Church of the Holy Sepulchre (Jerusalem)

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Exterior of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, called Church of the Resurrection (Anastasis) by Eastern Christians, is a Christian church now within the walled Old City of Jerusalem. The ground the church rests on is venerated by many Christians as Golgotha, the Hill of Calvary where the New Testament records that Jesus Christ was crucified. It also contains the place where Jesus was buried (the sepulchre). The church has been an important pilgrimage destination since the 4th century, and the portions of it administered by the Orthodox are in the care of the Church of Jerusalem.

Contents

History

The initial building was founded by Constantine the Great in 335, after he had removed a pagan temple on the site that was possibly the Temple of Aphrodite built by Hadrian. Constantine had sent his mother St. Helen to find the site; during excavations she is said to have discovered the True Cross. The church was built around the excavated hill of the Crucifixion, and was actually three connected churches built over the three different holy sites, including a great basilica (the Martyrium visited by the nun Egeria in the 380s), an enclosed colonnaded atrium (the Triportico) built around the traditional Rock of Calvary, and a rotunda, called the Anastasis ("Resurrection"), which contained the remains of the cave that St. Helen and St. Macarius, Patriarch of Jerusalem, had identified with the burial site of Jesus. The surrounding rock was cut away, and the Tomb was encased in a structure called the Edicule (from the Latin aediculum, small building) in the center of the rotunda. The dome of the rotunda was completed by the end of the 4th century.

This building was damaged by fire in 614 when the Persians under Khosrau II invaded Jerusalem and captured the Cross. In 630, Emperor Heraclius, who had captured the Cross from the Persians, marched triumphantly into Jerusalem and restored the True Cross to the rebuilt Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

The iconostasis in the Orthodox catholikon

Under the Muslims it remained a Christian church, unlike many other churches, which suffered destruction or conversion into mosques. The early Muslim rulers protected the city's Christian sites, prohibiting their destruction and their use as living quarters, but after a riot in 966, where the doors and roof were burnt, the original building was completely destroyed on October 18, 1009, by the "mad" Fatimid caliph Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah, who hacked out the church's foundations down to bedrock. The east and west walls and the roof of the Edicule were destroyed or damaged (contemporary accounts vary), but the north and south walls were likely protected by rubble from further damage.

However, a series of small chapels was erected on the site by Constantine IX Monomachos in 1048 under stringent conditions imposed by the caliphate. The rebuilt sites were taken by the knights of the First Crusade on July 15, 1099. Crusader chief Godfrey of Bouillon, who became the first "king of Jerusalem," decided not to use the title "king" during his lifetime, and declared himself Advocatus Sancti Sepulchri, "Protector (or Defender) of the Holy Sepulchre." The chronicler William of Tyre reports on the reconstruction. The Crusaders began to renovate the church in a Romanesque style and added a bell tower. These renovations which unified the holy sites were completed during the reign of Queen Melisende 50 years later in 1149. The church was also the site of the kingdom's scriptorium.

The church was an inspiration for churches in Europe like Santa Gerusalemme in Bologna and the "Round Church" of Cambridge, England.

The Franciscan monks renovated it further in 1555, as it had been neglected despite increased numbers of pilgrims. A fire severely damaged the structure again in 1808, causing the dome of the Rotunda to collapse and smashing the Edicule's exterior decoration. The Rotunda and the Edicule's exterior were rebuilt in 1809. The fire did not reach the interior of the Edicule, and the marble decoration of the Tomb dates mainly to the 1555 restoration. The current dome dates from 1870. Extensive modern renovations began in 1959, including a redecoration of the dome from 1994 to 1997.

Several Christian communions cooperate (sometimes acrimoniously) in the administration and maintenance of the church and its grounds, under a fiat of status quo that was issued by the Sublime Porte in 1852, to end the violent local bickering. The three, first appointed when Crusaders held Jerusalem, are the Orthodox, the Armenian Apostolic and Roman Catholic churches. These remain the primary custodians of the church. In the 19th century, the Coptic Orthodox, the Ethiopian Orthodox and the Syrian Orthodox acquired lesser responsibilities, which include shrines and other structures within and around the building. An agreement regulates times and places of worship for each communion. For centuries, two neutral neighbour Muslim families appointed by Saladin, the Nuseibeh and Joudeh families, were the custodians of the key to the single door.

When a fire broke out in 1840, dozens of pilgrims were trampled to death. On June 20, 1999, all the Christian communions who share control agreed in a decision to install a new exit door in the church.

Current configuration of the Holy Sepulchre

The Tomb of Jesus Christ

In the center of the Holy Sepulchre Church, underneath the largest dome (recently renovated), lays the Holy Sepulchre itself. This temple is used by all the Greeks, Latins and Non-Chalcedonions. It is a red granite edifice, with a large number of giant candlesticks in the front of it. The Armenians, the Latins and the Greeks all serve Liturgy or Mass daily inside the Holy Sepulchre. It is used for the Holy Saturday ceremony of the Holy Fire, which is celebrated by the Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem. To its rear, within an ironwork cage-like structure, lies the altar used by the Coptic Orthodox. Past that, inside a rear, very rough hewned chapel, the Syriac Orthodox celebrate their liturgies on Sundays. To the right of the sepulchre is the Roman Catholic area, which consists of a large square chapel and another private chapel for the Franciscan monks. Immediately in the front of the Sepulchre is what would be the main area of the church for the congregation, which has been walled off and used by the Orthodox. It features a large iconostasis, and two thrones for the superior and the Patriarch. Past that, there is the entrance area, which features the stone of annointing which Jesus' dead body is believed to have been prepared for burial upon. Up the stairs to the right of that area, is the most lavishly decorated part of the church, the chapel where Jesus is believed to have been crucified. This area is run by the Orthodox, while the Roman Catholics have an altar to the side. Additionally, there is a subterranean chapel which is run by the Armenians, which commemorates the finding of the True Cross.

In the 19th century, a number of scholars disputed the identification of the church with the actual site of Jesus's crucifixion and burial. They reasoned that the Church was inside the city walls, while early accounts (e.g., Hebrews 13:12) described these events as outside the city walls. On the morning after his arrival in Jerusalem, Charles George Gordon selected a rock-cut tomb in a cultivated area outside the walls as a more likely site for the burial of Jesus. This site is usually referred to as the Garden Tomb to distinguish it from the Holy Sepulchre.

However, the city walls had been expanded by Herod Agrippa in 41-44 and only then enclosed the site of the Holy Sepulchre. To quote the Israeli scholar Dan Bahat, former City Archaeologist of Jerusalem:

"We may not be absolutely certain that the site of the Holy Sepulchre Church is the site of Jesus' burial, but we have no other site that can lay a claim nearly as weighty, and we really have no reason to reject the authenticity of the site." (1986)

The yearly miracle of the Holy Light

Each year on Pascha, an awe-inspiring event takes place in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. At noon of the Holy Saturday, the Patriarch of Jerusalem with his escort - archpriests, priests and deacons and the Armenian Patriarch enter the Holy Sepulchre. After finishing prayers, a miraculous light appears--the Patriarch of Jerusalem lights two candles from it, then exits the sepulchre and lights the candles of the non-Chalcedonian patriarchs outside. Others' candles light spontaneously. For the first several minutes from the fire's appearance, it does not burn to the touch and many pilgrims immerse their faces and hands in the flame without being harmed.

Known as the Holy Light, or Holy Fire, this miracle has been occuring in this same place since at least the fourth century, if not earlier. In 1579, when the Orthodox patriarch had been shut out of the sepulchre by the Turkish authorities and an non-Chalcedonian patriarch, the holy fire split open a column outside the church to reach the Orthodox patriarch and believers. The split column is still part of the church. Several other incidents (including two 11th century Roman Catholic priests who received God's punishment for attempting to obtain the Holy Fire for themselves) attest to the miracle's antiquity and authenticity.

Holyfire.org (eng)

References

  • Bahat, Dan (1986). "Does the Holy Sepulchre church mark the burial of Jesus?", Biblical Archaeology Review 12(3) (May/June) 26-45.
  • Biddle, Martin (1999). The Tomb of Christ. Phoenix Mill: Sutton Publishing. (ISBN 0-7509-1926-4)

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