THE CHURCH AND THE LADDER:
Copyright 1998, 1999, 2011, 2015 by James E. Lancaster, Ph.D.
Note: This material, including the text and all images by the author or from the author's collection, may not be reproduced without permission.
July 1996. For Christmas 1995 my wife gave me a weekly calendar called "The Jerusalem Calendar 1996, A Celebration Of 3,000 Years." Each week was accompanied by an illustration depicting a historic site in Jerusalem or an event in the city's past. Most were old paintings, drawings or maps. Opposite the first week of January was an 1862 watercolor of the entrance to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre by Carl Friedrich Heinrich Werner. When I showed it to a friend he asked about a small ladder just below one of the windows above the entrance. The ladder rests on a ledge that spans the arches above two doorways built by the Crusaders in the 12th century (the right hand doorway is sealed and has been that way for 800 years). I hadn't paid much attention to the ladder but his question aroused my curiosity.
During visits to Jerusalem in 1990, 1992 and 19951 I had taken many photographs of the entrance to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Upon examination of my pictures I found the same small ladder in every single photo.
Not only did the ladder appear in all of my pictures, it also appeared in every published photo and drawing of the entrance to the church dating back to before 1840 when David Roberts, a British illustrator, toured Israel, Egypt and other middle east countries and left a record of his travels in the form of a series of paintings. His paintings captured the entrance to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre - and the ladder.
All other 19th century paintings and photographs that I have found have also captured the ladder.
I became very curious about this ladder. Who did it belong to? Why was it there? How long had it been there? The answers were not easy to find. At the time I found only two books that mentioned the ladder. Both connected it to the Status Quo, a firman (i.e., an edict) issued by the Ottoman Sultan in 1757, and reaffirmed in 1852.
The Status Quo defined the rights of the six religious orders within the church.2
The Status Quo, still in effect today, defines exactly which parts of the
church belong to which group, a subject which has been the source of great
controversies over the centuries.
Amos Elon, in his book "Jerusalem, Battlegrounds of Memory3," wrote that the ladder belongs to the Greeks and cannot be moved because of the Status Quo.
The book "Jerusalem In 3000 Years7," has a small photo of the ladder and also attributes its longevity to the Status Quo.
With so little published on the ladder, I tried some other avenues to get more information.
From a contact at the Christian Information Center in Jerusalem came the following: "The short ladder is part of the facade of the Holy Sepulchre Church because of the 'Status Quo.' It seems strange -- it has to be renewed, even when rotten, through a similar one (in wood) as a ladder has been there [since] the 19th century."
An Israeli tour guide I know offered a similar explanation: "There are so many legends and stories of unknown origin that I have been unable to find any substantive evidence of any religious significance for it being there. The ladder has to be there as it is part of the Status Quo of the Armenian Church."
A law professor at a midwest university wrote me that an anonymous source in Jerusalem told him that the ladder has been there for decades and stays there because of the enforcement of the 'Status Quo' agreement at the Church.
The source continued: "[The] problem stems from the fact that the two windows above belong to the Armenians and they have the right to clean and repair them, and the cornice on which the ladder rests belongs to the Greek Orthodox. At some point (last century) the Armenians put out the ladder for the purpose of doing work on the windows, [and] the Greeks protested that the ladder was resting on their portion. The Armenians refused to remove the ladder - hence the frozen reality."
Father Jerome Murphy-O'Connor, archaeologist, historian, author and noted authority
on religious sites in Jerusalem, provided the most detailed response:
The images below are close-ups of the balcony and ladder taken from the Stoddard and Holy Fire photographs in the Historic Image Gallery. These, as well as the close-up photos in Figures 4-10, all show pots set on the balcony. Were these pots used to grow vegetables?
The quote above from Cust in Fr. O'Connor's letter points out how the Armenians use the balcony where the ladder rests 'on the occasion of the festival ceremonies that take place in the Courtyard.' One such ceremony is the washing of the feet that occurs each year in conjunction with Easter. The undated photo below (left) and the enlarged view of the entrance (right) show the crowd filling the courtyard and occuping every cornice and balcony, including the one with the ladder, during the foot washing ceremony.
There seems to be a consensus on a couple of facts: (1) the ladder is there because of the Status Quo, and (2) the window belongs to the Armenians.
However, there seemed to be some disagreement about who controls the balcony - Greeks or Armenians - and why the ladder is there, i.e., to clean the windows or give the Armenians access to the balcony? Or is there another, yet-to-be-discovered, totally different explanation?
The next time you're in Jerusalem and visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre look for the ladder. If it's still there you'll know the Status Quo is still in effect.
September 1998. In a 1998 book on churches in Jerusalem,5 Aviva Bar-Am told about the ladder in her section on the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. When describing the entrance to the church, she wrote, "Note the ladder under one of the second story windows. It was used over a century ago for hauling up food to Armenian monks locked in the church by the Turks. With the statu[s] quo still in force, the ladder seems destined to remain there forever!"
April 1999. A photo of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre by R. Malcom Brown6 of the University of Texas showed the ladder and a change in the window above the ladder. A grate had been added to the window to keep people from reaching the ladder when the window is open. A prior incident where the ladder had been removed as a prank caused the installation of the grate.
February 2009. On February 4, 2009 the ladder inexplicably showed up on the ledge of the left hand window. One day latter it was back in its usual location on the ledge in front of the right hand window. There is a brief account and a photo of the "moving" ladder on the website of Danny Herman, an Israeli tour guide. His account was also published in the January/February 2010 issue of the Biblical Archaeology Review.
July 2010. I received an e-mail from someone named Andy who had seen this web page and wrote about a short period in 1997 when the ladder disappeared for a brief period of time. I had heard about its disappearance but was not aware of the details (see April 1999, above). I only knew that the grate over the window, shown in Figure 17, resulted from the ladder's disappearance. Andy provided the missing details.
studying the history of the church, the Status Quo, and the
divisiveness among sects, I looked for an opportunity, as a Protestant
believer, to make a point of the silliness of the argument over whose
ledge it is. I diligently searched for an access point to the upstairs
chapel, and I found a storeroom but no means to access the window from
inside. One day, during a processional down the stairs which are
located near the main entrance, I found the gate to the upper floor
left ajar. I walked up and found the chapel in question empty. I
climbed up onto the windowsill, pulled the ladder in, and hid it behind
I don't approve of what Andy did but it was a significant event in the history of the ladder. The photo below shows the ladder being removed.
May 2011. As noted above, when I started researching the ladder in 1996 I found very few mentions of it in books and nothing on the internet. Since that time the story of the ladder has appeared in a number of books and shows up on numerous web sites. This web page, which was posted almost 15 years ago, may have played a small part in making the story more widely known.
More Historic Images
The entrance to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was a favorite subject for 19th century photographers in Jerusalem. Most old photos show the ladder. Visit the Historic Image Gallery to view a few examples.
Notes and Bibliography
1. See "Celebrating Jerusalem" by James Lancaster in Queries and Comments, Biblical Archaeology Review, March/April 1996, page 18.
2. The six are the Latins, Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, Copts and Ethiopians.
3. Elon, Amos, Jerusalem, Battlegrounds of Memory, Kodansha America, 1995, page 201.
4. Gidal, Nachum Tim, Jerusalem In 3000 Years, Knickerbocker Press, Edison, New Jersey, 1995, page 24.
5. Bar-Am, Aviva, Beyond the Walls: Churches of Jerusalem, Ahva Press, Jerusalem, 1998, page 56.6. R. Malcom Brown has a web page with 88 photos from a trip to Israel in January, 1999. The photo showing the ladder is #36.
Last updated: 2/28/15