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Rites, Rituals and Celebrations

The interior of the Holy
Sepulchre by David Roberts
in the 19th century

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre

Ceremony of the Washing of the Feet of
poor men at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre
late 19th centuryont>

In the Holy Land, Easter has two celebrations, one for the Latin and Protestants and another for the Greek Orthodox and Armenians.

Easter week starts with Palm Sunday. Some families prepare palm branches in tree-like designs with pockets to hold flowers. These are sought by families, especially those blessed with small children, and they are decorated with flowers and colour ribbons in preparation for Palm Sunday service, which is truly a community event. At the end of the service, olive branches are distributed to parishioners as a symbol of peace.

In the afternoon of Palm Sunday thousands of Christians from all over the world take part in the traditional procession, led by the Latin Patriarch, from Bethphage, to the church of St. Anne in the old city. Palm and olive branches, symbolizing victory and peace, are carried by all. At the end of the procession, people wave the branches as the Patriarch enters the church. After the procession, scout troops circle the walls of the Old city in their colourful uniforms and flags as they play popular and nationalistic tunes.

Sabt An-Nour: Saturday of Holy Fire

Easter Saturday is the Saturday of Light, ‘Sabt An-Nour’ in Arabic, when the resurrection of Christ is commemorated in the ceremony of "Holy Fire" which takes place in the church of the Holy Sepulchre. For the Latin churches, Mass begins at 19:00 with the lights turned off and people carrying candles into the church. The priest enters the church carrying the Paschal candle and lights all the candles with the light taken from Paschal candle. Later on, scout groups celebrate the holy light in the streets of the Old City until the midnight mass.


As for the Greek Orthodox and eastern churches, hundreds of pilgrims, mostly Cypriots, Greeks and Copts, sleep overnight near the Holy Sepulchre to be among the first to receive the holy fire. Local people start joining them in the early morning as the church, its square and roofs become packed with crowds. All carry bundles of candles and glass lanterns. The Greek Orthodox Patriarch, who is fasting at the time, begins his prayers from the early morning until 14:00 when the light appears and the bells ring. Meanwhile, Christian youths gather in one of the squares of the Christian quarter and proceed through the narrow alleys to the church.

On their way, they carry one of them on their shoulders and as he leads them in shouting slogans. One can hear: "Oh Virgin (Mary) peace be unto you- from Christians and Muslims alike", and "We Christians and candles in our hands - for Mar Geries (St. George), Al-Khader, we pray. As the youths enter the church, they circle the Holy Sepulchre repeating: "This is the tomb of our Lord - our Lord is Jesus Christ - Christ has bought us - with his precious blood he has redeemed us - we are today happy." After circling the Holy Sepulchre three times, they wait for the official procession led by the Patriarch, with the participation of members of old Arab Orthodox families who carry embroidered banners and flags. At the end of the procession, the Patriarch is led into the chapel of the tomb and the crowd, having shown excitement, falls silent in anticipation of the appearance of the Holy Light. The Patriarch stays for an hour or more in prayer and meditation and around 1:30 am, the light appears and is quickly passed from one bundle of candles to another. The light spreads to the environs of the church and the whole place, inside out is ablaze. Joyful ululations are heard, bells start ringing and holy fire is already on its way to more distant places, in the country and beyond.

The scout troops, including Muslims, who await the light on the roof of the church start playing their bands as they proceed through the narrow alleys of the Christian quarter. They are met by youngsters, carrying lit candles and lanterns, as they again shout slogans. The atmosphere is one of public joy and celebration and local Christians start greeting one another with the traditional Easter greeting: "Christ has risen" and the response: "He has really risen."

During Easter special dishes are served, they usually prepare either stuffed lamb or stuffed ribs. Stuffed kubbeh is another traditional dish during Easter, symbolizing the spear.

Special cookies are prepared for Easter “Ka’ek wa Ma’moul” made from semolina and butter and filled with dates (for the “ka’ek”) and walnuts for the (“ma’moul”). The “ma’moul” symbolises the sponge that was used to wipe the face of Jesus as he suffered on the cross. The “ka’ek” resembles Jesus’ crown of thorns when he was nailed on the cross.

The colorful eggs symbolize joy in Christ's resurrection from the grave. A red liquor is offered during the visits to evoke the blood of Christ.

Sources: - Jerusalem: Religious Aspects, PASSIA 1995, Jerusalem: A Christian Perspective, Dr. Bernard Sabella - p40-43
  - Sahtain: Discover the Palestinian Culture by Eating, Copyright Freres' School, Bethlehem 1999
  - Classic Palestinian Cookery, Christiane Dabdoub Nasser, Saqi Books 2001
  - This week in Palestine issue No. 36, April 2001
  - Art And History of Jerusalem, Bonechi & Stematzky, 1996


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