Two Muslim families are custodian of the holiest Christian site
A tradition of peace and mutual trust
Few people are aware that the custody of the holiest Christian site, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, is the responsibility of two Muslim families. This is not a modern development but a tradition followed over centuries. It is an extremely interesting tradition of mutual respect, trust, and peace between the two religions. Two Muslim families, the Nuseibeh and the Joudeh families, have been this immensely responsible task. The tradition is at least 500 years old and could be even more.
The holiest Christian site
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is located in the north-west quarter of the old city of Jerusalem. According to Encyclopaedia Britannica, the church was “built on the traditional site of Jesus’ Crucifixion and burial. According to the Bible (John 19:41–42), his tomb was close to the place of the Crucifixion, and so the church was planned to enclose the site of both the cross and the tomb.” You can easily surmise, therefore, why is this church is the holiest Christian site. Roman emperor Constantine I built the church here in 336 CE. Since then, the holy monument has been destroyed and rebuilt several times, and much of the present structure dates back to 1810.
The custodian Muslim families
Now arises the question, why should the holiest Christian site’s custodianship rest with two Muslim families. It’s an interesting story. According to one traditional narrative, Caliph Omar (R) granted the custodianship to a Muslim family in 637 CE after he captured Jerusalem. He gave this responsibility to the Nuseibeh family, which claims a relationship with the Prophet Muhammad (SAW). This family had its roots in the Islamic holy city of Medina.
After many centuries of Islamic rule, Crusaders captured Jerusalem in 1099. This meant that the Nuseibeh family lost the custodianship of the holiest Christian site. However, 188 years later Al-Nasir Salah al-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub, AKA Saladin, the Sultan of Egypt recaptured Jerusalem. Once the city was again in Muslim hands the Nuseibeh family got its old responsibility back. Saladin, it is said, sealed the second front gate of the church and gave its key to the Nuseibehs. Since then this all-important key has been with the Nuseibeh family.
Joudeh family’s responsibility towards the holiest Christian site
The other family to be the co-custodian of the holiest Christian site is the Joudeh family. It is not clear, historically, when they became the custodians of the church. While one tradition believes it was from Saladin’s time, according to the other Ottoman rulers of Jerusalem gave them this task in the 16th century. Whichever may be true, representatives of these two families carry out this jog unfailingly even today.
Every single day, a member of the Joudeh family arrives at the holiest site of the Christians with two keys. One of these keys is said to be 850 years old, and another half a millennium. As the sun rises over Jerusalem, a member of the Nuseibeh family takes the keys from the Joudeh scion, climbs a ladder turns the two keys, one after another, and throws open the gates of the holiest Christian site!
(Written by Author and Translator Nilanjan Hajra)