One of the most visited sites in the old city of Jerusalem is the Holy Sepulchre Church. A Sepulchre is a small space cut in rock or a monument built of stone, in which a dead person is laid or buried. The famous Holy Sepulchre Church in Jerusalem is said to have been built on the site where Jesus was buried after his crucifixion and Christians believe that after three days he rose again and he was alive and among the people for another 40 days and then he ascended to heaven, from the Mount of Olives.
Jesus was crucified on Golgotha or Calvary
If we read the Bible then it mentions that Jesus was crucified outside the city walls on a hill called Golgotha in Aramaic and Calvary in Latin. Both words mean skull or bald head. This probably refers to the shape of the rock on which the crosses were placed for the crucifixion.
The location where the Church is built, is not anymore outside the city walls, it is right in the middle of the city. But that is because in later times the city expanded and the location of the wall changed. This area WAS outside of the city walls 2000 years ago.
It was actually a stone quarry from where stones were cut to build houses and buildings inside the walls.
It is very likely that the crucifixion took place on a cliff overlooking the quarry, so that the crosses were up high right next to a large deep hole in the ground.
On the other side of that quarry where the rocks were high again, some tombs were cut out in the rocks for burial outside the city. According to the Bible, Jesus’ body was taken down from the cross by a Jewish man, a Pharisee, member of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish court, his name was Nicodemus. His body was then buried in a new grave tomb that belonged to Joseph of Arimathea, a rich Jew, who cared about Jesus and his teachings.
So I hope you can picture this in your imagination. A stone quarry, where stones were dug out in large quantities so that a deep pit was created. A cliff that looked like a skull on which the crucifixion took place. And some rock cut tombs on the other side.
The Holy Sepulchre church is built over the stone quarry
The Holy Sepulchre church covers THIS very scene. And that explains that when you get inside the church directly to your right are a flight of stairs that go up. Up to the top of the cliff where the crucifixion took place. And if you go left into the church you will end up seeing some rock cut tombs inside the chapels on the western side of the church. And if you go to the right and then down the first and then second pair of stairs, you will find yourself deep down in part of the ancient quarry where you can still see the chisels in the rocks.
Are we sure that this is the exact place?
There is another one location that is indicated as a possible location for the Golgotha or the Calvary. But that place was not venerated until the 19th century and was appointed by mainly British and American protestants. This place can now be visited outside of the city walls at the Garden Tomb that you can access from Nablus Road, close to the Jerusalem Hotel.
There are a number of reasons why that site seems less obvious but it definitely is a nice place to visit, it has some rock cut tombs dating back to the 8th and 7th Century Before Christ and there is a lovely garden.
But the longest tradition in veneration of the place of Jesus”s death and burial is where the Holy Sepulchre is built.
Emperor Hadrian built a pagan temple on Jesus’ tomb
What we know for sure is that the city of Jesus’ time was completely destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD. And around 135 AD the Roman emperor Hadrian established a whole new Roman city that he didn’t call Jerusalem but Aelia Capitolina, after his own family name Aelia while Capitolina meant that the new city was dedicated to Jupiter Capitolinus, to whom a temple was built on the Temple Mount.
He had some new temples erected for Roman Gods and it seems that it was not a coincidence that he had a pagan temple built on the site of Jesus’ crucifixion. He saw that the followers of this new religion were growing and he wanted to wipe out the place where the memory of Jesus was venerated. So he filled up the quarry with sand and stones and a temple was erected on top.
About 200 years later when the emperor Constantine and his mother Helena who had converted to Christianity came to travel around the holy land, she was searching for evidence of the places where Jesus had been according to the Bible and the traditions.
Helena finds the true cross of Jesus and his tomb
According to the tradition she found three crosses in a deep pit, part of the old quarry, and when they brought a woman from the city who was very very sick, near death, they had her touch the three crosses. The first and second one did not have any effect on her but when she touched the third cross she was immediately healed.
Constantine and Helena decided to have the pagan temple removed and they had all the soil removed from the quarry area and that’s when they found the rock cut tomb that they identified as the tomb of Jesus.
The first Church of the Holy Sepulchre
This was in 236 AD and then the first church was built on this location. In order for visitors and pilgrims to visit the tomb and to be able to walk around it, the tomb of Jesus, that was cut into the bedrock, was now as a whole cut loose from the rest of the bedrock. A bit hard to explain. It must have been a hell of a job. But imagine that they just cut away all the rock around the tomb and then they built a beautiful embellished shrine over the remaining tomb. This little house, this shrine, is called an aedicule. And today when you visit the church you will see an aedicule. It’s not the original one from the 4th century because the church has been almost completely destroyed twice, but it is on the same spot.
During recent excavations inside the church the researchers found rock layers of the stone quarry on which this first Constantinian church was built.
So the first church was destroyed by the invading Persians in 614 AD and then a new church was built during Byzantine time and that church was destroyed in 1009 AD by the mad caliph El Hakim, who ruled in the Fatimid period from Egypt.
I want to add that the relation with the Muslims before that had not been bad. When Jerusalem first came under Muslim rule in 638 AD, Caliph Omar ibn el Khatab visited the church and he wrote a decree in which he stated that the church should not be used by Muslims for prayer and that the people of the book, meaning the Jews and Christians, should be protected.
There is a famous legend that says he did not want to pray inside the church because he was afraid that Muslims would later lay a claim on the church so he picked up a stone and threw it far away and where the stone hit, he prayed. Then in later times on that location a mosque by the name of Omar mosque was built there and until today you will see right across from the Holy Sepulcher church the Omar mosque, still in use.
And the same story is told in Bethlehem, where you can see an Omar mosque across from the Nativity Church on the other side of Manger Square.
The second church of the Holy Sepulchre
But back to the Holy Sepulcher church. After the destruction by El Hakim the church was rebuilt and when the Crusaders arrived in 1099 they did a lot of renovations in romanesque style and some additions, for example a bell tower.
Much of what you see today dates back to the Crusader period, but there have definitely been made some changes since then. The aedicule in the rotunda was first renovated in the 16th century by the Franciscans and then again after the big fire in 1808 that destroyed much of the rotunda and aedicule.
The Status Quo in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre
The church is holy to Christians but there are different denominations that have fought especially in the 16th and 17th century for the custody of the holy places. Who is in charge? Who can renovate? Who can use what part of the church and when and who is responsible? These were important questions that often lead to fights, some of them very severe. So bad that the Ottoman sultan issuing a decree, a firman, in 1757, that stipulated exactly into details who was responsible for what and who had rights and how the space should be shared. This firman was later confirmed again in 1853. It is called the Status Quo and it is an understanding between all religious communities about 9 holy sites that are shared. And these firmans even received international recognition in the Treaty of Paris in 1856 and in the Treaty of Berlin in 1878.
The immovable ladder on the Church of the Holy Sepulchre
You can see a striking example of the effect of this status quo on the outside of the church. Up from the main entrance under the right window, there is a small ladder. And this ladder was first recorded to be there on an engraving made in 1728. And basically it has been there since then. The ladder was mentioned in 1757 in the firman that led to the Status Quo and because everything was to be left as it was, not to be changed without the agreement of all the religious groups, the ladder was not removed.
There are different stories about how the ladder got there and why it stayed there. What is sure is that the window and the ledge on which the ladder stands are part of the Armenian convent.
In 1997, the ladder was supposedly pulled in through the window and hidden behind an altar by a Protestant Christian intending “to make a point of the silliness of the argument over whose ledge it is.” It was returned to the ledge weeks later, and a grate was installed in the window. In 2009, the ladder was placed against the left window for a short period before being moved back again.
During his pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 1964, Pope Paul VI described the ladder as a visible symbol of Christian division.
The Muslim families that hold the key to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre
And here it is also important to mention that all the strive between the different christian groups has led to a very old tradition, probably already dating back to the time of Saladin, who ALREADY in his days, in the 12th century, had problems with the denominations in the church, so he appointed a Muslim family to be the holders of the key of the church and to open and close the church and keep the keys.
The Joudeh al Huseini family are the sole legitimate custodians of the keys and the Nuseibeh family opens the doors with this key.
The Via Dolorosa that leads to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre
I should also add that the Church is usually visited by pilgrims at the end of their walk through the old city following the Via Dolorosa, that’s Latin for the Way of the Pain or also translated as the Way of the Cross.
We spoke about this in the Easter episode of 2021.
The route itself starts from nearby the Lion’s Gate and it supposedly traces the locations of important events that happened from the moment Jesus was convicted to the crucifixion and while he walked through the city first carrying his own cross and then falling down several times until the Romans picked a man, Simon of Cyrene, to carry the cross for him. In total there are 14 stations where pilgrims stop and where a chapel can be visited to commemorate the events. The first 9 are outside along the Via Dolorosa. The last 5 stations of the cross are inside the church.
In the next episode we will enter into the church and we will talk about those five stations and about a lot more!