Tourist Tip #131 / Closing Time at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

Who has the last word on one of Christianity's holiest sites? Not Christians.

Saladin defeated the Crusaders in Jerusalem in October 1187, and the new boss quickly moved to assert his and his religion's sovereignty. The cunning Kurdish general sealed nine of the ten entry gates to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, perhaps the holiest site in Christendom. And to ensure that the Christian denominations that share control of the traditional site of Jesus' crucifixion and burial got the point, Saladin handed the key to the last remaining door to two local Muslim families, the Nuseibehs and the Judehs.

Notwithstanding renewed Christian supremacy in Jerusalem under the British (1917-1948) and Israel's control over the Old City since 1967, the 800-year ritual continues. Every evening a brief ceremony is held, in which a member of the Judeh family arrives, holding the 25-centimer-long key. He hands it to the Nuseibeh family representative, who climbs a stepladder furnished by a complicit priest, and then proceeds to lock the door. This ritual is reversed the next morning when the church opens.

Times vary according to the time of year. Between October and March, the church is open from 4:00 to 19:00, and between April and September, from 5:00 to 21:00.

The recriminatory relationship between the two religions has had its ups and downs. There were periods when the door to the church would be sealed for days or even weeks on end, holding the priests hostage inside. At times, the Muslim gatekeepers even demanded an admission fee from worshippers, which were used to pay the salaries of the muezzin (the Muslims who issue the call to prayer) at the Al Aqsa Mosque. And then there was the day in 1545, when the Crusader-era bell tower partly collapsed, and the Ottoman governor of Jerusalem refused to authorize its reconstruction. The truncated bell tower has been dwarfed ever since by the adjacent Mosque of Omar, built by Saladin six years after the Crusader defeat.

Hiccups aside, all three monotheistic religions have unfettered access to their holy sites since June 1967, when Jerusalem, famously called the City of Peace, was reunited.

Emil Salman
Emil Salman