The Holy Sepulcher PDF Print E-mail
Written by Stephen Langfur
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The Holy Sepulcher
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History of the Holy Sepulcher

Archaeologists have investigated sections beneath the floor of the present building. During the First Temple period, the area served as a quarry. By the time of Jesus' Passion, families had dug tombs into its cliff, although one outcropping of stone remained. We can see the top of this outcropping today in the Chapel of Calvary (Golgotha), or, below, we can see it from its side in the Chapel of Adam. The latter view reveals bedrock that seems of poor quality. Perhaps for this reason the ancient quarriers left it alone.


Over the quarry Hadrian raised a temple. When Helena visited in 325 and her workmen tore it down, they found, beneath the floor of its platform, a grave which they identified as that of Jesus. They cut away the stone around it, including other graves, and built a rotunda with a golden dome, which they called the Anastasis (Resurrection). To the east of this was an open court. Against its eastern wall stood the rock of Calvary, higher than today. Farther east they built a basilica, called the Martyrion, with a triple gate and steps leading down to the Cardo . The whole church was 423 feet by 146 (at its widest place, the rotunda). We can find its main elements on the Madaba map :


This was the building the Muslims saw when they conquered Jerusalem in 638. The Persians had damaged it in 614, but its splendor still raised sufficient concern in Muslim hearts that they built the Dome of the Rock as a rival, copying the size of the dome to within an inch.

Legend has it that the Bishop invited Umar, the Muslim conqueror, to pray in the church, but he declined, saying that if he did so, his co-religionists would later take it over, saying, "Umar prayed here." Instead, he prayed just south of the church, in what is today the Mosque of Umar (not to be confused with the Dome of the Rock, sometimes mistakenly called that). (Digression on mosques beside churches .)

The great destruction came in 1009. The Caliph al-Hakim sent a team to level the church. It did not stop at the sacred tomb, but hacked it to pieces, as well as the rock of Golgotha. What we see today is only part of this rock. As for the tomb, it is a replica. The memory of al-Hakim's behavior became a motive for the Crusades.

holy_sep_fr_roof300.jpgAfter al-Hakim's mysterious disappearance in 1021, his son restored normal relations with Jerusalem's Christians, allowing them to build. The Byzantine Emperor Monomachus, sent money. They reconstructed the tomb and its rotunda, adding an apse on the east and replacing the earlier dome with a conical one. They enclosed what remained of Golgotha in a separate building. Between Golgotha and the rotunda was an open court. That was all. The relative smallness reflected a smaller community. During the persecutions of al-Hakim, many Christians here and in Egypt had converted to Islam.

This was the church the Crusaders found in 1099 and dubbed the Holy Sepulcher. They opened the rotunda on the east and covered the court with a roof, on which they placed a second dome. They also included Golgotha. One entered from the south. Later they added a convent for their clergy east of the church and a bell tower south of the main dome. The result was, in essence, the church as we see it today.

Yet only "in essence." In 1808 a fire destroyed the domes and weakened the structure. The dome over the tomb has been replaced several times. Fearing collapse, the Greek Orthodox added inner walls to support the Crusader roof. As a result, instead of the former spaciousness, one has the feeling of a maze. The interior is a hodgepodge of styles in art and architecture, reflecting the repairs, at different times, of the various Christian communities that have rights over different sections . 

Despite the mix, the church has power, especially if we visit before it gets too crowded. The best time is the first thing in the morning.