Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Church of the Holy Sepulchre - Jerusalem

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre covers the most holy and sacred ground in the world for Christians, the area where most Christians believe Jesus was crucified (the Rock of Calvary), buried (the Holy Sepuchre) and resurrected. It also currently serves as the headquarters for the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, and includes Catholic, Armenian Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, Coptic and Ethiopian Orthodox churches as part of its ownership and liturgical offering.  
The large dome is over the Rotunda and the smaller dome is over the Catholicon. The bell tower to the right is about half the height it used to be, following a 16th century earthquake. Picture from seetheholyland.net. 
Sepulchre is the British spelling for sepulcher, which means a burial vault, tomb or grave. Because sepulchre is the most common spelling in the sources, that spelling is used here. The history of the church is long, complicated and often unclear, but a brief summary is attempted.
The eastern end of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The immediate area is above St. Helena's Chapel. The dome of St. Helena's chapel is in the far right corner. Straight in front are living areas for clergy of the Ethiopian Church that live on the roof. Picture from seetheholyland.net. 
The church itself is more complicated than its history. It is immense, dark and confusing, with over 30 unlabeled chapels and with numerous languages spoken within it. Following the history, most of the chapels are discussed or alluded to. 
This is a portion of the Madaba map, a mosaic located on a church floor in Madaba, Jordan, showing Jerusalem in the mid-6th century.  The line going through the center of Jerusalem is the Cardo, the main street in Byzantine times. At about the center of the Cardo, going down about 75% of the way to the bottom, is an elongated section which represents the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Note the two domes which are in yellow and the red tiles which represent the roof. 
A closer view of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on the Madaba Map.

At the time of the death of Jesus, the area where the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is now was a large quarry, just outside the walls of Jerusalem. Limestone had been extracted from this area from 800 BCE to the first century BCE to build structures in the city. After the quarry was abandoned, the area was used for small vegetable gardens and some family tombs were hewn in the hillside. Golgotha (Aramaic) or Calvary (Latin), meaning “place of the skull,” was a rocky knoll in this area. Around 33 CE, Jesus was crucified with two thieves on Calvary and shortly after placed in one of the nearby family tombs by Joseph of Arimathea. Less than ten years later, between 41 and 42 CE, Herod Agrippa enlarged the city walls of Jerusalem to the northwest and the area where Jesus was crucified and buried became part of the city.

After the death of Jesus, early Christians congregated around the tomb and had celebrations up until the Romans destroyed Jerusalem in 70 CE. Around 130, the Roman Emperor Hadrian decided to rebuild Jerusalem as a Roman colony with the name Aelia Capitolina. Hadrian had a temple dedicated to Venus (Aphrodite) built over the tomb in which Jesus was buried. The area over and around the tomb was filled in to provide a level foundation.

Nearly 200 years later, the Emperor Constantine was interested in finding the historic sites and relics of his newly adopted Christian religion. He gave his mother, Helena, unlimited access to the imperial treasury to locate them and from 326 to 328 she traveled to Palestine. Locals had a tradition that the sites for the death and burial of Jesus were located on the spot covered by the Temple of Venus. So Helena had the temple to Venus torn down and ordered excavations which led to the discovery of the tomb of Jesus, the rock of Calvary and three crosses (the cross of Jesus and of the two thieves). She differentiated between the three crosses by having a person near death touch each one. When the sick person touched the true cross the person was healed. Constantine ordered that the rocky hill surrounding the tomb of Jesus was to be cut away so that a church could be built around the tomb. That church, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, was dedicated on September 13, 335. The church was larger than the current church, had an atrium which used part of the Venus’ temple wall, had a covered basilica, and an open courtyard with the rocky knoll of Calvary in one corner. Because of the labor involved in cutting away the rock to isolate the tomb of Jesus, the tomb area was not completed until 384. The edicule, including a passageway in which the body of Jesus was anointed and wrapped in a linen cloth and then a separate burial chamber, was circled by columns crowned by a large dome with a circular opening. A drawing of Constantine's church is found here, and even better, a 3D video of it is found here, both at the Franciscan website. They help greatly in conceptualizing how it looked. 

The church was damaged by fire by the Persians who invaded Jerusalem in 614. It was restored fairly quickly. In 638 the Muslims took control of Jerusalem under caliph Omar. However he and subsequent Muslim rulers, for more than 400 years, allowed it to continue functioning as a Christian church. There were modifications to the church during this period, including a shift of the entrance and the construction of a church over the rocky knoll of Calvary. Then on October 18, 1009, caliph Hakim had the church destroyed, along with other churches in Palestine, Egypt and Syria. The east and west walls of the church were completely destroyed and the tomb of Jesus was attacked with picks and hammers and demolished to the ground. The only part of the church that remained was the rotunda surrounding the tomb and the courtyard. A reconstruction of the church by Byzantine Emperor Constantine IX Monomachos was allowed by the local caliph, with conditions. The reconstruction was completed by 1048. There were not sufficient funds to completely repair and rebuild the church, so a large portion of it was abandoned, including the atrium and the basilica. The rotunda became the center of the church.   

In 1095, Pope Urban II proclaimed the First Crusade to restore Christian access to the holy places in and near Jerusalem. A big reason for the Crusade was the destruction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The Crusaders arrived in Jerusalem on July 15, 1099, killing Jews and Muslims. The Crusader chief, Godfrey de Bouillon, became the first king of Jerusalem and declared himself Defender of the Holy Sepulchre. The Crusaders decided to make Jerusalem Catholic and appointed a Catholic bishop to preside over Jerusalem, a Catholic priest to run the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and removed the Orthodox patriarch and clergy from the Holy Sepulchre completely. This was the beginning of the conflict over the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The crusaders began to modify the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, grouping together places that had been separate. The rotunda, over the tomb of Jesus, and the chapels on Calvary were put together under one roof. A bell tower was added to the south and another entrance to Calvary was built, called the Chapel of the Franks, another name for Catholics, who were also called Latins. Under a new dome, over the Catholicon, an omphalos was placed which marked the center of the world. The Chapel of the Finding of the Holy Cross and Saint Helena’s Chapel were also added. See a wonderful 3D video of the Crusader church at the Franciscan website which is also where much of this history comes from. During the rebuilding process, Fulk and Melisende were crowned as king and queen of Jerusalem in the rotunda in 1131. On July 15, 1149, Queen Melisende and her son, Baldwin III, now the King, reconsecrated the new Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The Crusaders controlled the Holy Sepulchre until October 2, 1187 when Saladin, the first Sultan of the Ayyubid dynasty, reconquered Jerusalem. Saladin restored the patriarchy and control of the Holy Sepulchre to the Greek Orthodox.

In 1225, Frederick II, the Holy Roman Emperor, married 15 year old Yolande in southern Italy, non-resident Queen of Jerusalem, and became King of Jerusalem by marriage.  Referred to as the Beast of the Apocalypse by Pope Gregory IX and excommunicated for failure to go on crusade earlier, Frederick went on the Sixth Crusade without the pope's blessing and reached an agreement in 1229 with Al-Kamil, the Ayyubid Sultan, for control of Jerusalem and Bethlehem for 10 years. Although this was not technically proper, because Yolande had died in the interim and their child, Conrad was the rightful king, Frederick held a mass in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on March 18, 1229, surrounded by his German soldiers and without any priests present, and put his crown on the altar of Calvary and then placed it on his own head, projecting himself as the universal monarch of Christendom. The Latin patriarch placed him under interdict the next day and Frederick left Jerusalem. The Catholics managed to control Jerusalem until July 11, 1244 when Barka Kahn, a Tatar horesman, invaded Jerusalem, killed 2,000 people and destroyed churches, including the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. He and his men attacked the priests in the Holy Sepulchre as they celebrated Mass and beheaded and disemboweled them on the altar. He also disinterred and burned the bodies of the kings of Jerusalem, but spared their sarcophagi, shattered the stone at the door of the tomb of Jesus and set the church on fire. They then rode off and the vacuum they left was filled by the Islamic Mamluks, of Turkish origin, who ruled from Cairo. The Mamluks controlled Jerusalem for nearly 300 years. 

From this time on, the Church was mostly closed, but would be opened for pilgrims who were willing to pay a tax to the ruling Muslims. In 1333, the royal family of Naples was able to obtain for the Catholics a right of residence in Jerusalem, and in 1342, Pope Clement VI conferred upon the Franciscans the right to protect the Holy Places in and around Jerusalem. The Church now had resident Greek, Armenian, Georgian, Catholic, Syrian, Coptic and Ethiopian priests, sometimes as many as 300 of them, but most were Orthodox, Catholic and Armenian. When the Church was locked, food was passed to the residents through a hole in the door or winched up to them by pulley through windows. Each religious community had its own latrines, except the Orthodox who used slop-buckets, and the stench was terrible. Some of the smaller communities, like the Coptics, Syrians and Ethiopians had to perform tasks to obtain money for food, like empty the Orthodox slop-buckets. 

Pilgrimage became very popular in Europe and the pilgrims had to pay fines and tolls to enter Jerusalem and the Church. Years before, in 1192, Saladin appointed the Nusseibeh family as the "Custodian and Doorkeeper of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre." So each day, the head of the Nesseibeh family sat on a throne in the courtyard, accompanied by armed guards, and charged for access to the Church. This was very profitable. In addition, the various religious communities bribed the Mamluks for favors inside the Church, particularly the control of Calvary. Control of Calvary changed five times in the course of 30 years as one community would outbid another. Altogether, this was a source of huge profits for the Mamluks. The Mamluks closed the Church each night, but allowed pilgrims to spend the night inside for a price. The Church was full of stalls, shops and beds and the pilgrims carved their initials into the shrines inside. There was a belief that children conceived inside the Church were specially blessed, so night-time love-making was very common and the Church was sometimes referred to as a brothel. Alcohol was also available which helped to fuel brawls at night. Easter was particularly busy and financially remunerative for the Ottomans. Thousand of pilgrims would line up the night before Easter, carrying pillows and carpets, to pay the Custodian to spend the night. The miracle of the Holy Fire happened that night, each year, as a blue light emanated from the marble slab covering the tomb of Jesus and formed a column of fire from which all other lamps and candles from around the Church were lit. Evliya Celebi, an Ottoman Turk who traveled through the Ottoman Empire in the 17th century, visited the Church on Easter and claimed that the secret of the Holy Fire was a hidden jar of naphtha dripped down a chain by a hidden monk.  

In 1453, Byzantine Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks and the Greek patriarch became a subject of the Ottoman Empire. In 1517, the Ottoman Turks took control of Palestine and they controlled Jerusalem for 400 years, until 1917. The patriarchs of Jerusalem, who had primarily been Greek Orthodox, other than during the crusader period, were now approved by the Ottoman Sultan, and this solidified the Greek Orthodox hold on that office. Eight religious communities now shared the Church and they constantly battled each other for privilege and ownership of parts of the Church. And the taxes and bribes that started under the Mamluks continued under the Ottomans. The Georgian's who had been patrons of the Mamluks went into decline, as did the Serbs and Maronites. The struggle between the Catholics and the Orthodox, the two richest and most powerful communities, was particularly fierce and constant. The Catholics felt that the Sultan, who resided in Constantinople, favored the Greeks. The Greeks resented the Catholics for the crusades, not only for their takeover of Jerusalem, but also for the fourth crusade, when Catholic crusaders and Venetian merchants sacked Constantinople and appointed a Catholic Patriarch of Constantinople.  This tug of war for the Church played out on several fronts: (a) politically in Constantinople, the head of the Ottoman Empire, through diplomatic pressure and bribes (favors often went to the highest bidders); (b) through local Muslim religious courts, which decided disputes between the religious communities; and (c) through actual fisticuffs inside the church itself. The Ottomans encouraged the continued conflict because it kept a constant flow of bribes coming.

In 1545, an earthquake collapsed part of the bell tower. In 1622 a dispute arose over ownership of the Holy Places. In the seven year period between 1630 and 1637, parts of the Church changed hands at least six times between the religious communities. In 1685, the Georgians, and shortly thereafter, the Ethiopians, left the church as they were unable to pay the required tax payments to the Ottomans. The Orthodox purchased the Chapel of the Holy Cross from the Georgians and the Franciscans were able to buy many of the other areas that were abandoned. At some point in time the Austrians and French lobbied the Ottomans and were able to get the Franciscans primary control over the Church. Then the Russians lobbied and bribed the Ottomans and got control back for the Orthodox. Soon the Franciscans were able to get it back again. Fisticuffs between the priests inside the Church occurred on a number of occasions. One Franciscan priest referred to the Orthodox as "The Vomit." In 1719, the Franciscans, after negotiations, began to restore the dome of the rotunda. The Armenians repaired the staircase to the Chapel of St. Helena, and the Greeks tore down unsafe levels of the bell tower. The bell tower was now only about half the height it had been. The edicule was restored in 1728.

On April 2, 1757, the Saturday before Palm Sunday, a thousand Greek Orthodox descended on the Church of the Holy Sepulchre with clubs, maces, hooks and swords and physically threw out the Franciscan friars. The Orthodox thereafter took back primary control. After a fire on October 12, 1808, accidentally started by the Armenian officer with charge of the Armenian gallery when his stove caught fire after he fell asleep, the tomb of Jesus was destroyed. The Greeks received permission from the Ottomans to do repairs and built the current edicule (finished in 1810) and, in the process, increased the validity of their control. The Orthodox celebrated by smashing the decorated sarcophagi of the Crusader kings which were just inside the main entrance. Today only fragments of the sarcophagus of Baldwin V survive. The Armenians made gains as well. The Franciscan position was weakened because their main patrons, France and Spain, were at war, and unable to focus on the Holy Land.

For a short period of time Jerusalem was controlled by the Albanians. In 1834 the local governor, Ibrahim, ended the fees that had to be paid by pilgrims to the Holy Sepulchre (and they have not been reinstated since). In early May he presided over the Easter celebration of the Holy Fire with 17,000 pilgrims inside the Church. A battle broke out among the pilgrims and Ibrahim's body guards, in an attempt to get him out, started a stampede. One pilgrim wrote: "There was...a great heap of bodies  on which I trod. All dead. Many of them quite black with suffocation and others all bloody and covered with brains and entrails, trodden to pieces by the crowd. Soldiers with their bayonets killed a number of fainting wretches, the walls splattered with the blood and brains of men who had  been felled like oxen." 400 people died. Just 12 years later, on Good Friday, April 10, 1846, the Orthodox and Catholic Easters were going to fall on the same day. The Greeks and Catholics were competing to see who would hold services first. A fight ensued and the priests were wielding crucifixes, candlesticks and lamps. Then some brandished pistols and daggers. Ottoman soldiers broke up the fight, but 40 dead man were laying around the Holy Sepulchre.

The French and the Russians were competing heatedly in Jerusalem for priority in the Holy Sepulchre and other Holy sites. On February 8, 1852, the sultan tried to settle the dispute by confirming to the Orthodox their superior rights in the Church, with some concessions to the Catholics. Napoleon III of France threatened the Ottomans, sending a gunboat to Istanbul. The sultan was cowed and shifted primacy in the Holy Land to the Catholics. Nicholas I of Russia was outraged and ultimately invaded Ottoman territory in what is today Romania and started advancing toward Istanbul. Britain and France threatened war against Russia if it did not stop and ultimately declared war on March 28, 1853, in what became known as the Crimean War. During the war Nicholas I died and was replaced by Alexander II. Russia was mostly defeated, but as part of a peace treaty, the Orthodox were able to restore the "Status Quo" and get back their dominant rights in the Holy Sepulchre.

Under the Status Quo, three churches administer the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Greek Orthodox; the Catholics, by the Franciscan Order; and the Armenian Orthodox. Each of those churches have their own chapels and share common areas, including the stone of unction and the edicule, where the tomb of Jesus is located. The Coptic Orthodox and Syrian Orthodox Churches have some rights to use the Church, but no say in the running of the church. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church has monks that live in a village on the roof called Dei res-Sultan, but have no rights inside the church. The Status Quo even extends to liturgy. It specifies, for every day of the year, the time and place of services in public areas, and details the possession of every item in the church. For example, Sunday morning liturgies are usually as follows: (a) 4:00 a.m. – Coptic; (b) 5:30 a.m. – Catholic; (c) 7:00 a.m. - Greek Orthodox; (d) 8:00 a.m. – Syriac Orthodox; and (e) 8:45 a.m. – Armenian Orthodox.

While the Ottomans were in power, the governor decided disputes, determining what customary practice was under the Status Quo. However, after World War I, which included the defeat of Turkey, Palestine came under the authority of the British Mandatory Authority. There were hopes, particularly by the Catholics, that some of these disputes could be reopened and resolved under more favorable terms. However, most of the records were lost and the British High Commissioner for Palestine decided to strictly follow the Status Quo. Rather than resolving disputes, he expected the religious communities to resolve issues among themselves. This was made more difficult by Turkish property laws which created issues of possession and ownership that had the other religious communities blocking a community who wanted to make repairs or improvements.

In 1927 an earthquake in Jerusalem badly damaged the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The ordinary difficulties of working together among the religious communities were then compounded by World War II and Arab-Israeli conflicts. Finally, in 1954, the Greeks, Catholics and Armenians had architects that agreed on the outline to a solution. Repairs did not start until 1961 and they continued until 1980. 

During this time, Pope Paul VI visited Jerusalem and asked the Orthodox patriarch for permission to pray at the Greek Calvary. The patriarch asked him to put the request in writing, then turned him down. A petty tit for tat, but better than dead people laying around the Holy Sepulchre. 

Ultimately, foundations were repaired, walls restored, thousands of stones replaced, mortar repaired, etc. As changes in representation occurred among the religious communities, further repairs ground to a halt, such as decoration of the dome and restoration of the edicule. In 1997 a simple compromise design for the rotunda was agreed to and scaffolding in the rotunda came down, but the restoration of the edicule, and new electric and new sewage systems still await agreement among the communities.


From the main entrance to the church, turn right and ascend steep stairs. These stairs take you to the top of the hill Calvary. 
Stairs leading up to the Rock of Calvary. From Wikipedia.
The upstairs floor is level with the top of the rock on which Jesus was crucified. Ahead and to the right is a window that looks into the Chapel of the Franks, dedicated to Our Lady of Sorrows. For purposes of the Stations of the Cross, it is also called the Chapel of the Divestiture and is Station 10. This is where Jesus was stripped of his garments. It has an outside entrance, to the right of the main entrance, and up some stairs which were built by the crusaders and was at one time the exclusive entrance to Calvary.
The courtyard beneath the bell tower. The entrance is at the right. 
The entrance used to consist of two doors. The door on the right was bricked-up by Saladin in about 1187 to control the movement of pilgrims more easily. The stairs on the right lead up to the Chapel of the Franks or Chapel of the Divestiture. Picture from seetheholyland.net.
Another view of the Chapel of the Franks at the top of the stairs. 
The altar inside. This is Station 10 of the Cross. 
Straight ahead is the Catholic Chapel of the Nailing to the Cross, which the Franciscans also call the Chapel of the Crucifixion.  It is the 11th Station of the Cross.
Station 11 of the Cross. The Chapel of the Nailing to the Cross.
To the left is the Greek Chapel of the Rock of Calvary. This is the 12th Station of the Cross. The rock is visible through glass on either side of the altar. Kneeling under the altar, through a silver disk, you can touch the rock at the place where Jesus was raised on the cross.
Station 12 of the Cross. The Rock of Calvary visible under glass and a worshiper kneels under the altar at the site where the cross was placed. 
A similar view free of people. 
The icon of Jesus above the altar. 
Between the Greek and Catholic chapels is a Catholic altar of Our Lady of Sorrows which is the 13th Station of the Cross, where Jesus was taken down from the cross. This was a gift of Queen Maria of Portugal in 1778.
Our Lady of Sorrows - Station of the Cross 13
At the bottom of a different set of stairs from the Greek chapel, and straight in front of the main entrance, is the Stone of Anointing or Stone of Unction. This is where Jesus’ body was prepared for burial by Joseph of Arimathea.
The stone of unction viewed from above near the Chapel of Calvary.
An unobstructed view of the stone of unction.
On the wall behind the stone is a Greek mosaic with three scenes, from right to left, showing Christ being taken down from the cross, his body being prepared for burial, and his body being taken to the tomb. This wall was a temporary addition to support the arch above it which was damaged in the 1808 fire. It is no longer necessary for that purpose, but does separate the entrance from the Catholicon and sits on what used to be the graves of the four crusader kings, including Godfrey of Bouillon and Baldwin I of Jerusalem.
Mosaic of Jesus being removed from the cross. Note the skull of Adam at the base.
Mosaic of Jesus on the stone of unction, his body being prepared for burial.
Mosaic of the body of Jesus being transported to the tomb.
To the west (left) is the Armenian shrine. The day we visited the Armenians were doing some sort of service. 
A service at the Armenian shrine.
Armenian priest in black hood and purple robe doing a reading.
The same view from a different angle, between the pillars of the rotunda. These ground level pillars around the rotunda are from Constantine's original 4th century church. 
Burning candles.
To the north (right), is the Rotunda, also known as the Anastasis (Greek for “resurrection”), surrounded by massive pillars and topped by the main dome. Its outer walls and pillars are from Constantine’s original church. The dome has 12 rays representing the apostles.
The dome with 12 rays.
In the center of the Rotunda is a stone edicule which is the tomb of Jesus, the 14th Station of the Cross.  It is a stone monument built by the Greek Orthodox in 1810 after the fire in 1808. It has a flat roof with a Russian-style dome. Side panels have inscriptions in Greek inviting people to praise the risen Christ. The edicule has been encased by steel girders since the British Mandate because of concerns about its stability. Greek Orthodox priests control admission to the edicule when it is busy, as it was when we visited. In front are candlesticks and candles from the different religious communities. The first chamber inside the edicule is the Chapel of the Angel which has a pedestal with a piece of the rolling stone used to close the tomb. The rolling stone was preserved in its entirety until it was destroyed in 1009 by caliph Hakim. A low doorway leads to the tomb chamber itself, which, on the right, has a marble slab covering the rock bench on which the body of Christ was laid. The slab was split by the Franciscans in 1555 to make it less valuable and keep the Ottomans from stealing it.
The edicule, fronted by candles and held together by steel girders, inside the massive rotunda.
The edicule, viewed from above. Note the Russian-style dome on top. Photo from seetheholyland.net.
The front of the edicule. Picture from holylandphotos.org.
Inside the tomb, looking back out to the Chapel of the Angel. The pedestal holding a portion of the stone covering the tomb is in the center. Picture from holylandphotos.org.
Greek inscription above the entrance to the tomb, as seen from inside the tomb. Photo from holylandphotos.org.
The burial bench covered by marble. The seam in the marble was created by the Franciscans to make it less valuable and less likely to be stolen by the Ottomans. The head of Jesus was placed where the candles are located. Photo from holylandphotos.org.
The wall above the burial bench. Photo from holylandphotos.org.
Attached to the rear of the edicule is the Chapel of the Copts. It was built in 1573. There is an altar and beneath it is a portion of the bed of rock from which the tomb of Jesus was excavated.
Chapel of the Copts at the rear of the edicule. Photo from Wikipedia.
West of the edicule is the Syrian Orthodox Chapel of St. Joseph of Arimathea and St. Nicodemus. On the far side of that chapel are two tombs that are traditionally believed to be the tombs of Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus. These tombs are the greatest evidence for Jesus being buried near here as archaeologists date them to the time of Jesus, from the 1st century BCE to the 1st century CE. They prove this area was a Jewish cemetery at the time of Jesus. This is what the area around the tomb of Jesus looked like before Constantine had the rock around it chipped away. This rock and the tombs within it were left standing because it is outside the area of the rotunda. The Holy Sepulchre probably looked something like this until it was completely destroyed by Hakim in 1009.  
Tombs of Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus.
North of the edicule is a Franciscan altar dedicated to Mary Magdalene. This is one of the few places in the Church where there are places to sit and most of the chairs were filled with people in contemplation. This is where the majority of the Catholic services are held. I assume this is a nod to Mark 16:9, which states Mary was the first person to meet the resurrected Jesus: “When Jesus rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene…”
Chapel of Mary Magdalene.
The modern relief of Jesus and Mary seeking to touch him. 
Further north, through double bronze doors is the Franciscan Chapel of the Apparition that commemorates the non-biblical appearance of Jesus to his mother, Mary, after the resurrection. This event is narrated in the apocryphal Book of the Resurrection of Christ by Bartholomew the Apostle.
Chapel of the Apparition. From Wikipedia.
In the northeast part of the Church is a Greek chapel called the Prison of Christ. Apparently, there was a tradition that Jesus was held there briefly before he was crucified.
Chapel of the Prison of Christ. From Wikipedia.
On the northeast side of the semi-circular aisle is the Greek Orthodox Chapel of St. Longinus. Longinus was the Roman soldier who pierced the side of Jesus with his spear and then accepted Jesus as the Son of God. John 19:34 states, “…[O]ne of the soldiers pierced Jesus’ side with a spear, bringing a sudden flow of blood and water. The man who saw it has given testimony, and his testimony is true.” Although there is no connection in the gospels, legend has it that this soldier was the same soldier mentioned in Matthew 27:54: “When the centurion and those with him who were guarding Jesus saw the earthquake and all that had happened, they were terrified, and exclaimed, ‘Surely he was the Son of God!”’ The name of Longinus for the soldier was provided in the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus.
Chapel of St. Longinus.
Further to the south around the semi-circle is the Armenian Chapel of the Division of the Raiment, commemorating where the Roman soldiers divided Christ’s clothing among them.
Chapel of the Division of Raiment
A closer view of the altar.
At the far east side of the Church, 29 steps below ground, is the Chapel of Saint Helena. The walls of the staircase are covered with small crosses carved by Armenian pilgrims. It is an Armenian owned chapel that has been re-named to honor St. Gregory the Illuminator, the Armenian national patron, although most people ignore the new name and continue to refer to it as St. Helena’s. This is one of the oldest parts of the Church. It was the crypt in the 4th century church built by the Emperor Constantine. An altar on the left is dedicated to the good or penitent thief on the cross, St. Dismas, who was named in the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus. He is the thief that asks Jesus to “remember me when you come into your kingdom.” (Luke 23:49-43) Tradition is that he was on the right hand of Jesus and the impenitent thief was on the left hand. Artistic renderings of the crucifixion often show Jesus with his head inclined to the right showing his acceptance of the good thief. Along the same line, Russian Orthodox crosses usually have three bars: the top bar representing the titulus, or inscription written by Pilate; the longer middle crossbar on which Jesus’ hands were nailed; and a bottom bar representing the footrest to which Jesus’s feet were nailed. The footrest is slanted upwards toward the good thief to the right, and downwards towards the impenitent thief. There is a beautiful old mosaic on the floor. 
Crosses carved in wall. Photo from Wikipedia.
Chapel of St. Helena
Russian crosses on St. Basil's Cathedral in Moscow. Note the footrest is slanted. 
Ship mosaic
Flamingo mosaic
Antelope mosaic
Armenian mural in the Chapel of St. Helena
The Franciscan Chapel of the Finding of the Cross is another 22 steps down from the southeast side of St. Helena’s Chapel. Tradition is that St. Helena found the true cross, three nails and part of the titulus written by Pilate here.  It was an ancient quarry and later a cistern for storing water. There is a statue behind the altar showing St. Helena holding the cross. We visited these below-ground chapels in the evening and they had a cavernous, surreal quality about them. Very primitive, very old, relatively unadorned. Much different than the glitter-strewn chapels on the upper floors.
The statue of St. Helena and the true cross. The iron railing is where the cross was found. Photo from seetheholyland.com.
St. Helena and the true cross.
Back up the steps to the main floor, then turning left, at the southeast part of the semi-circular aisle, is the Greek Orthodox Chapel of Derision. It commemorates the mocking of Jesus by the Roman soldiers. There is a fragment of a column under the altar which is claimed to be where Jesus sat when the crown of thorns was placed on his head. The crown of thorns was placed on Jesus when he was in Pilate’s Praetorium, so this would be an event that actually happened elsewhere (at Station 1 of the cross).
Chapel of Derision.
Now, heading west and in the aisle to the left, near the Chapel of Adam, is a protruding glass screen that reveals a lower portion of the rock of Calvary. It is a view in to the rock which is otherwise mostly covered by the walls of the Church.
View of the Rock of Calvary
The Chapel of Adam, on the main floor, is underneath the Greek Orthodox Rock of Calvary, which is on the second floor. According to tradition, Adam is buried there, which means Jesus was crucified over the place where Adam was buried. Jesus is, in effect, a second Adam. A window on the wall at the back of the chapel reveals the Rock of Calvary with a crack in it. It is claimed that the crack was caused by the earthquake that occurred following Jesus’ death on the cross. The crack allowed the blood of Christ to literally fall on Adam’s skull and thereby redeem him. This is also how Calvary (or Golgotha) got its name, the place of the skull, and why iconography often shows a skull at the base of the cross, sometimes with rivulets of blood and often in a small cave.
Chapel of Adam
Window gives a view of the Rock of Calvary with a crack.
Directly east from the entrance to the tomb is the Catholicon or Katholikon, the central worship space of the basilica, which is owned by the Greeks. It is entered through an arch built by the crusaders. There is a rose-colored basin containing a circular stone known as the omphalos, or center of the earth. This was viewed as the geographical center of the earth based on Biblical references and the divine manifestations. Beyond it to the east is the iconostasis. To the left (north) side is the throne reserved for the Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem and to the right (south) is the throne reserved for the Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch. The dome above it with Byzantine style mosaics shows Christ Pantocrator surrounded by the bishops and patriarchs of Jerusalem. We visited when the Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem was present and conducting a service. Although we could not get into the Catholicon, we were able to photograph him from a viewpoint on the second floor near the Greek Chapel of Calvary.
The entrance into the Catholicon, the central place of worship for the Greek Orthodox. The edicule is just to the right and the line of people on the left is waiting to go inside the edicule. 
A side view of the dome above the Catholicon. This photo was taken from the second floor near the Chapel of the Rock of Calvary.
A view of the dome over the Catholicon. Photo from Wikipedia.
One of the murals, of one of the Evangelists, from one of the quadrants around the dome. 
The iconostasis inside the Catholicon. The throne of the Patriarch of Jerusalem is to the left. Photo from seetheholyland.net.
The Patriarch of Jerusalem on his throne.
The Patriarch of Jerusalem now standing. During the ceremony he had gold embroidered red vestments placed around his neck. 
I borrowed liberally from many sources, but particularly, Wikipedia; “The Church of the Holy Sepulchrre: A Work in Progress” by Raymond Cohen at bibleinterp.com; “Church of the Holy Sepulchre” at seetheholyland.net; various articles in holysepulchre.custodia.org, a Franciscan website; and the book Jerusalem by Simon Sebag Montefiore (Random House, 2011).  


  1. What a complex and fascinating place. It would be helpful if they had sold a book or pamphlet to guide tourists through the church. I don't think I've ever been in a place that crammed so much into a relatively small area. Great research and synthesis of all your reading. This will be an excellent reference source.

  2. I really loved the traditions and beliefs of this place, and the hoards of humble, worshiping people we saw there. I like the idea the crucifixion happened over the grave of Adam--kind of a full circle thing. It's incredible to read of all of the various destructions and take-overs this church endured. Amazing there's anything of it left at all.