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The Church of the Holy Sepulchre

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, known as the Church of the Resurrection (Anastasis) to Eastern Orthodox Christians, is a church in the Old City of Jerusalem that is the holiest Christian site in the world. It stands on a site that is believed to encompass both Golgotha, or Calvary, where Jesus was crucified, and the tomb (sepulchre) where he was buried. Although partialy based on tradition, there is some evidence that links the site to the historical events. For instance, the topographical elements of the church's site are compatible with the Gospel descriptions, which say that Jesus was crucified on rock that looked like a skull outside the city (John 19:17) and there was a grave nearby (John 19:41-2). Windblown earth and seeds watered by winter rains would have created the green covering on the rock that John calls a "garden."


The early Christian community of Jerusalem appears to have held liturgical celebrations at Christ's tomb from the time of the resurrection until the city was taken by the Romans in 66 AD. Less than a century later, in 135 AD, Emperor Hadrian filled in the quarry to provide a level foundation for a temple to Aphrodite.

The site remained buried beneath the pagan temple until Emperor Constantine the Great converted to Christianity in 312 AD. He soon showed an interest in the holy places associated with his new faith, and commissioned numerous churches to be built throughout the Holy Land. The most important of these, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, was begun in 326 AD. In the process of construction, according to contemporary Christian historians, the Rock of Golgotha and the True Cross were found. The Church was formally dedicated in 335 with an oration by Constantine's biographer, Eusebius of Caesarea.

The Constantinian church was much larger than the one that stands today, but had a simpler layout. It consisted of an atrium (which reused part of Hadrian's temenos wall), a covered basilica, an open courtyard with the stone of Golgotha in the southeast corner, and the tomb of Christ, enshrined in a small, circular edifice. The tomb of Christ was not completed until 384 AD, well after the dedication of the church, because of the immense labor involved in cutting away the rock cliff in order to isolate the tomb.

This building was severely damaged by fire in 614 AD when the Persians invaded Jerusalem. They also captured the True Cross, but in 630, Emperor Heraclius marched triumphantly into Jerusalem and restored the True Cross to the rebuilt Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The church was reconstructed under the patriarch Modestus with no major changes to the original plan.

In 638, the Christians were forced to surrender Jerusalem to Muslim control under caliph Omar. In a remarkable gesture for the time, Omar refused to pray in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, saying, "If I had prayed in the church it would have been lost to you, for the Believers [Muslims] would have taken it saying: Omar prayed here."

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre continued to function as a Christian church under the protection of Omar and the early Muslim rulers, but this changed on October 18, 1009, when the "mad" Fatimid caliph Hakim brutally and systematically destroyed the great church. The Christian community of Jerusalem could not afford repairs, but in 1048 Emperor Constantine Monomachos provided money for reconstruction, subject to stringent conditions imposed by the caliphate.

This was the church to which the knights of the First Crusade arrived to sing their Te Deum after capturing Jerusalem on July 15, 1099. The Crusader chief Godfrey of Bouillon, who became the first king of Jerusalem, declared himself Advocatus Sancti Sepulchri, "Defender of the Holy Sepulchre." The Crusaders were slow to renovate the church, only beginning to make modifications in the Romanesque style in 1112.

The three primary custodians of the church, first appointed when Crusaders held Jerusalem, are the Greek Orthodox, the Armenian Apostolic and Roman Catholic churches.

Subsequent centuries were not altogether kind to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. It suffered from damage, desecration, and neglect, and attempts at repair (a significant renovation was conducted by the Franciscans in 1555) often did more damage than good. In recent times, a fire (1808) and an earthquake (1927) did extensive damage.

Not until 1959 did the three major communities (Latins, Greeks, and Armenians) agree on a major renovation plan. The guiding principle was that only elements incapable of fulfilling their structural function would be replaced. Local masons were trained to trim stone in the style of the 11th century for the rotunda, and in the 12th-century style for the church.

Key Sites
Stone of Unction: According to tradition, the body of Jesus was laid on this stone after it was removed from the cross. This tradition is based on John 19: 40: "Then took they the body of Jesus, and wound it in linen clothes with the spices, as the manner of the Jews is to bury".

Rotunda: The heart of the Holy Sepulchre is a round hall ("Rotunda"). Here, in the center of the circle, the tomb of Jesus is located in a smaller structure.

The Edicule: This location preserves the Tomb of Jesus. The complex of the Tomb of Jesus is comprised of a number of chambers.

The first chamber is called the Chapel of the Angel. A fragment of the blocking stone of the Sepulchre is stored here. It is called after the angel that removed the stone. The Biblical text (Matthew 28 2-3): "And, behold, there was a great earthquake: for the angel of the Lord descended from heaven, and came and rolled back the stone from the door, and sat upon it. His countenance was like lightning, and his raiment white as snow"). This leads into the inner chamber that houses Christ's tomb.

Calvary: near the entrance, is a stairway leading to Golgotha, the traditional site of crucifixion.

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