Six denominations share the Holy Sepulcher, but not all between them is peace and love.
- The Church of the Holy Sepulcher is not just the holiest site in Christianity; it is also emblematic of the religion's deep divisions.
- As the map below shows, six denominations each control part of the church, with only some parts held in common.
- Each "territory" is jealously guarded and sometimes fought over. The church's keys are held by… two Muslim families.
On a ledge over a church door in Jerusalem stands a simple cedarwood ladder. It's been there for perhaps three centuries. Since nobody remembers who put it there, nobody knows who is authorized to remove it. If anyone would try, there'd be immediate trouble with whomever would feel slighted — and there are plenty of candidates. This is the Immovable Ladder, and it is a fitting symbol for the deeply-entrenched divisions within Christianity, and within that church building itself.
The most sacred place on Earth
Those religious divides matter here more than anywhere else because this is the most significant church in the world. For Christians of any denomination this is the most sacred place on Earth. This is the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, and according to tradition, it contains both Golgotha (or Calvary in Latin; both mean "skull"), the place where Jesus died on the cross. Just a few feet further is the tomb (a.k.a. sepulcher) where his body was laid to rest and where according to the faithful he was resurrected three days later.
Yet despite its supreme religious importance, there is no single authority managing this holiest of church buildings. The care over the sprawling, multi-level complex is divided between various denominations.
The church's history goes back to the fourth century, when Roman emperor Constantine, newly converted to Christianity, sent his mother Helena to Jerusalem to locate places and things associated with the life and death of Jesus. This is the spot where she found the True Cross, a sign that this must have been Golgotha. The place of Jesus' burial was identified nearby. Constantine razed the pagan temple built here by his predecessor Hadrian, and a church on this spot, the first commissioned by a Roman emperor, was consecrated in the year 335.
In continuous use for 1700 years
The church has survived earthquakes, fires, invasions, and demolition by decree. It has been in continuous use for nearly 1700 years, even if the building standing there today is mostly a renovation and reconstruction dating to Crusader times. Over the centuries, various Christian traditions latched on to the church. Ownership became a constant source of dispute.
In 1852, the Ottoman Sultan decreed that the church was to be managed by the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Armenian Apostolic churches and apportioned parts of the building to each denomination. Over time, smaller parts of the building came under the authority of three smaller Orthodox denominations: the Coptic, Syriac, and Ethiopian churches.
Six churches sharing one church. The result: a bit of a mosaic.Credit: British Cartographic Society
- Most of the building is under control of the Greek Orthodox church (in blue on the map). They manage the Katholikon (which is slightly ironic), the North Transept, the Seven Arches of the Virgin, a small Orthodox monastery, and various chapels, among other bits.
- The Latins (a.k.a. Roman Catholics, in purple) manage the Franciscan Monastery on the north side (which includes the Chapel of the Apparition and the Chapel of Mary Magdalene), the Grotto of the Invention of the Cross, a small area north of the Parvis, and a tiny space between the Katholikon and the Rotunda.
- The Armenians (in yellow) manage the Chapel of St. Helena, the Chapel of St. James, and the Armenian Gallery next to the Rotunda.
- The Copts (in red) have the care of various chapels near the Rotunda, including a small annex to the Edicule (i.e., the Holy Sepulcher) itself.
- The Ethiopian monastery is spread out on the roof, and the Ethiopians also manage an area called Deir al-Sultan, the Chapel of the Four Living Creatures, and the Chapel of St. Michael (all in orange).
- The Syriac church has the smallest part (in green): the Chapel of St. Nicodemus. But at least it's very close to the Sepulcher.
The Ottoman edict is the basis for the status quo, which is scrupulously maintained. A complex set of rules determines how the church is managed — such as who is allowed where and when, who cleans and repairs which parts of the building, and which areas are held in common (by the Greeks, Latins, and Armenians but not by the other three).
- The Rotunda is common territory, as is a chapel to the north.
- The Parvis (i.e. the courtyard at the entrance) is also common, as is an adjacent part of the church that contains the Stone of Unction (where according to tradition, Jesus' body was prepared for burial).
But some of the rules are disputed, and conflicts occasionally erupt. Two examples:
- The Copts have a long-standing claim over part of the roof, which is occupied by Ethiopian monks. To maintain their claim, Coptic monks take turns to sit on a chair on the roof. But on a particularly hot day in 2002, when a Coptic monk moved the chair a few inches into the shade, the Ethiopians interpreted that move as a violation of the status quo. The ensuing fight sent 11 monks to the hospital.
- And in 2008, Greek and Armenian monks got into a violent argument over the procedure of a religious procession. The brawl was caught on camera and pasted all over the news.
Can't we all just get along?
In recent years, however, the churches seem to be getting along a little bit better, although partly out of necessity. Significant parts of the building are in extreme need of repair. In 2017, the three main denominations (Catholic, Greek, and Armenian) agreed to fix the Edicule, which was in danger of collapsing. And in 2019, the three churches signed an agreement to renovate parts of the church's infrastructure (floor, foundations, and sewage pipes) and even to share ownership of any archaeological artifacts that might turn up during the work. However, the agreement excludes the three other denominations, which under the status quo have no say in the management of shared spaces.
Which brings us back to the Immovable Ladder. Despite its nickname, it has proven to be very movable indeed. It was stolen twice in the 20th century. Both times, it was soon recovered by the police and returned to its original position. In 2009, it was moved again, this time with the agreement of all relevant denominations, in order to accommodate scaffolding for renovations.
Upon completion of the works, it was again put back. And there it will remain until, as Pope Paul VI suggested in 1964, the divisions between the various Christian denominations are resolved. Or until Christ returns — whichever happens first.
Meanwhile, the keys to the church building itself will remain where they have been for centuries: in the possession of the Joudeh and Nuseibeh families, who by virtue of their Muslim faith are accepted by all Christian denominations as neutral guardians of the entrance to the church.
Strange Maps #1081
Got a strange map? Let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Spirituality can be an uncomfortable word for atheists. But does it deserve the antagonism that it gets?
- While the anti-scientific bias of religious fundamentalism requires condemnation, if we take a broader view, does the human inclination towards spiritual practice still require the same antagonism? The answer, I think, is a definitive "No."
- Rather than ontological claims about what exists in the universe, the terms spiritual and sacred can describe the character of an experience. Instead of a "thing" they can refer to an attitude or an approach.
- One can be entirely faithful to the path of inquiry and honesty that is science while making it one aspect of a broader practice embracing the totality of your experience as a human being in this more-than-human world.
The tension between science and religion is old news to us moderns. Historical events like the Catholic Church's trial of Galileo or the Scopes Monkey Trial over teaching Darwin in schools, seem to imply that religion and science are incompatible. More recently, writers like Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and other 'New Atheists' have been vigorous in their condemnation of the anti-scientific bias of religious fundamentalism. But if we take a broader view beyond these fundamentalisms, if we ask about the human inclination towards spiritual practice in general, do we still have to find the same antagonism? The answer, I think, is a definitive "No." And that answer is important as we consider the totality of what it means to be human.
First, it's important to distinguish between religion and what I'll call spiritual practice. In his excellent book "Sapiens," Yuval Noah Harari defines religion as "a system of human norms and values that is founded in the belief in a superhuman order." There are two parts of this definition that are important for our discussion. First is the "system of human norms." That phrase points to a lot of stuff, but it also means politics. There is an aspect of organized religion that has always been about establishing and enforcing social norms: Who is an authority; who justifies who is in charge; who marries whom; who tells you how to behave. This aspect of religion is about power within social hierarchies.
The second part of Harari's definition refers to a "superhuman order." Note that he does not say a "supernatural" order. Why? Because some religions like Buddhism don't pivot around the existence of an all-powerful deity. This distinction is important because it allows you to see a point many scholars of religion have made after looking at the long human history of what I'll call spiritual endeavor. From our beginnings as hunter-gathers, we have always been responding to a sense of a "superhuman order." That response has taken many different forms from beautiful paintings on cave walls to beautiful paintings on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
Even though I consider myself an atheist, experiences of a superhuman order have been with me since I was a kid.
In my first book, I looked in depth at this response, its history, and its relation to science. Even though I consider myself an atheist, experiences of a superhuman order have been with me since I was a kid. Heck, that's what science was to me—an order expressible in mathematics beyond the purely human. In fact, many of my deepest experiences of being alive had come to me through my scientific practice. Working through some line of mathematical reasoning or encountering some image of a nebula or galaxy, I'd get thrust into an overwhelming sense of the universe's presence, of its perfect unity and wholeness. At first, I saw the laws of physics as the source of that order but as I got older my focus widened.
Now, one could say that my experiences were "just awe" and nothing more. But as the great scholar of religion, Rudolph Otto noted, awe is the essential component of a spiritual experience. It is an encounter with what other scholars have called "sacredness."
So, what are we to make of these words "spiritual" and "sacred"? Some strident atheists recoil at these terms because they believe they must entail a belief in supernatural entities. This is a mistake. Both can point to something much broader. Rather than ontological claims about what exists in the universe, spiritual and sacred can describe the character of an experience. Instead of a "thing", they can refer to an attitude or an approach. This is the central point William James made in his masterwork "The Varieties of Religious Experience." To speak about sacredness is to understand that some experiences (the birth of your child, coming upon a silent forest glade, hearing a powerful symphony) evoke an order that is more than just our thoughts about that order. And to speak of "the spiritual" can call to the highest aspects of the human spirit: compassion, kindness, empathy, generosity, love.
This kind of understanding of spiritual and sacred have always been with us and they may, or may not, have anything to do with a particular religion. This is where we can draw a distinction between a spiritual practice and a religious one. In a spiritual practice, people purposely attempt to deepen their lived sense of the superhuman order they experience. It is, literally, a practice. You work on it every day, perhaps using meditation or ritual or service to others. The methods differ but the daily application and aspiration are the same.
The important point is that spiritual practice has a purpose: transformation. It is to become a person who lives in accord with that sense of experienced order, that sacredness. Such a lifelong aspiration and effort can happen within an individual religious tradition if there are domains within that tradition that truly support this kind of interior work. Unfortunately, the politics of religion can sometimes keep this from happening. As scholars Joseph Campbell, Walter Houston Clark, and others have said, church can be a "vaccination" against the real thing.
It's also possible to build such a practice outside of established religious tradition. In that case, the difficulty comes in inventing forms that can support a lifelong practice. There is something to be said for traditions or rituals that have endured for many generations and the best of these often occur within some religious traditions.
The bottom line is human beings have felt the need for spiritual practice for a long, long time. That means that even as participation in traditional religions drops, people claiming to be "spiritual but not religious" and people who embrace science continue to grow. The writer Annaka Harris and her spouse New Atheist Sam Harris are, for example, strong defenders of science. They have also both written about the importance of contemplative practice in their lives.
I have long argued that science is one way that the aspiration to know the true and the real is expressed. It is one way we express that sense of an order beyond us. But there are other ways that go beyond descriptions and explanation, and all of them make up the totality of being human. That means you can embrace science in all its power and still embed it within the larger context of human experience. All of us can be entirely faithful to the path of inquiry and honesty that is science while making it one aspect of a practice meant to embrace the fullness of your experience as a human in this more-than-human world.
Research shows that bone fragments of Jesus's (possible) brother belong to someone else.
- New research in Rome has found that bones purported to be from St. James the Less are impossible.
- The femoral bone fragments date to somewhere between 214 and 340 CE—a few centuries off the mark.
- The analysis was conducted on bone fragments, oil, and mummy remains in the Basilica dei Santa Apostoli.
The most psychologically riveting undiscovered archaeology in the Western world remains "proof" of Jesus and his disciples. Dan Brown's alternative religious history, "The Da Vinci Code," was denounced by the Church (even though it was admittedly fictional). Yet his book revealed something about human psychology, with this revival of the Holy Grail legend and Mary Magdalene selling 80 million copies sold worldwide.
Speaking of Mary, that was the name of James the Less's mother, making him the potential brother of Jesus. While he hasn't received the same veneration as James the Great (the patron saint of Spain), James the Less (aka the Younger) earned fame as one of Jesus's dozen disciples. His bones have been stored in Rome's Basilica dei Santi Apostoli for over 1,500 years—well, so people thought. According to a new research article, published in the journal Heritage Science, the femur is a few centuries younger than advertised.
Researchers used a variety of dating techniques, including mass spectrometric detection, X-Ray diffraction, and inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry to analyze bone fragments and mummy remains in the Basilica dei Santa Apostoli. Investigating the supposed remains of St James and St Philip, they discovered that James's femoral bone dates to somewhere between 214 and 340 CE. This skeleton certainly did not walk with Jesus.
The team also discovered rapeseed oil and a ceramic shard dating to roughly the same era, give or take a century. All samples, in fact, dated to at least two centuries after the time of Christianity's savior.
The 6th-century church dedicated to James and Philip has gone through numerous renovations, including a 16th-century facelift that shielded it from recurring floods. In 1700, the church was basically rebuilt. In the late 19th century, relics were discovered in the catacombs and shuffled around. Keeping track of so many changes on paper has proved challenging; it shouldn't be surprising that the fragments were caught in the mix. Superstition trumps reality—but not technology.
a) Tibia of St Philip KLR-11036/C90 (femur of St James KLR-11030/C81); b & c) foot of St Philip KLR-12288/C18 and KLR-11029/C80
Credit: Rasmussen et. al
The contention that St James the Less is Jesus's brother is also contested. As the researchers note, the Lord's brother, Iakob, is not mentioned in any list of the 12 disciples. Pivotal to the Church of Jerusalem, with 11 mentions in the New Testament, James was part of the council that decided whether gentiles should be circumcised. His influence remains part of us—well, deciding what remains part of us.
The team notes that the potential conflation of Jesus's brother with St James is a red flag. Calling a divine sibling "Lesser" doesn't make sense considering his outsized influence on the Church of Jerusalem. Jesus's brother is textually referred to as "Lord's brother" or "the Just." Some even consider St James the Less to be a cousin of Jesus, not a brother.
As mentioned, we love a good mystery.
Regardless, the bones in the Basilica are not of any James we know of. Lead author Kaare Lund Rasmussen, an archaeometry professor at the University of Southern Denmark, says,
"Our dates, although disproving it was St. James, fall in a dark period, between the time when the apostles died and Christianity became the dominant religion in the Roman Empire."
In a statement released after the publication of the study, Rasmussen continues,
"We consider it very likely, that whoever moved this femur to the Santi Apostoli church, believed it belonged to St. James. They must have taken it from a Christian grave, so it belonged to one of the early Christians, apostle or not."
The mystery continues. While we might never discover actual bones or grails, there's always a novel waiting around for Netflix to option.
Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook. His most recent book is "Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."
Is death the final frontier? We ask scientists, philosophers, and spiritual leaders about life after death.
- Death is inevitable for all known living things. However on the question of what, if anything, comes after life, the most honest answer is that no one knows.
- So far, there is no scientific evidence to prove or disprove what happens after we die. In this video, astronomer Michelle Thaller, neuroscientist and philosopher Sam Harris, science educator Bill Nye, and others consider what an afterlife would look like, what the biblical concepts of 'eternal life' and 'hell' really mean, why so many people around the world choose to believe that death is not the end, and whether or not that belief is ultimately detrimental or beneficial to one's life.
- Life after death is also not relegated to discussions of religion. "Digital and genetic immortality are within reach," says theoretical physicist Michio Kaku. Kaku shares how, in the future, we may be able to physically talk to the dead thanks to hologram technology and the digitization of our online lives, memories, and connectome.
The heart of the religious ritual is mysticism, argues Brian Muraresku in "The Immortality Key."
- The concept of "dying before you die" lies at the heart of religious tradition, argues Brian Muraresku.
- This secret ritual connects the Eleusinian Mysteries with the origins of Christianity.
- In "The Immortality Key," Muraresku speculates that psychedelic wine could have been the original Christian Eucharist.
After a 20-year ban on clinical psychedelics research, the U.S. government approved trials on DMT in 1990. At first, Rick Strassman, a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine, only wanted to study the physiological strain of injecting DMT: heart rate, blood pressure, and so on. Given that psychedelics had been contentiously demonized for a generation, he wondered if physical consequences were as dangerous as advertised.
LSD had been administered tens of thousands of times in the 1950s and early 1960s. Did it really fry your brain like eggs, as the Reagans so confidently declared?
Over the next five years, Strassman administered 400 doses of N,N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT) to over 50 volunteers. It turned out that DMT, the fast-acting psychoactive ingredient in ayahuasca—the "soul vine" persists for hours only when blended with MAOIs to slow the breakdown of enzymes in your gut—has few negative effects. A longtime Zen Buddhist practitioner, Strassman noticed something else going on when over half of participants reported having profound religious experiences.
They were dying before dying.
Well, some of them were being visited by alien creatures, a phenomenon MAPS founder Rick Doblin possibly attributes to the "setting" part of "set and setting": tripping out in a sterile hospital room surrounded by clinicians in white lab coats certainly felt foreign, perhaps otherworldly. Other volunteers saw a beautiful light at the end of a tunnel and returned—a sensation noted in the ayahuasca literature for as long as we have records.
DMT is chemically related to serotonin and melatonin. The latter hormone is produced by the pineal gland, which is symbolically called the "third eye"—Descartes famously called it the "seat of the soul." Since every mammal that's been tested (including humans) produce endogenous DMT, could our third eye possibly release this structural analog of tryptamine at death? Is it a coincidence that the pineal gland, according to Strassman, appears in fetuses at 49 days, the exact duration of the "passage" of souls described in The Tibetan Book of the Dead?
Strassman admits this is speculation. The anecdotes are irrefutable, however. His clinical work led to Charles Grob's government-approved research on ayahuasca and MDMA in the 1990s, which opened the door to Johns Hopkins researchers studying psilocybin to treat the existential dread hospice patients encounter, which opened the floodgates to the psychedelic revolution occurring today.That initial Johns Hopkins study, which found that psilocybin (structurally similar to DMT) eases distress by helping initiates die before they die, helped give form to Brian Muraresku's 12-year journey while writing his debut book, "The Immortality Key: The Secret History of the Religion With No Name."
Brian Muraresku explains the potential role of psychedelics in Christianity
Muraresku has been getting a lot of press since the book's publication, in part boosted by his appearance on Joe Rogan's podcast. The classicist speculates that the Christian Eucharist is rooted in the Eleusinian Mysteries, which may have involved the ceremonial ingestion of wine spiked with psychedelic ingredients. The idea of a psychedelic Christianity is not new, but Muraresku brings a detailed level of scholarship and compassion to the topic.
As he told me in a recent interview, the "immortality key" is not psychedelics, but the concept of dying before dying. He opens his book with a Greek inscription: "If you die before you die / You won't die when you die." Muraresku, a devout Catholic raised in the Jesuit tradition, kicks off the discussion with an atheist from the Johns Hopkins trial. Despite her lack of faith, she felt an "overwhelming, all-encompassing love" that helped her deal with the inevitable consequences of mixed-cell ovarian cancer—really, the inevitable consequences of being an animal bound to die.
The Hopkins study went mainstream when Michael Pollan wrote about it in the New Yorker. The results were stunning: 70 percent of participants felt a single dose of psilocybin produced the most meaningful (or among the top five) experience of their lives. Interestingly, the same result occurred after the famous Marsh Chapel experiment, when Timothy Leary and friends dosed Harvard Divinity School grad students with psilocybin; a quarter-century later, all but one rated the event in their top five.
Not only do you die before you die while under the influence of psychedelics, but you also gain a new perspective on life. The ego death that occurs during the ritual changes their orientation about existence. And what good is a religious experience if it can't be applied to living?
As Muraresku told me,
"[Psychedelics] is one tool in the Spiritual Toolkit. What I mean by 'the key' is in Greek, which is preserved at St. Paul's monastery: if you die before you die, you won't die when you die. That's the actual key. It's not psychedelics, it's not drugs; it's this concept of navigating the liminal space between what you and I are doing right now, and dreaming and death. In that state, the mystics and sages tell us, is the potential to grasp a very different view of reality."Muraresku taps into a growing consensus that humans are "wired" for mystical experiences. He points to lead Johns Hopkins researcher, Roland Griffiths, who believes that mysticism is included in our operating system at birth. You just have to turn it on. While the effects of psychedelics can be replicated through the more arduous path of meditation, in the right set and setting anyone can tap into mystical states of consciousness. Psychedelics provide a shortcut to these states.
Credit: Galyna Andrushko / Adobe Stock
Western religious leaders, especially those in Christianity and Islam, treat their prophets as standalone figures. The best you can hope for is being granted access to some special place after you die. Gnostics and Sufis—sects within those faiths that attempt to replicate their prophet's mysticism—are considered outcasts by mainstream religious figures. In some circumstances, they're outlawed, threatened, or even killed for their supposed heresy.
Sufis might spin for hours in ecstatic rapture to reach this mystical state, but as Muraresku's extensive research shows, psychedelics also tap into this "secret" knowledge that he believes to be at the heart of Christian—and if we extrapolate, religious—tradition. And to him, this is the essence of the religion, not a byproduct of the real faith.
"I didn't write this book to be anti-organized religion. In some cases, it's the exact opposite. In the intro, I mentioned Brother David Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine monk who is a hero of mine. He talks about the tension between mystics and the dogma and doctrine of organized faith. I don't think you can have one without the other. The balance, as Brother David says, is to rediscover that original visionary power and live in it as a lived experience. This is what Joseph Campbell says of religion being a lived experience. We're talking about emotional potential. That's how the great anthropologist Clifford Geertz defines religion: these powerful, pervasive, long-lasting moods and motivations. That only happens when you're talking about something that gets inside of people's bones. That's what the mystical experience is; it's how these religions are born. Brother David says it's virtually impossible to start a religion without mystical experience, like Moses in the burning bush, Paul on the road to Damascus, or Peter, in Acts, caught up in a trance."
Campbell's conversation with Bill Moyers in "The Power of Myth" nicely ties together this idea:
"People say that what we're all seeking is a meaning for life. I don't think that's what we're really seeking. I think that what we're seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances with our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive."
The mythologist also advocated for a reformation of religion every generation so that the faith speaks to the times. This is effectively what Muraresku advocates for in "The Immortality Key": an honest conversation regarding the historical circumstances that birthed the world's most-followed religion in the hopes of applying the foundational lessons to our current reality. If that means a psychedelic ritual that shows you how to die before you die so that you may better know how to live, then it's time to rethink the role of the sacrament.
Mysticism is a universal phenomenon. The "eternal return" Mircea Eliade wrote about has been experienced throughout history in disparate regions of the world. As Strassman's and Griffiths's work shows, we retain the capability of dying before dying. In fact, current research on psilocybin, LSD, iboga, DMT, and ayahuasca show that these substances are helping people gain a perspective of their lives, be it in depression treatment, addiction recovery, or easing the pain of hospice care. A little mysticism goes a long way.
Let's move beyond this notion that mysticism only applies to a chosen few. In fact, let's reconsider the role of consciousness in general. Every religion has its own take on what happens after we die. Yet we have tools at our disposal to show us how to exist now: a living religion that speaks to the entire planet.
Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook. His new book is "Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."