The Church of the Holy Sepulcher

The Church of the Holy Sepulcher (sepulcher means ‘tomb’) is located in the Christian Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem. The church is traditionally believed to be the place where Jesus was crucified (Calvary or Golgotha) and where his empty tomb is found.

Biblical Account:
Jesus predicts his death and resurrection. (Matthew 20.17-19; Mark 8.31)
Jesus describes his imminent death. (John 12.23-25)
Jesus is brought to the “place of the skull” (Golgotha = skull).
The charge of Jesus is inscribed over his head: “Jesus, King of the Jews”. (Matthew 27.33-37)
Jesus is mocked on the cross. (Mark 15.29-32)

History and Archaeology:
The church was commissioned by the Roman emperor Constantine in 335 AD. Helen, Constantine’s mother claimed to have located the rock hewn tomb in which Jesus had been placed after crucifixion. Structures were built over both the traditional Golgotha site and the presumed burial place of Jesus. The Church as it stands today contains the final four Stations of the Via Dolorosa. However, there are no round metal plates with the numbers of the stations here, due to the Status Quo. (See below.)

Some Evangelicals and Protestants do not regard the Church of the Holy Sepulcher as the accurate place of Jesus’s crucifixion and burial. They prefer to commemorate His death and resurrection at the Garden Tomb, where there is a skull-like relief cut in the rock and a burial cave. They may celebrate communion and spend time in worship there, in a peaceful and beautiful garden that provides a fantastic visual aid to remembering these important events.

There is some historical evidence in favor of the authenticity of this site. Eusebius of Caesarea (one of the Church fathers) tells us that: ‘At once the work was carried out and, as layer after layer of the subsoil came into view, the venerable and most holy memorial of the Savior’s resurrection, beyond all our hopes, came into view’ (Eusebius, Life of Constantine, 3: 28). Some would also suggest that the historical continuity of this site speaks in favor of her authenticity, as does the proximity in time to the events themselves. A pagan Temple stood on this site before the Church was constructed, perhaps to obscure the location.

Today the church is co-owned by six denominations: the Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Armenian, and Coptic, Ethiopian, and Syrian Orthodox churches. The representatives of these denominations perform their services separately from each other. This division of ownership stems from the time of the Status Quo agreement at the time of the Crimean War (see the Church of the Nativity) and has led to many complicated issues. For example, it is not possible to make repairs or changes without the agreement of all the owners. One of the causes of the Crimean War was connected to the Holy Sepulcher, as the Roman Catholics wanted rights to make repairs, as well as to officiate at the Tomb of Mary in Gethsemane. The Holy Sepulcher only has one huge key which is held by the Muslim Judeh family. The door is closed and opened every day by the Muslim Nuseibeh family. This is part of the Status Quo.

The Status Quo of the Holy Land sites resulted from an 18th century decree that preserved the division of ownership and responsibilities of various Holy sites that were of importance to Christians, Muslims, and Jews. Nothing was allowed to be changed in order to maintain the religious sites for visits by pilgrims. As part of this agreement, the city was divided into four quarters. The Temple Mount became recognized as a Muslim holy place, and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher as well as other various Christian sites were acknowledged as belonging to the Christian world. A further 1853 decree, in the wake of the events leading to the Crimean War, solidified the existing territorial division among the communities and set a status quo for arrangements to “remain forever”. Under the status quo, no part of what is designated as common territory may be so much as rearranged without consent from all communities. This often leads to the neglect of badly needed repairs when the communities cannot come to an agreement among themselves about the final shape of a project. However, very recently, the Israeli Antiquities Authority intervened, threatening to close the church because of fears of collapse of the Edicule/ Tomb of Christ. The repair is now completed and visually there is a huge improvement.

Status Quo Sites in Israel:

  • Church of Nativity in Bethlehem – Greek Orthodox
  • Mosque/Chapel of the Ascension– owned by the Waqf, used by Christians and Muslims.
  • Tomb of Mary – Greek Orthodox and Armenian
  • Church of the Holy Sepulcher, co-owned by 6 Churches. The Franciscans, Greek Orthodox and Armenians jointly own the Parvis, Stone of Unction, rotunda and the Tomb.

The Status Quo affects:
Possession related to ownership of items within sites and cleaning and Liturgy: Which ceremonies, candle, incense, vestments, how many people may participate The Sovereign ruler is responsible for maintaining the Status Quo which is why it is maintained by the police and any violation can cause an international incident. History of the iconic suspended ladder. During the Muslim Period, the use of the Holy Sepulcher was limited. When Christians came from Europe, they had to pay a bribe known as Baksheesh in order to visit. However, monks were able to live inside the Holy Sepulcher, and they had no way of entering or exiting the building. In order to bring food inside, a basket was attached to a rope, and the ladder was used to exit. In 1831/32, Mohamed Ali l allowed the HS to be opened again, but the ladder was not removed and when the Status Quo began to be implemented, the ladder was still there. It stands on a ledge that is owned by the Greek Orthodox and leans on a wall that belongs to the Armenians.

Important dates:
335: Dedication of the Church of Holy Sepulcher and the Resurrection (Anastasis)
1009: Destruction by Fatimid Caliph Al Hakim
1048: Constantine Monomachus rebuilds the HS
1099: Crusaders take Jerusalem
1149: Re-dedication in the time of Queen Melisande
1808: Great fire, destruction, restoration. The Greek Orthodox paid the highest bribe to the Ottomans and thus were allowed to rebuild the church. The Holy Sepulcher became a dark, enclosed building.

Standing outside the Church and facing towards it: on both sides of the Parvis, or entrance courtyard, there are 3 Chapels:

  • On the right: Deir Abraham. Greek Orthodox, Anglicans can also pray here
  • Saint John, Armenian
  • Saint Michael. Ethiopian
  • On the left: Saint James. Greek orthodox
  • Saint John. Greek Orthodox
  • Chapel of the 40 Martyrs. Armenian
  • Behind you as you face towards the church is the Omar Mosque
  • Originally: The main entrance was from the east, on the side of the Cardo.

Miracle of the Holy Fire:
For the last 1000 years, the Greek orthodox and Armenian celebrate Holy Saturday every year, between Good Friday and Eastern Sunday or between sadness and hope. Before noon, the Greek Orthodox Patriarch and the Armenian Bishop enter the tomb of Jesus with 33 candles. The tomb has previously been sealed with wax and all the sources of light removed. They then pray in front of the tomb while the church is filled to capacity with believers. Holy Fire is then said to come from heaven, lighting the 33 candles, as a symbol of resurrection. The Patriarchs then come out of the tomb with the fire and the Divine fire is distributed among the people who are all holding candles. People put their hands IN the fire and do not feel pain. This fire is then taken to different nations on airplanes!

The Chapel of the Francs/The Chapel of the Agony of the Virgin is located to the right of the main entrance. Today one can only look into it from inside the church.

The Chapel of Mary of Egypt, is located underneath, and is owned by the Greek Orthodox.
This chapel is named because of a Byzantine legend about a woman who repents.

Inside the church:

The Stone of Unction (anointing) is the traditional location of the placing of the body of Jesus after it was removed from the cross and where it was prepared for burial by Nicodemus. His body was anointed and then wrapped in a white linen cloth. It is not one of the Stations and is located in front of you when you enter the church. The red lime stone slab was put in place in 1810, after the great fire. People rub fabric on the stone.
Behind the stone there is a modern Byzantine Style mosaic created by the Greek Orthodox. In the mosaic we see from left to right: The burial of Jesus, the anointing of His body for burial, Golgotha with a skull under the cross. (The skull of the first Adam.) The events in the mosaic are pointed towards the traditional locations of the sites. Calvary/ Golgotha. If you enter the church and take the stairs immediately to the right, you come to the chapel that led directly to the Golgotha stone in the Crusader Period. It used to be exposed and was easy to see and touch. Today it is protected to prevent pilgrims from taking a piece of the rock; therefore it is only possible to touch it through a small hole in the central chapel. Four stations of the Via Dolorosa are located up here:

  • 10th Station: Jesus is stripped of his garments
    Latin Chapel on the 2nd floor, located from the right hand window until the other side of the vault. From here it is possible to see the external Chapel of the Francs.
  • 11th Station: Jesus is nailed to the cross.
    Franciscan Chapel, restored by Barluzzi in 1937, originally a Crusader Chapel. The middle mosaic in the ceiling is original. The pre figuration of the sacrifice of Jesus is depicted; i.e. the binding of Isaac, who is replaced by a lamb. Above the Renaissance Period altar, there is a mosaic of the nailing of the Jesus to the cross. This was a gift from the Medici family.
  • 12th Station: Jesus dies on the cross.
    This refers to the middle part of the chapel and is owned by the Greek Orthodox. It is built on top of the traditional location of Golgotha. It is believed that the rock cracked due to an earthquake when Jesus died. Under the altar is a silver disk from which it is possible to reach in and touch the rock itself. There are 3 large icons here: Mary the mother of Jesus, Jesus on the cross with the inscription of Pontius Pilatus in three languages, and John the beloved.
  • 13th Station: Jesus is taken down from the cross.
    This is located between the 2 previous stations and is a small altar dedicated to Our Lady of the Sorrows/Stabat Mater. It is owned by the Franciscans. The wooden bust was a present from Portugal in the 18th century, and commemorates the grief of Mary. She is depicted with a silver sword stabbing her heart from Luke 2:34-35: Then Simon blessed them and said to Mary: “ This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel and to be a sign that will be spoken against so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too “.
  • Armenian Chapel of the Holy Women. This is located to the left of the entrance and is a small dome, resting on 4 thin pillars dedicated to the female followers of Jesus.
    Rotunda – the round area of the church, in which the tomb of Jesus is located. It is known as the Rotunda /Anastasis/ Resurrection, and looks very much like the original Rotunda. The Edicule or tomb was originally a burial cave in the bedrock of the hill. Mourners would go into the antechamber/mourners room, and the tomb was closed with a rolling stone.

Stages in development around the tomb:
• Tomb and antechamber
• In 335 AD, during construction of the Byzantine Church, the bedrock around the tomb was cut, and the antechamber removed. The bedrock was covered with decorations inside and marble outside
• Today, only the covering of the tomb remains. Since 335, Pilgrims have taken pieces of rock as relics, so no rock remains anymore. The last version of the edicule was constructed after the fire of 1810, with the most recent repairs being completed in 2017.

Inside the tomb:
When entering, you come to the “Chapel of the Angel”, which commemorates the angel who talked to the women that came on Sunday morning to anoint Jesus. In this Chapel there is a piece of stone, protected by glass which is believed to be a fragment of the rolling stone that blocked the tomb of Jesus. (Matthew 28.2-3) The stone was said to be smashed by the Persians in 614 as during the Byzantine Period, it was shown to the Pilgrims. Inside, there is small bench of marble where according to tradition, Jesus’ body lay.

  • Coptic chapel at the head of the Tomb.
  • Syrian Chapel which contains two niches or burials from the Second Temple Period.
  • Catholicon – the main, central part of the Crusader church, today owned by the Greek Orthodox Church. It used to be a Holy Garden and was open to the sky during the Byzantine Period. It is said to contain the Omphalos, or naval of the earth, like the Jewish tradition that locates the center of the earth at the Foundation Stone, currently contained within the Dome of the Rock. Catholicon means universal and it is covered by the smaller of the two domes; the rotunda by the larger one.
  • Chapel of Adam which is located below the traditional where Jesus dies on the cross.

This Chapel commemorates the ancient parallel between Adam, the first man, through whom the whole of humanity sinned, and the new Adam, Jesus, through whom everyone can be redeemed. Inside this chapel, it is possible to see the base of the possible rock of Golgotha.According to Byzantine tradition the skull of the first Adam was buried here and the blood of Jesus pored through a crack onto the skull during His crucifixion. This is depicted in the chapel above. A small relic is also kept here, said to be a splinter of the cross to which Jesus was attached.

The Mary Magdalena Chapel is located on North side of the Church, opposite the entrance. It is owned by the Franciscans, and to the right of the door, there is a porphyry pillar that they believe Jesus was attached to when he was whipped. Arches of the Virgin/The prison of the Christ Chapel. This is a long gallery with 7 pillars along the northern side of the Catholicon. The lowest level dates to the construction of the period of Constantine the Great (4th century). The pillars date to the Crusader Period. This was the portico of the Atrium and was open to the sky. At the end of this gallery is a Greek orthodox Chapel, The Prison of the Christ. According to tradition, Jesus and the 2 thieves were held imprisoned here before they were crucified. It has 2 round holes where it is said that the feet of Jesus were fastened. It is a Crusader Period Chapel. Ambulatory: I.e. a corridor to ambulate/go around the Catholicon.

There are 3 Chapels connected to the Ambulatory:
Saint Longinus: Greek orthodox. He pierced the side of Jesus, and when he did so, water and blood came out of his body (like when giving birth) Longinus = Spear/longe = Spearman. He had an eye disease and became blind. When his eyes came into contact with Jesus liquids he was healed and “saw the truth “, i.e. he understood that Jesus was the Messiah. He refused to continue persecuting Christians and was beheaded. He became a martyr:
Armenian Chapel of the Division of the robes by the Roman soldiers. A neon light also commemorates the Armenian genocide.
Chapel of Derision/Mockery. Greek Orthodox. According to tradition Jesus sat on a pillar while soldiers mocked him.
Chapel of Saint Helena: (Down one floor.) This is Armenian, thus there is a modern mosaic of Noah’s Ark. There is a frieze of animals and important churches in the middle. The Dome in the middle is carried by 4 monolithic pillars from the 12th century. According to tradition these columns shed tears. The northern altar is dedicated to the Penitent Thief. On the right is a seat where according to tradition Helena sat while supervising the excavation of the crosses. In the northern wall of the Chapel is a small door leading to a small chapel of Saint Vartan (The first Armenian Christian King) which has the graffiti of a boat. An inscription under the ship says: Domine Ivimus. This comes from a Psalm 122:1 and it means:” Lord, we shall go.” The ship is a Roman merchant vessel and the inscription dates back to the 1st century.

Descending one floor lower, where Crusader pilgrims carved many crosses in the walls:
The Chapel of the finding of the True Cross: According to tradition, Helena found the 3 crosses here, as well as the nails in 326 AD. Traces of Crusader fresco’s are on the wall. The Franciscans bring a relic of the Cross here once a year and place it above the altar. We can see that this is the remains of an ancient quarry and was formerly a cistern. During the Byzantine period no specific meaning was given to this space. It was Monomachus who connected the True Cross story to this Chapel in 1048.


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