On the rooftop courtyard of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem’s Old City is one of the most fascinating religious complexes in the Holy Land. The rooftop is where you’ll find the Deir Es-Sultan or, the Sultan’s Monastery along with the Chapel of the Archangel Michael and the Chapel of the Four Incorporeal Creatures. A passageway leads down to the Holy Sepulchre and a small dome in the rooftop courtyard is directly above St. Helena’s Chapel.
Ownership of Deir el-Sultan has been in dispute for centuries. Both the Coptic Orthodox Church and the Ethiopian Orthodox Church claim ownership, but today the complex is occupied by the Ethiopian Christians. For the Copts, this site is an important connection between St. Anthony’s Monastery, where the Coptic Patriarchate is located, and the Holy Sepulchre, via a passageway.
Coptic Origins of Deir Es-Sultan
The Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria, which is based in Egypt, holds that the site was gifted to the Copts by the Umayyad Caliph Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan (684 AD - 705 AD). The Copts named Deir el-Malak or Angel Monastery after the Caliph.
In the 11th-century Egyptian officials transporting taxes collected from Copts in Egypt to the Caliphate in Baghdad would stop in Jerusalem and, fearing thieves, hide the funds in the Coptic compound. In thanks, Sultan Al Mo-ez gifted the monastery to the Egyptian Coptic community in Jerusalem. Later Coptic ownership of the site was confirmed by the powerful Muslim leader Saladin (1137-1193). Under Saladin, the monastery was renamed Deir el-Sultan or the Sultan’s Monastery.
The Ethiopian Monks Move In
In 1654 the Copts took in a group of Ethiopian monks after they had lost their Jerusalem church to the Greek and Armenian Churches for not paying their taxes. The Ethiopians were allowed to set up a temporary shelter on the roof of the Holy Sepulchre and overstayed their welcome. In 1820 when the monastery was being restored, the Ethiopians had to vacate. Resenting this, they began looking into ways to claim the complex for themselves.
In 1850 the Ethiopian monks stole the monastery keys, locking the Copts out. But in 1851, the Ottoman rulers of Palestine officially confirmed that the monastery belonged to the Copts, and ratified this decision in 1863 when the Ethiopian monks made another attempt to take the monastery. Several further attempts were made by the Ethiopians to regain the monastery, and both communities continued to use the site. Over the last 250 years, a “Status Quo” agreement between the different Christian denominations in Jerusalem has allowed the Ethiopian Church to remain in possession of this important location.
Israel Steps In
In 1948 Israel became a state, and new considerations determined the monastery ownership. Following the Six-Day War in 1967, Israel’s bad relations with Egypt influenced the government’s view of the Egyptian Coptic Church. Israel grew stronger ties with the Jewish Ethiopian community and felt less threatened by the Ethiopian Christians in Jerusalem than by the Egyptian Copts.
On 25, April 1970, while Coptic priests were at Easter Mass in the Holy Sepulchre, Israeli forces had the locks changed on the monastery, enabling the Ethiopians to take permanent possession of the church. Less than a year later the Coptic Bishop appealed to the Israeli Supreme Court that declared the Coptic Church to be the owner of the monastery.
However, the Israeli government did not enforce the Supreme Court decision and the Ethiopian monks remained in possession of the monastery. The Ethiopians removed Coptic icons and Arabic inscriptions from the two chapels and limited Coptic access to the Passage Way that connects the Coptic Patriarch to the Holy Sepulchre.
Deir Es-Sultan Today
Today the Ethiopian Church has full possession of the monastery, with the exception of the room of the Coptic Superior of the Monastery and the keys to the northwestern gate. Tension remains between the Egyptian Copic priests and the Ethiopian monks whose village-like enclosure can be seen in the rooftop courtyard.
As recently as 2018, tension arose between the Copt priests and Ethiopian monks when the Israeli government authorized restorations by the Ethiopians without Coptic approval. In 2021 there were clashes between the two denominations when the Ethiopian monks raised their national flag over the monastery. It is possible to visit the roof of the Holy Sepulchre, and with an organized tour, you can walk through the Ethiopian chapels. Visiting Deir Es-Sultan is one of the most unique experiences tourists can have in the breathtaking city of Jerusalem.
To visit Deir Es-Sultan, join one of Jerusalem Private Tours.