The climax of any pilgrimage is the church of the Holy Sepulchre. It is situated at the heart of the old city of Jerusalem and considered the holiest church in the world. According to tradition, it is the place where Jesus Christ of Nazareth was crucified and buried. The rights to chapels and chambers within the church aren't the only things strictly maintained along the lines of the Status-Quo set by the Ottomans in 1852.

Even the seemingly smallest details, such as the possession of the key to church along with the right to open and lock its doors are considered a prized possession.

The key to church and the right for it are currently held by two Muslim families: Joudeh and Nuseibeh. It is a pure result of the Muslim ruling: on the one hand enabling the Christian community to carry out their rituals within their church and on the other hand, obtaining control of the church via the Muslim families. How long have they been in possession of the church keys? The answer isn't clear.

According to one Muslim tradition, the keys were handed over in the days of Umar ibn Al-Khattāb,the second Caliph. Jerusalem was surrendered by the Byzantine Empire to Umar himself in 638 AD. Sophronius,Patriarch of Jerusalem, handed the keys to Umar in order to resolve inner conflicts among the Christians, who in turn gave the keys to the Nuseibeh family. Having said this, researchers question the liability of this tale. Some relate this possession to the Ayyubid period, after Jerusalem was conquered by Saladin in 1099.
The earliest evidence regarding these keys points to Harun al-Rashid, the Abbasid Caliph (786-809) who tied diplomatic and economicrelations with Charlemagne, ruler of the vast Roman Empire, king of the Franks and Western Europe.Both sides united against a common enemy threatening their wellbeing: the Byzantine Empire. As a friendly gesture of loyalty and faith, Harun al-Rashid sent Charlemagne the keys to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

Even though centuries have passed, and emperors came and went, the rights of the Muslim families haven't changed. Even during the British mandate between 1917-1948, not even one right was deprived from these families.

Why do these families continue to bear such a heavy burden? It isn't a financial consideration. Afterall, in 1831 Ibrahim Pasha canceled the entrance fees to the church, and evenback in the day when visitors were charged, it was the patriarchy thatcollected the money and not the keepers of the gate. How about prestige? There's no shortage of prestige regarding the place, the entire Christian world looks up to this church in awe, so why would the Muslims insist on gaining the respect that the Christian world attributes to this sacred of all sites? Perhapsa sense of missionary? A representation of the Islamic world as superior to that of Christianity? And if so, why don't the Christians take a stand and insist on owning the key? The status- quo? Or perhaps they see the possession of the keys as a sign of bestowing honor orthe opening of the church by the Muslim families as a service rather than a symbol of control? Let's try to solve the puzzle.

The family that carries the main responsibility of the key is the Joudeh family, formerly known as the Al-Goudia family. They physically hold the key in practice (Door Keeper), whereas the Nuseibehfamily are in charge of actually opening the door (Door Opener).Here's how it works: at opening time 3 representatives wait behind the locked gate: one representing the Greek-Orthodox church, one from the Catholic-Franciscan church and finally onefrom the Armenian Church. Each, at turn, removes the bar, unlocking the church from the inside and opens a hatch. A ladder is passed through that hatch to the outdoors where it's received by the Muslim families, who lean it against the door. A member of the Joudeh family passes the key to a member of the Nuseibeh family, who climbs up the ladder and unlocks the doors. He then pushes the door open, enabling visitors to enter.So which family is considered more important? The Joudeh or Nuseibeh family? Depends who you ask.

Each family tends to present itself as solely responsible of the church doors and an innocent visitor who comes across such a presentation won’t know the difference. You'll find the Nuseibeh family mentioned in most guidebooks,however the Joudeh family claims they were merely asked to help their family who were wealthy, well respected Sheikhs on the temple mount. As such, the Joudeh family didn’t want any physical effort, let alone disgracing themselves by climbing a ladder. According to them, the Nuseibeh family was an additional help and through time, was granted an official decree (a ferman) for theirrights.Who represents the families nowadays? Up until several months ago representing the Joudeh family was Abdul Khader Joudeh, known as Abu Ehab, born in 1930. Due to his medical condition the key is now in the hands of his nephew. One must note that inheritance isn’t passed on from father to son but from brother to brother. It is only when the youngestbrother passes or falls to illness that the inheritance is passed on to the next generation. Representing the Nuseibeh family is Wajeeh Nusseibeh, known as Abu Ubaidah. He's often seated in his own bench outside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and most tour guides in Israel are familiar with him.             

What do they gain in return? A symbolic sum granted by the different ethnic groups. In the past it was custom to give them dry food (flour or oil). As far as the key holders are concerned, receiving payment is a meansof maintaining the rights granted years ago, while on the communities side theaim is to maintain an employer-employee relation, basically showing them who's the boss. Do these people actually get up at the crack of dawn to unlock the church? Obviously not.

Decades ago the families chose to make their lives easier and hired one of the church workers to open and unlock the doors on adaily basis. You'll usually find Omar Abu Sumrin, who was given the right tostay at the Greek-Orthodox Abraham monastery. The reason the Greeks agreed tothis arrangement is because it saves them the trouble of bringing in the families each morning. This is quite an imposition as opposed to a local worker lodgingin the place having to open the doors. 

So who controls the unlocking? Supposedly, the Muslim families arein charge but in practice there's no way of unlocking the church without removingthe bars from the inside, a right reserved to the Greek-Orthodox. Furthermore, who sets the opening times? The Christian community does, with no intervention from the Muslim families. Even though the opening times have been set for years, the only ones who are entitled to change them are theChristians and not the key holders.

The most sacred key changes hands three times a year, giving each ethnic group an equal opportunity to unlock the church.Up until this very day, the three representatives of the Christian communities will be sure to take part in every major Christian ritual held inthe church.

Each one of them appearing in his Sunday's best; demonstrating hisabsolute possession; showing the world why they deserve the prestige that goes along with it.