Church of the Holy Sepulchre

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Main Entrance to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre
Main Entrance to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, called Church of the Resurrection (Anastasis) by Eastern Christians, is a Christian church now within the walled Old City of Jerusalem. The ground the church rests on is venerated by most Christians as Golgotha, the Hill of Calvary, where the New Testament says that Jesus was crucified. It also is said to contain the place where Jesus was reportedly buried (the sepulchre). The church has been an important pilgrimage destination since the 4th century. Today it serves as the headquarters of the Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem.



Eusebius describes in his Life of Constantine [1] ( how the site of the Holy Sepulchre, originally a site of veneration for the Christian community in Jerusalem, had been covered with earth and a temple of Venus had been built on top. (Although Eusebius does not say as much, this would probably have been done as part of Hadrian's reconstruction of Jerusalem as Aelia Capitolina in 135, following the destruction of the Jewish Revolt of 70 and Bar Kokhba's revolt of 132-135.) Following his conversion to Christianity, Emperor Constantine ordered in about 325/326 that the site be uncovered and instructed Saint Macarius, Bishop of Jerusalem, to build a church on the site. Socrates Scholasticus (died c. 380), in his Ecclesiastical History, gives a full description of the discovery [2] ( (that was repeated later by Sozomen and by Theodoret) that emphasizes the role played in the excavations and construction by Constantine's mother Helena, to whom is also credited the rediscovery of the True Cross.

Missing image
The Educule of the Holy Sepulchre (The Tomb of Christ)
Constantine's church was built around the excavated hill of the Crucifixion, and was actually three connected churches built over the three different holy sites, including a great basilica (the Martyrium visited by the nun Egeria in the 380s), an enclosed colonnaded atrium (the Triportico) built around the traditional Rock of Calvary, and a rotunda, called the Anastasis ("Resurrection"), which contained the remains of the cave that Helena and Macarius had identified with the burial site of Jesus. The surrounding rock was cut away, and the Tomb was encased in a structure called the Edicule (Latin aediculum, small building) or the Kouvoulkion (Greek, shrine) in the center of the rotunda. The dome of the rotunda was completed by the end of the 4th century.

This building was damaged by fire in 614 when the Persians under Khosrau II invaded Jerusalem and captured the Cross. In 630, Emperor Heraclius marched triumphantly into Jerusalem and restored the True Cross to the rebuilt Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Under the Muslims it remained a Christian church. The early Muslim rulers protected the city's Christian sites, prohibiting their destruction and their use as living quarters, but after a riot in 966, where the doors and roof were burnt, the original building was completely destroyed on October 18, 1009, by the "mad" Fatimid caliph Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah, who hacked out the Church's foundations down to bedrock. The Edicule and the east and west walls and the roof of the cut-rock tomb it encased were destroyed or damaged (contemporary accounts vary), but the north and south walls were likely protected by rubble from further damage.

However, a series of small chapels was erected on the site by Constantine IX Monomachos in 1048 under stringent conditions imposed by the caliphate. The rebuilt sites were taken by the knights of the First Crusade on July 15, 1099. The First Crusade was envisioned as an armed pilgrimage, and no crusader could consider his journey complete unless he had prayed as a pilgrim at the Holy Sepulchre. Crusader chief Godfrey of Bouillon, who became the first crusader monarch of Jerusalem, decided not to use the title "king" during his lifetime, and declared himself Advocatus Sancti Sepulchri, "Protector (or Defender) of the Holy Sepulchre." The chronicler William of Tyre reports on the reconstruction in the mid-12th century, when the crusaders began to renovate the church in a Romanesque style and added a bell tower. These renovations unified the holy sites and were completed during the reign of Queen Melisende in 1149. The church became the seat of the first Latin Patriarchs, and was also the site of the kingdom's scriptorium. The church was lost to Saladin, along with the rest of the city, in 1187, although the treaty established after the Third Crusade allowed for Christian pilgrims to visit the site. Emperor Frederick II regained the city and the church by treaty in the 13th century, while he himself was under a ban of excommunication, leading to the curious result of the holiest church in Christianity being laid under interdict. Both city and church were captured by the Khwarezmians in 1244.

The church was an inspiration for churches in Europe like Santa Gerusalemme in Bologna.

The Franciscan monks renovated it further in 1555, as it had been neglected despite increased numbers of pilgrims. A fire severely damaged the structure again in 1808, causing the dome of the Rotunda to collapse and smashing the Edicule's exterior decoration. The Rotunda and the Edicule's exterior were rebuilt in 1809. The fire did not reach the interior of the Edicule, and the marble decoration of the Tomb dates mainly to the 1555 restoration. The current dome dates from 1870. Extensive modern renovations began in 1959, including a redecoration of the dome from 1994-1997.

Several jurisdictions cooperate, sometimes acrimoniously, in the administration and maintenance of the church and its grounds, under a fiat of status quo that was issued by the Sublime Porte in 1852, to end the violent local bickering. The three, first appointed when Crusaders held Jerusalem, are the Greek Orthodox, the Armenian Apostolic and Roman Catholic churches. These remain the primary custodians of the church. In the 19th century, the Coptic Orthodox, the Ethiopian Orthodox and the Syrian Orthodox acquired lesser responsibilities, which include shrines and other structures within and around the building. An agreement regulates times and places of worship for each Church. For centuries, two neutral neighbour Muslim families appointed by Saladin, the Nuseibeh and Joudeh families, were the custodians of the key to the single door. When a fire broke out in 1840, dozens of pilgrims were trampled to death. On June 20, 1999, all the Christian denominations who share control agreed in a decision to install a new exit door in the church.

Modern arrangement of the church

Missing image
The Stone of the Anointing, believed to be the place where Jesus' body was prepared for burial. It is the 13th Station of the Cross.
The entrance to the church is through a single door in the south transept. Just inside the entrance is the Stone of Anointing, believed to be the spot where Jesus' body was prepared for burial.

To the left, or west, is the Rotunda of the Anastasis beneath the larger of the church's two domes, in the center of which is the Educule of the Holy Sepulchre itself. It was most recently reconstructed in 1810 with exterior cladding of mainly red marble. (This cladding is deteriorating badly and has been held in place with exterior iron girders since 1947.) Under the status quo the Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Armenian Apostolic Churches all have rights to the interior of the tomb, and all three communities celebrate the Divine Liturgy or Mass there daily. It is also used for other ceremonies on special occasions, such as the Holy Saturday ceremony of the Holy Fire celebrated by the Greek Orthodox Patriarch. To its rear, within a chapel constructed of iron latticework upon a stone base semicircular in plan, lies the altar used by the Coptic Orthodox. Beyond that to the rear of the Rotunda is a very rough hewn chapel believed to be the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea in which the Syriac Orthodox celebrate their Liturgy on Sundays. To the right of the sepulchre on the southeastern side of the Rotunda is the Chapel of the Apparition which is reserved for Roman Catholic use.

On the east side opposite the Rotunda is the Crusader structure housing the main altar of the Church, today the Greek Orthodox catholicon. The second, smaller dome sits directly over the center of the transept crossing of the choir where the compas, an omphalos once thought to be the center of the world, is situated. East of this is a large iconostasis demarcating the Greek Orthodox sanctuary before which is set the Patriarchal throne and a throne for visiting episcopal celebrants. On the south side of the altar via the ambulatory is a stairway climbing to the Chapel of Calvary, or Golgotha, believed to be the site of Jesus' crucifixion and the most lavishly decorated part of the church. The main altar there belongs to the Greek Orthodox, while the Roman Catholics have an altar to the side. Further to the east in the ambulatory are the stairs descending to the Chapel of St. Helena, belonging to the Armenians. From there, another set of stairs leads down to the Roman Catholic Chapel of the Invention of the Holy Cross, believed to be the place where the True Cross was found.


As noted above, both Eusebius and Socrates Scholasticus record that the tomb of Jesus was originally a site of veneration for the Christian community in Jerusalem and its location remembered by that community even when the site was covered by Hadrian's temple. From the time of its original construction in 335, and despite numerous renovations, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre has been venerated as the authentic site of Jesus's crucifixion and burial.

However, in the nineteenth century, a number of scholars disputed the identification of the Church with the actual site of Jesus's crucifixion and burial. They reasoned that the Church was inside the city walls, while early accounts (e.g., Hebrews 13:12) described these events as outside the walls. On the morning after his arrival in Jerusalem, General Gordon selected a rock-cut tomb in a cultivated area outside the walls as a more likely site for the burial of Jesus. This site is usually referred to as the Garden Tomb to distinguish it from the Holy Sepulchre, and it is still a popular pilgrimage site for those (usually Protestants) who doubt the authenticity of the Anastasis and/or do not have permission to hold services in the Church itself.

However, the central objection of the nineteenth century scholars evaporates when one realizes that the Jerusalem city walls were expanded by Herod Agrippa in 41-44 and only then enclosed the site of the Holy Sepulchre, at which time the surrounding garden mentioned in the Bible would have been built up as well. To quote the Israeli scholar Dan Bahat, former City Archaeologist of Jerusalem:

"We may not be absolutely certain that the site of the Holy Sepulchre Church is the site of Jesus' burial, but we have no other site that can lay a claim nearly as weighty, and we really have no reason to reject the authenticity of the site. (Bahat, 1986)


  • Bahat, Dan (1986). "Does the Holy Sepulchre church mark the burial of Jesus?", Biblical Archaeology Review 12(3) (May/June) 26-45.
  • Biddle, Martin (1999). The Tomb of Christ. Phoenix Mill: Sutton Publishing. ISBN 0-7509-1926-4. A comprehensive scholarly study of the history of the Church.
  • Biddle, Martin; Avni, Gideon; Seligman, Jon & Winter, Tamar (text); Zabé, Michèl & Nalbandian, Garo (photos) (2000). The Church of the Holy Sepulchre. New York: Rizzoli. ISBN 0-8478-2282-6.

See also

External links

he:כנסיית הקבר הקדוש de:Grabeskirche fr:Saint-Sépulcre


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