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Church of the Holy Sepulchre (Jerusalem)

Exterior of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre,[1] 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,[2] the Hill of Calvary[3] 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 was 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 reported 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 crusaders, Saladin brought down the Cross and turned the church into a mosque from 1187 to 1190. After an agreement with the Byzantine emperor Isaac II Angelos, Saladin gave the church back to the Christians; by 1390 a number of new repairs were 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 was also repaired.

In 1545 Patriarch Germanos added 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 was repaired 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 Orthodox people worldwide, especially by the Greek architect Komnenos Mitilineos.

In 1834 and 1836, two earthquakes damaged the church. The repairs from this damage began 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 by an earthquake registering 6.3 on the Richter scale. In 1931-33 the church was rebuilt through the financial assistance of the Greek State. In 1948 the big dome of the Church was damaged and repaired within the same year. By 1958, after an agreement between the three churches of Jerusalem (the Greeks, the Armenians, and the Catholics), extensive modern renovations began, 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 was repaired with copper, and restoration works continue to the present time.

Several Christian communions cooperate 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 neighboring 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.

Layout of the Church of the Resurrection

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is located in the Christian quarters of the old city, on the west side. The church can be approached through a gate from the St. Helena alley.

  • Exterior Courtyard - Through the gate of the St. Helena alley there is a large open courtyard outside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. On the north side of this yard are two main doors; the left door is the "Holy Entrance", which leads into the church, and the right entrance has been permanently blocked. On either side of the courtyard are a few small chapels. During Holy Week this is the location where pilgrims gather to see the Patriarchate of Jerusalem, and other jurisdictions, hold a traditional ceremony of the washing of the feet, in honour of Christ's washing the feet of his apostles and disciples before his crucifixion.
  • The Holy Entrance is the main door into the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. There is a tiny secondary door built into this main door; the 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 three marble columns on 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 forbidden Patriarch Sofronios IV to go into the church to celebrate the ceremony of the Resurrection, at the request of the Armenian patriarch. Sofronios, 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 Anointing
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 (John 19:39-40, see also Matthew 27:57-59).
Immediately upon entering, the church opens up to the southern hall. On the floor lies the Stone of the Anointing or Unction. According to tradition, this is the spot where the church 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 anointed with myrrh and aloes and wrapped in a clean linen cloth for the burial according to the Jewish tradition of those days.
The 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 anointing of Christ for burial.
  • Latin calvary
... and he bearing his cross went forth into a place called the place of a skull, which is called in the Hebrew Golgotha (John 19:17). ... and when they were come to the place, which is called Calvary, there they crucified him ... (Luke 23:33).
To the right of the Stone of the Anointing are a series of steep stairs that lead up to the second floor—the tip of 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).
  • The Rock of Golgotha ("Greek Calvary")
... and they crucified him ... (Matthew 27:35)
Adjacent to this chapel is the second room—the Greek Orthodox Calvary—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 pilgrims to touch the rock.
  • 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.
  • The Chapel of the Crowning of the Thorns or "Derision" (Greek) 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 (cf. John 19:2).
  • The Chapel of St. Helen, also known to the Armenians 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.
  • The Chapel of St. Vartan (Armenian) 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 second 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 Byantine church, ca. 330 AD. This chapel is locked and not normally available to the public.
  • The Chapel of the Finding of the Cross, according to tradition, is the area where St. Helen discovered the True Cross during the course of the Church's excavations around 330 AD. 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.
  • The Chapel of the Division of the Robe (Armenian)
John 19:24
  • The Chapel of the Division of the Robe is the location at which the soldiers parted His raiment amongst themselves and casted lots for his vesture (cf. John 19:24).
  • The Chapel of St. Longinus' (Greek) is dedicated to Longinus the Centurion (October 16), a Roman soldier who served in Judea under the command of the governor, and headed the group of soldiers escorting Christ to Golgotha (cf. Matthew 27:54).
  • The Prison of Christ is a small dark area where those crucifying Christ put him temporarily before crucifying him.
  • The Chapel of St. Mary Magdalene
... and Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Jesus beheld where he was laid (Mark 15:47).
On the north side of the Rotunda, there is a small Franciscan chapel called "Mi mou aptou" ("Touch me not") dedicated to St. Mary Magdalene. In accordance with the tradition, Mary of Magdala accompanied Jesus on his way to the cross and burial and the circular marble plaque that is at this spot marks the location where she and Mary beheld where he was laid but also the spot where Christ appeared to Mary Magdalene after his resurrection (cf. John 20:11-17). This chapel belongs to the Catholic Church and is named "Mi mou aptou," in honour of Christ's words.
  • 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" is the main Orthodox church facing the Tomb of Christ. It is a large rectangular 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 (cf. Ezekiel 38:12). 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.
  • The small Coptic chapel is located on the west side of the "edicule" with a separate entrance to the chapel.
  • 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 which 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 to be 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 and who symbolically represents this angel.

The Holy Sepulchre chapel

The Tomb of Jesus Christ

In the center of the Holy Sepulchre Church, underneath the largest dome (recently renovated), lies the Holy Sepulchre itself, the "Heart" of the Sepulchre. This temple is used by all the Greeks (Orthodox), 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-hewn 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 anointing 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' 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" (Biblical Archaeology Review, May/June 1986, p. 38).

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 occurring 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.[4]

There is another version of the story. After Prince Ibrahim Pasha, Mohammed Ali Pasha's son, had conquered Jerusalem and Syria in the 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 Churches participated. He realized with his wisdom that if he ministered alone in the Holy Sepulchre 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 would 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, and 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 Sepulchre to pray the customary prayers. In the specific time, the light burst out of the Sepulchre in a way that terrified the Pasha, who became dazed and confused, 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 the resurrection.[5] This is of course the version of the copts who don't admit the orthodox one but it is obviously much later than it.

The Brotherhood of the Holy Sepulchre

The Patriarch of Jerusalem leads the Brotherhood of the Holy Sepulchre. This brotherhood consists of 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 Ss. 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 that respectable and appropriate conduct is shown by pilgrims at the tomb of Christ. The order is considered a continuation of the original group, established well before St. Helen's visit in 326.


  • 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, Israel Exploration Society, Jerusalem, 1993. ISBN 965-221-016-1
  1. "Sepulchre" or "sepulcher" means "burial vault." From the Latin "sepulchrum." Based on "sepultus," meaning "to bury the dead."
  2. "Golgotha" in Aramaic, based on the Hebrew word "Golgoleth" which means "skull," refers to a hill where the burial site of Jesus—the Church of Holy Sepulchre, in the Christian sector of the old city of Jerusalem. As in Matthew 27:33: "And when they were come unto a place called Golgotha, that is to say, a place of a skull." The meaning of the name may be either due to the practice of burying the skull. It can also refer to a rock that looks like a skull.
  3. "Calvary" (calvaria) comes from the Latin for "skull" and is the name of the hill where Jesus was crucified and buried. Luke 23:33: "And when they were come to the place, which is called Calvary, there they crucified him..."
  4. Description of the Miracle of Holy Fire that happens every year in Jerusalem
  5. The Departure of Pope Peter (Petros) VII, the One Hundred and Ninth Patriarch Coptic Orthodox Synaxarium

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