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Virginia and David Owens

A Family Quarrel

Squabbling over the Holy Sepulchre.

The subtitle of Raymond Cohen's instructive book might more accurately read, "How Christians Nearly Destroyed Their Holiest Shrine." The battle over the supposed location of Calvary and Jesus' tomb has raged for two millennia, beginning with the Roman Emperor Hadrian—who, in the 2nd century, as part of his rebuilding of Jerusalem, constructed a temple to Venus over the site. In the 4th century, Emperor Constantine had the temple replaced with a Christian basilica. Then in 614 Persians swept in, burning the church.

When Muslim rulers replaced the Persians, they rebuilt and protected the shrine. Attacks four centuries later on the limestone of the tomb helped inflame European Christians. When the Crusaders conquered Jerusalem, they renovated the earlier rotunda and its chapels and expanded the church to incorporate the excavated hill of Calvary. Though Arab Muslims soon retook Jerusalem, Saladin continued to protect Christian holy places.

Interestingly, the property was best cared for under Ottoman rule. By the 14th century, oversight of the church was in the hands of Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Armenian Orthodox monks, with Coptic, Syrian, and Ethiopian Orthodox monks claiming "rights of access." The grand vizier, Rajib Pasha, told the French ambassador, representing the Latin interest, "These places, my Lord, belong to the Sultan and he gives them to whomsoever he pleases." Under sharia law, Cohen says, all holy places, including Jewish and Christian shrines, were to be protected (though in practice such protection was often lacking). Also, no single entity could "own" religious shrines in the Western sense.

Franciscans and Orthodox monks vied—or paid for—favor with their Ottoman overlords. In 1757, wearied of their intrigues and violent skirmishes, the Turks arranged what came to be known as the Status Quo, which divided the church among the rival groups.

At the center of the church, on an east-west axis, stand two domes. The larger, called the ...

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