Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre continued to function as a Christian church under the protection of Omar and the early Muslim rulers, but this changed on October 18, 1009, when the "mad" Fatimid caliph Hakim brutally and systematically destroyed the great church.

The ambulatory to the northwest of the central edicule (Sepulchre) in the Rotunda. The sunlight comes from an oculus in the large dome above the edicule.  (Damon Lynch)

Ironically, if Omar had turned the church into a mosque, Hakim would have left it alone. But instead, Hakim had wrecking crews knock over the walls and he attacked the tomb of Christ with pricks and hammers, stopping only when the debris covered the remains. The east and west walls were completely destroyed, but the north and south walls were likely protected by the rubble from further damage.

The edicule and large dome over the site of the tomb of Christ, in the Rotunda of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The layout and location of the Rotunda has not changed since Constantine built the first church here in the 4th century.

The poor Jerusalem community could not afford repairs, but in 1048 Emperor Constantine Monomachos provided money for reconstruction, subject to stringent conditions imposed by the caliphate. The funds were not adequate to completely repair the original church, however, and a large part of it had to be abandoned. The atrium and the basilica were completely lost; only the courtyard and the rotunda remained. The latter was made into a church by the insertion of a large apse into the facade.


The edicule (Latin little house) beneath the main dome of the Church of the Holy Sepulchrer enclosing what is thought to be the actual tomb of Christ

View of the edicule from above. This boxy chapel dates from the 19th century and replaces earlier freestanding structures on this site. The small dome is above the Tomb of Christ.

This was the church to which the knights of the First Crusade arrived to sing their Te Deum after capturing Jerusalem on July 15, 1099. The Crusader chief Godfrey of Bouillon, who became the first king of Jerusalem, declared himself Advocatus Sancti Sepulchri, "Defender of the Holy Sepulchre."

Historic photo of the edicule


Entrance to the edicule, which contains the tomb of Christ


Entrance to the edicule that contains the Tomb of Christ. About four people are allowed in at a time.

The Crusaders were slow to renovate the church, only beginning to make modifications in the Romanesque style in 1112. They first built a monastery where the Constantinian basilica used to be, having first excavated the Crypt of St. Helena. In 1119 the shrine of Christ's tomb was replaced. The coronation of Fulk and Melisende at the church in 1131 necessitated more radical modifications. The Constantinian courtyard was covered with a Romanesque church (dedicated in 1149), which was connected to the rotunda by a great arched opening resulting from the demolition of the 11th-century apse. A bell tower was added in 1170.

Sign over the door to the Tomb

The three primary custodians of the church, first appointed when Crusaders held Jerusalem, are the Greek Orthodox, the Armenian Apostolic and Roman Catholic churches. In the 19th century, the Coptic Orthodox, the Ethiopian Orthodox and the Syrian Orthodox acquired lesser responsibilities, which include shrines and other structures within and around the building. An agreement regulates times and places of worship for each Church.

The first of two small rooms inside the edicule, known as the Chapel of the Angels. This altar contains a stone believed to be part of the large stone that was rolled away from Christ's tomb on Easter morning. The archway in the back leads to the Tomb of Christ itself.

Subsequent centuries were not altogether kind to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. It suffered from damage, desecration, and neglect, and attempts at repair (a significant renovation was conducted by the Franciscans in 1555) often did more damage than good. In recent times, a fire (1808) and an earthquake (1927) did extensive damage.
Not until 1959 did the three major communities (Latins, Greeks, Armenians) agree on a major renovation plan. The guiding principle was that only elements incapable of fulfilling their structural function would be replaced. Local masons were trained to trim stone in the style of the 11th century for the rotunda, and in the 12th-century style for the church.

The holiest site in Christianity: the tomb of Christ inside the edicule of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This slab is believed to be where Jesus' body was laid in the tomb. The vase of candles marks the place where his head was. The banner behind it varies with the liturgical seasons: this one is after Easter and says "Christ is Risen".

The church's chaotic history is evident in what visitors see today. Byzantine, medieval, Crusader, and modern elements mix in an odd mish-mash of styles, and each governing Christian community has decorated its shrines in its own distinctive way. In many ways, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is not what one would imagine for the holiest site in all Christendom, and it can easily disappoint. But at the same time, its noble history and immense religious importance is such that a visit can also be very meaningful.

Altar in the Chapel of the Holy Sepulchre that contains the Tomb of Christ

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.

Another view of the altar in the Chapel of the Holy Sepulchre that contains the Tomb of Christ

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.

Coptic Chapel


Coptic chapel at the back of the edicule


Under the altar in the Coptic chapel is a piece of the tomb of Christ

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.

The Syrian chapel in the east end of the Church, through which you pass on the way to the 1st century tomb. This tomb with several niches verifies that this area was used for burials in Jesus' time.


The 1st century tomb, adjacent to the Syrian chapel in the east end of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This tomb, with several niches, verifies that this area was used for burials in Jesus' time. Christian tradition says this the Tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, who gave his original, larger tomb to Jesus.

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). 


Dates: Built 326-35; restored and rebuilt 12th century
Address: Suq Khan e-Zeit and Christian Quarter Rd., Jerusalem, Israel 
Hours: Apr.-Sept., daily 5am-8pm; Oct.-Mar., daily 5 AM-7 PM.
Dress code: No shorts or sleeveless shirts



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