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Holy Sepulchre: Guardians of the key

Contributed by Toine Van Teeffelen on 28.05.2006:

Ironically, the responsibility for guarding the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, one of the holiest sites in Christendom, falls on the shoulders of two Moslem families, the Joudehs (historically known as Ghudia) and the Nusseibehs. According to a complicated agreement whose origins are lost in the mists of time, the Joudeh family keeps the keys and the Nusseibeh family opens the doors.

Scholars disagree on when the two families were appointed, respectively, key keeper and doorkeeper. Wajih Nusseibeh states that it was Caliph Omar Ibn Khattab (636 A.D.) who placed the two families in charge of the Church doors. According to Wajih, when Omar entered the city peacefully, Patriarch Sophronios gave him the keys. In turn, Omar gave the keys to Abdullah Nusseibeh as an award for his integrity and honesty. Since then, the responsibility has been passed from fathers to sons.

After Salah ed-Din liberated Jerusalem from the Crusaders, he ordered that the key should be handed to the Joudeh family and that the Nuseibeh family should now be responsible for opening the doors. Both families agreed and have for the last eight centuries jointly performed their duties.

According to the Joudeh family, their duty as carriers of the keys began in the 12th century under Salah ed-Din. “My family has been carrying the keys of the church since the era of Salah ed-Din. We have been doing this in accordance with a faraman (decree) issued by successive sultans who ruled Jerusalem,” affirmed Abdel Qader Joudeh, currently the Deputy Governer of the Sultan (Qa’em Maqam) and the carrier of the Holy Sepulchre keys.

The Joudehs point to research done by the Roman Catholic Patriarchate in Jerusalem to support their argument. The research suggests that, since the Crusaders had free access to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the 11th and 12th century, the keys must still have been with the Byzantine clergy of Jerusalem and not with local Moslem families.


Biladi-The Jerusalem Times, April 5, 1996.

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