The Church of the Holy Sepulchre

The Construction and Political History of Christianity's Holiest Site

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, first built in the 4th century C.E., is one of Christianity's holiest sites, venerated as the place of their founder Jesus Christ's crucifixion, burial, and resurrection. Located in the contested Israeli/Palestinian capital city of Jerusalem, the Church is shared by six different Christian sects: Greek Orthodox, Latins (Roman Catholics), Armenians, Copts, Syrian-Jacobites, and Ethiopians.

This shared and uneasy unity is a reflection of the changes and schisms which have taken place in Christianity over the course of the 700 years since its first construction.

Discovering Christ's Tomb

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Jon Arnold / AWL / Getty Images

According to historians, after the Byzantine Emperor Constantine the Great converted to Christianity in the early 4th century C.E., he sought to find and build shrine-churches at the site's of Jesus's birth, crucifixion, and resurrection. Constantine's mother, Empress Helena (250–c.330 C.E.), traveled to the Holy Land in the year 326 C.E. and spoke to the Christians living there, including Eusebius (ca. 260–340), an early Christian historian.

Christians in Jerusalem at the time were fairly certain that the Tomb of Christ was located on a site that had been outside the walls of the city but was now within the new city walls. They believed it was located beneath a temple dedicated to Venus—or Jupiter, Minerva, or Isis, the reports vary—that had been built by the Roman Emperor Hadrian in 135 C.E.

Building Constantine's Church

Interior of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre at the site of Golgotha, 1821. Artist: Vorobyev, Maxim Nikiphorovich (1787-1855)
Interior of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre at the site of Golgotha, 1821. Artist: Vorobyev, Maxim Nikiphorovich (1787-1855). Heritage Images / Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Constantine sent workmen to Jerusalem who, led by his architect Zenobius, demolished the temple and found beneath it several tombs that had been cut into the hillside. Constantine's men selected the one that they thought was right, and cut away the hillside so that the tomb was left in a free-standing block of limestone. They then decorated the block with columns, roof, and a porch.

Near the tomb was a high jagged mound of rock which they identified as Calvary or Golgotha, where Jesus was said to have been crucified. The workmen cut out the rock and isolated it too, building a courtyard nearby such that the rock sat in the southeastern corner.

The Church of the Resurrection

Church of the Holy Sepulchre Entrance Gate
Three women pray at the entrance gate to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Manual Romaris / Moment / Getty Images

Finally, the workmen built a large basilica-style church, called the Martyrium, facing westward toward the open courtyard. It had a colored marble façade, a mosaic floor, a ceiling covered with gold, and interior walls of multi-colored marble. The sanctuary had twelve marble columns topped with silver bowls or urns, some portions of which still are preserved. Together the buildings were called the Church of the Resurrection.

The site was dedicated in September of the year 335, an event still celebrated as "Holy Cross Day" in some Christian denominations. The Church of the Resurrection and Jerusalem remained under the protection of the Byzantine church for the next three centuries.

Zoroastrian and Islamic Occupations

Chapel of St. Helena, Church of the Holy Sepulchre
The altar in Chapel of St. Helena which is dedicated to Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine and according to tradition, who discovered the cross during her visit in 326AD at the Holy Sepulchre church in old city East Jerusalem Israel. Eddie Gerald / Moment / Getty Images

In 614, the Zoroastrian Persians under Chosroes II invaded Palestine, and, in the process, most of Constantine's basilican church and the tomb were destroyed. In 626, the patriarch of Jerusalem Modestus restored the basilica. Two years later, the Byzantine emperor Heraclius defeated and killed Chosroes.

In 638, Jerusalem fell to the Islamic caliph Omar (or Umar, 591–644 CE). Following the dictates of the Koran, Omar wrote the remarkable Covenant of 'Umar, a treaty with the Christian Patriarch Sophronios. The surviving remnants of the Jewish and Christian communities had the status of ahl al dhimma (protected people), and as a result, Omar pledged to keep the sanctity of all Christian and Jewish holy places in Jerusalem. Rather than going inside, Omar prayed outside of the Resurrection Church, saying that praying inside would make it a Muslim holy place. The Mosque of Omar was built in 935 to commemorate that spot.

The Mad Caliph, al-Hakim bin-Amr Allah

Room Over Jesus's Tomb at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre
Aedicule at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Lior Mizrahi / Stringer / Getty Images

Between 1009 and 1021, the Fatimid Caliph al-Hakim bin-Amr Allah, known as the "Mad Caliph" in western literature, destroyed much of the Church of the Resurrection, including demolishing the Tomb of Christ, and banned Christian worship at the site. An earthquake in 1033 did additional damage.

After Hakim's death, the ruling caliph al-Hakim's son Ali az-Zhahir authorized reconstruction of the Sepulchre and Golgotha. Restoration projects were begun in 1042 under the Byzantine Emperor Constantine IX Monomachos (1000–1055). and the tomb was replaced in 1048 by a modest replica of its predecessor. The tomb hewn in rock was gone, but a structure was built over the spot; the current aedicule was built in 1810.

Crusader Reconstructions

Chapel of the Crucifixion at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre
Chapel of the Crucifixion at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Old Jerusalem. Georgy Rozov / EyeEm / Gerry Images

The Crusades were begun by the Knights Templar who were deeply offended by, among other things, the activities of Hakim the Mad, and they seized Jerusalem in 1099. The Christians controlled Jerusalem from 1099–1187. Between 1099 and 1149, the Crusaders covered the courtyard with a roof, removed the front of the rotunda, rebuilt and reoriented the church so it faces east and moved the entrance to its current south side, the Parvis, which is how visitors enter today.

Although many minor repairs from age and earthquake damage have occurred by various shareholders in the succeeding cemeteries, the extensive 12th-century work of the Crusaders makes up the bulk of what the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is today.

Chapels and Features

Anointing Stone at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre
Church of the Holy Sepulchre's Anointing Stone. Spencer Platt / Staff / Getty Images

There are numerous named chapels and niches throughout CHS, many of which have several names in several different languages. Many of these features were shrines built to commemorate events that occurred elsewhere in Jerusalem but the shrines were moved into the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, because Christian worship was difficult around the city. Those include but are not restricted to:

  • The Aedicule—the building above where Christ's tomb used to be, current version built in 1810
  • Tomb of Joseph of Arimathea—under the jurisdiction of the Syrian-Jacobites
  • Anastasia Rotunda—commemorates the resurrection
  • Chapel of the Apparition to the Virgin—under the jurisdiction of the Roman Catholics
  • Virgin's Pillars—Greek Orthodox
  • Chapel of the Finding of the True Cross—Roman Catholics
  • Chael of St. Varian—Ethiopians
  • Parvis—the colonnaded entryway—jursdiction shared by Greek, Roman Catholics, and Armenians
  • Stone of Anointing—where Jesus's body was anointed after being removed from the cross
  • Chapel of the Three Marys—commemorates where Mary (mother of Jesus), Mary Magdalene, and Mary of Clopas watched the crucifixion
  • The Chapel of St. Longinus—the Roman centurion who pierced Christ and converted to Christianity
  • Chapel of Helena—commemorating Empress Helena

Sources

The Immovable Ladder at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre
The Immovable Ladder is visible below the upper right window of the front facade of the church. Evan Lang / Moment / Getty Images

The Immovable Ladder—a plain wooden ladder which leans against a window ledge in the church's upper facade—was left there in the 18th century when an agreement was made among the shareholders that no one may move, rearrange, or otherwise alter any property without the consent of all six.

Sources and Further Reading

Galor, Katharina. "The Church of the Holy Sepulchre." Ed. Galor, Katharina. Finding Jerusalem: Archaeology between Science and Ideology. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2017. 132–45. Print.

Kenaan-Kedar, Nurith. "A Neglected Series of Crusader Sculpture: The Ninety-Six Corbels of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre." Israel Exploration Journal 42.1/2 (1992): 103–14. Print.

McQueen, Alison. "Empress Eugénie and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre." Source: Notes in the History of Art 21.1 (2001): 33–37. Print.

Ousterhout, Robert. "Rebuilding the Temple: Constantine Monomachus and the Holy Sepulchre." Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 48.1 (1989): 66–78. Print.

Ousterhout, Robert. "Architecture as Relic and the Construction of Sanctity: The Stones of the Holy Sepulchre." Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 62.1 (2003): 4-23. Print.

Seligman, Jon, and Gideon Avni. "Jerusalem, Church of the Holy Sepulchre." Hadashot Arkheologiyot: Excavations and Surveys in Israel 111 (2000): 69–70. Print.

Wilkinson, John. "The Church of the Holy Sepulchre." Archaeology 31.4 (1978): 6–13. Print.

Wright, J. Robert. "An Historical and Ecumenical Survey of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, with Notes on Its Significance for Anglicans." Anglican and Episcopal History 64.4 (1995): 482-504. Print.

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Hirst, K. Kris. "The Church of the Holy Sepulchre." ThoughtCo, May. 31, 2018, thoughtco.com/the-church-of-the-holy-sepulchre-4157850. Hirst, K. Kris. (2018, May 31). The Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/the-church-of-the-holy-sepulchre-4157850 Hirst, K. Kris. "The Church of the Holy Sepulchre." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/the-church-of-the-holy-sepulchre-4157850 (accessed June 18, 2018).