A Mosaic of Christianity
text and photos by Gerald Ring
The heavy thud of the Kawas metal-tipped staves resounds off the flagstones of the outside courtyard. An old Orthodox nun hastily places a kneeling cushion in position in front of the Stone of Unction. The Muslim doorkeepers clear tourists and pilgrims from the huge entrance. It is early afternoon, and the Greek Orthodox patriarch is about to offer prayers in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.
Led by two Kawas wearing the traditional red fez with gold tassle, the procession is little changed since those of Turkish times. As it enters the massive church, priests fan out around the Stone of Unction at the entrance. The patriarch approaches, kneels, and kisses it. Next the Kawas lead the procession into the Rotunda to the tombs entrance. While priests and officiating attendants wait, the patriarch enters the tomb to pray. He emerges, dons an embroidered red tunic, and the procession moves into the Catholicon opposite the tomb to celebrate the Greek Orthodox Mass.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is the scene of many such rituals each day. In this enormous complex of a building is found the rich diversity of Christianity which dates back prior to the Reformation. Protestants have no established rights in the church because of their late arrival here.
Latins, Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Syrian Jacobites, Copts, and Ethiopians each with its distinct rituals, languages, modes of worship, and forms of dress bring into this gloomy interior a color and variety unmatched in any other place of worship in the world.
Everyday life in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre depends on long-standing agreements among these Christians. The rights and privileges each denomination has over particular or shared areas of the basilica are jealously guarded. Jerusalems governing powers whether Turkish, British, or Israeli have refrained from interfering in this tangle of delicate arrangements.
Sadly, the Christian custodians of this shrine have frequently behaved with less than Christian decorum when disputes arose. In fact, these jealousies have been such a threat that for hundreds of years a Muslim family has held the keys to the church. From generation to generation, the key holder from the same Muslim family ceremoniously locks the churchs great doors around 7 p.m. each day and takes the keys home.
Competition for space in the shrine is so keen that the Coptic and Ethiopian churches are also present on the buildings roof. Here an Ethiopian monastery called Deir el Sultan is almost a small village. This roof area was probably once enclosed as part of the eleventh century Crusader church.
Tiny whitewashed stone cells, each with a green wooden door and a sink with a cold water faucet outside, make up the monastery. If the day is warm and sunny, the Ethiopian monks sit on the roof studying the Bible or other sacred texts. Some dress in yellow or purple robes; others in the more usual black habits.
A low door leads off the roof into the small, simple Ethiopian chapel, which is dominated by a tapestry portraying the meeting of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. According to tradition, it is from this meeting and its subsequent union that Ethiopians trace their origin as a God-fearing people.
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Tags: Christianity Unity Jerusalem Architecture Holy Sepulchre