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 large Christian church within the 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. The Church commemorates the founding of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on September 13.


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 katholikon

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, after a peace treaty between the Byzantine emperor Romanos III and the caliphate, the church is gradually rebuilt between 1024 and 1048. In 1048, a series of small chapels was erected on the site by Constantine IX Monomachos 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.

After defeating the crusadors, Saladin brings down the Cross and turns the church into a mosque (1187-1190). After an agreement with the Byzantine emperor Isaac II Angelos, Saladin gives the church back to the christians; by 1390 a number of new repairs are made to the church.

Until the fall of Constantinople in 1453, the orthodox patriarchs kept the keys of the church. This law, by Patriarch Dorotheos, was renewed by Sultan Suleiman in 1517. With the new law of Suleiman, they keys were given to a Muslim family in 1545. During this period the canopy of the Holy Sepulchre is also repaired.

In 1545 Patriarch Germanos adds a small dome to the church and the Franciscan monks renovated it further in 1555, as it had been neglected despite increased numbers of pilgrims. During 1719-1720 the church is reparied further by the orthodox and also the Catholics.

In 1808, the Armenians set the church on fire, which severely damaged the structure, 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 and 1810 by collections of the orthodox people world wide and especially from the Greek architect Komnenos Mitilineos.

In 1834 and 1836, two earthquakes damage the church. The repairs from this damage begin in 1867-1869 after a great delay but the temple dome is finally renovated through the assistance of the Russians, the French and the Turkish. The 1808 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.

In more recent times, the small dome was destroyed in 1927 from an earthquake and the situation was disappointing. In 1931-33 the church was rebuilt through the financial assistance of the Greek State. In 1948 the big dome of the Church is hit and is repaired within the same year. By 1958, after an agreement of the three churches of Kerusalem (the Greeks, the Armenians and the Catholics), extensive modern renovations begin, including a rebuilding of the big dome (1978-1985) and a redecoration of the big dome (1994-1997). In 1995 the exterior of the dome of the Katholikon is repaired with copper and restoration works continue until this present time.

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.

The Brotherhood of the Holy Sepulchre

The Patriarch of Jerusalem leads the Brotherhood of the Holy Sepulchre. This "brotherhood" constitutes all metropolitans, archbishops, bishops, archimandrites, priests, monks and deacons belonging to the patriarchate. The purpose of this group is to guide orthodox Christians in the Holy Land and advocate the Orthodox faith. Within the brotherhood, there is another subgroup called the "guards". The guards are a specific group of monks from the Holy Monastery of St. Constantine and Helen. These monks are given the specific role of guarding the Chapel of the Sepulchre (the Tomb of Christ) and defending the faith. There will always be at least one guardian within the Chapel of the Angel. They ensure respectable and appropriate conduct is shown by pilgrims at the Tomb of Christ. The order is considered a continuation on the original "Significant" group, established well before St. Helen's visit in 326.

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 Oriental Orthodox. 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)

Layout of the Church of the Resurrection

Exterior Courtyard

Each year, during the Holy Week services, the Patriarchate of Jerusalem and its Bishops hold a traditional ceremony of the washing of the feet, in honour of Christ washing the feet of his apostles before his crucifixion.

The Holy Entrance

The Holy Entrance is the door into the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. There is a secondary door built into this main door, which is sealed. They keys for the door are kept by a Muslim family, established in 1520 AD by the Sultan Suleiman. A ritual ceremony has been handed down, involving the opening and closing of the church every day since then. The doors are surrounded by 3 marble columns either side. In 1549, the left marble column was torn when the Holy Light came through it instead of coming from the Tomb of Christ inside the church; that year, sultan Murat had forbiden Partiarch Sofronios IV to go into the church to celebrate the ceremony of the Resurrection, at the request of the Armenian patriarch. Sofronion, the clergy and all the faithful stood outside the main doors and prayed and chanted the service - the Armenian patriarch left embarrassed and the sultan issued a firman that recognised the authority of the Greek Orthodox patriarchate of Jerusalem.

The Holy Annointing

[Matthew 27: 57-59] and [John 19:39-40].

Immediately upon entering the Church of the Resurrection lies the Stone of the Unction. This is the spot which commemorates the preparation of the body of Christ for burial by Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, after he was removed from the cross. Christ's body was annointed with myrrh and aloes and wrapped in a clean linen cloth for the burial. The current slab, is made from limestone marble and dates to 1808, replacing the previous 12th century slab when it was destroyed. The ownership of the slab is shared between the four main Christian churches. Over the marble slab hang large opulent lamps that have been donated by the Armenians, Greeks, Copts and Latins. On the outside wall of the Catholicon, behind the stone, is a large mosaic depicting the annointing of Christ for burial.

Latin calvary

To the right of the Stone of the Unction are a series of steep stairs that lead up to the Golgotha. The first room, is the place where Christ was nailed to the Cross. This chapel is a Catholic Franciscan altar dedicated to the Nailing of the Cross (Station 11 of the Via Dolorosa).

Rock of Golgotha ("Greek Calvary")

Adjacent to this chapel, is the second room of Golgotha. The Greek Orthodox Calvary is the spot where Christ was crucified and covers the actual Rock of Golgotha. For the other Christian churches this is also known as Station 12 of the Via Dolorosa. The entire rock, can be seen through the glass covering on either side of the altar, and beneath the altar is a small opening that allows a pilgrims to touch the rock.

The chapel of Adam

The chapel of Adam is located immediately beneath Golgotha. This is a small area of worship that used to be known as the "Area of the Skull" and also the chapel of "Melchizedek". In accordance with tradition, the name of 'skull' and 'Adam' is derived from the fact that this is the spot where they found the skull and relics of Adam. The theology of the Orthodox church believes that this location is not a coincidence since the purpose of the crucifixion is directly connected to the story of Adam and his expulsion from Eden. Having found the bones of Adam underneath Golgotha symbolises the cleansing of the bones of the man who committed the first sin by the blood of Christ dripping down from the cross.

Chapel of the Crowning of the Thorns "Derision" (Greek)

The Chapel of the Crowning of the Thorns, or Derision, is located at the base of Golgotha, immediately to the right. There is a small fragment of the column, brought from the Prison of Christ, where the soldiers put on Christ a purple robe and a crown of thorns. [John 19:2]

Chapel of St. Helen

The Chapel of St. Helen, also known as the Armenian Chapel of St. Gregory, is located at the base of the 29 stairs near the Crowning of the Thorns. Inside the chapel is her throne and the pilgrim of the good thief; an large area has been preserved that has the original mosaic from the church.

Chapel of St. Vartan (Armenian)

The Chapel of St. Vartan can be accessed through a door on the north side of the Chapel of St. Helen. In the 1970s, this area was discovered and excavated and the findings include remnants of walls built by Hadrian in the 2nd century. One of these walls has a stone etched with a merchant ship and an inscription "DOMINE IVIMVS" which translates "Lord we shall go". It is estimated that this stone dates from before the completion of the Byantium church, ca. 330 AD. This chapel is locked and not normally available to the public.

Chapel of the Finding of the Cross

According to the tradition of the church, this is the area where St. Helen discovered the True Cross during the course of the Churches excavations around 330AD. She discovered three crosses. To discern which of the three crosses belonged to Christ, and which belonged to the thieves, a sick man was brought to touch each one in turn. He was miraculously healed by only one and this is the one that has since been distributed to all Christian Patriarchates across the world.

Chapel of the Division of the Robe (Armenian)

The Chapel of the Division of the Robe is the location where the soldiers parted His raiment amongst themselves and casted lots for His vesture. [John 19:24]

Chapel of St. Longinus (Greek)

The Chapel of St. Longinus is dedicated to Longinus (October 16) the Centurion, a Roman soldier who served in Judea under the command of the Governor, and headed the group of soldiers escorting Christ to Golgotha. (Matthew 27:54)

Prison of Christ

The Prison of Christ is a small dark area where those crucifying Christ put Him temporarily before crucifying Him.

Chapel of St. Mary Magdalene

Also known as the chapel of "Mi mou aptou" (touch me not). In accordance with Latin tradition, the circular marble plaque that is at this spot marks the location where Christ appeared to Mary Magdalene after His resurrection (John 20, 11-17). This chapel belongs to the Catholic church and is named "Mi mou aptou", in hounour of Christ's words.

Syrian chapel

The Syrian chapel is located on the east end of the Church of the Sepulchre. This area was used for burials in Christ's time.

The "Catholicon"

The Catholicon is the main orthodox church facing the Tomb of Christ. It is a large recangular building with a basilica dome. In the middle of the church is the "navel of the earth" which symbolises the spiritual centre of the Earth.[1]. The church has two Patriarchal thrones, the left throne is for the Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch; and the throne on the right is for the Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem.

Coptic chapel

The small Coptic chapel is located on the west side of the "edicule" with a separate entrance to the chapel.

Chapel of the Angel

The Chapel of the Angel is immediately outside the Tomb of Christ; the first room inside the "edicule". According to tradition, the altar that is in this room contains a stone and it is believed that it is part of a larger stone that was rolled away from Christ's tomb on the day of the Resurrection. On this stone is an imprint of a hand, it is believed that this imprint is the imprint of one of the Angels who sat on the stone and announced the Resurrection. There is always a Greek monk in this room who "guards" the Tomb of Christ who symbolically represents this Angel(s).

The Holy Sepulcher chapel

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The yearly miracle of the Holy Light

Main article: Holy Fire

Each year on the day before 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 Oriental Orthodox 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. (eng)

Another version (probably) of the above story reads as follows. After prince Ibrahim Pasha, Mohammed Ali Pasha's son, had conquered Jerusalem and Syria year 1832 A.D., he invited the Coptic Pope Peter VII to visit Jerusalem and attend to the service of the appearance of the light on Bright Saturday from the Sepulchre of the Lord Christ in Jerusalem as the Greek Orthodox Patriarchs did every year. The Pope accepted the invitation, and when he arrived, he was received with honor and reverence and he entered Jerusalem with a great procession and a splendid celebration, in which the governor, the rulers and the heads of the different Christian denominations participated. He realized with his wisdom that if he minister alone in the Holy Sepulcher that would cause animosity between the Copts and the Greeks. The Pope asked the Pasha to relieve him from this service, but he asked him to participate with the Greek Patriarch on the condition that he will be their third, for he doubted the authenticity of the light. On Bright Saturday the church of the Holy Sepulchre was crowded with the worshipers, the Pasha ordered the people to evacuate the church to the spacious outer courtyard. When the time to start the service came the two Patriarchs and the Pasha entered the Holy Sepulcher to pray the customary prayers. In the specific time, the light burst out of the Sepulcher in a way that terrified the Pasha, who became in a daze and confusion, and the Pope attended to him until he recovered. The people outside in the courtyard were not deprived from the blessing of the light since one of the pillars of the western gate of the church split and the light appeared to them from the pillar. This incident increased the reverence and respect of the Pope before the Pasha. His holiness the Pope made many repairs and renovations in the church of Resurrection. Source: Coptic Orthodox Synaxarium


  • 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)
  • J. Patrich, The Early Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Light of Excavations and Restorations, Yosam Tsifiir, Ed., Ancient Churches Revealed, Isreal Exploration Society, Jerusalem, 1993. (ISBN 965-221-016-1)

External links

  • Exekiel 38:12
  • Retrieved from ""