the hills of Judea swirl through the dark, shuttered streets of Jerusalem. Behind the massive, crenelated walls of the ancient city, naked bulbs cast circles of thin light on the stones of the narrow passageways and on the shabby walls and iron scaffolding of Christendom's greatest shrine—the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, where, most Christians agree, Jesus Christ was crucified, was buried and rose again.
Suddenly, from the slender minaret of a mosque just across the courtyard from the church, the rasp of a loudspeaker crackles into the stillness and a muezzin's high-pitched, plaintive call to early prayer echoes across the city. From a narrow lane a watchman emerges, wool trousers stuffed hastily into the tops of his boots, a red checked headcloth pulled across his face. He strides across a courtyard and tosses a pebble at an upper window. An old man's face appears at the window and a moment later he comes out. Together the two men proceed to a huge double door beneath a maze of scaffolding at the facade of the great church. The watchman draws a long, curiously-shaped key from his shirt and opens a lock. A small square door shoulder-high in the bigger one opens and a black-bearded priest, his hair tied in a firm bun, peers out and hands them a ladder. The watchman mounts the ladder and turns a key in a second lock on the upper bar of the door and the three, hauling and tugging, ease it open. From the darkness within emerges the whisper of prayer, the smell of hot wax, the gleam of candles and, deep and strong, the echo of male voices chanting the devotions of an Armenian Orthodox Mass.
The watchman, a Muslim, helps the second man, a Roman Catholic, to take the ladder down, stuffs the key back into his shirt and shakes hands with the third man whose black beard and flowing robes identify him as a Greek Orthodox priest.
"Peace," the watchman says.
"Peace," reply the others and they part, having played their roles in a ritual that goes deep into the history not only of Christianity, but of Jerusalem itself.
That history, like that of most central points in the Middle East, begins early and includes the inevitable chapters on war and conquest. The Assyrians came. The Egyptians came. The Romans came. At the time of Christ, of course, it was the Romans who ruled Jerusalem and who later tried to stamp out the Nazarene's teachings. In 132 A. D. the Emperor Hadrian rebuilt the city of Jerusalem as a pagan center, renaming it Aelia Capitolina and erecting a temple to Venus on the site of the crucifixion. As all the world knows, such efforts failed. The construction of the temple to Venus, for instance, which was intended to stamp out secret worship at Calvary, only marked the site of Christ's death for history. And the disciples of Christ, moving over the famous Roman roads and speaking the common language of the Hellenistic era, carried the new faith in ever-widening circles throughout the known world. It spread to Athens, to Alexandria, and, at last, into the heart of the Empire itself to convert the Emperor Constantine and, with him, most of the Empire. For Christianity this was a remarkable triumph, but it was not to endure. In 451 the Emperor Marcian convoked the Council of Chalcedon to define certain aspects of the faith. Many Eastern and Orthodox churchmen, however, rejected the new definitions and the Emperor issued an imperial act expelling them. So began the official divisions of Eastern churches that were to have such an impact on the Holy Land.
Another century passed and much of another, and suddenly a third great religious force arose in the Middle East. First Judaism, then Christianity, then—in 637—Islam, bursting out of the desert to seize and hold, until the Crusaders came, a city that was as holy to them as to the Jews and Christians. This was partially because Muslims accept and revere Abraham and Jesus as prophets and partially because it was in Jerusalem that, according to tradition, Muhammad ascended into heaven—from the same rock, where, it is believed, Abraham was to have sacrificed Isaac, and where Solomon built his famous temple. There, on Mt. Moriah, they built the resplendent Dome of the Rock on the spot toward which Muslims first turned to prayer.
In their first days of conquest the Muslims were most gracious toward the Christians. The Caliph Omar even declined to worship in the Holy Sepulcher (which Saint Helena had had erected by Roman artisans after she proclaimed that she had found the true cross), as a sign of respect toward the Christians. He prayed instead in the courtyard and later built a mosque, which still stands, across the courtyard from the church. For the Christians of Medieval Europe, however, such tolerance was not enough. They wanted the Holy Places in Christian hands and set out on the Crusades that were to rack the East with religious war for more than three centuries. In 1187, the Muslims, led by the great Saladin, recaptured Jerusalem and the city remained in Muslim hands until England's General Allenby took it from the Ottoman Turks in World War I.
In the light of such history it is easier, perhaps, to see why the Holy Land has, on many occasions, been rather less peaceful than the various religious groups would like, and why quarrels and disagreements and conflicting claims among the Christian sects raged unchecked for years. It is easier to see why, even today, it is Muslims who have been charged with a major role in the guarding of the great sepulcher. It is easier, at least, if Jawad Joudeh explains why.
Jawad Joudeh is a dapper businessman who runs a small souvenir shop in the new city and who has in the shop a collection'of parchment scrolls (firman) that, in effect, names his family as doorkeeper and keeper of the keys of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. The Joudeh family and a second family—the Insaibis—were so designated by the Ottoman Turks in 1789 and, Mr. Joudeh says, the positions have been handed down from father to son ever since. He adds, however, that the real story behind Muslim control of the keys goes back to the first years after the recapture of Jerusalem by Saladin.
Saladin, a generous and liberal ruler, did not wish to bar the Holy Land to Christian pilgrims despite the years of struggle with the Crusaders, and in a display of tolerance offered safe and free passage through the Holy Land to all genuine pilgrims. If Saladin were tolerant, however, he was not a fool. He realized that soldiers might conceal themselves among the thousands of pilgrims who poured into the Holy Land each Easter and took certain steps to insure his safety. First, he proclaimed a feast day to be celebrated just about Easter time. The Muslim faithful who flocked to the Holy City for the new feast provided a nice numerical balance to the Christians. Second, Saladin ordered the key to the church to be retained by Muslims.
As the most current keeper of the key—the long, curiously-shaped key that the watchman and the priests use at dawn—Mr. Joudeh must see that each of three major sects gets it for one day during Holy Week. On Holy Thursday he takes it to the head of the Franciscan Monastery. On Good Friday he leaves it with the Chief Dragoman of the Greek Orthodox Monastery. On Holy Saturday it is held by the Armenian Orthodox Church. Other sects may use the church, of course, but only these three may hold the key.
In addition to being keeper of the key, Mr. Joudeh is also a diplomat who declines, graciously but firmly, to discuss the conflicts that have arisen because of the very natural, if sometimes overzealous, desire of Christians to have some claim on some part of the Holy Sepulcher. Nor would he discuss the effects of the conflicts on the Sepulcher: crumbling ceilings, peeling paint and gold leaf, precariously buckling columns and the unsightly tangle of rusted scaffolding that has obscured the facade of the church since 1935. The scaffolding was erected by the British that year to buttress the church after an earthquake seriously weakened it. It was never removed, partly because of disagreements among the sects. Over the years those disagreements were responsible for essential repairs being delayed or ignored. Decay set in and the ancient church was well on the way to disintegration when, suddenly, in the new ecumenical spirit, major churches agreed last year to share in a five-year, $2,000,000-project to restore the church to a condition worthy of the rich and sumptuous rituals that are celebrated each Easter.
To a large extent those rituals reflect the differences that divide the nearly 50 sects, Catholic and Protestant, Eastern and Western, which are represented in the Holy Land—differences, for example, among the Greek, Armenian and Russian Orthodox churches, or between the Syriac Church, with its rituals still preserved in Aramaic (the language Christ spoke) and the Coptic Church with its roots deep in the history of Nubia and Abyssinia. To a large extent, too, they contribute an essential character of colorful diversity to the Holy Land when Lent draws to a close and Easter is at hand.
At that time of year Jerusalem is a lovely land. It is kissed by a warm sun and a sweet breeze, and passing showers rinse the chalky hills where red poppies and yellow daisies toss brightly against the green of olive groves and vineyards. In the streets, village peasants and Bedouins from the deserts beyond the Dead Sea jostle Copts from Egypt and delicately-featured Ethiopians. Schoolgirls in blue smocks pass graceful maidens with tin pails balanced on their heads. Persians and Indians, Sudanese and Kurds, priests and beggars, old women and young boys shove and push through the crowded passageways, stopping at shops to buy honey-sweet baclawa and Oven-gold buns, or to bargain for trinkets in mother-of-pearl or crosses carved from olive wood. Pilgrims and processions inch through the crowds, candles flickering and icons gleaming, the murmur of prayers and the acrid smell of candles lost in the clamor and odors of the market place.
It is at any time a rich tapestry of sight and sound, ancient and modern, hung against a backdrop nearly as old as history; and at Easter time, as visitors from throughout the world arrive by the thousands, it is richer than ever. To the incredible mixture of ancient tongues such as Latin, Arabic, Aramaic, Greek and Armenian are added those of today's world, English, Spanish, German, French, Italian and Russian, and in each of those tongues, somewhere in the Holy City, some service celebrating Easter will be held.
The Eastern and Western churches calculate the date of Easter differently, the Eastern church by the Julian calendar and the Western church by the Gregorian calendar. Every fourth year the calendars coincide so that Easter is celebrated on the same date, but this year the Western churches will celebrate Easter April 15 and the Eastern churches April 25. Thus it is that on April 11 Roman Catholics will open Holy Week with their traditional Palm Sunday procession along the very route followed by Christ nearly 2,000 years ago: from Bethpage, along the steep rocky path across the Mount of Olives, down by the Garden of Gethsemane, through the valley of Kidron and into the Old City by St. Stephen's Gate. The appearance of the area, of course, is changed considerably now. On the Mount of Olives, for example, on the spot where Christ taught the Lord's Prayer to his disciples, stands the Church of Pater Noster with its tiny jewel-like cloister in which the prayer that begins "Our Father, Who art in heaven..." is inscribed on brilliantly colorful tiles in 47 languages. There is a church, too, over the Rock of Agony where Christ prayed and wept through the night, and another over the site of the Palace of Caiphas where he was taken after his arrest; and the Golden Gate through which he entered the city on Palm Sunday has been stoned up for centuries. Only Gethsemane, where Christ spent the night with the disciples before Judas' betrayal, offers a link to the time of Christ; for in its quiet garden there still stand ancient olive trees, old enough to have been growing there that fateful night.
As the week goes on, the pace and variety of the ceremonies increase. On Ash Wednesday the column of flagellation where, it is believed, Roman soldiers whipped Christ and mockingly put a crown of thorns on his head, is exposed to view in a cellar just off the Via Dolorosa, the Way of the Cross. On Maundy Thursday, in the crowded courtyard of the Holy Sepulcher, the Latin Patriarch, divested of his miter and cope, kneels and washes the feet of 12 clergymen to commemorate Christ's washing of the feet of the disciples. In the evening there is an hour of silence in the Basilica of Gethsemane to commemorate Christ's agony there. In the neighboring Russian garden of the Cathedral of St. Mary Magdalene, the Anglican Bishop leads devotions. Also, the same evening, the Lutherans walk to the Garden of Gethsemane along the Way of the Cross from their white stone Church of the Redeemer near the Holy Sepulcher.
Every Friday throughout the year, a group of Catholic priests moves along the Via Dolorosa retracing Christ's steps as he shouldered the heavy cross on which he was to die, and staggered under it to Calvary. On Good Friday, the day of Crucifixion, throngs of pilgrims join the solemn, close-packed procession inching along the streets that Christ trod. Divided into language groups, they pray, weep and murmur sorrowfully as they move to the 14 stations, each marking a different stage in the progress of Christ toward Calvary. Many orders of priests and nuns themselves carry heavy crosses.
In the church of the Holy Sepulcher, in the evening, Roman Catholics present a stark re-enactment of Christ's burial. His crucified body is removed from the cross, wrapped in a winding sheet, carried to the Stone of Unction where it is spiced and censed, then placed in the tomb, a rock-cut vault in the Chapel of the Angel.
Holy Saturday, the Roman Catholics celebrate another Pontifical High Mass before the tomb and hold the Blessing of the Fire. At the same time, in the Greek Orthodox Church, this is Lazarus Saturday (the Western Easter coinciding as it does with the Eastern Palm Sunday) and the Greeks move in procession to the tomb of Lazarus in the town of Bethany on the road to Jericho. There Lazarus lay four days in his tomb until Christ raised him from the dead. Both the Greek and Armenian Orthodox also hold special services in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.
Easter Sunday, Roman Catholics hold Mass in the Holy Sepulcher without pause throughout the day. Holy Communion is held in the Anglican St. George's Cathedral, and interdenominational sunrise services are held by the Lutherans and other Protestants at the Garden Tomb. This tomb, discovered by General Charles Gordon, famed for his military exploits in China and Sudan, is cut into a cliff in a pleasant, well-kept garden outside the present walls of the Old City. Because of its grooved entrance, that was once used for rolling a heavy mill stone before the door, and the craggy rock formation on the hillside nearby, it is considered by some Protestants as the site of Calvary.
The same day, as the Western churches conclude their ceremonies, the Eastern churches begin. As the Catholics had the previous week, the Eastern churches celebrate Christ's triumphal entry into Jerusalem. In the Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher, the Greek, Armenian and Syrian Orthodox, as well as the Copts, hold processions in which olive branches or palm fronds bent into the shape of birds are carried. Hundreds display crosses, flags and icons and small children often carry candles taller than themselves, decorated with flowers and ribbons. During all of Holy Week the altar in the church is draped in black and no ceremony is held for the dead in either the Greek Orthodox or Abyssinian-Coptic church. The latter holds seven services each day of the week with the Masses sung in a special chant and with special parts of the Bible read. Tuesday and Thursday are days of fasting.
Maundy Thursday, all the sects, including the Abyssinians, Russians and Syrian Orthodox, hold the ceremony of the Washing of the Feet. The Armenian ceremony takes place in St. James Cathedral, built on the site where St. James was beheaded by Herod Agrippa. The Greeks gather in the courtyard of the Holy Sepulcher upon a specially-erected raised platform symbolizing the Upper Room where Jesus met his disciples for the Last Supper. With a towel across his shoulder, the patriarch washes the feet of 12 bishops, dries them, and anoints them with oil. In the Chapel of St. Anthony the Copts hold their rites, the patriarch marking a symbolic cross of olive oil on the knees of 12 clergymen and any member of the congregation who requests ointment.
Good Friday, each of the churches observes symbolic burial services, the Russian in Gethsemane, and the Armenians in St. James. The Abyssinian service, which is not public, includes the reciting of the words "Frivi Kirya Laison" 400 times, 100 in each direction, to the beat of drums and bells. The Armenian and Syrian Orthodox services are held in their particular chapels within the Holy Sepulcher. Following the burial the Syrians hold a special service, 'Abou Galhamsis.'
The Greek burial involves moving a cross used in the washing ceremony from among the congregation to a place behind the altar. In a second burial, later, an embroidered cloth with a painting of Christ as he was removed from the cross is spread on a table before the altar. When it has been decorated with flowers, it is carried three times around the church by the congregation during the mass, to represent God the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost.
Holy Saturday, the Greek Orthodox Patriarch, assisted by the Armenians, Syrians and Copts, performs the ceremony of the Descending of the Holy Fire. The Holy Sepulcher is packed from early in the day with a restless, jubilant crowd. The day is called Sebt An-Nuf in Arabic, the Saturday of Light. According to tradition, a holy fire is passed from heaven to the Orthodox patriarch who, dressed in white, is hidden within Christ's tomb. In the darkened church, a hauntingly beautiful chant rings out as the procession of priests moves around the tomb three times, some swinging censers from silver chains, others holding aloft faded velvet banners on gilded poles. The patriarch's emergence with a lighted torch is the sign of the resurrection of Jesus, the Light of the World. "He that seeth me seeth him that sent me. I am a light unto the world, that whosoever believeth in me should not abide in darkness." The exultant crowd surges forward, each person striving to be the first to light his candle, the Armenians from a small orifice on one side, the Greeks and others on the opposite side. Soon the cathedral is aglow with bobbing flames. Reputed not to burn those whom they touch, they will be carried home reverently as a blessing to homes and families in many parts of the Middle East. The great bells of the church ring out from the towers overhead. "Christ is risen!" The Church that has wept over Christ's death resounds with the joyous news of the resurrection.
Saturday evening, too, beneath a tent on the roof of St. Helena's Chapel, the Abyssinians hold their only public ceremony of Holy Week, often erroneously called the Search for the Body of Christ. As the olive branch in the beak of the dove was a sign to Noah, they see the resurrection of Jesus as a sign to man. Under the stars, the patriarch and bishops in full vestments, the clergy in brilliant habiliments, a choir of Ethiopian boys in lavishly-embroidered robes carrying gold-embroidered umbrellas, circle three times around the terrace surrounding the dome. Over and over they sing the phrase, "Oh Lord! Send over us believers in your resurrection, your celestial light." Again there is the throbbing bass beat of drums countered by the tin treble of the silver sistra. Afterward, in a private mass, the congregation repeatedly responds in chorus to the words "Al-Mosih Qam," "Jesus has arisen."
"Haqqan Qam," they chant. "Truly he has arisen."
I immediately after midnight, Easter morning, the Armenians, the Syrians and the Copts begin their masses of resurrection in their own chapels in the Holy Sepulcher. About noon, a Greek Orthodox procession moves with measured step into the courtyard of the church. The patriarch, in white robe and golden crown, is followed by bishops, uniformed police officials, fashionable ladies in Easter hats, the Anglican Bishop in purple, and hundreds of the faithful. A priest knocks loudly upon the locked doors of the church. He chants Psalms 24:7. "Lift up your heads, o ye gates, and be lifted up ye everlasting doors; and the King of Glory shall come in."
From within comes the query, "Who is the King of Glory?"
The priest replies, "The Lord strong and mighty, the Lord mighty in battle." The dialogue is repeated three times. "Lift up your heads, o ye gates ..." When the great doors swing open and the procession swarms in behind the priest, the chandeliers inside the church are found to be swinging slowly back and forth. This recalls the earthquake that shook Jerusalem at the moment of Christ's death.
"Christos anesty," the priest cries. "Christ is risen."
The audience thunders in responce. "Alithos anesty," "Truly he is risen." Outside, the joyous crackle of firecrackers tossed by children competes with the burst of guns fired jubilantly in the air by old men.
"Christos anesty," the priest repeats a second time.
"Alithos anesty," choruses the audience.
It is the same phrase used the night before in the Abyssinian Mass. "Truly, he has risen," and the great bells pealing overhead call out in a joyful, universal tongue to the masses gathered below in the courtyard, the message of Easter which, like shock ripples in a pond, echoes in widening circles across the Holy City and beyond—a message of hope for a troubled world.
William Tracy, a graduate student at the American University of Beirut and a free lance writer, contributes regularly to Aramco World.