The Nusseibeh Family Connection
The writer of this narration, the late Haj Taher Nusseibeh, is a member of the Jerusalem Nusseibeh family, which was entrusted with the keys of the Holy Sepulcher by Caliph Omar, fourteen centuries ago. In this narrative, he describes vividly and fascinatingly how he performed this honorary duty in his younger years, for decades on end.
Following is his story:
The key of the Holy Sepulcher
On the dawn of one of those days in the winter season of Jerusalem, the room is warm, and the young Taher is immersed in a deep and tranquil sleep, while in the outside, stormy winds were blowing furiously, cleansing the narrow alleys of Jerusalem's old city, and heavy rainfall washing meticulously the roofs, cupolas and domes of the mosques, minarets, churches and bell towers. Suddenly, a kind and soothing hand, is tenderly laid, on the shoulders of Taher, and a low voice whispering into his ears: get up my son for the hour is approaching four o'clock. The young Taher agitates in his warm bed, trying to reclaim his happy dreams, but no sooner would ring the voice of his elder cousin from the street outside, urging him to speed-up. The young Taher, having gradually awakened and recovered his poise, smiles, gets up, and embeds himself with a thick garment, woven from camel wool. He covers his neck with a scarf, takes a lantern from his mother's hand, exits from the house, opens his umbrella and joins his cousin, walking together in the rain. They traverse one alley after another, and take a curve to a third, until they reach the pavement of one of Jerusalem's slumbering homes.
Out of the darkness enveloping the entrance of the house, there emerges the shadow of a young man carrying a lantern. After exchanging greetings, he joins the visitors, and after a short walk, the three arrive to the square fronting the Holy Sepulcher. The hand of the young newcomer whose name is Adeeb Judeh, stretches to his flowing garment, from which he recovers a key, roughly the size of a palm, and hands it to young Taher. The youthful Taher receiver the key, and the three advance toward the towering gate, where they are welcomed by the priest on duty. Taher advances with the key in hand climbs a ladder, opens the Gate, and the four participate in pushing the bulky gate open. Taher's hand stretches once again, but this time towards the metallic circuit breaker at the center of the gate, and pounds it.
The sounds of the toll reverberate and break the quiet of the church. The priest enters the church and advances towards a corner in the church, where he pulls a rope hanging and protruding from the ceiling. A roaring bell resounds in parts of the spacious church, and in another corner another priest pulls another rope, and the sound reverberates in yet another corner of the huge edifice. The tolls follow one another sequentially until all denominations have been alerted, that the gate of the Church has been opened. The three, having accomplished their assigned task, hurry back to the coziness of their warm homes.
After a moment of silence Haj Taher blurts: this used to occur in my youthful years, and now that I have become a father, grandfather and a Haj (pilgrim), the keys have been entrusted to younger members of the family. Those were beautiful days, but presently, also, sickness has weighed heavily upon me, and these youthful years have passed away. Neither rain nor snow or frozen ice would deter us from performing the duty, entrusted to us and to our forefathers before us, across the centuries. My cousins and I, used to alternate the performance of this duty, in the lean hours of the morning and, either return hurriedly home or, sometimes sit on the spacious stone bench – the divan- allotted to us, right inside the entrance of the Sepulcher. The priests would kindly bring to us heating stoves, as well as hot drinks and breakfast, and we would spend some time resting until dawn breaks out.
We would open the gate of the church at 4 A.M., to enable early pilgrims to perform their early prayers, and return at 7 P.M. every evening, to close the gate of the Holy Sepulcher. We would also close the gate at an interval between 11:30 and 12:30 noon.
This mission, used to be associated with other important functions, including the settlement of disputes, or resolution of differences between the various denominations over jurisdictions, space allocations and common maintenance work, and the family have carried out such missions with pride. At present, it is simply an honorary, symbolic and historical function. And even the divan at the entrance, removed in the course of restoration works, has not been restored thus far, and it is a matter for conjecture whether it would ever be; but the closets above it, assigned to us remain intact.
How had this mission been assigned to a Muslim family:
When the Caliph Omar entered Jerusalem, as part of the Arab Conquests of Bilad Ashsham (Syria), patriarch Sophronious of Damascus birth, offered to him the keys of the Holy Sepulcher, so as to be kept in trust, with the Muslims. The Caliph, after consideration, decided to entrust it, to Abdullah Ben Nusseibeh al-Maziniyya of al-Khazraj tribe, the largest and the most powerful supporters of the prophet in Medina. The Nusseibeh family performed this honorary duty for centuries until the Crusaders occupied Jerusalem in 1099 A.D., and those of the family who escaped the massacres, took refuge in the village of Bureen, at one of the hill tops of the city of Nablus, where up to this day is to be found the grave of our forefather, prince Burhaniddin ben Ghanim al-Khazraji.
In the year 1187, Sultan Salahuddin (Saladin) succeeded in defeating the Crusader European armies and reoccupied Jerusalem, after almost one hundred years of European occupation, masquerading under the banner of the Crusades. Our forefather prince Ghanim, mobilized the manpower and the resources of the Palestinian countryside, to fight alongside Saladin and his forces.
The Bani Ghanim –Nusseibeh Family- was richly rewarded with extensive lands at East Lubban village and its surrounding plains (around 50,000 Dunums) astride Jerusalem and Nablus. It was also granted other rich donations as Waqf foundations to support the Muslim Holy places. In 1191 when Saladin and Richard the Lion Heart concluded the Ramleh peace treaty, under which European pilgrims were allowed to perform their pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and Saladin fearing a surprise attack on Jerusalem, in the course of the pilgrimage, entrusted once more the custody of the Holy Sepulcher to the Nusseibeh-bani Ghanim family. He also organized large-scale festivals throughout Palestine, to coincide with the European Pilgrimage season to Jerusalem, as a precautionary defensive measure.
The Ottoman era:
During the Ottoman era, the Turks were conscious of the pivotal importance of the Holy Sepulcher to Christendom, and were aware of the perennial disputes between the multiple Christian denominations and sects. They kept the major functions and duties of the office with the Nusseibeh family; but over the years and, specifically, in 1611, they assigned to the Judeh-Ghudhay family, the duty of safeguarding the keys of the Sepulcher and, of handing them over to the Nusseibeh family every day for opening the church, a sharing that is still in force up to this day.
The Ottomans also assigned to another Jerusalem family "Mustapha Agha- the Darweesh Jerusalem family", to share with the Nusseibeh family, the task of collecting the dues which pilgrims paid at the entrance to the church, which income, would eventually go to supporting the Khasqi Sultan philanthropic foundation, which distributes free food to the poor of Jerusalem, as well as to needy visiting pilgrims. Khaski Sultan, ethnic Russian, was the beloved beautiful wife of Sultan Sulayman the Magnificent.
The two families have been issued with 'firmans' (edicts) by the Sultanate. With the abolishment of the payment of dues at the gate of the Sepulcher, the role of the Darweesh family came to an end, while the Judeh family's role remained in place. The collection of dues was abolished with the weakening of the Ottomans in the nineteenth century. It was repealed when Mohammad Ali of Egypt and his son Ibrahim Pasha ruled Jerusalem and Palestine in the early decades of the nineteenth century.
The remuneration to the Nusseibeh family and to the Judeh family, thought largely nominal, is given in the form of donations contributed by the various Christian denominations, each year, at specific dates and functions. The Nusseibeh family obtains two thirds, while the Judeh family obtains one third.
Fixing their seal on the Holy Sepulcher, on the occasion of Easter Saturday, when the Easter Christian denominations celebrate the Holy Fire, each year, is an honorary function, which a member of the Nusseibeh affixes on the Sepulcher, alongside a high priest, designated each year to receive the Holy Fire and distribute it to the throngs of worshipers celebrating the occasion, a tradition sanctioned since 900 years.
The well-known historian Omar Assaleh al-Barghouti, endorses Taher's narrative, regarding the Nuseibeh family's connection for the church as follows: During the early conquest, the Christian denominations differed and asked the Caliph Omar to arbitrate . The Christians requested him to select one from his people to be arbiter, and he chose the Nusseibeh family, from the Khazraq tribe of Madina, which was in the vanguard of the Arab armies. It is one of the oldest, indeed the oldest family in Jerusalem, going back 14 centuries. When Saladin reconquered Jerusalem he restored the keys to the family.
In the past, the pilgrims used to pay dues known as "al-Khafr" or "al-Kaphara", levied in the era of Sulaiman the Magnificent. It was heavier on European pilgrims and much less so on eastern pilgrims. The Abyssinians and priests were exempt from any payment. In 1834, Ibrahim Pasha abolished this tax altogether.
Over the centuries of existence in Jerusalem, the Nusseibeh family had had to undergo the vicissitudes of turbulent times, wars, internecine conflicts and pestilence, in the relatively small confinement of the old city. During the transition from Mamluke to Ottoman, the head of the family at the time, Judge Fakhruddin Nusseibeh was entrusted with the task of mobilizing the manpower of the Jerusalem and Nablus regions, to fight the Turks. When their expedition failed, the Nusseibeh judge was exiled to Cairo where he died. The family was also persecuted and dispersed in the era of Ibrahim Pasha. No wonder its numbers are relatively small, for this is the price which prominence and leadership exact. And it is indeed a miracle that the family still exists, notwithstanding that, on more than one occasion, it had been virtually, on the verge of extinction.
But the Khazraj kinsmen, spread all over the Arab and Muslim worlds, count in the hundreds of thousands and, in some instances, carry variations other than their original al-Khazraj name.