The Holy Sepulchre

Saturday 21st June 2014

Today, after classes in the morning, we had a introduction to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre by a Franciscan priest from Hong Kong who has lived 25 years in the Holy Land. First there was an introductory talk, giving some of the history and layout of the Church. Then there was a guided tour of the church.

The building is complex (like most things in this land!). The history is chequered (also, like most things in this land!). The present can be confusing (also, like most things in this land!). So it was very good and necessary to have a well-informed guided introduction.

Just to explain the above comments a little, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is not one building as such, but several buildings all incorporated into the one complex.

Further, these different buildings are on different levels on the side of the hill, some on what was originally ground level but which have been excavated around when the area was a quarry, leaving that un-excavated part looking as if it were a hill (the site of Calvary), while other parts are on the excavated level, so are now below the original ground level.

This is further complicated by the fact that the site is the side of a hill, so there are three different “layers” or “levels” of the building as one goes down the hill.

Finally, parts of the buildings that make up the complex come from different historical eras. Archaeological explorations have turned up bits of evidence that indicate this was a very early site of Christian pilgrimage, consistent with the Gospel accounts of the crucifixion of Jesus.

However, in the 2nd century, after crushing the second Jewish revolt and the punitive destruction of the city of Jerusalem, the Roman Emperor Hadrian built a Roman city called Aelia Capitolina. He built retaining walls around the site and buried it under a platform, on top of which he erected a temple to Venus. Ironically, his actions of burying the site which were hostile and intended to eliminate the site actually served to “preserve” the site for subsequent developments.

When Christianity became established under Constantine, the pagan temples were demolished. Constantine’s mother Helen identified the site which was then excavated and the very large Constantinian Basilica was built (3rd – 7th century). This building was destroyed by the Persian invasion of 614AD then subsequently rebuilt.

Just over twenty years later in 638AD the city of Jerusalem was conquered by the Arab Muslims. Caliph Umar honoured the site out of respect for the Muslim acknowledgement of Jesus as a “Prophet” and Christians as “People of the Book”. Christians now under Muslim rule from the 7th to the 11th century were able to restore the basilica, but on a smaller scale. However, a later Muslim dynasty, the Fatimids, were much more aggressive against Christians and Christian Churches. The Caliph al-Hakim, who was certifiably insane, rampaged the site and the building was levelled to the ground. A subsequent Caliph did allow reconstruction of the church, but the limited resources of the beleaguered Christian community were not sufficient to restore the former Basilica but were limited to the Rotunda and immediate surrounds.

In response to an appeal for help against Muslim aggression, the Crusades were launched from Europe. The Crusaders conquered Jerusalem in 1099 and the Church was again extended, for the first time the whole complex being brought under one roof.

In 1187 Saladin defeated the Crusaders and the city again came under Muslim rule. Conditions for local Christians and pilgrim Christians from other places, including access to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, varied from time to time depending on the whim of the rulers and political considerations.

In 1517 the power shifted from Egyptian Mamelukes to the Ottoman Turkish empire for the next four centuries, during which Christian access to the site was negotiated on different terms.

After victory in the First World War the spoils were divided and Palestine came under the British Mandate until 1948 when the State of Israel declared independence.

During these centuries, at different times, different Christian churches were helped and/or hindered in their performance of services in the Church, requiring negotiations and settlements among them. To the present, six different Churches control different parts of the complex and carry out their activities at different times. These are the Catholic, Armenian, Greek Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, Coptic and Ethiopian Churches. Often there has been friction between the different groups, each competing for space or precedence, sometimes devolving into the unedifying spectacle of all-out brawls!! To this day, the members of the churches can seem to be competing – who has the largest candle, whose candle is nearest to a sacred site, who has access to a particular place within the Church and when … and these issues can be asserted with loud chanting and processions to assert time and space within the complex! The result can be quite a cacophony, though it is regulated by mutual agreement which serves the status quo. This can only be changed by mutual agreement among all six churches, which is unlikely, so the status quo continues, even when this means that necessary renovations are not done, with the result that parts of the complex do look quite run-down!

So as you can see from this brief summary, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is indeed a very complex place!!! It can be quite confronting.

Here are a few websites with detailed information and images about the church and its features, below which I will post some of my photos taken today:

From the Franciscan Custodians of the Holy Land:
http://www.holysepulchre.custodia.org

From Biblewalks: http://www.biblewalks.com/Sites/Sepulcher.html

From Bible Places:
http://www.sacred-destinations.com/israel/jerusalem-church-of-holy-sepulchre

Sign at the entrance to the the compound of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.  I was interested to note that the Arabic name (middle line) is translated as "The Church of the Resurrection".  I do not know how what the translation of the Hebrew (top line) is.

Sign at the entrance to the the compound of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. I was interested to note that the Arabic name (middle line) is translated as “The Church of the Resurrection”. I do not know how what the translation of the Hebrew (top line) is.


We arrived for our visit at just on 4.00pm.  The church bells began to ring loudly, the way was cleared, and the Greek Orthodox priests, leading the Patriarch, processed through the compound and into the Church as it was "their" allotted time.

We arrived for our visit at just on 4.00pm. The church bells began to ring loudly, the way was cleared, and the Greek Orthodox priests, leading the Patriarch, processed through the compound and into the Church as it was “their” allotted time.


The main entrance doors (from Crusader times).  The ladder on the ledge below the upper right-hand window has been there almost continuously since the 18th century because the churches cannot come to a mutual agreement among them about its relocation!!!

The main entrance doors (from Crusader times). The ladder on the ledge below the upper right-hand window has been there almost continuously since the 18th century because the churches cannot come to a mutual agreement among them about its relocation!!!


The Eleventh Station, site of the nailing to the cross.  We attended Mass there in the early morning a couple of days ago.

The Eleventh Station, site of the nailing to the cross. We attended Mass there in the early morning a couple of days ago.


Icon of the Ascension on the ceiling above the nave of the chapel of the 11th Station.  It is very ancient (Byzantine?)

Icon of the Ascension on the ceiling above the nave of the chapel of the 11th Station. It is very ancient (Byzantine?)


The Twelfth Station, the site of the Crucifixion.  The hole in the middle of the circle on the floor is said to be the spot where the crucifix was erected.

The Twelfth Station, the site of the Crucifixion. The hole in the middle of the circle on the floor is said to be the spot where the crucifix was erected.


Chapel dedicated to Adam.  This is directly beneath the Hill of Calvary.  According to some traditions, Adam was buried there.  It is said that blood from the crucified Jesus trickled down through a crack in the rock, symbolising the purification of Adam from sin and the restoration of all humanity to new life in the crucified and risen Christ.  This tradition is often represented in Greek icons of the Crucifixion by the skull and crossbones at the foot of the cross.

Chapel dedicated to Adam. This is directly beneath the Hill of Calvary. According to some traditions, Adam was buried there. It is said that blood from the crucified Jesus trickled down through a crack in the rock, symbolising the purification of Adam from sin and the restoration of all humanity to new life in the crucified and risen Christ. This tradition is often represented in Greek icons of the Crucifixion by the skull and crossbones at the foot of the cross.


Crosses from the Byzantine era carved into the wall along the stairs that descend to the level below current ground level.

Crosses from the Byzantine era carved into the wall along the stairs that descend to the level below current ground level.


Statue of St Helena holding the cross, located on the second level below the current ground level.  It is said that it is here that she discovered the cross on which Jesus was crucified.  One story is that she was able to identify it by touching a dead infant to the various items of wooden debris that had been discarded in the pit.  When the child came to life she knew that she had found the Cross of Christ.

Statue of St Helena holding the cross, located on the second level below the current ground level. It is said that it is here that she discovered the cross on which Jesus was crucified. One story is that she was able to identify it by touching a dead infant to the various items of wooden debris that had been discarded in the pit. When the child came to life she knew that she had found the Cross of Christ.


Statue of the risen Christ meeting Mary Magdalene

Statue of the risen Christ meeting Mary Magdalene


The Aediculum, site of the Tomb of Christ, the place where he was buried and rose from the dead.

The Aediculum, site of the Tomb of Christ, the place where he was buried and rose from the dead.


The inside of the Dome immediately above the Aediculum.  This is the large "silver" dome on the skyline over the Old City, which with the Dome of the Rock and the Dome over the Hurva Synagogue are the three "domes" representing Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It is said that this particular dome does not have interior lighting,  because the light of the risen Christ shines through as symbolised by the sunshine flooding in and the golden rays of light affixed to the inside of the dome.

The inside of the Dome immediately above the Aediculum. This is the large “silver” dome on the skyline over the Old City, which with the Dome of the Rock and the Dome over the Hurva Synagogue are the three “domes” representing Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It is said that this particular dome does not have interior lighting, because the light of the risen Christ shines through as symbolised by the sunshine flooding in and the golden rays of light affixed to the inside of the dome.


This one's for you, Claire! Ethiopian priest praying in their Chapel which is near the entrance door to the Holy Sepulchre.

This one’s for you, Claire!
Ethiopian priest praying in their Chapel which is near the entrance door to the Holy Sepulchre.

Shalom, Peace, Salaam!!!

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