The Holy Sepulchre Church

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The Holy Sepulchre Church dome
The Holy Sepulchre Church dome

Brief history of the Holy Sepulchre Church

The main entrance to the Holy Sepulcher Church
The main entrance to the Holy Sepulcher Church

“Do not be afraid, He is not here; He has risen, just as He said. Come and see the place where He lay” (Matthew 28:6).

 

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is the highly venerated but also disputed site of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus with many differing opinions regarding the authenticity of the sites. It is one of the most puzzling buildings in the Land and has been badly treated throughout the history of its existence.

 

In 135, Emperor Hadrian built a pagan city on the site of Jerusalem. He also built a Capitol temple dedicated to Jupiter where the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre stands today.

 

Throughout the history of the church, mighty emperors replaced each other until ascension of Constantine the Great, the Emperor of Rome from 306 to 337 AD. He was very tolerant towards Christianity and presided over the Christian Council of Nicaea in 325 AD where he was asked to restore the Holy Places in Palestine. Constantine had the temple of Venus in Jerusalem demolished to make way for building of a Christian shrine. While clearing the area, a tomb was discovered which was believed to be the tomb of Jesus. The construction of the church began 326 AD and Constantine was present at the dedication. His mother, Helena, arrived in 326 AD. The discovery of the Cross of Jesus during the building of the Church was attributed to her later in the century.

 

During the Persian conquest in 614 AD, the church was badly damaged and they seized the Cross from the Holy Sepulchre Church and carried it to their capital at Ctesiphon. By the 628 AD, Emperor Heracles had freed the lost provinces of Palestine but not for long.  Although the Arabs revered it as a holy site, a very radical Egyptian Fatimid caliph, Al-Khakim, ordered the church’s destruction in 1009.

 

The current building was restored and extended over a period of fifty years (1099-1149) during the Crusader period. Several different Christian denominations share ownership of the Church, including the Armenian Apostolic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Latin Catholic church (presented by the Franciscans), as well as Coptic, Ethiopian and Syrian Jacobite churches.

 

 

The excavations of ruins at the site were carried out by renowned British archaeologist Dame Kathleen Kenyon and many others. Dr Ute Lux excavated a nearby area and proved where the present church stands is outside the first century city boundaries.  The location of the present church was probably brought within the city walls around 40 - 44 AD, when Herod Agrippa, the last king of Judea, enlarged Jerusalem’s borders and built additional city walls. In the 19th century, the authenticity of the Holy Sepulchre site began to be disputed. 

 

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

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

 

The Gospel tells us that "they took Jesus, therefore, and He went out, bearing His own cross, to the place called the Place of a Skull, which is called in Hebrew, Golgotha." (John 19:17)

 

That place "where Jesus was crucified was near the city..." (John 19:20) or as Apostle Paul later confirms:

"Therefore, Jesus also that He might sanctify the people with His own blood, suffered outside the gate" (Heb.13:12).

 

While Jesus was carrying the cross, “He came to a place called Calvary, and Golgotha (in Hebrew); there they crucified Him" (Luke 23:33).

 

Golgotha (Goolgolet in Aramaic) means skull and among all four Gospel accounts, there is no discrepancy regarding the location of the Crucifixion. John adds to this that the place "was near the city" (John 19:20). Apostle Paul’s epistles are among the oldest in the New Testament and he adds that Jesus “suffered outside the city gate” (Hebrews 13:12).

 

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" (John 19:41).

 

The tomb, according to the description was a typical 1st century CE Jewish tomb hewn into the rock and closed by a rolling stone. The style of this burial place was known as an acrosolium.

“This tomb belonged to certain rich man, a secret disciple of Jesus, Joseph of Arimathea” (Matthew 27:60).

 

Joseph of Arimathea was an influential man who was a member of the Sanhedrin. He negotiated with the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate and obtained permission to bury Jesus. According to the Gospel of John, only the burial site and the tomb of a wealthy Joseph of Arimathea was near or at the same site where Jesus was crucified and there was a garden there.

 

 

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

The Sepulchre of Christ

The entrance to The Tomb
The entrance to The Tomb
The Edicule (chapel) of the Tomb of Christ
The Edicule (chapel) of the Tomb of Christ

 

 

There is a detailed account of the sites of the Resurrection and of Golgotha given by Eusebius, the ancient Church historian. He records all traces of Hadrian’s Temple which had been dedicated to pagan gods were removed and perhaps the motivation for Constantine’s order "to erect a house of prayer worthy of God".

History of Calvary (Golgotha)

Golgotha
Golgotha

The little mound known as Calvary was covered by a shrine. During the reign of pagan emperor Hadrian stood a shrine in honor of Aphrodite.

 

 

In 1990, the area was excavated by Professor George Labbas from the University of Thessaloniki. Now, the rock is exposed behind the glass.

Construction of the Holy Sepulchre Church

The Muslim Period

The long line to visit the Sepulchre of Christ inside a chapel called Edicule.
The long line to visit the Sepulchre of Christ inside a chapel called Edicule.

 In 638, the Moslems took over Jerusalem. According to the historical narrative, Patriarch Sophronius refused to surrender unless it was to Caliph Omar in person. The latter agreed and arrived shortly after the request. He deliberately refused to pray inside the Holy Sepulchre Church because he did not want his supporters to turn the Christian holy site into a mosque.

 

 

Omar demonstrated a pattern of religious tolerance and acceptance and issued a decree:

"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 the year 746 AD there was a strong earthquake and then another one in 810 AD, both severely damaged the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Later in 1009 AD, a fanatical Caliph Al-Khakim from Egypt cause even more harm and ordered the total destruction of the Holy Sepulchre; thus ended the period of Muslim tolerance towards Christians in Palestine.

The Crusader Period

The Armenian Apostolic Chapel
The Armenian Apostolic Chapel

The Crusaders came from Europe to free the Tomb of the Lord and entered Jerusalem under Geoffrey de Bouillon on 15 July 1099.

 

They massacred the whole population of the city and later began an extensive reconstruction of the Holy Sepulchre Church. The new Church was consecrated in 1149 and has remained intact today.

 

 

In July 1187, the Crusaders' control of the region was ended by Saladin's victory in the battle at the Horns of Khattin. Eventually, Saladin arrived in Jerusalem and his army occupied all the holy places.

 

He locked the doors of the Holy Sepulchre for three days, removed the bells and installed a Moslem doorkeeper. from the towers. Saladin ordered that no single Christian religious community have ultimate authority in the Church and the decree remains status quo to the present day. Saladin granted permission for Greek clergy to return to the Holy Sepulchre Church. Later, a treaty was secured to allow the passage of the pilgrims from the West but they were heavily taxed by the Moslem authorities.

Muslim Reign Restored

Basilica Catholicon
Basilica Catholicon

Saladin, the victor over the Crusaders, was a Kurd and he shared rule over his vast realm with his numerous brothers, cousins and sons. Each was given the title of sultan and the most powerful of them were in Egypt.

 

The Egyptian sultans relied heavily on their primary military force, the Mamluks who were nomads from the Kipchaq steppes. They were captured or recruited as slaves then freed after their training and conversion to Islam.

The Mamluks seized power in Egypt in the 13th century and the title of the sultan became elective among them. Their dynasty lasted until Turkish Ottoman conquest in 1517.

 

In 1226, according to reports, Moslem custodians presided over every Christian procession to the church (continues to the present day). A horrible tragedy occurred when one of these processions was attacked, and all were massacred by the Khwarismian Turks. Then there were numerous wars with the French army of Louis IX which was defeated.  Mongols invaded the Near East and restored order which allowed pilgrims to visit the Holy places again.

 

In the 14th century, the Franciscans obtained control of some of the Holy places of the Church and their authority continues to this day. Since the Turkish Ottoman conquest, the new authorities established specific conditions which are known as status quo ante bellum (the state of things before the war). The clergy of the Greek Orthodox Church clergy enjoyed more privileges from the authorities compared with other religious groups such as the Latins who were represented by Venice then later by France (frequently at war with the Ottomans). These groups were refused rights to the Church.

 

The Franciscans were ejected from the church at the site of Last Supper Room and a mosque was built instead.  In 1662, the Greek Orthodox Church clergy was reorganized into the Brotherhood of the Holy Sepulchre. Later in the 17th century, due to diplomatic effort, balance was restored and the rights of the Franciscans were confirmed in their claim of Calvary and of the Holy Sepulchre. In 1774, Russia was a newly emerging world power after a series of wars with Turkey and they assumed protection over Orthodox holy places.

 

 

Following a series of European wars and changing ruling powers over Jerusalem, the State of Israel continues to observe status quo ante bellum over the holy places in the Holy Sepulchre Church. Today the territory and the holy places of the Church are divided among six Christian denominations: Greek Orthodox, Latin Catholic, Armenian Apostolic, Coptic, Ethiopian and Syrian Orthodox.

The Armenian Apostolic Church chapel of "The Division of the Garments"
The Armenian Apostolic Church chapel of "The Division of the Garments"

Sites within the Holy Sepulchre Church

The Entrance

The largest chapel of the Holy Sepulchre Church called Catholicon
The largest chapel of the Holy Sepulchre Church called Catholicon

 A very small doorway leads to the Holy Sepulchre church from the area of the Arab market (Suq ed-Dabbaha, Muristan). In the paved courtyard in front of the entrance to the church, the bases of the columns (drums) are clearly seen.

 

Once, these columns supported portico that was later destroyed.

 

On the left are three chapels (apses) of the Greek Orthodox Church: St James, St.John's and Forty Martyrs. On the right is the Greek Monastery of Abraham and the Chapel of Abraham on top of Calvary. Together, these sites commemorate the binding of Isaak; a foreshadowing of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on Golgotha.

 

There are two large entrances into the church. On the right the door was walled by Saladin upon his return to Jerusalem after defeating the Crusaders. Since 1246, two Muslim families have been custodians of the entrance to the church. Typically, they sit on the bench to the left of the entrance. The church opens at 4:00 a.m. and closes its gates at 8:00 p.m.

 

There is a stairway on the right side which leads to a small structure with large glass windows. which leads to the Chapel of our Lady of Sorrows, also called the Frankish chapel. The small blue door underneath has an engraving of the cross and is the entrance to the Chapel of St. Mary of Egypt which commemorates her repentance and conversion.

Rotunda and the Edicule - the Tomb of Christ
Rotunda and the Edicule - the Tomb of Christ

Calvary (Golgotha)

"They took Jesus, therefore, and He went out, bearing His own cross, to the place called the Place of a Skull, which is called in Hebrew, Golgotha" (John 19:17).

The stairway to Golgotha
The stairway to Golgotha
Catholic area of Calvary Chapel
Catholic area of Calvary Chapel

 "They took Jesus, therefore, and He went out, bearing His own cross, to the place called the Place of a Skull, which is called in Hebrew, Golgotha" (John 19:17).

 

On the right side of the entrance to the church, there is a staircase that leads to the upper floor where Calvary is found. An alternative name is Golgotha, derived from the Aramaic language, which means a skull. It is possible the rock resembles a skull or simply the head (top) of the rock.

 

The Greek Orthodox Golgotha - the site of the cross of Jesus
The Greek Orthodox Golgotha - the site of the cross of Jesus

The upper Chapel of Calvary is a small area that is divided between the Greek Church on the left and the Roman Catholic Church on the right. 

 

The Catholic altar is called Our Lady of Sorrows and was a gift of the famous Ferdinand of Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany. It was created by Dominic Portigani in 1588 and was originally intended to be the altar of the Stone of Unction (Anointing).

 

The statue of Mary between the Greek Orthodox and Catholic chapels shows a sword piercing her heart to symbolize the fulfillment of righteous Simeon's prophecy to Mary:

“Behold, this Child is appointed for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and for a sign to be opposed - and a sword will pierce even your own soul - to the end that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed” (Luke 2:2:35).

 

 

The Tenth Station of the Way of the Cross (Via Dolorosa), marks the place where Jesus was stripped of his garments is at the entrance to the stairway to Calvary.

"And when they had crucified Him, they divided up His garments among themselves by casting lots" (Matthew 27:35).

 

 

The Eleventh Station is commemorated by the altar in front of the mosaic which depicts Jesus being nailed to the cross.

 In the Greek Orthodox area of Calvary, the altar stands on the site of the Twelfth Station where the cross of Jesus was raised and also commemorates His death.  

The iconostasis (the icons) depicting the death of Christ on the cross and the sign on top of the cross as it says in Gospel:

"And above His head they put up the charge against Him which read, “THIS IS JESUS THE KING OF THE JEWS” (Matthew 27:34).

 

The Mother of Christ is depicted on the left and John the Beloved Disciple, on the right in accordance with the words of John (19:17):

 "Jesus then saw His mother, and the disciple whom He loved standing nearby".

 

 

Under the glass, the bedrock is visible on which the chapel was built. A crack can be seen which is believed to have been caused by the earthquake at the time of Christ's death."And behold, the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom; the earth shook and the rocks were split" (Matthew 27:51).

The Stone of Unction

The Stone of Unction
The Stone of Unction
The upper view of the Stone of Unction
The upper view of the Stone of Unction

 Behind the entrance of the church, the red Stone of Unction or Anointing is located which is 18.6 feet long and 4.3 feet wide. Christian tradition holds that the body of Jesus was anointed, wrapped and prepared for burial here, although how this came to be believed is unknown. 

The Edicule (the Tomb of Christ)

The Edicule of the Tomb of Christ
The Edicule of the Tomb of Christ

In the middle of a large round room known as the Rotunda, there is a small domed Chapel which is the Edicule or the Tomb of Christ rebuilt by the Russian government in 1808-1810. In front of it, there are large candlesticks that belong to the Armenian, Greek and Latin faiths.

 

There are also four rows of lamps which also belong to these faiths.  Inside the Edicule, there are two small rooms. The first is called the Angel's Chapel which is where the angel was sitting and had been seen,

"An angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled away the stone and sat upon it" (Matthew 28:2).

 

The Chapel is 11 feet by 10 feet with a stone altar in the center.  On top of this, there is piece of revolving stone under the glass. The next room is the Holy Sepulchre itself (6.5 feet by 6 feet). On the right side, there is a flat stone or ledge (5 feet by 3 feet) which marks the resting place of the body of Jesus. This stone was placed in 1555 because the original ledge had significant damage. Normally there is a long line to view it so visits are limited to a maximum of three minutes per person.

 

 Finally, after a visit of the Holy Sepulchre it is encouraging to recall the words of the angels to the women who came to visit the tomb where Jesus was laid:

 

“Why do you seek the Living One among the dead? He is not here, but He has risen" (Luke 24:5,6).

The Armenian Apostolic Church's Altar of The Three Marys

Armenian altar of three Marys.
Armenian altar of three Marys.

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