Introduction to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is the holiest place in Jerusalem for most Christians (See also Christian Quarter Photo Album). It is revered as the site of the crucifixion and burial of Jesus, as well as several additional associated events. The church also incorporates a variety of other Christian holy sites, among them the burial place of Adam – the first man, the navel of the world and the cave where the ‘true cross’ was discovered. The pope’s call to rescue the Church of the Holy Sepulchre from the Holy Land’s Moslem rulers caused the Crusades and it continues to be a major destination for most Christian pilgrims.
Today the church is shared by the Greek Orthodox, the Armenian Orthodox and Roman Catholics, together with Copts, Jacobite Syrians and Ethiopians under the terms of an agreement signed in Berlin in 1878 known as the Status Quo. The keys to the church have been held by a Jerusalem Moslem family since the Middle Ages and one of their sons performs an elaborate ritual every morning and evening to lock and unlock the church.
The church often defies the expectations of first time visitors, whose responses range from rapture to almost revulsion. From a neutral anthropological perspective, the church provides an incredible mosaic of Christendom and great human scenery.
Holy Sepulchre – history
In 324 C.E., Jerusalem and the Holy Land came under Christian rule for the first time in history. Shortly thereafter, Queen Helena, the mother of the Byzantine Emperor Constantine, came to Jerusalem to search for the ‘true cross’, which she found in a cave or cistern beneath the old Roman Temple of Venus-Aphrodite. Subsequently, she and her son built the Church of the Holy Sepulcher on the site, ultimately one of four churches erected by the Emperor Constantine and Queen Helena in the Holy Land. This original Church of the Holy Sepulcher (some traditions claim the site was venerated as a holy place by early Christians until the Great Revolt against Rome in 66 C.E.) was destroyed by invading Persians in 614 C.E.
The church was rebuilt after the Byzantine Empire retook Jerusalem in 629. When Jerusalem was conquered by the Moslems nine years later, the Arabian general Omar Ibn Khatib prayed near the church’s entrance. As a result, the Mosque of Omar was erected at the place where he prayed with a minaret built to be deliberately higher than the church. In 1009, El Khakim, a fanatically anti-Christian Shiite Moslem ruler of Egypt, sacked the church. Later that century, the Byzantine Emperor Monomacus built a new church incorporating Golgotha and the tomb, which was dedicated in 1049. The Crusaders conquered Jerusalem in 1099 and expanded on Monomacus’ church, dedicating their Church of the Holy Sepulcher in 1149. The church as it exists today is a combination of the Monomacus’ and the Crusader’s building with some significant repairs and renovations, most notably in the areas of the tomb and the Rotunda above it, not to mention the addition of plumbing and electricity.
Visiting the Church of the Holy Sepulchre
A visit to the church begins in the courtyard or parvis in front of its main entrance. For an alternate approach see the entry on the Via Dolorosa and begin at the 9th Station, taking into account that you may be coming to the 9th Station from the opposite direction.
The 10th Station of the Via Dolorosa is situated on a set of steps with a broken column in the parvis, just east of the church’s main entrance. It is revered as the place where Jesus was disrobed prior to crucifixion. The glass enclosed room at the top of the stairs is referred to as the Chapel of the Franks.
Entering through the church’s massive wooden doors, turn right and ascend the steep stone stairs in the corner (handrail on right) to reach a Crusader built platform beneath a vaulted mosaic ceiling. This is the 11th Station of the Via Dolorosa. The 11th Station is where Jesus was nailed to the cross, depicted in a mosaic on the opposite wall. Today the 11th Station is a Roman Catholic chapel, as evidenced by the Latin inscriptions in the arches of its ceiling.
Golgotha or Calvary (literally: the skull) and also the 12th Station of the Via Dolorosa, is where Jesus dies on the cross. It is located adjacent to the 11th Station and can be reached by crossing beneath the thick low arches to the left (north). The difference in décor found when crossing beneath the arches that separates these two stations is the equivalent of crossing the Adriatic Sea between Italy and Greece. Today Golgotha is a Greek Orthodox chapel. In the center of the chapel, in front of a large crucifix, is a table like altar. Below it is a circular silver band surrounding a hole marking the spot where the cross is said to have stood. There is usually a line of pilgrims filing by and crouching below the altar to touch this spot.
The 13th Station of the Via Dolorosa is dedicated to where Jesus’ corpse was removed from the cross and prepared for burial. It is alternately placed against the wall between the 11th and 12th Stations or at the Unction Stone below, just inside the churches main entrance. To reach the Unction Stone, descend from the platform of Golgotha by a set of stairs on its west side and turn left. The Unction Stone is a slab of pink limestone where according to Christian tradition Jesus’ body was laid out and prepared for burial. It is a site of tremendous veneration for multitudes of Christian pilgrims, as can be seen by the acts of devotion performed around it. Behind the Unction Stone is a large wall mosaic depicting Jesus being removed from the cross, preparations for burial and his burial – the last three stations of the Via Dolorosa.
The Holy Sepulchre or tomb, the 14th Station of the Via Dolorosa, is located in the Rotunda of the church. The tomb is enclosed beneath a large carved stone structure, sooty from many millions of pilgrims’ candles. It is venerated as the site of the burial plot in a former rock quarry that Joseph of Aramathea offered as a tomb for Jesus, after negotiating the removal of his body from the cross.
The tomb is entered through a low door. Usually there is a long line of pilgrims waiting to get in. Inside, it is divided into two small rooms. The first room with a stone bench is called the Chapel of the Angel, dedicated to where three women were informed by an angel that “he is risen”. The second, inner room is the tomb itself, lying beneath 42 oil lamps. Around the back of the tomb is a small Coptic chapel dedicated to a protruding slab of stone, where the Copts claim Jesus’ head rested.
Opposite the tombs entrance is a Greek Orthodox Chapel, the largest chapel in the church, known as the Catholicum. Several goblet-like installations on its floor mark the location of Umbillicum Terra or in Greek the Omphalos – the ‘Navel of World.
Leaving the Catholicum and turning right twice to skirt around the outer walls of the chapel, continue till you reach a doorway on the left with stairs leading down to the Armenian Chapel of St. Helena, dedicated to the mother of Constantine, who discovered the ‘true cross’. The room is decorated with a charming Armenian mosaic depicting Mt. Ararat, Noah’s Ark and various churches and monasteries in Armenia. Below it to the right is a cave where Helena is said to have discovered the cross.
Climbing back up the stairs, turn left to reach the Chapel of Adam. Just past a glass enclosed section of Golgotha is an arched doorway on the left, which leads beneath the platform of Golgotha. An apse indicates the fissure in the rock, said to have opened at the time of the crucifixion to reveal the skull of Adam, the first man.