The Church of the Holy Sepulchre

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is one of the holiest sites in Christendom. It is located in the Christian quarter (there are four quarters) of the old city of Jerusalem. While the Church is famous for the site of the crucifixion, the spot where Jesus was taken down from the cross and embalmed and also the burial spot, it is also famous for several events that took place at the time of the crucifixion and several days after the death of Jesus.

Most visitors to Jerusalem are unaware that the city was razed and rebuilt as a Roman city named Aelia Capitolina by the Emperor Hadrian (after his family name Aelias and the Roman triune gods Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva) sometime after 117 A.D. According to Eusebius, the Roman Emperor Hadrian built a temple dedicated to the Roman goddess Venus in order to bury the cave in which Jesus had been buried and thus prevent Christians from venerating this holy site. Ironically, in doing so he inadvertently preserved the holiest shrine in Christendom.

The Hadrianic temple was completely destroyed by the Emperor Constantine 180 years later. He ordered that the temple be replaced by a Church.  While demolishing the structure, a tomb was discovered that was thought to be the tomb of Jesus. Constantine’s architects designed an imposing series of structures over the site. Covering the tomb itself he built an edicule, meaning a little house. This edicule has been rebuilt each one over the other like four nested Russian dolls, one outside the other, since the first edicule of Constantine in the fourth century till the last one of the 19th century which is seen today; the second and third edicule being built in the eleventh and sixteenth century.

The tomb of Jesus

In 614 the Persians pillaged the city of Jerusalem and sacked it for three days. The true cross of Christ was stolen only to be returned several years later. However the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was torched and Christians who took refuge in it were murdered.

In the year 1009, the fanatic Al-Hakim, the Caliph of Egypt, ordered the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem destroyed.  The demolition of this site, so holy to Christians, began with the empty tomb where Jesus had been buried, and continued with the dome. All of the furnishings were either stolen or destroyed. Destruction however, was not total, because as the high parts fell, rubble blocked the workmen from getting to the lower parts. For close to forty years, Christians were forbidden to visit the site.

In 1099/1100 the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was again rebuilt, this time under Crusader rule to conform more closely to the architectural styles current on the European continent and to accommodate Latin liturgy. It was rededicated in 1161. The Crusader Church of the Holy Sepulchre united the sites of Golgotha and the Anastasis (Greek for resurrection or place where Jesus rose) in one building for the first time. This Crusader church is essentially the same structure that exists today, at least in plan.

An artists impression of the layers of the Church

 In 1187 Jerusalem was conquered by Saladin and was surrender to the Ayyubid dynasty, a Muslim sultanate that ruled in the Middle East in the early 12th century and the Church was once again closed. In the years to come pilgrims were forced to pay ‘a tax’ in order to enter a Church which was ‘without lamps and without honour and worship’ ( as narrated by the pilgrim Thietmar 1217)

In 1342, Pope Clement VI gave the Franciscan order the right to care for the Hoy places, however all this changed in 1517 when power in the Islamic world changed from the Mameluke dynasty of Egypt to the Ottomans of Turkey who favoured the Greek orthodox Church creating a friction between the Latin Christians and the Greek Orthodox.

During 1719-1728 various Christian Churches began to restore several parts of the Church. In 1757 the Sultan granted the Greek Orthodox Church the Churches in Bethlehem. Parts of the Holy Sepulchre were also granted to the Latin Church along with the Greek Orthodox Church. This arrangement holds till this day.

The edicule which houses the tomb of Jesus

Perhaps that leaves us with one puzzling question. According to the Bible, Golgotha and the tomb of Jesus was situated outside the walls of the city of Jerusalem. How then is it that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre stands almost in the centre of the city of Jerusalem? To answer this one needs to know a bit of the history of the city of Jerusalem. Eleven years after the crucifixion of Jesus, Herod Agrippa built in the year 44 AD, a new wall which included the area that now holds the Church of the Holy Sepulchre within the perimeter of the city. In the middle of the last century, remains of the ancient wall of the city were found to the East and North of the Church. The Jewish tombs seen inside the Church are also strong evidence that this district was outside the city, for, according to Jewish law nobody can be buried within the precincts of the Holy City.

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One thought on “The Church of the Holy Sepulchre”

  • Thank you for sharing all the details with graphic illustration, Fr. The Holy Sepulchre was the only place in Holy Land I felt something within me reminding me of a scripture from the Bible. Your blogs have made it easier for me to relish the richness of these sites. Thank you Fr. and thanks be to God. 🙂

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