Muslim family holds key to sacred sepulchre
Wajeeh Nuseibeh is custodian and doorkeeper of Jerusalem's Church of the Holy Sepulchre, focus of world attention at Easter. Photo by David Blumenfeld, special to the Chronicle
For centuries, their ancestors have opened door to church where Jesus believed buried
(03-27) 04:00 PDT Jerusalem -- Every morning at 4 a.m., Wajeeh Nuseibeh walks through the walled Old City of Jerusalem to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the most revered shrine in Christendom. He takes an ancient 12-inch iron key, climbs a small ladder and opens the huge wooden doors to the place that most Christians believe is the site of the crucifixion, tomb and resurrection of Jesus.
Every evening at nightfall, after three raps of an iron doorknocker spaced out over half an hour, Nuseibeh closes up and places the key in safekeeping. He inherited the job from his father and grandfather, in a chain stretching back more than 1,300 years. But surprisingly, Nuseibeh, doorkeeper of the site of the crucifixion, is, like his ancestors, a Muslim.
"It goes from father to son, from one generation to the next," said Nuseibeh, a small, dapper 55-year-old man in a suit and tie. "I was 15 when I first opened the church. I thought it was fun. As I grew up I realized it is a big responsibility." This weekend, thousands of Christians flock to the Holy Sepulchre for Easter services, processions and the ancient ceremony of the Holy Fire, in which Nuseibeh plays a central role. The ceremony, held on Holy Saturday, the day before Easter, symbolizes the resurrection of Christ.
Worshipers pack into the church, trying to get as close as possible to the marble-clad tomb, or sepulchre, where they believe Jesus' body was laid. The oil lamps inside the mausoleum that contains the tomb are extinguished, and a huge stone is rolled across the entrance, which is then sealed shut by Greek Orthodox priests.
"If there are no oil lamps lit, the tomb will be sealed with wax. I am the witness. I put my stamp, the name of the family, in the wax on the tomb," Nuseibeh said. What happens next looks like a miracle. The Orthodox patriarch begins to pray, and a bluish Holy Fire begins to emanate from within the tomb, lighting the lamps and sometimes flying around the church over the heads of the assembled worshipers and even lighting the candles of believers. Nuseibeh has been the official witness at this ceremony for more than 20 years.
Muslims have maintained the holiest christian church for 1300 years
The church is a major attraction for both pilgrims and tourists. A vast warren of chapels, tunnels and caves, with architectural remnants that date back to the 4th century, it spans a broad range of traditions, from the westernized cathedral of the Catholics to the icons of the Orthodox churches. It houses the final stations on the Via Dolorosa -- the last journey of Jesus to the crucifixion.
The church is jealously managed by five competing and often disputatious Christian denominations -- Roman Catholic (also called Latin here), Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Coptic and Syrian Orthodox (sometimes called Jacobite). There also is a small Ethiopian Orthodox chapel on the roof. Sometimes the tensions over the right to clean or to pray in a particular area of the church spill over into violence. Nuseibeh's family has helped keep the peace between them since Caliph Omar Ibn Kattab first conquered Jerusalem for the Muslims in 638. The only gap was during 88 years of Crusader rule in the 12th century.
According to family history, when Salah A-Din recaptured Jerusalem in 1191, he promised English King Richard the Lion Heart he would invite the Nuseibeh family to resume their role as custodians. Since that time, the Judeh family, also Muslims, have been given the key for safekeeping overnight, but only the Nuseibehs serve as doorkeeper.
Franciscan monks participate in a Holy Saturday procession at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Associated Press photo by Jerome Delay
Once a year, the three biggest denominations -- Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Armenian -- publicly renew their request to Nuseibeh to be the "custodian and doorkeeper," as written on his business card and multimedia Web site (www.nuseibehfamily.com). About 100 years ago, the key was stolen. Although it was eventually recovered, a spare now is kept in a locked room inside the church.
For his hereditary labor, Nuseibeh receives $15 every month, an income he supplements by giving tours of the church. But the ancient honor is worth more to him than the token payment. When tensions boil over between the denominations, Nuseibeh is the one who calms the waters. "Like all brothers, they sometimes have problems. We help them settle their disputes. We are the neutral people in the church. We are the United Nations. We help preserve peace in this holy place," he said.
Nuseibeh said he still becomes anxious before the big ceremonies or when important visitors arrive. "I realize there are thousands of people waiting to go into the church, and they are waiting for me to open it, and I start to imagine what will be happen if the lock will be broken or the key is damaged and I can't open the door."
Church of the Holy Sepulchre
But that has never happened in the 20 years since he took over from his father. He hopes that one day his son Obadah, now 21, will step into his footsteps, but that's not certain. "He is at college, studying to be a sports trainer," Nuseibeh said. "Maybe he will not follow me, and then my brother or my cousin will take over."
Nuseibeh said he is deeply touched by the Christian rituals and feels a close affinity with the church, but he does not pray there. "I know every stone. It is like my home," he said. "But I go to pray at the Omar Mosque next door."