by Denis Belliveau and Francis O’Donnell
At the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, believed to be on the very spot of the crucifixion and tomb of Jesus Christ, pilgrims from the various Eastern Orthodox traditions gather every year on the day before Easter to witness the ceremony of Holy Fire.
Because ownership of the church is hotly contested among all sects, the key to the holiest shrine in Christendom is not in the possession of any one of them. A century before the Polos arrived it was put into the neutral hands of a Muslim gatekeeper. We tracked down Wajeeh Nusseibeh in the older, more picturesque, Arab quarter of the walled city.
Wajeeh is a Palestinian whose family has held the key since 1187. Every day he rises before dawn to unlock the massive doors of the Holy Sepulchre and let the Christians flood in, as his forefathers have done for generations.
Kublai Khan had requested that the Polo brothers return to him with one hundred scholarly priests, hand-chosen by the pope, as well as with holy oil from a lamp that the faithful believe burns eternally inside Christ’s tomb. Unable to secure the priests because the pope was dead and a successor hadn’t yet been elected, the Polos’ need to fulfill their other promise to Kublai—to bring back the holy oil—became essential.
Wajeeh not only helped us obtain a vial of this same holy oil, he procured us a spot just feet from the tomb on the day of Holy Fire. The noise of the surging crowd of pilgrims echoed down from the church’s leaded dome, and it took a lot of pushing and well-placed elbows to hold such a good position. Arab Christians sang hymns dating back to Polo’s time, when Jerusalem was in Saracen hands and the church was the only lawful place they could publicly profess their Christianity. They sat on each other’s shoulders, loudly chanting “We are Christian…We are Christian…and will be forever,” to the beating of drums and rhythmic clapping.
That all changed when the Greek Orthodox patriarch entered the church and made his way to the tomb. The crowd froze in a hush as he was searched for a concealed lighter or matches. He was then sealed inside the tiny tomb with wax, where he recited ancient prayers as the throngs of pilgrims waited quietly for the miracle to occur.
He then emerged from the crypt with a symbol of the resurrection—candles believed to be miraculously set ablaze by the hand of God.