The Church of the Holy Sepulcher, also known as the Church of the Resurrection to Eastern Orthodox Christians, is a Basilica in the Old City of Jerusalem that is the holiest Christian site in the world. It sits on a holy site that is accepted to incorporate both Golgotha, or Calvary, where Jesus was crucified, and the tomb (mausoleum or sepulchre) where he was laid to rest. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher has been an essential Holy Land tour destination since the fourth century.
Despite the fact that there is no certainty to the location, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher has strong arguments for being situated in the exact location of the tomb of Christ.
Early Christians in the holy city of Jerusalem seemed to have practiced celebrations of mass at Christ’s tomb starting from the resurrection until Jerusalem in 66 AD. After less then a century in 135 AD, Roman Emperor Hadrian prepared the foundation on the site for an Aphrodite pagan temple.
The holy site remained buried by the pagan temple until the conversion of the Emperor Constantine to Christianity in 312 AD. Along with his devout mother St. Helena they showed great interest in the Holy Land, and soon commissioned many churches to be constructed throughout Israel. The most well known and important of these was the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, which began construction in 326 AD.
Constantine’s church was much bigger then the one that stands today. His builders cleared away the pagan temple and dug away the hill to leave the rock-hewn tomb of Christ visibly isolated. A quarry at the location was also filled in and used as the temple’s foundation. During this process it is said the Rock of Golgotha was discovered.
An early legend from this site, is said that St. Helena discovered the True Cross near Christ tomb- when a sick man was brought to three crosses which St. Helena discovered, he was made to touch each cross, and when he touched Christ cross he was miraculously cured of his illness.
Constantine’s church had a simple layout that included a covered basilica, a large open courtyard with the stone of Golgotha in a corner, the tomb of Christ, enshrined in a circular small edifice. The work around the tomb of Christ was not completed until 384 Ad, due to the enormous effort of cutting away the rock bluff in order to isolate it.
The Church of the Holy Sepulcher built by Constantine was badly destroyed in a fire in 614 AD in a Persian attack of Jerusalem. In the siege the Persians also captured the True Cross, however in 630, Emperor Heraclius triumphantly recaptured the True Cross and restored it to the rebuilt Church of the Holy Sepulchre by the patriarch Modestus whom made no significant changes to the original building and layout of Constantine.
In 638, Christians were forced to surrender Jerusalem to Muslims governed by a caliph Omar, yet in a striking gesture from these times, Omar let the church continue to function as a Christian church under his protection. This gesture however proved devastating since in October 18, 1009 when the “mad” Fatimid Caliph took over he systematically destroyed the church. If Omar had converted the church in to a mosque it is believed Hakim would have never destroyed the building.
After this the Christian community of Jerusalem did not have enough money to repair the church, however in 1048 Emperor Constantine Monomacos gave a significant donation for reconstruction, that were subject at the time of very stringent conditions by the Muslim caliphate. Because of this and insufficient funds much of the expansive church from Constantine’s era was deserted. The atrium and the basilica were completely gone, and only the rotunda and courtyard remained. The courtyard was made into a church by the insertion of a large apse into the facade.
This is how the knights of the First Crusaders found the church when they captured Jerusalem in July 15, 1099. The Crusader leader Godfrey of Bouillon, who was to became the first king of Jerusalem, declared himself, "Defender of the Holy Sepulchre."
The Crusaders waited long to make new modifications until 1112 with Roman style construction. A monastery was erected where the basilica use to be situated. Later in 1119 the tomb of Christ shrine was replaced. It’s large courtyard was completely covered by a Roman style church dedicated in 1149, and in 1170 a bell tower was added to the church that is visible today.
The three main custodians of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre were appointed by Crusaders in Jerusalem. They are; the Greek Orthodox, the Armenian Apostolic and the Roman Catholic church. Later in the 19th century, the Ethiopian, Coptic and Syrian Orthodox were given lesser roles which included shrines and other structures within and around the church. Today people on Israel tours find there still agreed regulation of times and places of worship for each denomination, with each jealously guarding their own space and times.
Time was not kind to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre suffering from neglect, and effort to repair many times did more damage than good. In more recent times a fire in 1808 and an earthquake in 1927 did substantial damage to the church. Only until 1959 did the three major custodians agree on major efforts for renovation. Locals from Jerusalem were trained to restore and cut stone in the style structure of the church.
The church’s amazing and chaotic past is present when you see the church on your Israel tour today. A mixture of Byzantine, Medieval, Crusader, and even some modern elements creates an odd style, and each Christian denomination decorates their part in it’s own traditions. In many cases, Christians traveling to the Holy Land experiencing the Church of the Holy Sepulchre can be anything from spiritual meaningful to unexpected and different to how they perceived the most important site in Christianity.