Tourist Tip #321 St. Vartan’s Chapel, Church of the Holy Sepulchre

You might just be able to sweet-talk your way into visiting this site and the etching that made world headlines.

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A tourist tip that begins by saying you probably won’t be able to get in to the site? In the case for St. Vartan’s Chapel, deep beneath Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre – that could happen. But persuading the Armenian Orthodox priests, under whose authority the chapel falls, to open the gate, could be just the challenge for an adventurous visitor.

The chapel, deep beneath the ancient Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which marks the traditional site of the crucifixion and tomb of Jesus, was discovered in 1971.

Excavations revealed an etching with such profound historical and archaeological implications that its discovery made waves worldwide. People flocked to see it, keeping the Armenians quite busy going back and forth to unlock the door.

To reach the chapel, after entering the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, pass to the right of the Stone of Unction (where Jesus’ body was prepared for burial). Turn right, circling behind the Greek Orthodox Cathedral to a staircase taking you down to the beautiful 12th-century Chapel of St. Helena, where you can admire the mosaic floor depicting famed Armenian churches.

The door to St. Vartan’s Chapel is to the left of the altar. On a smooth stone, carefully preserved behind glass among the remains of an eighth-century BCE stone quarry, is the image of a ship with a broken mast.

Beneath the ship, which is about 26 inches long and 12 inches high, two Latin words appear - Domine Ivimus. They mean “Lord we shall go” and recalling the words of a favorite pilgrim’s psalm, Psalm 121.

Scholars believe the ship was a Roman vessel and that by its style, as well as the inscription, the carving can be dated to the first or second century C.E. That means that it may have been incised right on the wall of the pagan monument built on this spot by Emperor Hadrian after 135 C.E. before the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was even constructed.

The artist might very well have been a Christian pilgrim who nearly perished in a shipwreck on the way to the Holy Land, and carved the ship to give thanks for a safe arrival at the sacred destination.

Reaching the chapel door and sweet-talking the priest in charge to open it are two different things. The persuading could be accomplished as follows: Before going down to the chapel, upon entering the church, turn right. You will see a stone cupola, and to the left of the cupola a small room – that’s where the Armenian Orthodox priests in charge of their part of this church, in which six different Christian denominations have condominium, can usually be found.

First, you might ask to purchase some candles; this is a common and welcome way of making a donation to the church and will be appreciated as gifts by Catholic or Orthodox Christian friends back home. Then, make your donation a generous one and perhaps, after a few more exchanges, ask to see the chapel and your wish will come true.

The etching of a boat in St. Vartan's ChapelCredit: Eva Marie Everson
The view inside St. Vartan's chapel.Credit: Eva Marie Everson

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