CHURCH OF THE HOLY SEPULCHRE

Greek Orthodox, Catholic, Armenian, Syrian, Coptic, Ethiopian
Located off Dyers' Street and Christian Quarter Road
[#17 on the Old City map]


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"Finally Pilate handed him over to them to be crucified. So the soldiers took charge of Jesus. Carrying his own cross, he went out to the place of the Skull (which in Aramaic is called Golgotha)."

JOHN 19:16-17

"As evening approached, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who had himself become a disciple of Jesus. Going to Pilate, he asked for Jesus' body, and Pilate ordered that it be given to him. Joseph took the body, wrapped it in a clean linen cloth, and placed it in his own new tomb that he had cut out of the rock. He rolled a big stone in front of the entrance to the tomb [sepulchre] and went away."

MATTHEW 27:57-60

On a recent visit to Jerusalem's Church of the Holy Sepulchre I stood for a moment in the Chapel of Adam and gazed at the bare rock beneath Golgotha. A thoroughly bewildered couple wandered into the tiny chamber, wondering aloud what on earth they had stumbled into. Where was Calvary? they asked, as they paged anxiously through a guidebook and tried to locate it on a tiny map. And where was the Holy Tomb?
No wonder they were baffled. A remarkable edifice built by the Crusaders over earlier foundations, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre contains such a curious conglomeration of altars, chapels, and architectural styles that anyone would be led astray! Every day hundreds of pilgrims and clergy weave in and out of the church, creating an atmosphere of noise and confusion not alleviated by the sanctuary's dark and gloomy interior.
Yet, though finding your way around can be a truly frustrating experience, this has to be the most dynamic church in the country. Believed by most of the Christian world to encompass such sacred sites as Calvary (Golgotha), the Holy Sepulchre, and the cistern in which Helena found the True Cross, the church is alive with a profusion of languages and a variety of diverse apparel.
Although today it is the heart of the Old City's Christian quarter and overflows with visitors, Golgotha was once a bald, rocky hill apparently situated a few hundred meters outside of the Jerusalem walls. In a cemetery nearby, wealthy Jew Joseph of Arimathea had prepared a sepulchre for himself, not knowing that he would one day entomb Jesus within it. Destined to become the most venerated of Christian sites, Golgotha and the Sepulchre were lost to the Christians a century after the Crucifixion: in 135 Roman emperor Hadrian destroyed Jerusalem, rebuilt the city as Aelia Capitolina, and covered the holy sites with idolatrous shrines.
Constantine I, the first Roman emperor to embrace Christianity, held an ecumenical council in 325 to discuss the nature of the Trinity. Present at that conference was the Jerusalem patriarch, Bishop Macarius, who urged Constantine's mother Helena to take the Holy Land's neglected Christian sites under her wing. A year later they toured the Holy Land together, able to identify Jesus' birthplace in Bethlehem as well as the Mount of Olives grotto in which Jesus prophesied the destruction of Jerusalem.
Calvary and the Holy Sepulcre were discovered underneath Hadrian's temples. Queen Helena razed the pagan shrines, levelled the rocks, and began construction of a wondrous Christian monument. By 335 a magnificent basilica - far larger and more grandiose than the contemporary church - encompassed the Holy Sepulchre, Calvary, and the cistern in which the pious queen had discovered a piece of the True Cross.
Little remains of the Byzantine basilica, which was destroyed by the Persian invaders in 614. Repeatedly ravaged and repaired over the next 400 years, it never returned to its former glory. When the Crusaders entered Jerusalem on July 15, 1099, they immediately visited the basilica to find that while the Rotunda had retained some glamour, the rest of the holy sites that had been contained within the church were only marked by little chapels. The Crusaders decided to unite all of the holy sites under one roof and erected the Romanesque church that you see here today. It took 50 years to build the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which was inaugurated in 1149.
Over the centuries various Christian denominations vied for the privilege of praying next to the holy sites. During periods of restoration after fires, earthquakes, and war damaged the church, each group altered the interior according to its own particular tastes while at the same time latching on to as much property as possible. So much squabbling went on that in 1852 the Turks issued an edict which declared a situation of status quo in the holy places. Still in practice today, it means that the religious arrangements which existed at the time of the decree - including lighting, decorations and hours of worship - may not be altered. . .
. . .Begin your tour of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on the steps across from the entrance. The church's arched doors, bordered by marble pillars, are located below corresponding twin windows. Their splendid lintels were removed to Jerusalem's Rockefeller Museum during the British Mandate to safeguard them from the elements, but some of the flower design over the arches is still visible. Note the ladder under one of the second story windows. It was used over a century ago for hauling up food to Armenian monks locked in the church by the Turks. With the status quo still in force, the ladder seems destined to remain there forever! . . .
. . .[Now] enter the church (and) immediately turn right to climb 18 steep steps to Calvary. In Latin, "skull" translates as calva, it is golgotha in Aramaic and golgoleth in Hebrew. From these words you get the two terms used today: Calvary and Golgotha, both meaning "place of the skull" or the site of the Crucifixion.
Calvary contains two chapels: Latin and Greek Orthodox. The chapel at the top of the stairs is the Latin oratory, and directly in front of you is the Latin altar. Before you head toward it, look through a window to your right to see the 10th station again, but from a different angle. Then stop to examine the ceiling from a bench near the altar. Because this chapel was renovated in 1937, most of its mosaics are new. The one remaining Crusader work, a mosaic of Jesus in a golden mosaic frame, is larger and lighter than the others.


The 11th Station - the Latin (Catholic) chapel.

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The chapel's striking altar marks the 11th Station, the site at which Jesus was nailed to the Cross. A fine example of Renaissance art, the altar was made in Florence in 1588 and given to the church by Cardinal Medici a few decades later. Look for the Medici name. Six panels of hammered silver (four in font and one on each side) depict scenes from the Passion.


The 12th Station - the Greek Orthodox chapel.

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To reach the Greek Orthodox chapel on the other side of the room, pass under an ornamental arch. The Greek altar is built over the spot which held the Cross. Look to its right, to see where the rock cracked when "Jesus. . .gave up his spirit. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook and the rocks split." [Matthew 27:50- 51]. . .

. . .While waiting in line to enter the Holy Sepulchre, look around the Rotunda. High above you is a fabulous gold and white dome and on the walls is a series of balconies filled with golden lamps. Above the edicule housing the Sepulchre is a strange black dome. The books call it a "Muscovite cupola" - probably because of its Russian look.
If you turn around, you will see the Catholicon, a Greek Orthodox sanctuary facing the Holy Sepulchre. It is also called the Greek Choir, and during the Crusader period the air here resounded with hymns. Although this church is usually closed off with a chain you can still easily see its balconies and ornamental iconastasis. The Greek Orthodox believe that the center of the world is located in the Catholicon, and a large urn on the floor marks the spot.


Lines often form in front of the Holy Sepulchre.

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Having reached the beginning of the line you will now enter the atrium, a small hall typically found in Jewish burial caves where families and friends of the deceased would gather. The Sepulchre's atrium is called the Chapel of the Angel.
"After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb. There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. The angel said to the women, "Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. . ." (Matthew 28:1-6).
A podium holds a glass case containing a piece of the rolling stone used to block up the tomb. Greek Orthodox clergy had to enclose it in glass because pilgrims kept chopping off chunks to take home with them.
When you enter the tiny chamber, be careful not to bump your head. The tomb is covered with a marble slab, and decorated with bas reliefs which portray the Resurrection.
Exit, then walk around the edicule to the backside of the tomb. The small Coptic chapel located here contains a portion of the Sepulchre's bare rock. You can touch it if you wish.
An opening directly across from the Coptic chapel leads to a Second Temple period Jewish cave. If it is not blocked off, follow it to a neglected Syrian altar and a series of tombs - in one of which Joseph of Arimathea was traditionally interred.
The last two stops on this tour are associated with Queen Helena. To reach the first, Helena's Chapel, return to the Stone of Unction. Pass the mosaic (it should be on your left), the Chapel of Adam, and another small oratory called the Chapel of the Mocking. At the next aperture descend 27 steps whose walls are lined with crosses etched into the stone. Many of them - like those you saw at ST. JAMES CATHEDRAL (see page 75), were left by Armenian pilgrims who carved one cross for each member of the family.
Within this Armenian chapel is a main altar dedicated to Helena and a smaller one consecrated to the penitent thief St. Dismas. The ancient-looking mosaic on the floor displays Armenian churches. It was created in 1950 to commemorate the 1915 massacre of Armenian Turks.
Queen Helena found the True Cross in the dank cistern located beneath this grotto. To visit the underground reservoir, called the Chapel of the Finding of the Cross, descend 21 more steps from the right side of Helena's Chapel. According to one tradition, the devout Helena sat here and supervised excavations in which she found the three crosses, the crown of thorns, the nails used for pinning Jesus to the Cross, and the inscription above Jesus' head. A large bronze statue of Helena and the Cross was donated by an Austrian archduke, Maximilian, who visited the site in 1855. He was later to become the emperor of Mexico.
Until 1831, pilgrims were required to pay a fee in order to visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. But during a hiatus in Turkish rule, when the Egyptians controlled the Holy Land and pro-Christian Ibrahim Pasha governed Jerusalem, such fees were banned. Since that time entrance to the church has been free to all comers.

Visiting hours: Daily, from early morning to sunset

(These are excerpts from the chapter "The Church of the Holy Sepulchre" in "Beyond the Walls: Churches of Jerusalem")

Return to "Beyond the Walls: Churches of Jerusalem"