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Letter from Israel: The Gospels' Holiest Shrine Volume 54 Number 2, March/April 2001
Text and Photographs by Elizabeth J. Himelfarb

At Jerusalem's Church of the Holy Sepulchre, two millennia of divergent traditions collide.

[image] An interior view of the rotunda, beneath which lies the tomb of Christ [LARGER IMAGE]

Three hundred years after Jesus was crucified, the emperor Constantine--freshly converted to Christianity--identified a rock-cut tomb in the heart of Jerusalem as Christ's burial place. He had torn down a pagan temple to Venus and in its place planned to erect a monumental domed Church of the Holy Sepulchre, soon to become Jerusalem's most sacred place of Christian pilgrimage. I recently spent a week in Jerusalem trying to make sense of this place that has drawn religious seekers for two thousand years. Since the fifth century, various Christian sects have shared space in the church, but not without contention. Territorial holdings shifted many times when high taxes forced different groups to sell their holdings to one another. In-fighting came to a head in 1852, when the Ottomans, then in control of Jerusalem, issued what is known as the Status Quo agreement. The agreement defined the territorial rights of the competing communities--Greek-Orthodox, Armenian, Latin, Syrian-Jacobite, Coptic, and Ethiopian--within the edifice and set down the order of mass, paths of procession, and timetable of liturgies. Provisions of the agreement continue to govern daily life at the church. Vying for territory remains an issue here--holdings are far from equal.

Elizabeth J. Himelfarb, associate editor of ARCHAEOLOGY, would like to thank Jon Seligman and Gideon Avni for their substantial contribution to this article.

© 2001 by the Archaeological Institute of America