Status Quo (Jerusalem and Bethlehem)

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The immovable ladder in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, pictured in 2009, has remained in the same location at least since the 18th century as a result of the Status Quo.

The Status Quo is an understanding among religious communities with respect to nine shared religious sites in Jerusalem and Bethlehem.[1] Other Holy Places in Israel and Palestine were not deemed subject to the Status Quo because the authorities of one religion or of one community within a religion are in recognized or effective possession.[2]

The status quo stemmed from a firman (decree) of Ottoman sultan Osman III in 1757[3] that preserved the division of ownership and responsibilities of various Christian holy places. Further firmans issued in 1852 and 1853 affirmed that no changes could be made without consensus from all six Christian communities.[a][4][5] The actual provisions of the Status Quo were never formally established, but the 1929 summary prepared by L. G. A. Cust, The Status Quo in the Holy Places, became the standard text on the subject.[6]

A visible symbol of this state of inactivity is the immovable ladder, which has remained in the same place under the window of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre since at least 1757.

1949 United Nations Conciliation Commission for Palestine Working Paper on the Holy Places


When the Greeks launched a Palm Sunday takeover of various Holy Land sites in 1757[7] the Ottomans subsequently upheld this status quo.[8] The Ottoman Empire was in decline by the mid-19th century. In the years preceding the Crimean War, Napoleon III of France pressured the Sultan to invalidate the 1757 status quo, but Nicholas I of Russia threatened to invade Turkey if this occurred.[7] This resulted in 1852 and 1853 firmans (decrees) by Sultan Abdülmecid I which solidified the existing territorial division amongst the communities[4][9] and stated that "The actual status quo will be maintained and the Jerusalem shrines, whether owned in common or exclusively by the Greek, Latin, and Armenian communities, will all remain forever in their present state." Despite this declaration, there are no unanimous terms defining the status quo, sometimes causing contradictory differences of opinion.[7]

As a result of the Status Quo, the city of Jerusalem was divided into four quarters. The Temple Mount became a Muslim holy place, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre as well as various other sites were recognized as belonging to the Christian world. Despite the arguments over who would control what aspects of these sites, the Status Quo has remained largely intact from the 18th century to the present. The Status Quo was mentioned in the Treaty of Berlin (1878).[b] Claims that the Status Quo was being violated led to the 1929 Palestine riots. The 1929 summary of the Status Quo prepared by L. G. A. Cust, a civil servant of the British Mandate, The Status Quo in the Holy Places, quickly became the standard text on the subject.[6]


According to the United Nations Conciliation Commission, the Status Quo applies to nine sites in Jerusalem and Bethlehem,[1] which Cust separates into three categories:

Disputed between Christian denominations[edit]

Disputed between Christian and Islamic denominations[edit]

Disputed between Jewish and Islamic denominations[edit]

Immovable ladder[edit]

The immovable ladder, 2011

Some consider the so-called immovable ladder[c] under the window of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to be a visible symbol of the alleged inactivity the Status Quo imposes. Made of Lebanon cedar wood, the ladder was in place by 1728 and has remained there ever since the 1757 status quo was established, aside from being temporarily moved twice. The ladder is referred to as immovable due to the agreement of the Status Quo that no cleric of the six ecumenical Christian orders[a] may move, rearrange, or alter any property without the consent of the other five orders.

Church of the Holy Sepulchre in 1885. The immovable ladder is visible below the upper-right window. (A different ladder leans against the dome.)

According to various accounts, the ladder once belonged to a mason who was doing restoration work in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Jerome Murphy-O'Connor states that "the ladder was first introduced at a time when the Ottomans taxed Christian clergy every time they left and entered the Holy Sepulchre." The Catholics adapted by setting up quarters inside the church.[5] O'Connor continues:

The window, ladder and ledge all belong to the Armenians. The ledge served as a balcony for the Armenian clergy resident in the Holy Sepulchre, and they reached it via the ladder. It was their only opportunity to get fresh air and sunshine. At one stage, apparently, they also grew fresh vegetables on the ledge.[5][d]

The earliest record of the ladder is in a 1728 engraving by de:Elzearius Horn. In 1757, the same year the Status Quo was introduced, Ottoman sultan Abdul Hamid I mentioned the ladder in a firman.[12] An 1842 lithograph by David Roberts also shows the ladder in place.[13] The earliest photograph showing the ladder dates from the 1850s.[14] By the end of the 19th century, the ladder was being used to bring food to Armenian monks imprisoned by the Turks.[15] The Byzantine cornice the ladder rests on has been used by the public during festivals.[16]

During his pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 1964, Pope Paul VI described the ladder as a visible symbol of Christian division.[17] In 1997, the ladder was pulled in through the window and hidden behind an altar by a Protestant Christian intending "to make a point of the silliness of the argument over whose ledge it is." It was returned to the ledge weeks later, and a grate was installed in the window.[5] In 2009, the ladder was placed against the left window for a short period before being moved back again.[18]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ a b The Roman Catholics, Greek Orthodox, Armenian, Syriac Orthodox, Coptic Christians and Ethiopians
  2. ^ Article 62: "The rights conceded to France are expressly reserved, it being well understood that the status quo with respect to the Holy Places shall not be seriously affected in any way."
  3. ^ Hebrew: סולם הסטטוס קוו‎, romanizedsulam ha-status kvo, lit. 'the status quo ladder'; Arabic: السُّلَّمُ الثَّابِتُ‎, romanizedas-sullamu ṯ-ṯābitu, lit. 'the stationary ladder'
  4. ^ "... the ladder leads to a balcony where the Armenian superior used to drink coffee with his friends and tend his flower garden; it is there so that the balcony can be cleaned."[11]


  1. ^ a b UN Conciliation Commission 1949, p. 7.
  2. ^ UN Conciliation Commission 1949, p. 7a: "As for example the Cenacle which, though a Christian Holy Place, has been in Moslem hands since the middle of the 16th century. The position that Christians do not in effect enjoy the right to hold services there is uncontested."
  3. ^ Dumper, Michael; Stanley, Bruce E., eds. (2007). Cities of the Middle East and North Africa: A Historical Encyclopedia. ABC-CLIO. p. 209. ISBN 9781576079195.
  4. ^ a b Morio, Eva Maurer. "What does Status Quo stand for?". Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem. Archived from the original on 13 June 2018. Retrieved 16 April 2019.
  5. ^ a b c d Lancaster, James E. (2015). "The Church and the Ladder: Frozen in Time". Retrieved 16 April 2019.
  6. ^ a b c d Breger, Marshall J.; Reiter, Yitzhak; Hammer, Leonard (16 December 2009). Holy Places in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: Confrontation and Co-existence. Routledge. p. 24. ISBN 978-1-135-26812-1.
  7. ^ a b c Cohen, Raymond (May 2009). "The Church of the Holy Sepulchre: A Work in Progress". The Bible and Interpretation. Retrieved 28 December 2018.
  8. ^ McCarthy, Pat (2017), Church of St James, Jerusalem, See the Holy Land.
  9. ^ Ḏḥwty (27 January 2018). "The Immovable Ladder: Bizarre Feud Prevents Ordinary Ladder Being Moved for 3 Centuries". Ancient Origins. Retrieved 8 May 2019.
  10. ^ a b Cust 1929: "The Grotto of the Milk and the Shepherd's Field near Bethlehem are also in general subject to the Status Quo, but in this connexion there is nothing on record concerning these two sites."
  11. ^ Simon Sebag Montefiore (2012) [2011]. Jerusalem: The Biography. Vintage. p. 517n. ISBN 978-0307280503.
  12. ^ "Greek Orthodox". See the Holy Land. 2017. Retrieved 3 March 2019.
  13. ^ "Entrance to the holy sepulchre; title page, vol. 1". Library of Congress. Retrieved 11 May 2019.
  14. ^ Günther Simmermacher. The Holy Land Trek: A Pilgrim's Guide. Southern Cross Books, Cape Town. p. 194–5. ISBN 978-0-9921817-0-3.
  15. ^ Bar−Am, Aviva (1999). Beyond the Walls: Churches of Jerusalem. Ahva Press. p. 56.
  16. ^ Cust 1929, p. 17: "Above the doorway runs a classical cornice, a relic of the Byzantine buildings. This is reached from the windows of the Armenian Chapel of St. John, and this Community has the use thereof on the occasion of the festival ceremonies that take place in the Courtyard. ... [The cornice is] in a damaged condition and the whole facade is badly weather-beaten and requires expert attention."
  17. ^ Günther Simmermacher. The Holy Land Trek: A Pilgrim's Guide. Southern Cross Books, Cape Town. p. 196. ISBN 978-0-9921817-0-3.
  18. ^ Herman, Danny (10 June 2009). "Who moved thy ladder? (2010)". Private Tour Guide Israel - Danny the Digger. Retrieved 8 May 2019.


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