The Brotherhood of the Holy Sepulchre

The Brotherhood of the Holy Sepulchre, or The Holy Community of the All-Holy Sepulchre, is the Orthodox monastic fraternity that for centuries has guarded and protected the Christian Holy places in the Holy Land. A sepulchre is a burial chamber and in this case Holy Sepulchre refers to the burial chamber of Jesus, believed to be in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

The Orthodox Brotherhood of Holy Sepulchre is part of of The Church of the Holy Sepulchre founded by Constantine the Great in 335, after he had removed a pagan temple on the site that was possibly the Temple of Aphrodite built by Hadrian. Constantine had sent his mother St. Helen to find the site; during excavations she is said to have discovered the True Cross.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre

The church was built around the excavated hill of the Crucifixion and was actually three connected churches built over the three different holy sites, including a great basilica (the Martyrium visited by the nun Egeria in the 380s), an enclosed colonnaded atrium (the Triportico) built around the traditional Rock of Calvary, and a rotunda, called the Anastasis (“Resurrection”), which contained the remains of the cave that St. Helen and St. Macarius, Patriarch of Jerusalem, had identified with the burial site of Jesus. The surrounding rock was cut away, and the Tomb was encased in a structure called the Edicule (from the Latin aediculum, small building) in the center of the rotunda. The dome of the rotunda was completed by the end of the 4th century.

This building was damaged by fire in 614 when the Persians under Khosrau II invaded Jerusalem and captured the Cross. In 630, Emperor Heraclius, who had captured the Cross from the Persians, marched triumphantly into Jerusalem and restored the True Cross to the rebuilt Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

Under the Muslims it remained a Christian church, unlike many other churches, which suffered destruction or conversion into mosques. The early Muslim rulers protected the city’s Christian sites, prohibiting their destruction and their use as living quarters, but after a riot in 966, where the doors and roof were burnt, the original building was completely destroyed on October 18, 1009, by the “mad” Fatimid caliph Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah, who hacked out the church’s foundations down to bedrock. The east and west walls and the roof of the Edicule were destroyed or damaged (contemporary accounts vary), but the north and south walls were likely protected by rubble from further damage.

However, after a peace treaty between the Byzantine emperor Romanos III and the caliphate, the church was gradually rebuilt between 1024 and 1048. In 1048, a series of small chapels was erected on the site by Constantine IX Monomachos under stringent conditions imposed by the caliphate. The rebuilt sites were taken by the knights of the First Crusade on July 15, 1099. Crusader chief Godfrey of Bouillon, who became the first “king of Jerusalem,” decided not to use the title “king” during his lifetime, and declared himself Advocatus Sancti Sepulchri, “Protector (or Defender) of the Holy Sepulchre.” The chronicler William of Tyre reported on the reconstruction. The Crusaders began to renovate the church in a Romanesque style and added a bell tower. These renovations, which unified the holy sites, were completed during the reign of Queen Melisende 50 years later in 1149. The church was also the site of the kingdom’s scriptorium. The church was an inspiration for churches in Europe like Santa Gerusalemme in Bologna and the “Round Church” of Cambridge, England.

After defeating the crusaders, Saladin brought down the Cross and turned the church into a mosque from 1187 to 1190. After an agreement with the Byzantine emperor Isaac II Angelos, Saladin gave the church back to the Christians; by 1390 a number of new repairs were made to the church.

Until the fall of Constantinople in 1453, the Orthodox Patriarchs kept the keys of the church. This law, by Patriarch Dorotheos, was renewed by Sultan Suleiman in 1517. With the new law of Suleiman, they keys were given to a Muslim family in 1545. During this period the canopy of the Holy Sepulchre was also repaired.

In 1545 Patriarch Germanos added a small dome to the church, and the Franciscan monks renovated it further in 1555, as it had been neglected despite increased numbers of pilgrims. During 1719-1720 the church was repaired further by the Orthodox and also the Catholics.

In 1808, the Armenians set the church on fire, which severely damaged the structure, causing the dome of the rotunda to collapse and smashing the edicule’s exterior decoration. The rotunda and the edicule’s exterior were rebuilt in 1809 and 1810 by Orthodox people worldwide, especially by the Greek architect Komnenos Mitilineos.

In 1834 and 1836, two earthquakes damaged the church. The repairs from this damage began in 1867-1869 after a great delay, but the temple dome is finally renovated through the assistance of the Russians, the French and the Turkish. The 1808 fire did not reach the interior of the edicule, and the marble decoration of the tomb dates mainly to the 1555 restoration. The current dome dates from 1870.

In more recent times, the small dome was destroyed in 1927 by an earthquake registering 6.3 on the Richter scale. In 1931-33 the church was rebuilt through the financial assistance of the Greek State. In 1948 the big dome of the Church was damaged and repaired within the same year. By 1958, after an agreement between the three churches of Jerusalem (the Greeks, the Armenians, and the Catholics), extensive modern renovations began, including a rebuilding of the big dome (1978-1985) and a redecoration of the big dome (1994-1997). In 1995 the exterior of the dome of the katholikon was repaired with copper, and restoration works continue to the present time.

Several Christian communions cooperate in the administration and maintenance of the church and its grounds, under a fiat of status quo that was issued by the Sublime Porte in 1852, to end the violent local bickering. The three, first appointed when Crusaders held Jerusalem, are the Orthodox, the Armenian Apostolic and Roman Catholic Churches. These remain the primary custodians of the church. In the 19th century, the Coptic Orthodox, the Ethiopian Orthodox and the Syrian Orthodox acquired lesser responsibilities, which include shrines and other structures within and around the building. An agreement regulates times and places of worship for each communion. For centuries, two neutral neighboring Muslim families appointed by Saladin, the Nuseibeh and Joudeh families, were the custodians of the key to the single door.

When a fire broke out in 1840, dozens of pilgrims were trampled to death. On June 20, 1999, all the Christian communions who share control agreed in a decision to install a new exit door in the church.


The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, called Church of the Resurrection (Anastasis) by Eastern Christians, is a large Christian church within the Old City of Jerusalem. The ground the church rests on is venerated by many Christians as Golgotha, the Hill of Calvary where the New Testament records that Jesus Christ was crucified. It also contains the place where Jesus was buried (the sepulchre). The church has been an important pilgrimage destination since the 4th century, and the portions of it administered by the Orthodox are in the care of the Church of Jerusalem.

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

The Brotherhood also administers the Greek Orthodox Church of Jerusalem. The Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem is the chief, president, governor, and hegumen of the Brotherhood of the Holy Sepulchre and is commemorated as “Our Father and Lord, the Most Holy Beatitude, Patriarch of the Holy City of Jerusalem and of all Palestine.”

Members of the Brotherhood are the administrative officers of the Patriarchate; and the metropolitans, archbishops, bishops, archimandrites, hieromonks, hierodeacons, and monks of the Patriarchate of Jerusalem are members of the Brotherhood.

The Brotherhood of the Holy Sepulchre was traditionally founded in 313 (which corresponds with the Edict of Milan and legalization of Christianity in the Roman Empire) and the foundation of the Churches in the Holy Land by Constantine and St Helen, which is traditionally dated to 326. At first, it bore the name “Order of the Spoudaeoi (studious, zealous, industrious, serious),” or “The Spoudaeoi of the Holy Resurrection of Christ.”

The Brotherhood consisted of the ordained clergy charged with the care and preservation of the Holy Sepulchre and other holy places in Jerusalem. They were distinguished primarily for their observance of uninterrupted mental prayer and heartfelt supplication. At the same time, the Members of the Brotherhood were renowned for their virtuous and diligent ascetic life. According to findings of contemporary researchers, they were living ascetic lives before 326 and were organized as an Order during the visit of St Helen to the Holy City. St Cyril of Jerusalem makes mention of them.

Holy places

The Holy places that the Brotherhood has preserved over the centuries include: the Holy Sepulchre; the Dreadful Golgotha; the site where St Helen discovered the Precious Cross (these three are within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre); the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem; the Tomb of the Mother of God in Gethsemane; the Pool of Siloam; Mount Tabor; the site of Christ’s baptism in the River Jordan; Nazareth, the city of the Annunciation; the Sea of Galilee (also known as the Lake of Gennesaret, and the Sea of Tiberius); the Mount of Olives, the site of Christ’s Ascension; Cana; Bethesda; Capernaum, a city of Galilee; the Tomb of Lazarus in Bethany; and Jacob’s Well in Nablus.


The history of the Brotherhood is closely linked with the history of the Christian Church in Palestine which began in the Apostolic Age.

Following Constantine’s Peace of the Church in 313, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was founded under the patronage of St Helen, at the time 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. 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; the erection of magnificent Churches; the conversion of Palestine to Christianity; the coming together 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 Sepulcher on behalf of Orthodoxy; and the support of various Emperors of Byzantium.

The Brotherhood had to struggle to preserve the holy places began during this period. The Persians occupied Jerusalem in 614 and took Patriarch Zachariah 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 Modesto.

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.

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 Umur, and there was great persecution all around. The most deadly persecution occurred during the time of the Fatamid Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah (1007–1009), a schizophrenic, named the “Nero of Egypt” for his merciless acts. 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. In the 11th century, the Caliph Ali az-Zahir, under a treaty with Byzantium, permitted the reconstruction of the shrines.

During the Crusades, the Brotherhood confronted new persecutions. Being expelled by the Latin 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.

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.

The Brotherhood continued to struggle against the Latins and the Armenians who 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:

repairing the canopy of the Holy Sepulchre in 1545 by Patriarch Germanos;

rebuilding the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in 1808 after it was burnt by the Armenians;

rebuilding the small dome over the Holy Sepulchre in 1927;

rebuilding the ædicule surrounding the Holy Sepulchre in 1931-1933; and,

repairing and refurbishing the Church of the Nativity of Christ in Bethlehem in 1842.

Modern status

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

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

After the renovation of 1555, control of the church 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 1767, 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.

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.