Jerusalem (CNN)The key to one of Christianity’s holiest sites is held by a Muslim family, and it has been for centuries. This is more than just tradition. It is the very essence of Jerusalem, part of what makes the Old City’s cultural and religious history so special.
We meet Adeeb Joudeh at the Jaffa Gate to the Old City. It is 3:30 a.m. At this hour, the tension of the city has melted into the darkness. The narrow alleys are eerily quiet. As Joudeh makes his way through the city’s deserted streets, his footsteps are unnaturally loud, echoing off the walls of the empty stone streets.
He carries with him an ancient cast-iron key, some 500 years old. The key is 12 inches long, with a triangular metal handle and a square end.
It is the key to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where many believe Jesus Christ was crucified and entombed. The church is one of Christianity’s holiest sites, and many Christian denominations share this holy space for prayer. Thousands of pilgrims from all over the world make a pilgrimage here for the Easter holidays. Few are aware of Joudeh’s significance, and how important a part his Muslim ancestors have played in the story of this holy place.
Joudeh’s family has held the key in their protection for generations. In his house, Joudeh keeps a binder full of pictures of his grandfather and great-grandfather who once held this sacred task, and his family has kept the historic contracts bestowing upon his family this job, written on parchment and signed in golden ink. The oldest dates back to 1517.
“This is the family heritage,” Joudeh says, smiling as he talks. “It’s all we own as a family, and this is an honor not only for our family. This is an honor for all Muslims in the world.”