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SECRET JERUSALEM: DEIR as-SULTAN' Ethiopian village on the rooftop of the Holy Sepulcher

DEIR as-SULTAN’“ Ethiopian village on the rooftop of the Holy Sepulcher

Jerusalem speaks with many voices, and in a babble of tongues. Nowhere is this more in evidence than the Old city: chanting of Jewish prayers at the Western Wall, rising chorus of church bells, Latin prayers and songs, verses from the Quran pouring from a crackling loudspeaker, guides reciting relevant biblical passages, pilgrims responding with whispered prayers in their native tongues, all mingled with the alluring scent of oriental spices from the bazaar.

Streets swollen to capacity. But there are voices in this city that are unheard, and sites that are overlooked, even when located in the very heart of the Christian world the Church of Holy Sepulcher. Over the last two millennia, six Christian denominations have claimed custodial ownership of this site, but none are agreed. It is shared today unequally and uneasily by the Greek Orthodox who are the major shareholders, followed by the Roman Catholics (Latins), Armenian Orthodox, Copts (Egyptian) and the marginalized Syriac Orthodox.

DEIR as-SULTAN – Ethiopian village on the rooftop of the Holy Sepulcher

This has to do with the interior of the church, but what about the rooftop? There you will find what might be the smallest village in the world!

The Ethiopian Village (Deir as-Sultan) is a kind of hidden gem. The entrance to the compound is from the Ninth Station of the Cross, up a slightly obscured stairway off Suq Khan e-Zeit. Step into the Ethiopian courtyard opposite the Coptic monastery and you will find yourself in a different world!

A single monk dwells in each meager hut. In the middle of the courtyard is a small garden the social center of the village with a large weeping willow (rather symbolically) which casts some shade across the bare stones, a defunct water pump, ruined Gothic arches and tiny monk`s cells. With a bit of luck, you can see some of the monks and sisters walking from the church to one of the buildings.

This is the home of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church in the Old City of Jerusalem which at present time has no property in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, but only access rights.

This unlikely village is located on the roof of a medieval annex which served as the refectory and cloister of the Augustinian monks in the Crusader times – traces of the beautiful stone arches that stood here are still visible in the walls.


Pro-tip: In the middle of the courtyard is a small domed structure which is one of the landmarks here. Put your ear to one of the barred windows. You will hear voices from the Chapel of Helena far below.

Look carefully at the stone dome and you will see traces from earlier ages. In the pre-modern world, pious graffiti was an acceptable way of participating in a holy place! Such an inscription was both a literal and a metaphorical inscribing of one’s self in a holy place.

DEIR as-SULTAN - old photo
DEIR as-SULTAN retro photo

Queen Helena, the mother of the emperor Constantine the Great. Is not the only great woman to be worth mentioning here. Remember the biblical story of the Queen of Sheba visiting King Solomon to “prove his wisdom” with “hard questions”?

Ethiopian village in Jerusalem

Her impressive kingdom apparently included Yemen and northern Ethiopia; and she came with a great entourage bearing wondrous gifts.

According to Ethiopian tradition, more transpired between the two monarchs. During the visit than is recounted in the Bible, the Queen of Sheba returned home pregnant. The son she bore was Menelik, destined to become the first Ethiopian emperor. The Ethiopian version of events is that the boy was groomed for greatness in his mother’s court. When he came of age was sent to Israel as heir-apparent to the throne of his biological father. King Solomon’s legitimate sons did not welcome the interloper. The king realized there was nothing for it but to send the young man home again. But not empty-handed, surely!

At Menelik’s request, says the tradition, he was given an army of the first-born of every family in Israel. The unique, irreplaceable Ark of the Covenant. According to the Ethiopians, the Ark survives in a carefully guarded sealed crypt beneath a church in Ethiopia.

upper chapel - DEIR as-SULTAN

In the southwestern corner of Deir as-Sultan, there is a narrow entrance that opens onto two Ethiopian chapels, where the monks worship. The upper is dedicated to “the four living creatures,” in reference to Ezekiel 1:5, and the lower one to the Angel Michael.

Pro-tip: In the upper chapel, pay attention to the painting on the wall, which depicts the visit of the Queen of Sheba (see picture below). Try to figure out which characters do not belong there?

Right answer in the first comment

Queen of Sheba

From the chapel, where a brass plate lies for visitors’ offerings, descend to a lower-level chapel and out the back door…and you will find yourselves in the courtyard of the Holy Sepulcher! Quite an unusual way to get there! Ethiopian monastery of Deir as-Sultan on the roof of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher is truly an amazing phenomenon and is worth a visit! I see it as a nice reminder of a pure beauty found in ascetic humbleness and simplicity in the age of consumerism and narcissism.

DEIR as-SULTAN Ethiopian village on the rooftop of the Holy Sepulcher
Isaiah 66:2œFor My hand made all these things, Thus all these things came into being, declares the Lord. But to this one I will look, To him who is humble and contrite of spirit, and who trembles at My word.
Ethiopian village on the rooftop of the Holy Sepulcher

James 4:6 But He gives a greater grace. Therefore it says, God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble.

Ethiopian village on the rooftop of the Holy Sepulcher

Written by: Olga Barkon

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