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Quick Facts on the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

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Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre Church of the Holy Sepulchre Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem
Suq Khan e-Zeit and Christian Quarter Rd. Jerusalem, Jerusalem District
Christian Quarter  neighborhood
Jerusalem  locality
Israel  country
Middle East  continent
Main date(s)
326-35; 12th c.
31.778508° N, 35.229474° E

Description of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

The exterior facade of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, on the east side of the church, was built by the Crusaders sometime before 1180. A double arcade with frieze at both levels are each surmounted by a cornice. The right entrance door was blocked after 1187 as part of Muslim control of the site after the Crusaders were defeated.

Just inside the entrance to the left was the high bench where the Muslim doorkeeper sat: for years, a Muslim kept control of the keys to the church to prevent disputes between Christian sects over the holy site. Although this has been discontinued, the holiest site in Christendom remains carefully divided beween denominations who guard their portions jealously.

The primary custodians are the Greek Orthodox, the Armenian Apostolic and Roman Catholic churches, with the Greeks having the lion's share. In the 19th century, the Coptic Orthodox, the Ethiopian Orthodox and the Syriac Orthodox acquired lesser responsibilities, which include shrines and other structures within and around the building. Times and places of worship for each community are strictly regulated in common areas.

Back out in the courtyard, the west wall (to your left as you face the entrance) contains 11th-century Greek Orthodox chapels built over the site of the Constantinian baptistery. The east wall has a small domed structure that was once the 12th-century Crusader entrance to the Church on Calvary. It later became the Chapel of the Franks.

Immediately inside the entrance to the church is the Stone of Unction, which commemorates the preparation of Jesus' body for burial. This limestone slab dates from 1808, when the prior 12th-century slab was destroyed. Ownership of this site has varied over the centuries, but it now belongs to the four main sects: the opulent lamps that hang over the stone slab are contributed by Armenians, Copts, Greeks and Latins.

Behind the Stone, a mosaic depicting Christ's anointing for burial decorates the outer wall of the Catholicon (on which see below). The Constantinian and Crusader churches did not have this wall, so one could see to the Holy Sepulchre from the entrance.

A stairway on the right just inside the entrance leads to Calvary (or Golgotha), the place where Jesus was crucified. The first chapel is the Catholic (Franciscan) Chapel of the Nailing of the Cross, which is Station 11 on the Via Dolorosa. It features a 12th-century mosaic of Jesus being nailed to the cross on the vault and a Medici altar from Florence. Through a window in the south wall the Chapel of the Agony of the Virgin can be seen. Just to the left of the altar is a statue of Mary, Our Lady of Sorrows, which is Station 13 (Jesus' body removed from the cross and given to Mary).

Adjacent to the Catholic chapel is the Greek Orthodox Calvary, which contains the actual Rock of Calvary (Station 12) around which the church was built. The rock can be seen under glass on either side of the main altar, and beneath the altar there is a hole that allows you to touch the rock itself. The slot cut for the cross is shown in the east apse along with those of the two thieves.

Directly beneath Calvary on the main floor (entered through a door next to the Stone of Unction) is the Chapel of Adam, which enshrines a cracked slab of rock behind glass. This identification with Adam is based on the ancient tradition (noted by Origen in the 2nd century) that Christ was crucified over the place where Adam was buried. The crack in the rock is said to be caused by the earthquake that occurred during the Crucifixion. Archaeologists suggest it was probably an original flaw that caused the workmen to abandon this section of the old quarry. At one time, the tombs of the Crusader kings Godfrey of Bouillon, Baldwin I and Baldwin V were near the entrance to this chapel; they have long since disappeared.

Walking to the west from the Stone of Unction, visitors arrive at the focal point of the Holy Sepulchre Church. The round area of the church, known as the Rotunda or Anastasis, preserves the location and shape, and a few original columns, of Constantine's 4th-century Church of the Resurrection built on the site of Christ's tomb. The Rotunda is surmounted by a large dome, completed in the 1960s. This is decorated with a 12-pointed star (1997) whose rays symbolize the outreach of the 12 apostles. The diameter of the dome is about 20.5 meters; the height is 34 meters.

Underneath the large dome is the Tomb of Christ itself, enshrined in a large, boxy shrine. The shrine, referred to as the edicule, is supported by scaffolding on the outside due to earthquakes and is not terribly attractive. The current structure was built in 1809-10 after the severe fire of 1808. It replaced one dating from 1555, commissioned by the Franciscan friar Bonifacio da Ragusa. (The original 4th-century shrine constructed under Constantine was destroyed by the sultan Hakim in 1009.) The Armenians, the Latins and the Greeks serve Liturgy daily inside the Holy Sepulchre. It is also used for the Holy Saturday ceremony of the Holy Fire, which is celebrated by the Greek Orthodox Patriarch himself.

Inside, the shrine contains two small rooms. The first is the Greek Orthodox Chapel of the Angel, which features an altar containing a piece of the stone rolled away by angels at the Resurrection. In the wall by the entrance, steps lead to the roof of the edicule. A low door on the opposite side leads to the tiny Chapel of the Holy Sepulchre, which contains the tomb of Christ itself. This is the 14th Station of the Cross and the holiest site in Christendom. Here a marble slab covers the place where the body of Christ was laid and from which he rose from the dead. A vase with candles marks the spot where his head rested. The slab was installed here in the 1555 reconstruction and purposely cracked to deter Ottoman looters.

After visiting the tomb, walk around to the back (west) of the edicule to an ironwork, cage-like structure containing the Coptic chapel. Beneath the altar is another piece of Christ's tomb. Opposite the Coptic chapel, inside a rough-hewned apse at the far west end of the Church is the Syrian chapel.

To the right (north) of the sepulchre is the Roman Catholic area, which consists of a large square chapel (the Chapel of St. Mary Magdalene) and another private chapel for Franciscan monks. The former is held to be the site where Jesus appeared to Mary after his resurrection. In the Crusader era, this chapel was approached from the street to the west via an impressive entrance portal.

Just opposite the entrance to the Sepulchre is the large nave of the church, which has been enclosed by a wall on all sides. Known as the Catholicon, this Greek Orthodox cathedral features a large iconostasis flanked by the thrones of the Patriarchs of Jerusalem and Antioch. Above is a colorful cupola, which dates from after the 1927 earthquake, decorated with an image of Christ and other icons.

An early tradition associated the site of the Crucifixion and the Resurrection as the center of the world, and by the 10th century it was marked by an omphalos. Today this is marked by a marble vessel in the west end of the Catholicon. (The pagan Greeks had their omphalos in Delphi.)

At the east end of the north aisle is the the chapel of the Prison of Christ, which according to 12th-century tradition housed Jesus and the two thieves before the Crucifixion. The first known mention of this is in the 8th century, by Epiphanius the Monk. The chapel probably originated as a liturgical station where the Passion and Death of Christ were commemorated.

Taking a right at the Prison leads into the ambulatory of the Crusader church, which has three chapels located in three apses: the Greek Chapel of St. Longinus (the Roman soldier who pierced Jesus' side and then converted) in the northeast corner; the Armenian Chapel of the Dividing of the Robes in the center; and the Greek Chapel of Derision or the Crowning of Thorns in the southeast apse. The latter contains a relic of the Column of Derision.

Between the last two chapels is a stairway that descends to the large Chapel of St. Helena, which is owned by the Armenians and known to them as the Chapel of St. Gregory. On the stairway walls are many small crosses carved by medieval pilgrims. The chapel has three aisles and two apses: the north apse is dedicated to the penitent thief; the south apse to St. Helena, mother of Constantine. A seat in the southeast corner of the chapel is said to have been occupied by Helena as she searched for the True Cross, a story first mentioned around 351.

From this corner, 13 more steps descend into the Chapel of the Finding of the Cross. The left side is owned by the Catholics, whose altar features a life-sized statue of St. Helena holding a cross. The Greeks have the right side of the chapel.

A door on the north side of the Chapel of St. Helena leads to the Chapel of St. Vartan, an Armenian chapel. This area was just discovered and excavated in the 1970s. The finds include remnants of walls built by Hadrian in the 2nd century, one of which contains a stone with a celebrating drawing of a merchant ship with the inscription DOMINE IVIMVS, "Lord we shall go." This drawing probably dates from before the completion of Constantine's church. The chapel is locked and not normally open to the public. (See Finding the Keys to the Chapel of St. Vartan for one scholar's adventure in gaining access.)

After you leave the Church, you might wish to stop by the buildings that have their entrances in the east wall of the courtyard: the Coptic Chapel of St. Michael the Archangel, which includes a staircase leading to the Ethiopian Orthodox Chapel and the Coptic convent to the northeast; the Armenian Chapel of St. James; and the Greek Monastery of Abraham in the southeast corner of the court.

Holly Hayes
September 9, 2012

Historical Timeline of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

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