THE KEYS TO THE CHAPEL
1998, 2013 James E. Lancaster, Ph.D.
by the Author except where noted.
Photographs may not be reproduced without permission.
1992 I spent two days in Jerusalem photographing various religious,
historic and archaeological sites. Late on the first day I was
in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, sitting in the Chapel of
St. Helena,1 when a cleric unlocked a steel door
in the wall
behind me. A tour group followed a guide through the door and
the cleric sat down near me to wait for them to come out. I asked
him what was behind the door but I could not understand his answer.
So I asked him if I could go in and I think he nodded yes.
Without hesitating, I
followed the group through
the door and into an ancient quarry. Then, in an adjacent area
called the Chapel of St. Vartan, I saw the drawing of a ship on
the side of an ancient building block. Below the drawing was the
Latin inscription DOMINE IVIMUS (Lord, we went),
referring to Psalms 122:1.
The quarry and chapel were excavated in 1970-71 under the direction of
Archimandrite (now Bishop) Guregh Kapikian of the Armenian Orthodox
Church. During the excavation parts of six ancient walls were found --
four dating to the Hadrianic period (2nd century AD) and two to the
time of Emperor Constantine (4th century). The ship drawing was
discovered in November 1971 on the side of one of the Hadrianic walls.
The drawing and
inscription were possibly left by
a pilgrim to the Holy Land around 330 AD when the original church
was under construction. I had read about them in archaeological
literature2 but had not expected to see them
since the chapel
isn't open to the public. I don't know how the tour group had
arranged for access but I was in the right place at the right
time and took advantage of it.
Plan of the Church of the Holy
Sepulchre. Even today, most popular
have plans that pre-date the excavation of the quarry
and the chapel in 1970-71.
May 1995 I was
planning another visit to Jerusalem,
this time including my wife. I contacted several
individuals and organizations, mostly in Israel, regarding access
to various archaeological sites. One question I asked was how to gain
access to the
Chapel of St. Vartan. I wanted my wife to see the ship drawing
and inscription but I knew from my previous visit that they were
behind locked doors and I did not know who had the keys.
No one responding to
my St. Vartan question seemed
to have an answer except for someone at the Christian Information
Center in Jerusalem who suggested I
contact George Hintlian, an Armenian historian, since the chapel was
controlled by the Armenian Orthodox Church. Unfortunately there was not
time to correspond with Hintlian before we left
We arrived in Israel
for a two week visit in late
June. On our first morning in Jerusalem we visited the Christian
Information Center.3 They
suggested that I go to the Armenian compound and talk to
George Hintlian in person. So we walked the short distance to the
compound, which is in the adjacent Armenian Quarter4
St. James Cathedral, the headquarters of the Armenian Orthodox
Church in Jerusalem. St. James is well worth a visit but is only
open about an hour each day.
I was told by an
attendant at the entrance to the
compound that Hintlian wasn't there but that I could find
him at the Swedish Bible Study Center. The latter was next to
the Christian Information Center from which we had just come.
The information proved to be false. Hintlian wasn't there either and
they didn't seem to know where we could find him.
I felt like we weren't
getting anywhere so we headed
off on a walk into the Old City. After lunch we decided to make
another try and headed once again for the Armenian compound. The
same attendant was on duty and this time he allowed us inside
the compound (normally off-limit to the public) and directed us
to George Hintlian's home. It was on the far side of a large,
somewhat spartan, but spotlessly clean courtyard. Hintlian wasn't
there but I left him a note
asking him to call me at St. Andrew's Church hospice where we
Later that afternoon
we made the first of several
visits to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.5
While there I
noticed a man dressed in street clothes but carrying a pistol
in a holster on his belt. Although a somewhat more common sight on the
streets of the Old City, it was unusual to see an armed person
inside a church. I assumed he was a security guard and asked him
about the Chapel of St. Vartan. He suggested I contact Bishop
Kapikian, whom he said I could find at the Armenian compound.
So we went back to St.
James a third time and encountered
a new attendant at the entrance. After an explanation of what
I wanted he phoned the bishop and let me talk to him.
Bishop Kapikian told
me that although he had directed the archaeological excavation of the
Chapel of St. Vartan in the 1970s, he unfortunately no longer had any
direct control over it. In his own words, he no longer had
“the keys.” He told me to contact a Bishop Vaghash
at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. He said Bishop Vaghash was the new
custodian of the chapel. However, he was not very optimistic that
Bishop Vaghash would agree to let us in.
George Hintlian called
me that evening and was even more pessimistic. He said the chapel had
been closed to the public and thought we would need the approval of the
Armenian Orthodox Patriarchate in Jerusalem in order to see it.
All this happened on
Wednesday. We were
busy the next day with other activities -- an Archaeological
Seminars First Temple tour to the City of David6
in the morning
and a tour of the Israel Museum archaeological wing in the afternoon --
and had no time to follow up on Bishop Kapikian's or George Hintlian's
Alas, with so much
still to see, I had pretty much given up any hope of getting into the
Chapel of St. Vartan.
we took a Zion Walking Tour to Mea Shearim.7
After lunch we
went to St. James Cathedral to observe the afternoon service.
While taking photographs I made a mental note of the interesting
triangular shaped hoods worn by the Armenian clerics.
From St. James we
walked across the Old City to the
Via Dolorosa and followed the Friday afternoon Franciscan procession
from Antonia's Fortress8 to the Church of the
We stayed in the church quite awhile and just as we were about
to leave, I noticed a cleric standing in the rotunda and wearing
one of the distinctive triangular hoods I had seen earlier at
St. James. Recognizing him as Armenian I immediately thought of
Bishop Vaghash. I asked the cleric if he knew where I could find
the bishop. He didn't answer but simply pointed to a door at the
top of some stairs on the south side of the rotunda.
I went up the stairs
and through the door and inside
found a shop of sorts.9 The only people in the
shop were a
few visitors to the church and a man in an open-collared blue
shirt and blue coat, selling candles and other religious items
from behind a table. I didn't see anyone who looked like a bishop.
I went back to the
cleric in the triangular hood
and asked him a second time. His answer
implied that the man in the blue shirt and selling the religious
items was in fact the bishop. I guess being a shopkeeper was one of his
I went back in and
when all the other visitors had
left, asked him if he was Bishop Vaghash. He didn't say yes but
asked me in somewhat broken English what I wanted. I told him
I wanted to see the Chapel of St. Vartan. He told me that it was too
late in the day (it was about 5:00 PM)
and to come back the next day (Saturday) at 2:00 PM. As we left
the church I was still wondering if I had really talked to Bishop
back the next day, our fourth day in Jerusalem. But at 2:00 PM
the same man was again busy selling candles and other trinkets,
this time wearing only the blue shirt. When there was a break
in the customers he took the opportunity
to water some plants. This was followed by more customers. When
I finally had a chance, I reminded him why I was there. But I
still wasn't sure we would ever get into the chapel.
Then suddenly at about
2:30 there were no more customers
and no more plants to water. He put on his blue coat, closed the
shop, and, without any word of explanation, escorted us down to
the Chapel of St. Helena. Once there he unlocked the grated steel
door into the adjacent quarry site, and turned on the lights.
We spent about ten minutes in the quarry and in the Chapel of
St. Vartan while he waited outside.
Standing in the Chapel of St. Helena, Bishop
Inside the ancient quarry. The
quarry dates to the
looks for the key to open the iron gate into the ancient quarry.
First Temple period, probably the 7th or 8th century BC.
The Chapel of
St. Vartan with the
Ship Drawing in the lower center.
The wall with the drawing dates to the 2nd Century
AD while the wall
at the rear dates to the 4th century and is a part of the original
Drawing, discovered in November 1971 during excavations
what is now called the Chapel of St. Vartan. The reflections
are from the
protective glass that now covers the drawing.
came out Bishop Vagash turned out the lights, locked up the chapel, and
back to his shop - all without saying a word. I gave him a small
monetary contribution and he nodded in appreciation.
We were elated. We had
walked through an ancient
Israelite quarry. We had seen the ship drawing and read the Latin
inscription. We had witnessed first hand the almost 1700 year
old signature of a pilgrim like ourselves. We had finally
found the person with the keys.
I hadn't realized how
complicated a simple visit
to an archaeological site could be.
- The Chapel of St.
Helena is in the east end of
the church (the opposite end from the tomb) at the bottom of a
flight of stairs.
- I had read about
the drawing and inscription
in the first article by Magen Broshi and in Finegan's book. More
recent descriptions appear in the books by Shanks and by Gibson
and Taylor. The latter contains the most comprehensive description
to date and the authors propose a 2nd century date for the ship drawing
-- nearly two centuries earlier than the generally accepted 330 AD.
Franciscan-operated Christian Information
Center is in the Old City of Jerusalem, just inside the Jaffa
Gate and across from the Citadel. It's a good place to get information
on religious sites in Jerusalem.
- The Old City is
divided into four quarters: Armenian,
Jewish, Muslim and Christian. When entering at the Jaffa gate,
the Armenian Quarter is to the right (the southwest corner of
the Old City) and the Christian Quarter to the left (northwest
- The Church of the
Holy Sepulchre is in the Christian
Seminars is on Habab Street in
the Jewish Quarter. They offer excellent First and Second Temple
- Zion Tours offers a
variety of excellent walking
tours. They are located across from the Citadel and the police
building near the Jaffa Gate.
- Antonia's Fortress
stood at the northwest corner
of Temple Mount in what is now the Muslim Quarter.
refers to this room as the
- Magen Broshi,
"Evidence of Earliest Christian
Pilgrimage to the Holy Land Comes to Light in Holy Sepulchre Church",
Biblical Archaeology Review, Dec. 1977. Reprinted in Archaeology
and the Bible, Volume Two, Archaeology in the World of Herod,
Jesus and Paul, Edited by Hershel Shanks and Dan Cole, Biblical
Archaeology Society, Washington, DC, 1990, pages 267-269.
- Magen Broshi,
"Excavations in the Holy Sepulchre
in the Chapel of St. Vartan and the Armenian Martyrs." In
Ancient Churches Revealed, Edited by Yoram Tsafrir, Israel Exploration
Society, Jerusalem, 1993, pages 118-122.
- Jack Finegan, The
Archaeology of the New Testament,
Revised Edition, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 1992,
- S. P.
Freeman-Grenville, The Holy Land, A Pilgrim's
Guide to Israel, Jordan and the Sinai, Continuum, New York, 1996,
- Shimon Gibson and
Joan Taylor, Beneath the Church
of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem, Palestine Exploration Fund,
London, 1994, pages 7-48.
- Hershel Shanks,
Jerusalem, An Archaeological
Biography, Random House, New York, 1995, pages 210-213.
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