The Holy Sepulcher PDF Print E-mail
Written by Stephen Langfur
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The Holy Sepulcher
Christian communities

The Christian Communities in the Holy Sepulcher

crosses-in-wall-holy-sep.jpgBefore the Crusades, when Jerusalem was under Islamic rule, the Muslims permitted the Byzantine clergy to control the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. This clergy was mainly Greek. When the Crusaders conquered the city in 1099, Franciscans from the West ("Latins") took over the church. They stayed in power until Saladin re-conquered Jerusalem for Islam in 1187.

At the behest of the Byzantine Emperor, Saladin allowed the Greek clergy back to the church. In a treaty with Richard the Lion-Hearted, he let the Latins back too. He gave the Copts of Egypt the convent on the roof.

This was just the beginning of a long struggle for rights, interrupted when Khwarismian Turks massacred all the clergies in 1244. Under the Mamlukes, order was restored, and the Christian communities resumed their strife. At one point there were seven groups: the Greeks, the Latins, the Armenians, the Copts, the Ethiopians, the Syrian Orthodox and the Georgians.

The chief method for establishing rights was to use connections with the ruling power or, if necessary, create such connections by bribery. When the Ottoman Turks took Constantinople in 1453, putting an end to the Byzantine Empire, the defeated Greeks came into an advantage over the other denominations: the Greek Orthodox (heirs of Byzantine Christianity) made up a large part of the Ottoman Empire, dominating its civil service. Converts from Greek Orthodox Christianity to Islam composed the army of Janissaries, on whom the Ottomans depended.

The Ottoman Sultan granted decrees favoring the Greek Orthodox. The last, in 1757, established what would henceforth be referred to as the status quo. In a treaty of 1774, he allowed Russia to assume protection over all his Orthodox subjects. His treasury grew apace.

The Georgians, unable to keep up the bribes, left Jerusalem altogether. The Ethiopians wound up on the roof of the church. The Copts managed to keep a monastery there, as well as the foot of Jesus' grave. The Syrian Orthodox got the use of an apse to the west of the rotunda (where 1st century graves may be seen). The Armenians received the Chapel of Helena and another in the gallery of the rotunda. The Latins managed to secure several sections, including the Chapel of Mary Magdalene and that of the Finding of the Cross. As at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, the Greek Orthodox received the lion's share, including the tomb, the Crusader choir, and Golgotha.

In 1831, Muhammad Ali, a breakaway Ottoman commander ruling from Egypt, sent an army into Palestine and managed to hold it for nine years, instituting progressive reforms. Only with the help of the British and French did the Turks get the country back. This marked the entry of the European powers, who took a new interest in the Holy Land. Challenging the Russian guardianship over the holy places, the French in 1852 got the Sultan to issue a decree favoring the Franciscans. Russia responded by occupying two Ottoman vassal states. The Turks declared war. Seizing this chance to limit Russian expansion, the British and French (and Sardinia) joined the Turks.

When this "Crimean War" was over (1856), Russia had lost its dominant role in southeast Europe. The Turks gave their Western allies concessions in Palestine. For example, the Haram was opened to Christians and Jews for the first time in centuries, and the French got St. Anne's Church, which Saladin had made into a Muslim school. In the disputed holy places, however, the Turks re-affirmed the status quo ante bellum. It is best symbolized by a weathered wooden ladder above the entrance to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. This appears in photographs from the 19th century, exactly in the same spot. It is unclear who has the right to move it.