Located in the Christian Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher is, to many, the holiest site in all of Christianity. Known also as the Church of the Resurrection, it is the traditional home to both the hill of crucifixion and tomb of Christ’s burial. The church has been a major Christian pilgrimage destination since its creation in the 4th century, with approximately four million visitors annually.
History of the Church
Although the site was originally honored by early Christians, in 135 CE, the Roman Emperor Hadrian dedicated a temple to Aphrodite on top of the cave believed to be the burial site of Jesus. Almost 200 years later, Emperor Constantine I destroyed the temple and began construction on the first Church of the Holy Sepulcher in the year 326. The church built by Constantine was significantly larger than the one standing today.
The church stood for almost 300 years before the Sassanid Empire (Persians) invaded Jerusalem in 614 and severely damaged the church. In 630, Emperor Heraclius rebuilt the church after he recaptured Jerusalem. Between 746 and 1009 CE, two earthquakes and three fires damaged large portions of the church before it was destroyed at the hands of the Fatimid caliph, al-Ḥākim bi-Amr Allāh, in 1009.
In 1028, the Fatimids reached an agreement with Byzantine Christian leaders that allowed the rebuilding of the church to commence. Reconstruction began in 1048 through donations from Emperor Constantine Monomachos and Patriarch Nicephorus. Though both the Emperor and Patriarch provided generous amounts of money, there remained a large portion of the church that could not be restored. The church faced periodic damage and desecration spanning the crusades up until the early 20th century.
Six Christian religious orders serve as custodians of the church and in 1853 established a status quo – stating that nothing can be done to the church unless all six orders agree. This status quo includes an Immovable Ladder, which is an exterior wooden ladder under one of the windows of the church that has remained in place since that time.
What’s Actually Inside?
A stairway climbing to Calvary (Golgotha) was built on the south side of the altar. The altar houses the Rock of Calvary which can be seen under glass on both sides of the altar. It is the most visited site in the church with the crack in the rock traditionally believed to have been caused by the earthquake that occurred when Jesus died on the cross.
Inside the entrance to the church is the Stone of Unction which is believed to be the spot where Jesus’ body was prepared for burial by Joseph of Arimathea. The True Cross is also said to be held here. During the initial excavations by Constantine I, his mother Helena is said to have discovered three crosses. According to tradition, she had a sick man touch each one to discern which cross belonged to Jesus. Once he touched the True Cross, he was miraculously healed.
Helena is also believed to be the one who initially discovered the tomb of Jesus. Constantine ordered his builders to purposefully dig around the tomb to preserve it and leave enough space to comfortably build a church around it. A rotunda was constructed and completed in the year 380 to protect the tomb from Ottoman attacks.
The church is also home to the Catholicon, Prison of Christ, Statue of Mary, the Greek Chapel of Saint Longinus, the Armenian Chapel of Division of Robes, the Chapel of Saint Helena, and the Greek Chapel of the Derision.
Many Christian religious orders have some sort of claim to the church. It was not until 1959 that the Latins, Greeks, and Armenians agreed on a major renovation plan for the church. The church’s tumultuous history is evident in what the millions of annual visitors see today. Each governing Christian community has decorated its portions of the church in their own distinctive way, creating a unique atmosphere for anyone who walks through its holy doors. Restoration of the Edicule, traditionally believed to be the tomb of Jesus, has just been completed, providing an even greater opportunity for visitors to more fully experience and understand the significance of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.