Under Turkish domination

Holy Sepulchre, Cornelis de Bruijn 1681

During this period, the center of power in the Islamic world shifted from the Mameluke dynasty in Egypt to the Ottomans in Turkey. The Turkish fleet wrought havoc throughout the Mediterranean.
The Turks conquered the island of Rhodes and occupied the Middle East. Constantinople meanwhile had become the seat of Turkish power.
The Greeks, taking advantage of their being Ottoman subjects, sought to dislodge the Franciscans from their privileged position and thus to become the masters of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Upon entering Constantinople in 1453, the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II had proclaimed the Greek Patriarch of Constantinople to be the religious and civil head of all Eastern Christians living in his empire. 



In 1633 Patriarch Theophanius, with the aid of Archdeacon Gregory, obtained a firman (decree) antedated to the time of Caliph Omar (638) that purportedly gave the Greeks ownership of the Grotto of the Nativity, and of Calvary and the Stone of the Anointing within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
Gregory subsequently confessed to the forgery and Pope Urban VII succeeded in having the firman withdrawn in 1636. Nonetheless, money and palace intrigues transformed the Church of the Holy Sepulchre into a trophy to be awarded by the Sultan to whomever offered the most. 


Between 1630 and 1637, under Sultan Murad IV (1623-1640), different parts of the church changed “ownership” up to six times. The Franciscans would undoubtedly have been unable to sustain this long battle had it not been for the energetic intervention of France, which became the official protector and custodian of the Holy Sites. 

During the imprisonment of the Franciscans (1537-1540), the Copts obtained the altar behind the Edicule from the Turkish government and erected a small chapel there. An earthquake in 1545 caused the collapse of part of the bell tower which fell onto the baptistery beneath. 



In 1555 Father Boniface of Ragusa, the Custos of the Holy Land, obtained permission to restore parts of the church and to build a completely new Edicule. This was a major restoration project, and the Franciscan left a detailed description of the work carried out. A number of centuries had passed since that long-ago time in 1009 when the Tomb had been destroyed by the pickaxes of Hakim’s soldiers. The bare rock of the Tomb was visible for the first time since then, to be venerated by the faithful. 



In 1644 the Georgians, unable to sustain their rights due to the frequent extortions on the part of the Turkish authorities, permanently left the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. They were followed a few years later, in 1668, by the Abyssinians. As the Franciscans themselves managed to cope with the extraordinarily heavy expenses, they found themselves in a position to acquire a number of the areas that had been abandoned by the other religious communities. 



The issue of possession of the site became even more acute in 1676 when Patriarch Dositheus (1669-1707) secured yet another firman, ostensibly giving him exclusive possession of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Faced with protests from France, Austria, Spain, Poland and Venice, Turkey appointed a commission to study the documents presented by the two contending parties. The commission declared the firmans proffered by the Latins to be genuine, those by the Greeks to be false. It was therefore ordered that all rights should be restored to the Latins as they had been prior to 1630. The decision was solemnly published in Jerusalem on 25 June 1690 in the presence of the authorities and the contending parties. 



On 29 June, the Father Custos retook possession of the Holy Sepulchre and the other sites that had been usurped. Towards the end of the 17th century the cone-shaped dome of the Anastasis built by Constantine Monomachus was seen to be falling apart. In 1691 the Friars applied for the necessary permission from Turkey to repair the damages but were refused, due to the opposition of the Greek clergy.


After long and difficult negotiations, in 1719 they were finally able to begin works on the dome, the tympanum and other places in the church and monastery. The works were accelerated by employing 500 workers. The dome and the tympanum were redone with blind windows, but the mosaics, which had been too badly damaged, could not be restored.

The dark green marble of the Stone of the Anointing, which had belonged to the Latins for approximately two centuries, was replaced with a white marble bearing the Franciscan coat of arms. At the same time, the stairway to the Chapel of the Finding of the Cross was redone, the Armenians repaired the staircase to the Chapel of St. Helena, and the Greeks tore down the unsafe levels of the bell tower. The Edicule of the Holy Sepulchre, which had been built in 1555, was restored in 1728.



On Palm Sunday 1757 the Greeks entered the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and violently expelled the Franciscans. The Ottoman Porte issued a firman giving the Greeks possession of the churches of Bethlehem, the Tomb of the Virgin and, jointly with the Latins, parts of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Despite the appeals of Pope Clement XIII, the Sultan refused to reconsider. 



In 1808, a fire caused extensive damage to the church. Due to the ongoing Napoleonic wars, the Franciscans were unable to put together sufficient funds to acquire the permission from the Turks necessary to restore the sanctuary. Russia, which had become the patron of the Orthodox community, obtained permission to carry out the restoration in the name of the Orthodox Church.
The French ambassador, General Aupick, representing the Catholic countries, demanded that the rights enjoyed by the Franciscans prior to 1757 be restored. The Ottoman government was on the point of acquiescing when the Russian czar Nicholas intervened, ordering the sultan not to introduce any changes under threat of a break of diplomatic relations between the two countries.



Turkey was accordingly forced to issue a firman directing that the Status Quo (which went back to 1757) be maintained, thus denying the rights of the Latins.

Time Line