Church of the Holy Sepulcher: Location, History, Construction, & Importance
On the Eve of the Orthodox Church’s Easter, a blue light mysteriously shines from the tomb (located in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre) where Jesus is believed to be buried. Shortly after, candles take up the flame of the holy fire which is passed around the worshippers gathered. Even more cryptic than the fire’s origin is the fact that the fire does not burn.
The scene described above is how the Holy Fire Ceremony is observed. It is the biggest and most sacred event among Orthodox Christians. As much as we would like to go on and on spelling out the ins and outs of this miraculous ceremony, our focus of this essay is on the archaeological site that features the holy ceremony and others like it: The Church of the Holy Sepulchre located in the city of Jerusalem.
Since the 4th century, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher has been venerated as the traditional site of Jesus’ crucifixion, burial and resurrection. This compelling piece of historical information makes the location one of the most attractive tourist sites for both Christians and non-Christians around the world.
For many, this holy church represents a paradox of sorts: It brings together people of different religions, yet it serves as a monumental reminder of the deep divisions that exist among these religions. Despite the elaborate architecture of the church, a journalist once described the place as the “ugly duckling” among churches, perhaps due to its startling mundaneness.
The Old City of Jerusalem: the location of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher
Perched on hills at a height of about 2,575 feet is the dynamic modern city of Jerusalem, the capital of Israel per the Jerusalem Law passed passed by the Knesset on 30 July 1980. Described as the religious and historical epicenter of the world, it is the largest municipality in Israel and of great religious significance to Christians, Jews and Muslims alike.
Thanks to the city’s historical elements, it is one of the most-sought after places in the world. Again, Jerusalem remains one of the world’s most contested places, which at different times had been ruled by the Mamluks (slaves of Turkish origin,) Ottomans, Christians, and Muslims.
The Holy City of Jerusalem draws millions of visitors to itself every now and then because of its astounding wealth of religious and cultural landmarks. One of these special landmarks is the famous Church of the Holy Sepulcher, about 2km away from Jerusalem. The Church is located in the Christian Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem and houses two of the holiest sites in Christendom; Calvary, where Jesus was crucified, and the tomb of Jesus’ burial.
Did you know…?
- The Old City of Jerusalem, which is a 0.9-square-kilometre (0.35 sq mi) walled area in East Jerusalem, is divided into four uneven quarters – the Christian, Muslim, Armenian, and Jewish.
- In addition to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the Christian Quarter, which is located in northwestern corner of the Old City of Jerusalem, houses more than 35 Christian sites, including churches and museums. Some examples of those churches are: the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, the Russian Orthodox Holy Trinity Cathedral, the Greek Orthodox Church of St John the Baptist, and the Co-Cathedral of the Most Holy Name of Jesus.
- The original Greek name of the church is Church of the Anastasis (‘Resurrection’).
Generally, the history of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher is woven around regular demolitions and restoration. The origin of the church dates back to the 4th century A.D. when Emperor Constantine the Great became the first emperor of Rome to adopt Christianity as his personal religion. With the Edict of Milan in 313, persecution of Christians in the empire was halted as Christians were given legal status.
During a meeting of all the empire’s bishops in 326, Bishop Macarius of Aelia Capitolina had shared a story of the pathetic abandonment of the sacred sites that featured the life and death of Jesus Christ. After the meeting, Constantine sent his mother, Empress Helena, on a journey to the Holy Land of Jerusalem to discover these places as well as find proof of the life and death of Jesus.
While in Jerusalem, the empress came across the True Cross believed to be the cross upon which Jesus was crucified. She was also able to identify what became known as the Tomb of Christ; the tomb in which Jesus was buried.
About two centuries prior to Helena’s visit, Roman Emperor Hadrian had erected a pagan temple dedicated to the Roman goddess of love Venus (Aphrodite in ancient Greek religion) on the site. Having converted to Christianity, Constantine ordered for the demolition of the pagan temple, and in its stead, built an “appropriate” church for Christ to enclose those purported holy sites.
During the destruction of the pagan temple, a series of rock-cut tombs was found. One of these was said to be the tomb of the biblical figure, Joseph of Arimathea. Venerated as saint by the Greek Orthodox Church, Catholic Church and even some Protestants, Joseph was a wealthy man and a secret disciple of Jesus, according to Matthew 27:57. After securing permission from Pontius Pilate, the governor of the Roman province of Judea, Joseph and Nicodemus, took responsibility for the burial of Jesus after his crucifixion. According to the Gospel of Matthew (Matthew 27:60), Joseph uses his own tomb for the burial of Christ.
It is said that over time, the Christian Quarter emerged from around the premises of Jesus’ tomb. Furthermore, the True Cross became a venerated and prized relic and proof of Golgotha or Calvary, which according to the canonical gospels, was the location of Jesus’ crucifixion. The site has since been esteemed as a holy destination for worshippers throughout the world.
Repair and Renovations of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher over the years
In 614 AD, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher was plundered and pillaged by the Persians. The most turbulent period for the church came in 1009, when it was absolutely destroyed by Caliph al-Hakim, a Fatimid caliph and the 16th Ismaili Imam.
Later, a section of the church was reconstructed by the Byzantine emperor Constantine Monomachus in 1048. About a century later, further renovation work were done by Western Crusaders. Most of the present building dates from the early part of the 19th century.
Excavation of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher (1960)
In the late 1950s, delegates from number of religious groups combined their efforts to execute an extensive excavation project of the site of the church. Plans were set in motion, and by 1960, the archaeological exploration of the church had started.
Italian Franciscan Friar and archaeology professor, Virgilio Corbo, presided over the project. In 1982, the excavation reports were published under the Italian title “The Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem: archaeological aspects from its origins to the Crusader period.”
Not long after, the blueprint of the original church was reconstructed using archaeological information, discoveries and written sources.
The Status Quo established during the Ottoman era
The first ruler to establish some kind of practical understanding among religious communities with respect to holy sites in Jerusalem was Ottoman sultan Osman III. In 1757, the sultan issued a decree (firman) that divided the responsibilities and ownership of nine shared holy sites in Jerusalem and Bethlehem. That decree came to be known as the Status Quo, which was later affirmed by the decrees of Ottoman sultan Abdülmecid I in 1852 and 1853. Abdülmecid’s firmans were recognized in Article 9 of the Treaty of Paris (1856), the peace treaty that brought an end to the Crimean War (1853-1856).
Basically the Status Quo established during the Ottoman era instructed the affairs of the church to be overseen by the Greek Orthodox, the Armenian Apostolic and the Roman Catholic churches. This move arose from centuries of disputes regarding the ownership of the church.
As time passed, portions of the building was placed in the charge of three smaller orthodox denominations; the Coptic, Syriac and the Ethiopian churches. This period was marked by the modification of some atheistic qualities of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher to suit the different tastes of the various Christian groups.
The Church of the Holy Sepulcher today
Today, the building occupies half the area of the original Byzantine church while only the Rotunda remains a replica of the design of the 4th century original. Although the present building is mostly a modernization of the first, the church has been able to stand the test of time. For almost 1700 years, the church has seen and survived fierce invasions, natural disasters such as earthquakes, and demolitions.
A very fascinating fact about the church is its embodiment of the distinct architecture of several centuries. Some of which are 1st century Herodian, 2nd century Hadrianic, 11th century Byzantine, and 20th century modern masonry.
Who controls the Church of the Holy Sepulcher?
The Church of the Holy Sepulcher, over the centuries, has been claimed by various religions. In the year 1852, the Ottoman Sultan Abdülmecid I issued a directive, instructing the affairs of the church to be overseen by the Greek Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic churches and the Roman Catholic Church. This move grew out of centuries of disputes regarding the ownership of the church.
In later years, smaller portions of the building were placed in the hands of three smaller orthodox denominations; the Coptic, Syriac and the Ethiopian churches. During this period, some atheistic qualities of the church were modified to suit different tastes of the various Christian orders.
Today, the church is shared and managed by 6 denominations, according to Jerusalem’s Status-Quo Agreement. This is a modus vivendi that prevents disagreements among opposing parties.
The Status-Quo decree strictly regulated the times and places of worship and prohibited the movement of the ladder placed against the right window of the church. The decree was internationally acknowledged in the Treaty of Berlin signed between the European powers and the Ottoman Empire in 1878. This was at the heels of the Russo-Turkish war of 1877 to 1878.
The Greek Orthodox Church governs most affairs of the building and controls the Katholikon (diocese in the Eastern Orthodox Church.) On the northern part of the church is the Franciscan Monastery, which is managed by the Latins (or the Roman Catholics in purple).
The monastery comprises the Chapel of the Apparition and the Chapel of Mary Magdalene. The Latins are also in charge of the Grotto of the Invention of the Cross; a small area sandwiched between the Katholikon and the Rotunda.
In the lower level of the church is the 12th century Armenian church called the Chapel of St. Helen. This chapel, together with the Armenian Gallery and the Chapel of St. James is managed by the Armenians.
The Ethiopians are authorized to control the Ethiopian monastery situated on the roof of the church. They also manage the Chapel of the Four Living Creatures and the Chapel of St. Michael.
In the jurisdiction of the Copts (members of the Coptic church) are several chapels found close to the Rotunda and the Edicule (the Holy Sepulcher itself.)
Lastly, the Monastery of St. Nicodemus, a monastery of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem is under the control of the Syriac Church. The St. Nicholas chapel is the smallest part of the church and is found very close to the sepulcher.
A Multidenominational Church
In recent times, peace and cooperation among the churches have been most probable. In 2017, necessity called for the three major denominations – Greek, Catholic and Armenian – to unite to address issues regarding renovations. Two years later, an agreement was reached by the three denominations to further revamp portions of the building, including the sewage pipes and floors.
Significance of the Church
For a number of reasons, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher holds a special place in the hearts of various religious groups (especially Christians). The church, above others, stands tall in Jerusalem despite the numerous churches in both the Christian and Armenian parts of the city.
Many worshippers yearn to visit this holy place at least once in their lifetime. Below are brief discussions of why the Church of the Holy Sepulcher is highly regarded by the three main religious groups:
Its significance to Christians & Jews
Of great significance is the sacred site of the church of the Holy Sepulcher to Christians and Jews alike. Apart from the belief that it is the location of the crucifixion, burial, and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ, the various features of the church, including the Tomb of Jesus, the Jacobite Chapel and St. Helena’s Chapel provide a deeper connection between Christians and the life of Jesus. To some, these very features also serve as proof that Jesus truly lived, died and rose again, edifying the faith of Christians across the world. Statistics published by the Temple Mount Group Beyadenu, a record of 51,483 Jews toured the site in 2022.
Significance to Muslims
As Jesus Christ is seen as prophet in Islam, many Muslims in Jerusalem have come to have deep appreciation of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Furthermore, within the church is the Ayyubid Mosque of Omar, an Islamic place of worship that is only reserved for praying for Muslims. The mosque is found opposite the southern courtyard of the church.
The site of Calvary (also known as Golgotha)
Known as the place where Jesus was crucified, Calvary (also known as Golgotha) can be accessed after from a stairway inside. The place is perhaps the most beautifully decorated section of the church. Calvary has two chapels: one each for the Catholic Church and the Greek Orthodox Church. Both chapels have their own altar.
The Greek Orthodox chapel is located on the left, while the Catholic Church’s is located on the right. The Greek Orthodox chapel contains the rock of Calvary, which is encased in protective glass. The rock is the most popular tourist area of the church.
Other interesting artifacts within the Church
For many years, tens of thousands of pilgrims have visited the Church of the Holy Sepulcher annually to tour sites of interest as well as partake in various sacred ceremonies. Let’s take you through some of the most interesting elements of the Church.
But first, note that though it gets very populated at peak periods, a visit to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher is definitely worth every trouble. Now let’s begin;
The “Immovable” Ladder
A casual glance at the church would reveal a ladder against the upper right window. The ladder, thought previously by many as immovable, is actually mobile. In fact, a college student who once visited the site claimed she noticed that the ladder was leaning against the left window. She took pictures to back her claims. She further explained that the ladder was surprisingly returned to the right window a day later. Who could have moved it? The question remains unanswered to this day. The ladder’s perceived “immovability” was perhaps due to the fact that since 1852 it remained at the same place for many years.
Historians tell interesting little stories of the ordinary looking ladder; wooden and has only about five rungs. Some believe the ladder was placed there by the Ottomans to control movements inside the church. Others believe it was positioned there by a mason or a sculptor who forgot all about it.
Stone of Anointing
Also known as the Stone of Unction, this is a place located directly ahead upon entering the church. The stone, polished in red and standing at 6 meters tall, is believed to be where Jesus’s body was laid down after being taken from the cross and then prepared for burial.
The wall shows modern Greek mosaics indicative of the anointing of Jesus’s body as he was being wrapped in shrouds and prepared for burial. One would also see lamps and incense lining an elaborate stand over the Stone of Anointing. It is believed that the stone is a memorabilia of the obedience of Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea.
Located in the center of the Rotunda is a small housing called the Aedicule. This chapel contains the Holy Sepulcher itself and is made up of two rooms. In one room is the Angel’s Stone said to be a fragment of the stone that was atop Jesus’ tomb.
The other room is Jesus’ tomb itself. The interior of the tomb can be accessed by the Eastern orthodox, Armenian Apostolic and the Roman Catholic churches. All three groups perform holy mass there every day. Special ceremonies, including the Holy Saturday Ceremony of the Holy Fire, are performed at the Aedicule. Everyone is welcome to visit the place but all are advised to dress modestly.
Two Underground Churches
Built in the 12th century, the Chapel of St. Helena is one of about thirty chapels of the church. It is an Armenian chapel at the lower region of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. It was said to be a vault for Emperor Constantine’s 4th century basilica and is therefore perceived as the oldest part of the church.
Originally named after Constantine’s mother, Helena, the Armenians renamed the Chapel in memory of St. Gregory the Illuminator, the first formal head of the Armenian Apostolic Church.
The second chapel beneath ground level is the Chapel of the Finding of the Cross. This vault is located in the eastern end of the church. Historians claim that Helena found the True Cross and other precious relics of the Passion (the short final period in the life of Jesus Christ) and crucifixion. It is within this chapel that an altar and a huge statue of a woman believed to be Helena is found.
Chapel of Adam
Formerly called the “Place of the Skull,” the Chapel of Adam is one of the over 30 chapels inside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Legend holds that the first man ever created, Adam, was buried in this chapel situated under the northern side of Golgotha. The blood of Jesus is also believed to flow down to the skull of Adam in this chapel.
Some Christians assert that the position of the skull in relation to Jesus’ cross is symbolic of the salvation of man that was paid for by the death and resurrection of Christ.
The Chapel of Adam was originally decorated with a beautiful mosaic which was destroyed in a fire in 1808. The same fire gutted what was known as the “Tomb of Melchizedek.”
The Church during the Crusades
It is said that one of the reasons why the Western Europe embarked on the Crusades to the Holy Land was in response to Muslims’ attempt to convert some part of the church into a mosque.
When the Christians took over Jerusalem after the First Crusade, they renovated the church in the 11th century. In the centuries that followed, the church witnessed many renovation works. For example, it was renovated in 1808 after fire gutted some sections of the building. In 1927, the church also suffered a bit of damage as a result of an earthquake.
Other Interesting Facts
Tracing its origin to the 4th century A.D., the church remains culturally and spiritually significant to many Christian denominations, including Catholics, Armenians, Greek Orthodox, and Ethiopian churches. The Church was renovated several times since, especially after the fire of 1808 and the 1927 earthquake. Today its maintenance is split between at least 6 different Christian denominations.
Here are some other things that you probably did not know about the Church of the Holy Sepulcher:
- In April, 2022, masses of Christians were prevented by the Israeli police from visiting the Church of the Holy Sepulcher to partake in the Holy Fire Ceremony. This was in response to a stampede at the site which caused over 40 deaths.
- As of 2022, King Abdullah II of Jordan was the custodian of Jerusalem’s Holy sites.
- In 1964, Pope Paul VI visited the church site and delivered a public address by the empty tomb. More than 30 years later, Pope John Paul II also made a trip to the church two times the same day.
- Following the 1967 Arab–Israeli War, the affairs of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher was run by the Israeli government and has been under their control since then.
- In October 2016, architects and building restorers temporarily removed the marble covering protecting the original limestone slab upon which Jesus was thought to have been laid by Joseph of Arimathea. The slab was removed for restoration. The last time the original slab was exposed was in 1555.
- Per the a verse in the Bible (John 19:41–42), Jesus’ tomb was sited close to where he was crucified. As a result, Constantine and his mother decided to erect a church to enclose those two holy sites – the tomb and the place of the Crucifixion.
- Although a good number of people believe that Church is indeed the actual location of the crucifixion and burial place of Jesus, there exist no tangible proof to support those claims. Some scholars have argued that it is highly unlikely that those sacred items purported to have been found in the area in the 4th century could not have survived the destruction that Jerusalem witnessed at the hands of the Roman Empire in 70 A.D.
Disputes over control
Maintenance and care of the church has been placed in the hands of at least 6 Christian denominations, including the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic Church, Ethiopian Orthodox Church, and Armenian Apostolic.
Disputes over the care of the church have periodically flared up as each domination jealously guards their territory to the last inch. As a result, consensus has not always been forthcoming whenever the matter of repairs or renovations is brought up. This in turn has stifled renovation works and caused the church to begin to age fast.
For example, the famous “immovable ladder” that was said to have been placed sometime in the 18th century to this day remains in its exact spot. As none of the Christian denominations are unsure of the owner of the ladder, the ladder has simply been left against the wall. The various Christian sects are afraid removing the ladder could upset the fragile arrangement (status quo) that exist today.