Holy Land

Historical Note

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 region on both sides of the Jordan River (Palestine-Israel-Jordan), generally encompassing 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) constitutes the Holy Land where all the religious and historical events of the Old and New Testament came to pass.

The region has spiritual meaning for Christians because it was here where the incarnation of the Son and Word of God took place, where Jesus Christ was born, lived, travelled, 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 4 th 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 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. St. Helena, the mother of Constantine arrived in the Holy Land and established as well as overlooked the construction of the first churches like 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 c. onward Byzantine emperors, Patriarchs and bishops, ordinary monks and faithful pilgrims started rushing to the Holy Land in order to visit and venerate the God-trodden land, and to see all likely sites of religious relevance. Churches and monasteries were then built on these sites, and were immediately turned into centres of veneration.

During the years of Byzantine rule (325-640 A.D.), the entire country 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 burnt and destroyed. Christians were massacred, and monks of the desert monasteries were brutally murdered.

The Arab conquest that followed in 638 A.D., a few years after the Persian invasion, made things even worse. The number of Christians in Palestine diminished gravely and monasticism in the desert vanished, with the exception of a few monasteries that kept running in the face of adversity.

Towards the end of the 10 th century A.D., only a few main monasteries had 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 till the mid of the 18 th century, are characterized to be 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) took advantage of the Holy Sites and turned them into “merchandise” sold to the highest bidder.

In the year 1054 A.D., the separation of the Roman Catholic Church and Eastern Orthodoxy took place. Till 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 12 th century, although local Christians remained then
(as now) predominantly Orthodox. With the defeat of the Crusader States and the administration of the Holy Land area 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 a particular time.

Following various decrees (firmans over who would control aspects of Holy Sites) of the Ottomans, the ones 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 in regards to 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 18 th 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 (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 Primeval Patriarchates of Orthodoxy having its Seat in the Holy City of Jerusalem.

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

The disciples of the Lord, the Holy Apostles, laid the first foundations of the Church of Jerusalem, also called “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 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.