Cleansing Fire

Defending Truth and Tradition in the Roman Catholic Church

Church of the Holy Sepulchre

April 30th, 2011, Promulgated by Bernie

1. Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem.

In this Easter season it might be interesting to take a look at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. It was one of the earliest churches built following the legalization of Christianity in 313. Only the Basilica of the Nativity (which we looked at during Christmas time) was earlier. The church encloses two of the three most important sites to Christians: the site of the Crucifixion of Jesus and the Tomb from which He rose from the dead. (The other most important site is the cave of Christ’s birth enclosed in the Nativity basilica.)

2. Jerusalem at the time of Christ.

3. Golgotha, the Tomb and an outline of the location of Constantine's basilica. Also shown is the area of excavation and discovery of the cross.

Calvary (Golgotha), where Jesus was crucified, was just outsie the walls of Jerusalem, northwest of the Jerusalem Temple. The crosses of Christ and the two thieves executed with Him were erected on top of an outcrop of rock in an old quarry. The outcrop was unquarried because of its poor quality. Between the little ‘hill’ of Golgotha and the Gennath (Garden) Gate in the the city wall was a garden in which a few tombs had been newly hewn. One of the tombs belonged to Joseph of Arimathea and it was there that Jesus’s body was laid after His crucifixion. As this portion of the abandoned quarry was near a city gate it was landscaped into a garden in order to make the area more attractive. Golgotha, at the outer end of the garden sat astride a major roadway that entered through the gate. Given the location of the little hill it was used by the Romans to execute criminals, as passersby could hurl insults at the crucified. (An artist’s rendering of the site can be seen here.)

4. Excavation around the Tomb and Golgotha to construct Constantine's basilica.

In about 325, the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great had a church complex built over the sites of both Golgotha and the Tomb. It was not difficult locating the sites even after 300 years. The site of the crucifixion and tomb were well known and turned out to be right where the Roman historian Josephus described them as being. Christians had started frequenting the site soon after the first Christian Pentecost and continued to do so for at least 125 years afterward. Eventually, the Emperor Hadrian had a pagan temple built on top of the site in order to discourage Christian pilgrimage. But the Temple of Aphrodite only served to mark the site for Constantine’s archeologists when they were sent to uncover Christ’s tomb. The emperor ordered the destruction of the temple and removal of the fill-soil that had been used as a platform for the temple.

5. Constantine's Church of the Holy Sepulchre complex.

The incline of land into which the Tomb had been hewn was mostly all cut-away in order to enclose the tomb within the space of a martyria or rotunda structure. The rock out-crop of Golgotha was trimmed and but left exposed in a corner of the courtyard that separated the Tomb from the basilica proper. Constantine supposedly had a large decorative cross erected atop the hill. The complex underwent some more changes through the centuries especially following the church’s destruction by the Muslims in 1009: “everything was razed ‘except those parts which were impossible to destroy or would have been too difficult to carry away’ “ (Yahya ibn Sa’id, a Christian writer).

6. The skyline of the current Church of the Holy Sepulchre in relation to the location of the Tomb and Golgotha.

Today’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre encloses everything under one roof (actually, a series of joined roofs and domes.) All of the rock of Calvary is covered in metal panels except for several glass windows through which portions of the hill can be viewed. At the very top, pilgrims can stoop down and crawl under the altar and touch the rock through a hole in the floor. The sepulchre is essentially the same inside; the outside, however, has changed considerably over the centuries and today is stabilized with ugly iron girders.

7. The Aedicula or Tomb at the Easter vigil.

8. The front of the Aedicula or Tomb.

9. Entrance to the antechamber. The Tomb is just inside the second door.

10. The actual Sepulchre. Only two or three people can fit in here at any one time. Normally, people kneel down at the tomb and say a brief prayer. You are not expected to stay long as others in the antechamber are waiting to enter. If you arrive early in the morning, however, you can usually take as long as you like. But for security reasons you are not allowed there beyond what the guard is willing to allow.

11. An early morning Catholic Mass in front of the Tomb. If you arrive earlier you will have the Tomb to yourself. You cannot enter when there is a Mass. Unfortunately some tour groups arrive during a Mass and cannot get in the Tomb!

12. Golgotha. This chapel is maintained by the Orthodox. The altar is positioned over the center of the rock. Pilgrims can stoop down and crawl under the altar to touch the top of the rock through a hole in the floor. The Roman Catholic altar can be seen just to the right.

13. The Entrance to the Church complex. Just inside the doors, on the right, is a flight of stairs that take you to the top of Golgotha. You can see some stairs here that were constructed and used by the crusaders. The top of Golgotha is just beyond the window at the top of the stairs.

Various portions of the church complex are under the control of Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Armenian, and Coptic churches but are shared according to complicated arrangements that sometimes result in bouts of pushing and punching. The best time to visit is in the very early morning just when the doors are opened. You will practically have the place to yourself for about forty-five minutes. Then the tour groups begin to arrive and long lines form to enter the Tomb and to visit the Chapel of Golgotha.

In 1883, an Englishman, General Charles Gordon was visiting Jerusalem when he spotted a rocky cliff in which some indentations appeared to him to look like the eye sockets of a human skull. Golgotha means “place of the skull” and so Gordon believed that this must be the actual site of the Crucifixion and Resurrection and not the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The location –called the Garden Tomb- is much visited by Protestants as they don’t have any representation at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. But, nearly all scholars agree that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, not the Garden Tomb,  marks the actual location of Golgotha and the Tomb of Christ.


Picture sources:


2 (edited)

3, 4, 5  Richard Krautheimer

6 (edited) Yupi666 at en.wikipedia

8 Jerry Modzel

9, 11, 12, 13 Bernie Dick


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2 Responses to “Church of the Holy Sepulchre”

  1. Bernie says:

    In picture #12 you can see, on either side of the altar, the actual rock of Golgotha through glass windows.

  2. JLo says:

    Thank you, Bernie! This tour you have provided today for all of us is so wonderful. My husband and I were graced to be there during Christmas season 2009; and every day since, we miss the Holy Land. I think we always will. Words fail to explain how one’s heart and head are touched in the special places we call “the Holy Land”. +JMJ

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