Saturday 21st June 2014
Today, after classes in the morning, we had a introduction to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre by a Franciscan priest from Hong Kong who has lived 25 years in the Holy Land. First there was an introductory talk, giving some of the history and layout of the Church. Then there was a guided tour of the church.
The building is complex (like most things in this land!). The history is chequered (also, like most things in this land!). The present can be confusing (also, like most things in this land!). So it was very good and necessary to have a well-informed guided introduction.
Just to explain the above comments a little, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is not one building as such, but several buildings all incorporated into the one complex.
Further, these different buildings are on different levels on the side of the hill, some on what was originally ground level but which have been excavated around when the area was a quarry, leaving that un-excavated part looking as if it were a hill (the site of Calvary), while other parts are on the excavated level, so are now below the original ground level.
This is further complicated by the fact that the site is the side of a hill, so there are three different “layers” or “levels” of the building as one goes down the hill.
Finally, parts of the buildings that make up the complex come from different historical eras. Archaeological explorations have turned up bits of evidence that indicate this was a very early site of Christian pilgrimage, consistent with the Gospel accounts of the crucifixion of Jesus.
However, in the 2nd century, after crushing the second Jewish revolt and the punitive destruction of the city of Jerusalem, the Roman Emperor Hadrian built a Roman city called Aelia Capitolina. He built retaining walls around the site and buried it under a platform, on top of which he erected a temple to Venus. Ironically, his actions of burying the site which were hostile and intended to eliminate the site actually served to “preserve” the site for subsequent developments.
When Christianity became established under Constantine, the pagan temples were demolished. Constantine’s mother Helen identified the site which was then excavated and the very large Constantinian Basilica was built (3rd – 7th century). This building was destroyed by the Persian invasion of 614AD then subsequently rebuilt.
Just over twenty years later in 638AD the city of Jerusalem was conquered by the Arab Muslims. Caliph Umar honoured the site out of respect for the Muslim acknowledgement of Jesus as a “Prophet” and Christians as “People of the Book”. Christians now under Muslim rule from the 7th to the 11th century were able to restore the basilica, but on a smaller scale. However, a later Muslim dynasty, the Fatimids, were much more aggressive against Christians and Christian Churches. The Caliph al-Hakim, who was certifiably insane, rampaged the site and the building was levelled to the ground. A subsequent Caliph did allow reconstruction of the church, but the limited resources of the beleaguered Christian community were not sufficient to restore the former Basilica but were limited to the Rotunda and immediate surrounds.
In response to an appeal for help against Muslim aggression, the Crusades were launched from Europe. The Crusaders conquered Jerusalem in 1099 and the Church was again extended, for the first time the whole complex being brought under one roof.
In 1187 Saladin defeated the Crusaders and the city again came under Muslim rule. Conditions for local Christians and pilgrim Christians from other places, including access to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, varied from time to time depending on the whim of the rulers and political considerations.
In 1517 the power shifted from Egyptian Mamelukes to the Ottoman Turkish empire for the next four centuries, during which Christian access to the site was negotiated on different terms.
After victory in the First World War the spoils were divided and Palestine came under the British Mandate until 1948 when the State of Israel declared independence.
During these centuries, at different times, different Christian churches were helped and/or hindered in their performance of services in the Church, requiring negotiations and settlements among them. To the present, six different Churches control different parts of the complex and carry out their activities at different times. These are the Catholic, Armenian, Greek Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, Coptic and Ethiopian Churches. Often there has been friction between the different groups, each competing for space or precedence, sometimes devolving into the unedifying spectacle of all-out brawls!! To this day, the members of the churches can seem to be competing – who has the largest candle, whose candle is nearest to a sacred site, who has access to a particular place within the Church and when … and these issues can be asserted with loud chanting and processions to assert time and space within the complex! The result can be quite a cacophony, though it is regulated by mutual agreement which serves the status quo. This can only be changed by mutual agreement among all six churches, which is unlikely, so the status quo continues, even when this means that necessary renovations are not done, with the result that parts of the complex do look quite run-down!
So as you can see from this brief summary, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is indeed a very complex place!!! It can be quite confronting.
Here are a few websites with detailed information and images about the church and its features, below which I will post some of my photos taken today:
From the Franciscan Custodians of the Holy Land:
From Biblewalks: http://www.biblewalks.com/Sites/Sepulcher.html
From Bible Places:
Shalom, Peace, Salaam!!!