Holy Land

Historical Note

The term “Holy Land” refers to any place that is considered sacred. All religions, beliefs, and cultures have sacred areas that they refer to as “Holy Lands”.

For the Christian world, the Holy Land is where all the religious and historical events of the Old and New Testaments came to pass.

It is the region occupying both sides of the Jordan River (Palestine, Israel, and Jordan), generally encompassing the territory from the River Jordan in the east to the Mediterranean Sea in the west, and from the Euphrates River in the north to the Gulf of Aqaba in the south, as well as the Sinai Peninsula (Egypt).

The region has spiritual meaning for Christians because it was here that the incarnation of the Son and Word of God took place, where Jesus Christ was born, lived, traveled, and preached, and where the first church was founded.

Map of the Greater Holy Land

Map of the Greater Holy Land

Jerusalem is especially sacred because it was in this city that Jesus died on the cross and rose from the dead.

At the beginning of the 4th century A.D., with the recognition of Christianity as the official religion of the newly-founded Byzantine state and of the imperial court, the whole of Palestine was officially declared the Holy Land. The Emperor himself, Constantine the Great, provided the necessary means and money for the erection of the first magnificent churches in the Holy Land.

Saint Helena, the mother of Constantine, arrived in the Holy Land, where she established and oversaw the construction of the first churches. These include the Holy Sepulchre, the Calvary, the site of the Ascension on the Mount of Olives, the Cavern of the Nativity in Bethlehem, and others.

From the 4th century on, Byzantine emperors, patriarchs and bishops, ordinary monks, and faithful pilgrims started rushing to the Holy Land to visit and venerate the God-trodden land and to see all likely sites of religious relevance. Churches and monasteries were subsequently built on these sites and immediately turned into centers of veneration.

During the years of Byzantine rule (325–640 A.D.), the entire region was filled with churches, monasteries, and shrines. In 614 A.D., the Persians invaded the Holy Land and occupied Jerusalem. Churches, monasteries, and shrines, inside and outside Jerusalem, were burned and destroyed. Christians were massacred, and monks of the desert monasteries were brutally murdered.

The Arab conquest that followed in 638 A.D., only a few years after the Persian invasion, made matters even worse. The number of Christians in Palestine diminished gravely, and monasticism in the desert vanished except for a few monasteries that continued to operate in the face of adversity.

Toward the end of the 10th century A.D., only a few main monasteries remained intact and active in the hands of Christians. The decisive intervention of Byzantine Emperors, as well as the persistent presence of the heroic monks of Orthodoxy, contributed to preserving the Christian and holy character of these sites.

The Crusaders’ conquest of Palestine and its return to Christian rule would temporarily make things better. The years that followed after the removal of the Crusaders and until the middle of the 18th century are characterized as the hardest and darkest in the history of the Holy Land. The Mamluks (1250–1516 A.D.), as well as the Ottoman Turks later (1517–1917 A.D.), took advantage of the holy sites and turned them into “merchandise” to be sold to the highest bidder.

In the year 1054 A.D., the separation of the Roman Catholic Church and Eastern Orthodoxy took place. Up until then, since the religious sites had been administered by the Eastern Church hierarchy, they remained Orthodox. Following the seizure of the Holy Land by knights from the West in the First Crusade (1099 A.D.), some sites passed from the Orthodox church to the Catholic church in the 12th century, although local Christians remained then (as now) predominantly Orthodox. With the defeat of the Crusader States and the administration of the Holy Land region passing to the Mamluks and the Ottomans successively, control of the religious sites oscillated between the Catholic (Latin) and the Orthodox (Greek) churches, depending upon which could obtain a favorable “firman” or “decree” from the Ottoman “Sublime Porte” or “central government of the Ottoman Empire” at any particular time.

Following various decrees from the Ottomans (firmans over who would control aspects of holy sites), those issued in the years 1852 and 1853 A.D. received international recognition in Article 9 of the Treaty of Paris (1856 A.D.), leaving the existing state of affairs, or “status quo,” intact. The term “status quo” was first used concerning the Holy Places in Article 62 of the Treaty of Berlin (1878 A.D.), an agreement that determines the ownership and rights of each community on the Holy Sites, and that has remained largely intact from the 18th century to the present.

“The Status Quo in the Holy Places,” a summary of the famous Treaty of the Holy Sites prepared in 1929 by Sir Lionel George Archer Cust (L. G. A. Cust), a civil servant during the period of British administration in Palestine (the British Mandate), quickly became the standard text on the subject as it is the best-known summary of the “existing state of affairs” or the “status quo” on ownership and rights of holy sites in the Holy Land areas.

The Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem

The Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem is today one of the four primary Patriarchates of Orthodoxy, with its seat in the Holy City of Jerusalem.

It historically traces its existence to the oldest church in Jerusalem, which was founded after the Crucifixion, Resurrection, and Ascension of Jesus Christ in the year 33 A.D. in Jerusalem.

The disciples of the Lord, the Holy Apostles, laid the first foundations of the Church of Jerusalem, also called the “Mother of all Churches,” which consequently faced the first persecutions. James, the brother of the Lord, was elected First Bishop of the Church of Jerusalem (+62). In the year 451 A.D., during the 4th Ecumenical Synod in Chalcedon, the Church of Jerusalem was elevated to a Patriarchate.

The Patriarchate of Jerusalem is the earliest and most unique Apostolic Patriarchate, which, with its seat in the Holy City of Jerusalem, represents the uninterrupted history of the Church as a natural continuation of the first Church founded by Christ Himself.

Theodoros Varaklas
HYFELIOS – Travel & Tourism