The Holy Sepulchre Church

The dome of the Holy Sepulchre.
The dome of the Holy Sepulchre.
The main entrance to the Holy Sepulchre church
The main entrance to the Holy Sepulchre church

“Do not be afraid, he is not here; he has risen, just as he said.

Come and see the place where he lay”


 Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher is highly venerated but disputed site of Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection. Though it has existed since the dawn of a Christian era, there are still disputes about whether the place is authentic. The Basilica is one of the most puzzling buildings in the Land. It was badly treated during the history of its existence. It replaced the pagan shrine built previously by the Roman Emperor Hadrian. It was called the Resurrection Church ( Anastasis, Greek).

The church was damaged during the Persian conquest in 614 CE. The Arabs revered the site but a very radical Fatimid caliph Al-Khakim of Egypt ordered the church’s destruction in 1009.

It is from the Crusader’s period the church obtained its present form. They restored and extended the building through the period of fifty years since 1099 till 1149.

The church is shared by different Christian denominations. Among them is Armenian Apostolic Church, The Eastern Orthodox, Latin Catholic (Franciscan order), Coptic, Ethiopian and Syrian Jacobite churches. The history of the site is complex and raises lots of questions.

The excavations at the site had been carried out by renowned Kathleen Kenyon, Franciscan Fr Virgilio Corbo, by Professor of Hebrew University in Jerusalem Gaby Barkai and many others.

The Chapel of the Tomb of Jesus (Edicule)
The Chapel of the Tomb of Jesus (Edicule)

The New Testament narrative is in our days considered by many scholars as a literary-historical source. Apart the Gospels there are just a few written documents describing historical Jesus from Nazareth and events of his life.

According to the narrative, carrying his cross, Jesus came to "a place called Calvary, and in Hebrew Golgotha: there they crucified him." Golgotha or rather Goolgolet in Aramaic means Skull. In this matter there is no discrepancy among all four evangelists. John adds to this that the place "was near the city". Apostle Paul, whose epistles are among the oldest in the New Testament, adds to this that Jesus suffered outside the city gate. According to the Gospel of John "In this place there was a garden, and in this garden a new tomb in which no one had been yet buried".  The tomb according to description was a typical 1-St century CE Jewish tomb hewn in the rock closed by the rolling stone. Such a tomb type was known as acrosolium. This tomb belonged to certain rich man, a secret disciple of Jesus, Joseph of Arimathea. He was an influential man, member of the Sanhedrin, who could negotiate with the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate the permission to bury Jesus.

None of the holy sites was ever disputed till the beginning of a modern era. Since modern times a huge amount of excavations  was done and the results clarified the town plan of Jerusalem in the first and second century AD. The most important thing is the city walls location in Jesus times. The present Old City's walls were built by the Ottoman sultan Suleiman in 1535-1541 (38?). Suleiman followed the line laid out by the emperor Hadrian in 135 AD. Hadrian re founded Jerusalem and renamed it as Aelia Capitoline. The area of the present church probably was brought within the city walls sometime between 40 - 44 AD, when Herod Agrippa, the last king of Judea, built new city walls thus increasing Jerusalem's borders.

The testimony of the Gospels and of the excavations more or less agree with each other. It is important to remember that no excavation could prove that the sites of Golgotha and of the Tomb are authentic. It shows, at least, that they can be authentic....

 The early Christians did not have much interest in the holy places. But in Jewish religious tradition there was much respect to the certain places such as the Temple itself, Patriarchs and Matriarchs burial sites etc. A pious Jew had to visit a Temple at least three times a year, during most important religious feasts. Jesus visited Jerusalem during the feasts and his disciples were of the same mind. Though, generally speaking, the first Christians lived in the eager expectation of the Second Coming of Messiah. But these hopes were not realized yet and the Holy Scriptures became more revered and searched.

In the middle of the second century AD, the mighty Roman emperor Hadrian decides to build a temple dedicated to goddess Venus and god Jupiter. The temple stood at the site of present Golgotha and amd Jesus tomb. St. Jerome describes it in his history account:

"... for about 180 years there stood on the site of Resurrection a statue of Jupiter; and on the rock of the cross a marble statue of  Venus..." (c.385)

 (Though a contemporary of Jerome, Pauline of Nola, tells a slightly different story. He places at the site of Golgotha a statue of Jupiter.)

  The ages passed and mighty emperors replaced each other until accession to the throne of Constantine. The new emperor shows an unheard before tolerance towards Christianity and even presides at the Christian Counsel of Nicaea in 325. That's where he had been asked to restore the Holy Places in Palestine.

 Among the first Church fathers visited Jerusalem was Bishop Alexander who came in 212 CE "to pray and visit the Holy Places". Another famous pilgrim was Origen. But since the reign of Constantine the pilgrimage becomes common practice among the Christians.

The chapel of the tomb of jesus christ (Edicule)

The entrance to The Tomb
The entrance to The Tomb

There is a detailed account of the recovery of the sites of the Resurrection and of Golgotha given by the Church historian Eusebius. This was perhaps one of the reasons motivated the emperor Constantine's order to erect a house of prayer worthy of God".The famous Church historian Eusebius says that all traces of Hadrian's temple dedicated to pagan gods were removed.  But more likely, there was a considerable reuse of materials from the former temple. The Constantine's Basilica had Martirion, the main basilica, beyond it lay a second atrium with colonnades (called Triportico). Then there was a chapel called the Edicule of the Tomb of Christ. It was surrounded by a domed Rotunda supported by columns.

golgotha (calvary)


 The little hillock of Calvary was covered by a shrine. Here, under Hadrian there was a shrine in honor of Aphrodite. In 1990 professor George Labbas, of the University of Thessaloniki, excavated the area. Now, the virgin rock is exposed behind the glass. It is very difficult to conjecture how the site had looked like in Constantine's times.

the Brief history of the Church


The basilica was dedicated on 14-Th of September 335. The Emperor Constantine was present. This day is commemorated by the Feast of Exaltation which is an adaptation of the Biblical Feast of Tabernacles.

In a few hundreds years, precisely on 20-Th of May 614, the Persian army invaded Palestine. The Persians systematically destroyed and sacked the churches. The churches were pillaged and burnt. They seized the Wood of the Holy Cross from the Holy Sepulcher Church and carried it to their capital at Ctesiphon. By the 628 the Emperor Heracles had freed the lost provinces of Palestine but not for long...

In 638 Moslems took Jerusalem. According to a narrative, Patriarch Sophronius rejected to surrender if not to Caliph Omar in person. Caliph shortly visited it. He refrained to pray in the Holy Sepulcher Church deliberately, so it will not be turned into the mosque.

Omar had issued a decree, an early pattern of religious tolerance and acceptance:

"In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate:

 This is the writing of Omar son of Khattab to the inhabitants of Jerusalem.

I affirm you that you (Christians) will have absolute security for your lives, your property and your churches;

and that they will not be inhabited by the Muslims, nor destroyed, unless you should rebel against us."


In 746 there was a strong earthquake and another one in 810. These earthquakes damaged the Church severely.

Later, in 1009 a fanatical Caliph Al-Khakim from Egypt did even more harm. He ordered the total destruction of the Holy Sepulcher and thus finished the period of Muslim tolerance towards adherents of other faiths.

The Crusaders

 The Crusaders came to free the Tomb of the Lord. They entered Jerusalem under Geoffrey de Bullion on 15 July 1099. They had massacred all the population of the city. Later they began an extensive construction of a completely new church which would be sufficient for their needs. In 1149 the new Church was consecrated. It stands more or less intact till present day.

on July 1187 Crusaders' state of affairs was ended by Saladin's victory in the battle at the Horns of Khattin. Eventually he arrived in Jerusalem and his army occupied all the holy places. He ordered the doors of the Holy Sepulcher to be closed for three days. The bells were removed from the towers. And soon a Moslem doorkeeper was installed. Saladin ordered that no Christian community will have more authority in the Church. This rule is still in power.

The Armenian Apocstolic Church chapel of "The division of the garments"
The Armenian Apocstolic Church chapel of "The division of the garments"

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