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“THEN HE DREAMED, AND BEHOLD, A LADDER
WAS SET UP ON THE EARTH AND ITS TOP REACHED TO HEAVEN;
THERE THE ANGELS OF GOD WERE ASCENDING AND DESCENDING"
GENESIS  28:12
                                                                           

Ask Gila about the Ladder at the Holy Sepulcher Church

  • Hey what's the story with the ladder above the entrance to the Holy Sepulcher Church?
    A Participant on every tour, from Anywhere, as we stand in the courtyard of the church in Jerusalem
The ladder which stands above the entrance to the Holy Sepulcher Church in Jerusalem epitomizes the rivalries between major Christian denominations struggling to exert their power, prestige and position within the sacred church.

As a British administrator stationed in Jerusalem, LGA Cust, wrote in 1929, "The history of the Holy Places is one long story of bitter animosities and contentions, in which outside influences take part in an increasing degree, until the scenes of our Lord's life on earth becomes a political shuttlecock, and eventually the cause of international conflict."

Ladder on the facade of the Holy Sepulcher church in Jersualem

Photo:  Gila Yudkin in 2020

The ladder (center) on the facade of the Holy Sepulcher Church in Jerusalem

The ladder, standing on a "Greek Orthodox cornice" above the entrance to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher leans against a second storey window belonging to the Armenians.  The wooden ladder (or an earlier incarnation of the present one) can be seen in all paintings and photos of the church façade since 1728.  Some say it's made of cedar of Lebanon, the same majestic wood imported by King Solomon for the building of The First Temple.
The ladder leans against the wall of the Armenian Chapel of St John

Photo:  Gila Yudkin in 2020

The ladder leans against the wall of the Armenian Chapel of St John

The Muslim Turks who ruled Jerusalem for four centuries (1517 to 1917) were flummoxed by the disputes arising out of the fact that the Christian Holy Places in Jerusalem and Bethlehem were not "owned" and managed by just one community, but were shared and served by several.  The major players were the Greek Orthodox, the Roman Catholics and the Armenians.  The minor players were the Copts, Ethiopians, and Syrians.
The inter-denominational squabbles over chapels, prayer niches, walls, corridors and sometimes even nails led to frequent fist fights, brawls, black eyes and perhaps an occasional broken jaw.
In an attempt to lower the temperature within the contested holy places, the Turks drew up a document (firman in Turkish) regulating possession, usage and liturgy of each of the denominations party to the disputes.  This document known as the "Status Quo in the Holy Places" was first imposed in 1757 and reaffirmed in 1852.  It is still in effect!
Thus, according to the firman, in order to move or remove the ladder, it would be necessary for all three denominations – the Greek Orthodox, Armenians and Roman Catholics to agree. (A highly unlikely scenario!!).
The earliest record of this ladder is a 1728 engraving by a Franciscan monk living in Jerusalem named Elzearius Horn.  (If you look carefully at the engraving, you will note the dark shadow of a ladder leaning into the right-hand window above the blocked-up right entrance to the church.)  The window, ladder and ledge all belong to the Armenians.  However, the cornice supporting the ladder belongs to the Greek Orthodox.

Elzearius Horn 1728 engraving of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher

Photo of the Elzearius Horn 1728 engraving in the public domain

Note the ladder on the second storey window of the Holy Sepulcher Church

A century later, the prolific Scottish painter David Roberts records the ladder as well. The cover page of his lithograph album of his sketches of the Holy Land published in 1842 clearly shows the ladder standing on the window ledge, the same way it is seen today.

Sketch of the Holy Sepulcher by David Roberts published 1842

Lithograph in the public domain

Sketch of the Holy Sepulcher by David Roberts published 1842

Lithograph in the public domain

David Roberts' sketch clearly shows the ladder in place before 1842

Legend has it that the ladder was first introduced sometime in the 18th century when the Ottoman Turks taxed Christian clergy every time they entered and left the Holy Sepulcher Church.  The clergy who served the church set up living quarters within the church to avoid paying the tax.  The ladder was then placed on the balcony to allow the "locked-up" Armenian monks to get fresh air, drink coffee and grow vegetables.

The balcony is created by the cornice belonging to the Greek Orthodox

Photo:  Gila Yudkin in 2003

Imagine drinking coffee on the balcony created by the Greek Orthodox cornice

The Armenians claim that the Turkish sultan was distraught by the constant clashes between the Armenians, Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholics.  He ordered that the church doors remain closed and the priests locked up inside until they agreed to settle their differences.
During the three months the church was closed, the Armenian priests brought in a ladder and a rope was used to haul food and supplies up into the church.  At the end of the three months an agreement was reached among the three denominations, but the Status Quo in the Holy Places edict had already been issued. So the ladder remained in place.
Over my 40-year career as a guide, I have brought tens of thousands of pilgrims to the courtyard.  The ladder has always been there, rain or shine, winking at us, as a kind of conversation piece.
Holy Sepulcher Church during the 2020 Covid 19 Pandemic

Photo:  Gila Yudkin in December 2020

The courtyard of the Holy Sepulcher Church during the 2020 Covid 19 Pandemic

As I write this during the height of the Covid 19 crisis, with the church not shuttered, yet empty of pilgrims, the ladder stands in place as it has for nearly three centuries.   When you can, I invite you to come to Jerusalem to see for yourself.
And then we'll discuss, "Does the Status Quo Agreement provide a reasonable solution for the complex issue of sharing a sacred space????"

Copyright December 2020 Gila Yudkin.  Permission needed for any reuse.

Postscript
After uploading this page, I chatted with my friend and colleague Yossi Granit about my research on the ladder.  To my utter surprise, he told me that while attending a seminar for guides at the Holy Sepulcher Church in October 2015, he and the other guides noticed that the "immovable" ladder had been moved -- to the left window.  And he even showed me a photo to my astonishment.  Here it is:

In 2015 the "immovable" ladder was moved from the right window to the left

Photo courtesy of Yossi Granit

In 2015 the "immovable" ladder was moved from the right window to the left!

All I can is that as of the end of 2020 the ladder representing the rivalries within the Holy Sepulcher Church is still in its traditional place -- by the right window....  Gila
See photos taken by Gila in July 2020 when the Church of the Holy Sepulcher reopened after the first wave of the Covid 19 pandemic.

Station Number 14 on the Via Dolorosa -- Jesus is laid in The Tomb

Photo:  Gila Yudkin in July 2020

The sisters are facing the Aedicule (the Tomb) inside the church, Station 14

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GILA YUDKIN TCHERNIKOVSKI 64A JERUSALEM ISRAEL
gila@itsgila.com

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Holy Land Photography by Gila Yudkin