Enclosed within a courtyard on the edge of the Christian Quarter in Jerusalem’s Old City stands the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Revered by many as the site of Jesus Christ’s crucifixion, it remains one of Jerusalem’s most visited tourist attractions and a place of deep religious significance.
At first sight, the church itself appears to rise out of nowhere. Its grey domes and austere façade contradict its impressive—and at times bewildering—interior. Containing 30-plus chapels and worship spaces, the church as a whole is a hodgepodge of architectural styles. Shared by five different Christian communities, each practicing its distinct rituals and ceremonies – Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Coptic, Syrian Orthodox, and Armenian – visitors can observe the worship processions of each group from Calvary to the tomb.
Originally built as a basilica over the site of the biblical Calvary at the behest of Emperor Constantine I in the 4th century, the church has borne the scars of fires, destruction, earthquakes, and reconstruction over the centuries. It has also been a worship center to pilgrims for 16 centuries. The church is home to the final five Stations of the Cross–stops 10 to 14 of the Via Dolorosa, the route Jesus took as He carried His cross to Calvary.
Upon entering the church, turn hard right and ascend the narrow, curving steps to the “hill” of Calvary. This area is, by description, one of the most lavishly decorated parts of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Not surprising, as this site is regarded as the site of the crucifixion.
In this area, visitors can also see and touch The Rock of Calvary (12th Station of the Cross), the Roman Catholic Chapel of the Nailing of the Cross (11th Station of the Cross), and towards the Eastern Orthodox chapel, a statue of Mary (the 13th Station of the Cross).
At the rear of the Greek Orthodox chapel is a flight of steep stairs which leads to the Stone of Anointing, the symbolic place where Jesus’ body was prepared for burial. This site is a favorite among pilgrims, with some even pouring oil on the stone and rubbing it off on a handkerchief to take home as a relic.
Proceeding towards the rotunda under the larger of the two domes is a stone edicule (meaning “little house”) flanked by rows of candles. This is considered the Tomb of Christ (14th Station of the Cross). After some extensive restoration work in 2017, the edicule has been reopened to the public. For the first time, visitors and pilgrims can now see the stone of the ancient burial cave through a small window that is cut into the marble walls of the shrine.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is a functioning church, so all the accoutrements of a house of worship can be seen as visitors make their way through its winding aisles, stairways, arches, sanctuaries, and corridors, each open area filled with visitors and pilgrims from around the world. Visitors can even ascend to the roof from the courtyard of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate to behold stunning views of Jerusalem.
It is important to note that while some question the authenticity of this site as the place of Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection, some biblical scholars maintain there is no other site with the provenance and locale consistent with the Gospel accounts.
Entrance to the church is free. Visitors should dress modestly, making sure that legs, shoulders, and backs are properly covered, in maintaining respect of this holy site and others who may be worshipping and visiting.