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The Easter Sunday Jerusalem’s holiest church closed down

The last time was in 1349, when there was an outbreak of the Black Death. 

Easter Sunday, Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulcher was closed to visitors because of fears over the spread of COVID-19, the first time this has happened in almost 700 years. The last time was in 1349, when there was an outbreak of the Black Death.

At the crossroads of human imagination and the physical landscape, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher is built upon the site some Christians believe is Golgotha and the Empty Tomb. The church incorporates the physical topography of 2,000 years ago under its roof, and entering pilgrims leave the modern world behind to walk in the steps of the Christ.

The Church of the Holy Sepulcher had its roots in a miraculous 4th-century journey taken by Saint Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine. Despite her advanced age, the 80-year-old devoted convert Helena traveled to the Holy Land to find the True Cross. There, she worked tirelessly founding basilicas (starting each by pointing her imperial fingers and saying, “this is just the place for a basilica”) and searching for the cross of the crucified Jesus.

Digging down — in her dreams and at excavation sites — she ultimately uncovered the three crosses from Calvary, and gaining divine help she discerned which was the cross that bore Christ. Helena’s act of devotion would live on in history and legend, generating an obsession with relics during the Middle Ages and triggering the construction of the greatest church in Christendom.

Consecrated on Sept. 13, 335, it was burned to the ground by the Fatimid caliph Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah in 1009. The church we see today is an 11th-century Crusader-period reconstruction.

The history of the church, a microcosm of sectarian rivalries, reads like melodrama and occasionally farce. In the mid-19th century, conflict between Eastern Orthodox Christians and “the Latins” (Roman Catholics) over who should have ultimate control of the Holy Places had reached a boiling point. This tension contributed to the Crimean war. The Armenian, Coptic,and Ethiopian churches all had claims as well.

At the end of the war, a chart was drawn up that ceded control of Calvary to the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox churches (stations 11 and 12), with the Empty Tomb in the hands of the Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Armenian churches. The Armenians were also put in charge of the Chapel to St. Helena in the grotto area beneath the Tomb. The Copts have their own sanctuary upstairs nearly to the roof, and the Ethiopians were pushed onto the roof, where they remain languishing. The church was governed by the Status Quo Agreement stipulating who could light candles where, who could lead processions when. It required that nothing be changed without the agreement of all parties.

Sometime around 1852 a ladder was placed on the roof. No one knows who put it there or why. It takes an awful lot to get all the sides to sit down together to talk, much less to agree to anything! Hence, the mysterious ladder with no purpose has remained on the roof for well over a hundred years.

Fact really is stranger than fiction. The factions came to blows again and again over the centuries, with vivid scenes of monks pulling out crucifixes and candlesticks to attack and murder each other right next to the Empty Tomb! Yet the tentative armistice has held for over a century. But tensions had been so high during Ottoman times that the keys to the church were entrusted to the Joudeh Al Husseini family in 1187, since they had no horse in this race, and their descendants open the doors each morning and lock the doors each evening, to this day. And it was a member of this family, Adeeb Jawad Joudeh Alhusseini, who closed the doors temporarily on March 30 to await the passing of the present danger.

Pasadenan Leanne Ogasawara blogs at the science and arts journal 3 Quarks Daily.