Brotherhood of the Holy Sepulchre

Flag of the Patriarchate with the letters "ΤΦ" (Tau + Phi) representing the word "taphos" (tomb or sepulchre)

The Brotherhood of the Holy Sepulchre, or the Holy Community of the All-Holy Sepulchre, is an Eastern Orthodox monastic fraternity guarding the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and other Christian holy places in the Holy Land, founded in its present form during the British Mandate in Palestine (1920-1948). Headed by the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, the brotherhood also administers the Greek Orthodox Church of Jerusalem, such as metropolitans, archbishops, bishops, archimandrites, hieromonks, hierodeacons, and monks.

According to its own tradition, the Brotherhood of the Holy Sepulchre was founded in 313 as the Order of the Spoudaeoi ("studious", "zealous", "industrious"), or the "Spoudaeoi of the Holy Resurrection of Christ". The traditional date of foundation corresponds to the Edict of Milan and its legalisation of Christianity in the Roman Empire, as well as the foundation of the churches in the Holy Land by Emperor Constantine and his mother, Empress Helena, which is in turn traditionally dated to 326. According to findings of contemporary researchers, they were present before 326, organised as an order of ordained clergy during the visit of Saint Helen in Jerusalem.[citation needed] Saint Cyril of Jerusalem makes mention of them.[citation needed] They were distinguished for their asceticism in uninterrupted prayer and supplication.[citation needed]


A sepulchre is a burial chamber and in this case Holy Sepulchre refers to the burial chamber of Jesus, what is believed to be his tomb inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.


The history of the Brotherhood is closely linked with the history of the Jerusalem Church, which began in the Apostolic Age.[citation needed]

Late Roman and Byzantine periods (327-638)Edit

Following Constantine's Peace of the Church in 313, the Church of the Resurrection, today better known as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, was founded under the patronage of Constantine and his mother, Helena, at the time and through the work of Bishop Macarius of Jerusalem.

At about the same time, St Hilarion introduced monasticism in Palestine, erected the first monastery, ordered and regulated monastic life, and formed the Brotherhood of the Holy Sepulchre.[citation needed][dubious ] Besides devotional duties, the purpose of the Brotherhood is the support and protection of all of the Holy places in Palestine, including the Holy Sepulchre, Golgotha.

The Fourth Ecumenical Council (451) elevated the Bishop of Jerusalem to the rank of Patriarch because of the special significance acquired between the First and Fourth Ecumenical Councils. This included elements such as the erection of magnificent churches; the conversion of much of Palestine to Christianity; attraction of pilgrims from around the world; the importance of outstanding bishops, monks, and teachers of the Church of Jerusalem; the struggles of the Brotherhood of the Holy Sepulchre on behalf of Orthodoxy;[dubious ] and the support of various Roman and Byzantine emperors.[citation needed]

The Brotherhood had to struggle to preserve the holy places began during this period. The Persians occupied Jerusalem in 614 and took Patriarch Zacharias prisoner, along with the palladium of Christianity, the Precious Cross. Chrysostomos Papadopoulos writes in his history of the Patriarchate: "The Churches and the monasteries, inside and outside Jerusalem, were destroyed; the Christians were brutally slaughtered … thousands of prisoners purchased by Jews were slaughtered. Anything good that existed was destroyed or was plundered by the invaders. The monks were slaughtered mercilessly, especially those of St Savvas Monastery."

Between 617-626, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was rebuilt by Patriarch Modestus.

In 637, after a long siege of Jerusalem, Patriarch Sophronius surrendered Jerusalem to Caliph Umar. In the Covenant of Umar I, the Patriarch managed to save the shrines from destruction and, at the same time, to secure the ownership of the holy places as well as the privileges of the Brotherhood.[dubious ]

Early Muslim period (638-1099)Edit

During this period, the Church of Jerusalem and the Brotherhood suffered many persecutions and trials. The shrines were repeatedly ransacked and defaced by the successors of Umar, and there was great persecution all around. The most deadly persecution occurred during the time of the Fatamid Caliph Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah, named the "Nero of Egypt" for his merciless acts, which started in 1007. He persecuted ferociously both Christians and Jews. He ordered that in public Jews were to wear masks representing the head of an ox and bells around their necks; Christians were to wear mourning apparel and crosses one yard in length. Also, Al-Hakim ordered the destruction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. His son, the Caliph Ali az-Zahir, under a treaty with Constantinople, permitted the reconstruction of the shrines.

Crusader/Ayyubid period (1099-1260)Edit

During the Crusades, persecution of the Brotherhood continued. Being expelled by the Latin (Roman Catholic) clergy from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and other holy places, the Brotherhood regrouped in the metochion of the Lavra of St Savvas and eventually regained possession of the holy places in 1185.[dubious ]

Mamluk period (1260-1517)Edit

With the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453, Patriarch Athanasios went to Constantinople and there received from Mehmed II the document that confirmed the ownership of the holy places by the Brotherhood.[citation needed]

Ottoman period (1517 to World War I)Edit

The Brotherhood continued to struggle against the Latins and the Armenians whom the Brotherhood regarded as encroaching on their traditional rights and authority over the holy places, both of which they claimed had been confirmed by Byzantine and then Muslim authorities.

During this period the Brotherhood undertook the following construction works:

  1. repairing the canopy of the Holy Sepulchre in 1545 by Patriarch Germanos;
  2. rebuilding the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in 1808 after it was burnt by the Armenians;
  3. rebuilding the small dome over the Holy Sepulchre in 1927;
  4. rebuilding the ædicule surrounding the Holy Sepulchre in 1931-1933; and,
  5. repairing and refurbishing the Church of the Nativity of Christ in Bethlehem in 1842.


The Brotherhood was reconstituted during the period of the British Mandate in Palestine before and after World War I,[dubious ] and continues its defence of the religious status quo, especially in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

Headed by the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem as hegumen, styled "Our Father and Lord, the Most Holy Beatitude, Patriarch of the Holy City of Jerusalem and of all Palestine", the Brotherhood also administers the Greek Orthodox Church of Jerusalem.

Jordanian Law No. 227, dated 16 January 1958, regulates the Brotherhood's government.

Holy placesEdit

Sites and shrinesEdit

The Holy Places that the Brotherhood has preserved over the centuries include:

Jerusalem and surroundingsEdit


Jordan RiverEdit

Galilee and the Sea of GalileeEdit


Status quoEdit

The immovable ladder. Detail from photograph of main entrance above, 2011

After the renovation of 1555, control of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre oscillated between the Franciscans and the Orthodox, depending on which community could obtain a favorable firman from the Sublime Porte at a particular time, often through outright bribery, and violent clashes were not uncommon. In 1757, weary of the squabbling, the Porte issued a firman that divided the church among the claimants. This was confirmed in 1852 with another firman that made the arrangement permanent, establishing a status quo of territorial division among the communities.

Greek Orthodox priest of the Brotherhood of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem

The primary custodians are the Greek Orthodox Church, which has the lion's share, the Custodian of the Holy Land, an official of the Franciscans and affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church, and the Eastern Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic Churches. In the 19th century, the Coptic Orthodox, the Ethiopian Orthodox and the Syriac Orthodox acquired lesser responsibilities, which include shrines and other structures within and around the building. Times and places of worship for each community are strictly regulated in common areas.

Under the status quo, no part of what is designated as common territory may be so much as rearranged without consent from all communities. This often leads to the neglect of badly needed repairs when the communities cannot come to an agreement among themselves about the final shape of a project. Just such a disagreement has delayed the renovation of the edicule, where the need is now dire, but also where any change in the structure might result in a change to the status quo disagreeable to one or more of the communities.

A less grave sign of this state of affairs is located on a window ledge over the church's entrance. Someone placed a wooden ladder there sometime before 1852, when the status quo defined both the doors and the window ledges as common ground. The ladder remains there to this day, in almost exactly the same position. It can be seen to occupy the ledge in century-old photographs and engravings.

None of the communities controls the main entrance. In 1192, Saladin assigned responsibility for it to a Muslim family. The Joudeh Al-Goudia a noble family with a long history were entrusted with the keys as custodians. This arrangement has persisted into modern times.

Breaches of the status quoEdit

The establishment of the status quo did not halt the violence, which continues to break out every so often even in modern times. For example, on a hot summer day in 2002, a Coptic monk who is stationed on the roof to express Coptic claims to the Ethiopian territory there moved his chair from its agreed spot into the shade. This was interpreted as a hostile move by the Ethiopians, leading to a fracas, with eleven people being hospitalized.[1]

In another incident in 2004 during Orthodox celebrations of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, a door to the Franciscan chapel was left open. This was taken as a sign of disrespect by the Orthodox and a fistfight broke out. Some people were arrested, but no one was seriously injured.[2]

On Palm Sunday, in April 2008, a brawl broke out due to a Greek monk being ejected from the building by a rival faction. Police were called to the scene but were also attacked by the enraged brawlers.[3] A clash erupted between Armenian and Greek monks on Sunday 9 November 2008, during celebrations for the Feast of the Holy Cross.[4][5]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Christian History Corner: Divvying up the Most Sacred Place | Christianity Today | A Magazine of Evangelical Conviction
  2. ^ Fisher-Ilan, Allyn (2004-09-28). "Punch-up at tomb of Jesus". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 2010-04-27.
  3. ^ Armenian, Greek worshippers come to blows at Jesus' tomb - Haaretz - Israel News
  4. ^ "Riot police called as monks clash in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre". London: Times Online. November 10, 2008. Retrieved 2008-11-11.
  5. ^ "Once again, monks come to blows at Church of Holy Sepulcher". The Associated Press. 10/11/2008. Archived from the original on November 11, 2008. Retrieved 2008-11-11. Check date values in: |date= (help)

External linksEdit