«Opening» of Church of the Holy Sepulchre

«Opening» of Church of the Holy Sepulchre

Each day the opening and closing of the Church repeats itself in a complex “ritual”.

As has been noted, the custody of the door and the key for the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is entrusted to two Muslim families (Nuseibeh and Judeh). The Egyptian Sultan Malek-Adel – according to the historian Jacques de Vitry – had a large number of sons for whom he arranged various donations and privileges; two came to be rewarded with the paid guardianship of the door of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
Following the Khwarezmian invasion (1244) the Sultan Ayyub wrote to Pope Innocent IV to apologize for the damages suffered by the church, assuring that he would repair it and that the keys would be entrusted to two Muslim families who would open the door for pilgrims. Since that time this right has been transmitted from one family to another.

In the past it was necessary to pay an entrance fee in order to have the door opened and to be allowed to enter into the church: according to Fidentius of Padua this amounted to approximately 80 gold francs. This entrance fee was collected by the Muslim custodians beside the door, where there was a stone bench. 

The entrance fee was abolished in 1831 by Ibrahim Pasha. The door is now opened every day, and one must keep in mind that in addition to the rights of the two Muslim families, there are also various rights for the three religious communities that hold services in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre: Latins (Franciscans), Greeks and Armenians.

This explains why the opening of the door of the church brings with it numerous complications, along with a ritual that to many might appear strange and pointless.

There are in fact two manners of “opening” the door:

  • A simple opening takes place when the sexton of the religious community that plans to open the door carries out all the rituals by himself, opening only one of the door leaves.
  • A solemn opening takes place in the same manner but with the opening of both door leaves: the sexton opens the left leaf while the Muslim doorkeeper opens the right one.

Each day on which there is no special feast or occurrence, the opening take place at 4.00 in the morning and the closure according to a official time.

For the evening closure of the church, the three religious communities have arrived at an agreement, according to which between October and March the closure takes place at 7.00 pm, and at 9.00 pm between April and September.

Every evening, at closing time, each of the three sextons is present and they agree among themselves as to who will perform the opening on the following day: specifically, the opening is carried out in a cyclical fashion by the three communities; the one who will have the right of opening takes the ladder and places it against the center of the closed door. 

For the closure, both simple and solemn, the same “ritual” is followed as for the opening, but in reverse order.

«Opening» of Church of the Holy Sepulchre