The ownership of Mary’s Tomb and the Grotto of the Betrayal
A firman (Ottoman decree) issued in 1636 declared that the Franciscans had been the owners of Mary’s Tomb since ancient times. Between 1361 and 1363, in fact, both Queen Joanna of Naples and Peter IV of Aragon had done their utmost with the Mameluke Sultan of Egypt to obtain Mary’s Tomb for the Franciscans. Their intervention had a positive result: the 1377 Statutes of the Holy Land prescribed that the Friars would each Saturday celebrate Holy Mass at the Tomb of the Virgin, celebrations also mentioned by the Italian pilgrim Giorgio di Guccio Gucci in 1384.
The possession of Mary’s Tomb by the Franciscans and their exclusive right to celebrate Holy Mass there on a daily basis was confirmed in decrees of the Ottoman sultans until 1847, but was definitively annulled several years later following a firman issued in 1853, which reflected the fact that in practice they were unable to celebrate there.
In fact, in 1757 a number of sanctuaries had already been taken over by the Greek Orthodox, among these being Mary’s Tomb, which was never returned. As a result, the Franciscan presence at the site was restricted, and the Franciscans were prevented from reestablishing their rights due to the intervention of Russia on behalf of the Greek Orthodox.
Today the Tomb of the Virgin is under the guardianship of the Greek and Armenian Orthodox and represents, together with Bethlehem, and the churches of the Holy Sepulchre and the Ascension, the fourth Holy Place regulated by the Status Quo. The Status Quo established that the Franciscans could continue to carry out a solemn procession there only once per year, on the occasion of the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the 15th of August.
In contrast to Mary’s Tomb, the Grotto of the Betrayal, located to the right of the entrance to the Tomb, has remained the property of the Franciscans. As for the Tomb, the presence of the friars dates back to the 14th century. In 1803 they obtained permission from Sultan Selim III to place a door at the entrance for which they would keep the key. This door has allowed the preservation of this place of prayer.