The 19th century painting by William Holman Hunt
The 19th century painting by William Holman Hunt, depicting the Chritistian Orthodox Holy Fire ceremony.
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Reuters
Worshippers thronging the Church of the Holy Sepulchre during the Christian Orthodox Holy Fire ceremony in Jerusalem last year. Photo by Reuters

Thousands of Christian worshipers will crowd into the narrow streets of Jerusalem’s old city on Saturday, hoping to get as close as they can to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and to take part in the Holy Fire ceremony.

Every year on Great Saturday, the day before Orthodox Easter, just as it has been for the past 1,200 years, the eastern sects of the Christian faith will hold the elaborate ceremony of the miracle of the Holy Fire that is scripted by a strict status quo.

Every sect of the Eastern Churches - Greeks, Armenians, Syriacs, and Copts - has its proscribed part of the ceremony, and any attempt to change the order of things by one of the religious communities usually ends in violence.

With a force of thousands, it is the Jerusalem police which preside over the entire ceremony, as British police officers, Ottoman soldiers, and soldiers of the Muslim and Crusader monarchies that ruled Jerusalem through the ages did over the years.

The ceremony’s climax is the miracle of the Holy Fire, where the Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem enters the tomb chamber in the church, and receives the Holy Fire from heaven, which he then presents to the crowd waiting outside.

Despite the rigidness of the ceremony, and its importance, for hundreds of years no one has committed the details of the ceremony to paper, leaving the ritual open to interpretation.

Earlier this year, Christianity researcher Yisca Harani presented the findings of her research on the oldest extant record of the ceremony, in a conference at Tel Aviv University. This record isn’t a text, but a painting by the English painter William Holman Hunt, who lived in Jerusalem for a few years in the 19th century and was present at the ceremony.

Despite the fact that the painting was painted in 1890 - 40 years after Hunt had returned to England - it depicts the ceremony in astonishing detail.

“Hunt is the earliest ‘picture’ of the ceremony,” Harani said.

The ceremony that will take place in Jerusalem on Saturday will be a reenactment of the ceremony painted by Hunt. Then and now, the Greek Orthodox worshipers stand on the right of the tomb chamber, and across of them on the left stand the Armenians. Above the Greek worshipers, in a balcony, visitors from the Roman Catholic Church, diplomats, and government officials, will watch the festivities.

Catholic worshipers do not participate in the ceremony, in accordance with a Pope decree from 1238, but two Franciscan monks will stand at the opening of the tomb chamber, just as they do in Hunt’s painting. Not far from them, Muslim guards will stand guard over the tomb chamber, ensuring that no trickery is performed and that the fire really originates from heaven.

Hunt’s painting, The Holy Fire, depicts the ceremony’s climax, when the fire is brought out of the tomb chamber on the Greek side, just seconds before it is presented to the Armenians on the left.

“Travelers from the period describe the ceremony as mess, but Hunt knows where the Armenians stood, and the exact place of the Orthodox worshipers. He exhibits profound knowledge and precision in detail,” Harani said.

Using a catalog Hunt himself made of the painting, Harani can recognize pilgrims from the distant lands of Jordan and Russia, young Greek monks, Turkish officials, and more.