By Len Cooper

Special to The Washington Post

A locked door, a single nail driven in a stone wall or who holds the keys to the run-down toilets are points of contention that could lead to the eviction of one of the oldest Christian communities from their sacred monastery. On the roof of the Holy Sepulchre Church in Jerusalem's "Old City," the Ethiopian Orthodox and the Egyptian Coptics are embroiled in a territorial dispute that has been searing for centuries.

Christians believe that the Holy Sepulchre is the site where Christ was crucified and his body anointed and entombed. To be close to this hallowed ground, 25 Ethiopian monks and 3 nuns in their roof-top monastery above the church are prepared to brave another winter. The complex is often without water, heat, lights and without hope of change.

"It is winter here and very very cold," said Tesfaye Salassie, secretary and spokesperson for the Deir el-Sultan Monastery. "When it rains, the water pours into the rooms."

The Ethiopians have tried for years to get the Israeli Minister of Religious Affairs to assist them in doing desperately needed repairs on the roofs of the single-level mud huts. Two months ago, the government rebuilt a wall that collapsed during a snow storm last year. Some of the hovels are in such disrepair, they have to be cordoned off.      

 Unsuspecting tourists enter the compound unaware of the monks worsening conditions. They are greeted by a foul smell that is masked in strong disinfectant which emanates from the broken down toilets. The tiny courtyard is surrounded by nearly 40 makeshift dingy gray structures. (See Figures below)



"The Egyptians have made our lives very difficult here," said Salassie. "Right now, all we can do is pray to God until he brings us a solution."

All parties agree that the Ethiopians were once caretakers of a substantial portion of the interior of the Holy Sepulchre. In 1838, a plague ravaged the Ethiopian monastic community. The Egyptian Coptics took over the keys to the passageway leading to the Ethiopian two small chapels and to the main entrance of the Holy Sepulchre. By the time replacements arrived from Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, the Coptics had settled in and refused to return the keys to the Ethiopians.




"During the last three or four centuries, the Ethiopians Church has acquired large properties all over Jerusalem," said Ephraim Isaac, director of Semitic Studies in Princeton, New Jersey. "Unfortunately, in the last 300 to 400 years, many monks have died and the community didn't have enough support, so some of their properties have been seized by other churches."

When the Coptics took control over the Ethiopian chapels, they had the blessings and full support of the ruling Turkish authority. Over the years, the Ethiopian rights continued to be usurped also by the Catholics, Armenians, Greek Orthodox, Syrians and Russians churches. Today, other Christian communities in the Holy Sepulchre have in their possession books that are bound in parchment with Ge'ez inscriptions, the ancient language of the Ethiopian Church.

"The monastery of Deir el-Sultan which contains two churches with the two keys are all Coptic property." said Archbishop Anba Abraham. "The Coptics accepted the Ethiopian monks as guests and they occupied the monastery without the churches. As their numbers increased they occupied the two churches with the help of the Israeli politicians."

The Ethiopians have a recorded historical presence in Jerusalem dating back to the 4th Century. The monks said that Queen Helena of Rome gave them the keys to the Holy Sepulchre. Under Turkish rule, the Ethiopians were the only religious sect that refused to pay homage and taxes to the Ottoman kings. After the mysterious 1838 plague, the Coptics had charge of burning the Ethiopian libraries, deeds and other important documents, which they believed were contaminated. They also destroyed hundreds of nearly 2000 year old manuscripts that were handwritten on goat parchment. The books were bound in colorful Biblical art-work, which is the signature of Ethiopian Christian culture.


The few remaining monks were expelled from the church. Those who would not leave peacefully were forcibly removed in chains and banished to the roof of the Holy Sepulchre, according to the Ethiopians. The monks and nuns built Deir el-Sultan by hand with water and soil collected from the Kidron Valley nearly a mile away.

In order to quell future property disputes, the Turkish authorities drafted a rule in 1863 called "The Status Quo of the Holy Places." This rule forbids any changes in designated religious sites without permission of the government. If the rule is violated, the breaching party could lose all rights to the property in question. The Status Quo prohibits simple renovations, removal of fallen debris from the decaying ceiling, even sweeping has to be done in the dark or the Ethiopians risk being reported to the authorities by their Christians neighbors.

"It is the governments position to keep the Status Quo going and the monastery of Deir el-Sultan is part of the Status Quo," said Uri Mor, director of Christian of Affairs in Israel's Ministry of Religious Affairs. "We have sent engineers and architects to repair the huts, but the Ethiopian's themselves opposed it."

Mor also said that the Israeli Government and the former Ethiopian government, devised a plan that called for the monks to vacate the monastery while the electrical system is upgraded and the roofs repaired. The monks prefer that the entire structure be replaced with new quarters. If the renovations must be done, they hope the work can be done without having to temporarily relocate. The Ethiopians have refused to leave for fear of not being allowed to return to the sacred site after renovations are completed.


"There is one Coptic monk who is living among the Ethiopian," said Mor. "They can't agree on whether or not his electricity will come from the Ethiopian source of have his private source. The situation is impossible." The Coptic monk is assigned to the Ethiopian monastery to assure that the Status Quo is adhered to, according to the Ethiopians.

In 1971 the Israeli government decided that the Ethiopian should maintain sole ownership of the monastery. The Coptic Church made an appeal before Israel's Supreme Court which reversed the governments position.

An Ethiopian monk said that he feels as though their presence at the Holy Sepulchre represents Black people from all of the world. Should they lose their few remaining rights there, he believes that Blacks will never have the opportunity again of being a part of the most sacred place on earth among Christians.

"All the Christian churches pride themselves on the foothold they have in Jerusalem," said Isaac. "I think it should be a matter of pride for all Africans and African-Americans that there is an ancient African foot-hole in the Holyland."





The Monks of the Deir as-Sultan Monastery serve as spiritual representatives of the Christian Ethiopian (Abyssinian) community numbering in the hundreds living in Jerusalem. It is believed that these Ethiopians are directly related to the Ethiopian eunuch that Philip baptized in the Book of Acts, Chapter 8, verses 26-40.

Nearly 300 years ago under Ottoman rule, all religions in Jerusalem paid homage to the Sultans, except the Abyssinians. The sultan exacted harsh punishment against them by cutting them off from the mother church of Ethiopia, which left them unable to pay taxes. The sultan placed the Ethiopians under the Armenian charge. As the monks died, they were unable to get replacements from Ethiopia so the numbers dwindled in half from one hundred to about fifty monks. The community was then ravaged by a plague, causing further depletion of the population. The few remaining were unable to deter the greedy onslaught of their Christian neighbors who seized the opportunity to confiscate property in which the Ethiopians held for years.

The community of Ethiopian monks was banished from the interior of the Holy Sepulchre Church (the place where Christians believed Christ was crucified and buried) 200 years ago by the Ottoman sultan and has been living on the roof of the church in mud hovels since. The nuns were forced to build the mud huts by hand with dirt and water they brought from the Kidron Valley nearly a kilometer away. A 200 year old agreement called the "Status Quo in the Holy Places" was drawn up by the Turkish ruler and the religious groups occupying the church. This agreement is still strictly honored. It forbids cleaning, repairs or any changes in designated sacred areas unless agreed upon collectively by all tenants. Should this agreement be violated in any way, all properties will be turned over to the group that controlled the property at the time the status quo was first implemented. All religious parties within the Holy Sepulchre will agree that the Ethiopians were the major caretakers and tenants of this most sacred piece of property in all Christendom at one point in history.

Archbishop Abuna Athenaseus of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, said the other religious had them (the Monks) chained and dragged out of the church's sanctuary. To this day, the Ethiopians are not welcomed and are seldom invited to participate in the religious events that take place within the Holy Sepulchre. Their libraries of thousand-year old hand-written manuscripts made of beautifully designed parchment were burned by the Coptic Church to prevent the spread of the deadly plague. Today in the old City of Jerusalem, some of the Armenian church's books are bound with covers made of parchment covered with Ge'ez (the official language of the Ethiopian church) and Amharic script. Also in the Greek, Latin and other denominations, religious artifacts that bear Ethiopian markings and religious symbols can be found.

Today only 28 Ethiopian monks reside in their roof-top monastery. The Egyptian Coptic church holds the deed to their land. The monks have to do renovations and cleaning often in the dark so not to be seen by other Christians living at the Holy Sepulchre. If they are found violating the "Status Quo," it could easily lead to their eviction. The monks feel if they are forced to leave Deir as-Sultan Monastery, blacks will never again be represented in the sacred place.

The "Status Quo in the Holy Places" has made life unbearable at times for the monks. Problems such as who has charge over the keys to the toilets or on what day a certain step is to be swept, can lead to lengthy arbitration by the Israeli authorities. In the winter, the temperature in Jerusalem often drops below freezing when it's not raining. The monks brave the cold in their 6 ft. x 6 ft. cubicles often without water, heat, lights and hope of change. When plaster falls from the roof of their small chapel, days or weeks can pass before they receive permission from the other denominations which allows them to clean it up.

About 3/4 of a kilometer near the heart of downtown Jerusalem off HaNa've'em Street (the street of the prophets) is the Mount of Paradise Church and convent which houses about fifteen Ethiopian Orthodox nuns. Near the church is the compound which houses several hundred Ethiopian Christians, who say they have been represented in Jerusalem before Christianity was introduced.

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