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Jerusalem Archaeological Sites: The Church of the Holy Sepulcher

“At the place where Jesus was crucified, there was a garden, and in the garden, a new tomb... and since the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.” (John 19:41-42)

Chronological list of underground research projects and excavations at the church
The Present-Day Courtyard
The Basilica
The Rotunda and Sepulcher
Politics of the Church

The Keeper of the Keys


Constantine the Great was the first Roman emperor to adopt Christianity; he made it the official religion of the Roman Empire. Constantine started his career as ruler of the western region of the Roman empire (306); after defeating his three co-regents, he emerged in 324 as sole emperor, retaining unrivaled power until his death in 337. He made Byzantium his capital, rebuilt it and renamed it Constantinople.

In 326, involved with Christianity and ecclesiastical controversy, he called a meeting of bishops of all the parts of the empire, including Macarius, Bishop of Aelia Capitolina, as Jerusalem was still called. The emperor’s mother, Queen Helena, who had converted to Christianity, was much impressed with the bishop’s tale of the sad neglect of the sites hallowed by the life and death of Jesus and, with her son’s blessings, authority and funds, left to visit the Holy Land.

In Jerusalem she identified the place of crucifixion (the rock held to be Golgotha) and the nearby tomb known as Anastasis (Greek for resurrection). The emperor decided to build an appropriate shrine on the site, which was then occupied by a 2nd-century Roman temple and shrine that, according to local tradition, was built over the place where Jesus had been crucified and buried. When the Roman buildings were demolished, a series of rock-cut tombs was discovered. One of the tombs was identified as that of Joseph of Armithea. The sloping bedrock was cut away around this tomb, leaving a freestanding shell (at the site of the present Edicule).

Little remains of the original Byzantine structure, which was burned and looted by the Persians in 614, partially rebuilt by the Patriarch Modestos, damaged by earthquake in 808, and destroyed in 1009 by order of the Fatamid Caliph al-Hakim. A portion was rebuilt again by the Byzantine Emperor Constantine Monomachus in 1048, but most of the present building is the result of 12th-century (1144 to be precise) Crusader reconstruction as well as later renovations (the most recent work of restoration and preservation began in 1959 and is not yet completed) made after several centuries during which the church fell into disrepair. The present building encompasses half the area of the original Byzantine church, and only the Rotunda replicates the approximate shape and design of the 4th-century original.

During the late 1950’s representatives from the three religious groups officiating the remains of the area agreed to begin a wide excavation and restoration project of the church grounds. After the Catholic, Greek, and Armenian religious officials came to this agreement, the complete archaeological exploration of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was undertaken beginning in 1960. Overseeing the operation was Franciscan archaeologist Father Virgilio Corbo. Corbo was meticulous and the exploration was carried out in a step-by-step manner, with every event and finding properly recorded for release to the public. The findings of the excavation were published in 1982 in Italian and were titled “The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem: archaeological aspects from its origins to the Crusader period.” Corbo has been praised for his work during this excavation and the presentation of such a large amount of information in a succinct and “bare-bones” style.

Based on the written sources, architectural evidence and discoveries made during the survey, the plan of the large complex of the original church was reconstructed. It was composed of four distinct elements: The entrance from the main street - the Cardo - (today the main market street of the Old City), led to the courtyard (the eastern atrium); from there to the basilica (the martyrion); to an inner atrium (the Holy Garden); and to the westernmost building, the rotunda (the anastasis) with the sepulcher.

The first papal visit to the church site happened in January 1964 when Pope Paul VI spoke before the empty tomb. The next papal visit occurred in the year 2000, when Pope John Paul II made history by visiting the church twice in the same day. Following the 6 Day War in 1967, the church came under Israeli control, where it has remained since.

Following a nine-month closure for restoration and reinforcement, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher was reopened to the public on March 22, 2017. The Edicule, the small structure above the supposed burial place of Jesus, needed to be fixed and restored. In addition, an underground drainage system for rainwater and sewage was installed. The Greek Orthodox, Armenian, and Roman Catholic denominations of Christianity each committed $3.3 million to the restoration project.

Chronological list of underground research projects and excavations at the church:

  • 1960: exploration and ground floor excavation in the area of the Patriarch’s residence and the garden.
  • 1963: excavation of the Chapel of St. Mary.
  • 1963-64: excavation of water/sewage systems between the Patriarch’s residence to the north and the Parvis (entrance courtyard) in front of the church on the south; discovery of the Hadrian underground.
  • 1965: excavation in the rock-cut Chapel of the Finding of the Cross. Partial excavation of the Parvis facing the south facade of the church.
  • 1966-67: excavation in the area south of the transept of the Anastasis (Armenian Divan).
  • 1968: excavation in the area north of the transept of the Anastasis (now the Altar of Mary Magdalene).
  • 1969: excavation in the gallery of the Anastasis and above the Arches of the Virgin.
  • 1969-70: excavations in the eastern area of the Triportico (now the Katholikon).
  • 1974: excavation of the trenches to the south of the Edicule in the Anastasis.
  • 1970-1980: extremely long excavation, carried out in segments, behind the apse of the Chapel of St. Helena in the area of the Martyrium.

The Present-Day Courtyard

This courtyard, outside the present-day Church of the Holy Sepulcher, is partly supported by a large, vaulted cistern. The northern wall of this cistern is very impressive, consisting of large blocks with dressed margins, still standing several meters high. It has been suggested that this early wall served as the retaining wall of the second century Hadrianic raised platform (podium). This appears to support Eusebius’ statement that the Temple of Venus, which Hadrian erected on the site of Jesus’ tomb, stood here before the original church was built.

The Basilica

Early masonry below the catholicon of the Crusader period was exposed during the excavations. This made possible the reconstruction of the original design of the 4th century basilica. The position of the two central rows of columns in the basilica (out of the four rows) may be determined by the remains of their foundations, which can be seen along the northern and southern sides of the chapel of St. Helena. In a small underground space north of this chapel, a massive foundation wall of the early basilica was exposed. On a large, smoothed stone which was incorporated in this wall, a pilgrim to the original church left a drawing of a merchant ship and the Latin inscription: “O Lord, we shall go.” Beneath the apse of the present-day catholicon, part of the apse that marked the western end of the original church was exposed. Eusebius described this apse as being surrounded by twelve columns, symbolizing the twelve apostles.

The Rotunda and Sepulcher

The most important element of the complex is the rotunda which contains the sepulcher itself. The sepulcher stands in an elaborate structure within the rotunda, surrounded by columns supporting an ornamented, domed roof.

Some masonry remains were revealed below the floor and around the perimeter of the rotunda. Wherever bedrock was exposed, there were indications of stone-quarrying in earlier periods. The quarrying operation lowered the surface level around the sepulcher, which thus stood well above its surroundings. An architectural survey of the outer wall of the rotunda - 35 m. in diameter and in some sections preserved to a height of 10 m. - shows that it maintains its original 4th century shape. The sepulcher itself is surrounded by a circle of twelve columns - groups of three columns between four pairs of square piers. It is possible that the columns for the 4th century rotunda were removed from their original location on the facade of the Roman temple. Renovation of the piers exposed evidence that the columns had originally been much higher and that the Crusaders cut them in half for use in the 12th century rotunda.

The renovation of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher is still in progress, but after generations of neglect, the building has already regained most of its former beauty.

Politics of the Church

Since the Crusades, the precincts and fabric of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher have come into the possession of three major denominations: the Greek Orthodox, the Armenian Orthodox and the (Latin) Roman Catholic. Other communities - the Egyptian Coptic Orthodox, the Ethiopian Orthodox and the Syrian Orthodox - also possess certain rights and small properties in or about the building. A deal worked out in 1757 gave control to different churches over specific parts of the church. The rights and privileges of all these communities are protected by the Status Quo of the Holy Places (1852), as guaranteed in Article LXII of the Treaty of Berlin (1878).

Following the earthquake in 1927, the prevailing political authority (as provided by the Status Quo) had to intervene in order to carry out emergency structural repairs. Such intervention has not been necessary since 1959, when the three principal communities established a Common Technical Bureau.

Some issues, however, remain unresolved; one of these is the continuing dispute between the Coptic and Ethiopian Orthodox concerning ownership rights in the Chapel of the Ethiopians (on the roof of the Chapel of St. Helena). Since the dispute began, the government (as the prevailing political authority) has chosen not to intervene, in the hope that the two communities will resolve the matter between themselves.

The Keeper of the Keys

After the Muslim conquest of Jerusalem in 637, the Archbishop of Jerusalem, Sophronius, invited the Caliph Omar (also Umar] ibn al-Khattab (579-644) to pray at the Church. Omar refused to do so, fearing that future Muslim generations would claim the church as their own and turn it into a mosque. Omar instead prayed a few yards away from the church where the Mosque of Omar was later built. Omar signed the “Covenant of Omar” guaranteeing protection for the Christians to live and worship freely in exchange for their surrender.

The key to the Church was entrusted to a Muslim family – the Nuseibehs – to avoid a conflict among the competing Christian denominations. “If the key would be in the hands of the Greek Orthodox, then that would signify they are the owners of the church. If it is the hands of the Catholics, then it would be a Catholic Church, the same with the Armenians (Orthodox),” Wajeeh Nuseibeh, the current member of the family responsible for opening the church, told Catholic News Service. “So, Muslims are neutral people to open and close the door.”

In 1187, Saladin took the church from the Crusaders and entrusted the Joudeh Al-Goudia family with its key. The documentation for this decision dates only to the 16th century when rulers of the Ottoman empire issued “Fermans” – royal decrees – giving the family custodianship of the key. The Joudeh family holds the key and hands it to a member of the Nuseibeh family who is responsible for opening the door to the church.

Adeeb Joudeh is the current holder of the keys. One is 850 years old but broke after centuries of use. The one used today has been used for the last 500 years. The key is 12 inches long made of cast-iron with a triangular metal handle and a square end.

Early each morning, Nuseibeh takes the key from Joudeh, and climbs a small wooden ladder to unlock the top lock. Then he steps off the ladder to unlock the lower lock and opens the door. In the evening he closes the door the same way.

The Christian denominations share responsibility for the ladder used to reach the window in front of the door’s padlock. Nuseibeh pounds the heavy door knocker on the doors, transferring the figurative ownership of the ladder among the Armenian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox or the Catholics.

During Holy Week, Nuseibeh opens the door at 4 a.m. When all three denominations have a holy day, representatives of the Greek, Armenian and Catholic churches unbolt the door from inside, then pass the ladder outside the trap-door window to Nuseibeh. A bell inside is rung to announce the opening, and the three representatives open the inside lock and go outside to bring the ladder back inside.

The church has only been closed on four occasions. The first was in 1349 during the Black Plague. The second time was in 1998 due to a disturbance caused by a visitor. In February 2018, the church was closed in protest due to a “systematic campaign ... against the churches and the Christian community in the Holy Land.” The church was shut again on March 25, 2020, as were other religious sites, due to the coronavirus outbreak in Israel.

Sources: Israeli Foreign Ministry;
“Nusaybah clan,” Wikipedia;
Oren Liebermann, “Two Muslim families entrusted with care of holy Christian site for centuries,” CNN, (March 27, 2016);
Judith Sudilovsky, “Muslims (literally) hold key to Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulcher,” Catholic News Service, (February 27, 2018);
Rinat Harash, “Muslim holds ancient key to Jesus tomb site in Jerusalem,” Reuters, (November 30, 2017);
“Holding the Key: Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre,” Al Jazeera, (February 25, 2018);
“Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre closes amid coronavirus fears,” Reuters, (March 25, 2020).

Photo courtesy of Israeli Government Press Office and Ministry of Tourism, all rights reserved to Albatross/Itamar Greenberg and to the Israeli Ministry of Tourism.  Holy Sepulchre Website.