Saturday, June 6, 2015


Jerusalem's Church of the Holy Sepulchre is a like a giant classical orchestra playing a complicated symphony, but with every musician wearing noise cancelling headphones and playing at whim, no conductor in sight. Read on to learn why.

Since the 4th century, this church has been considered by most of the world's Christians to be the world's holiest place: the site of Jesus's crucifixion, entombment, and resurrection.
Main entrance with bell tower in the center
and the Chapel of the Agony of the Virgin on far right (with blue dome)
According to the Roman historian Eusebius of Caesarea, in the 2nd century AD Hadrian built a temple dedicated to Venus on the site to cover the tomb where Jesus was buried and thus bury his influence as well. (It didn't work.) Constantine came along in 325 and replaced the temple with a two-part church, one section over Calvary/Golgotha and another section built around the tomb discovered by Helena, Constantine's ever-helpful mother. The rock surrounding the tomb was chipped away to isolate the cave itself, which was then encased in marble, and the two church sections were connected by a colonnaded atrium.

Jerusalem (and hence this church) changed hands several times in the next 700 years, and during that time there were also several fires and earthquakes that caused varying degrees of damage. In 1009, an Islamic caliph ordered the complete destruction of the church, and very little of the original structure was left. Eighteen years later, the new caliph allowed the church to be rebuilt and redecorated.                                                                                                                    
The Crusaders came in 150 years after that  and did some rebuilding, renovating, and expanding, including adding the bell tower and placing all of the holy places under one roof for the first time. It is essentially their work that is still standing today, even though the church was doomed to change hands several more times and to experience at least one more fairly devastating fire. The current structure around the tomb dates to 1555, and the current dome to 1870. The interior has been undergoing restoration, repairs, and improvements since 1959.

The building has a capacity of 8,000 people, but even though it is a sprawling structure that encompasses both Calvary/Golgotha and the tomb, it is hard to envision that many people inside it. There are not huge open spaces, but rather an overwhelming warren of over thirty small- to medium-sized rooms and corridors. If it were filled to capacity, everyone would be tripping over everyone else, much the same as the administrators of this site do. It is the headquarters of the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem (whom we saw during one of our visits and which I'll discuss later) and home to branches of Eastern Orthodoxy, Oriental Orthodoxy, and Catholicism, all of whom share some administrative rights, have their own chapels, and keep their own schedules.

Confusing? You'd better believe it is.
Looking from the front door of the church back out to the courtyard
So how do they all get along? Well, one way is a ruling called "Status Quo." In 1853 it was established that all Jerusalem shrines would remain in their current state unless all involved parties could agree on a change. Known as "Status Quo," this is the reason the ladder in the picture below has been sitting there since 1853. Everyone has not been able to agree to take it down. (Actually, I'm guessing they have all agreed to leave it there as a visual for the Status Quo idea.)

In spite of the crazy commotion, tourists from all over the world and of many denominations--Christian and non-Christian--are anxious to go inside.
We noticed policemen standing around outside, usually chatting in pairs of two and not looking too vigilant, but I can see why they might occasionally be needed. This could easily become a volatile place.
A very steep stairway on the right side of the main door leads up to the Catholic Chapel of the Franks, the Tenth Station of the Cross where Jesus's clothes were stripped from him.
The main (only?)  entrance to the church is a set of double doors, one of which was bricked closed by Saladin, a 12th-century Muslim conqueror, and never re-opened.
Just inside the entrance is a staircase leading up to what is considered to be Golgotha (Hebrew) or Calvary (Latin). Mind you, we didn't know that at first as there is no signage. Unfortunately, we were unaccompanied by any kind of tour guide or guidebook, and it took us until our second visit to figure out some of it, and until we got home and did some research to figure out the rest.

At the top of the stairs is the Altar of the Nails of the Cross (which is the Eleventh Station of the Cross): 
And to its left is this ornate room with its gilded backdrop and a line of worshipers waiting to take their turn kneeling under the altar:
Eventually we realized that this was the Altar of the Crucifixion, or the crucifixion site (the Twelfth Station of the Cross). The glass on either side of the altar encases the top of Golgotha. Under the altar is a silver disk with a hole in the center that indicates the exact place the cross stood, which is why people were crawling under the altar and kneeling so reverently there.

The garish, overdone decor makes it hard to envision the "green hill faraway, / Without a city wall. / Where the dear Lord was crucified, / Who died to save us all" (Hymn #194, LDS Hymnal).  However, our friend and travel companion Kasey described this way of glamorizing sacred places as a manifestation of the desire we all have to create a "holy space," which has helped me see this and the rest of the church in a different light.

Off to one side is this beautiful marble pulpit. It's so crowded and these upstairs rooms are so small that I'm not sure why anyone would speak from here, although it might make a good security observation point.
We made our way down the stairs, back to the entrance to the church:
At the bottom of the stairs and really the first thing one sees when entering the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is the "Stone of Unction" or "Stone of Anointing," a reddish-brown slab flanked by large candlesticks. Hanging above the stone are eight vases that contain rose water that drips onto the stone. 

Although the stone is a relatively recent addition, dating back only  to 1810, many of the pilgrims who kneel reverently at its side to pray or who kiss the stone repeatedly don't know that. To those who do, it is still a powerful symbolic representation of the stone on which Jesus's body was laid to be anointed with oils and prepared for burial. Many of the visitors touch the damp stone or wipe it with a cloth to carry the fragrance of the rose water with them, a further reminder of the place and event.

The stone belongs jointly to the Greek Orthodox, Catholic, and Armenian Orthodox churches.
Worshipers at the Stone of Anointing as seen from a balcony of the Altar to the Crucifixion
Off to the side of the Stone of Anointing and directly beneath the Altar of the Crucifixion is Adam's Chapel.. One legend says that Jesus's blood dripped onto Adam's skull--hence the name of Golgotha, or "place of the skull." The window shows a crack in the rock of Golgotha that another legend says occurred when Jesus died and "the earth did quake, and the rocks rent."

Behind the Stone of Anointing is a beautiful mural that reads from right to left, following the layout within the church itself. On the right, Jesus's body is removed from the cross:
Note the skull under the cross:
In the center panel Jesus's body is placed on the Stone of Anointing:
On the far left panel, the direction in which the tomb is located in the church, Jesus's body is taken to the cave that is his tomb:
A row of lanterns dangles in front of the mural:
Above and behind the mural is this beautiful dome that presides over the Catholicon, the central worship space of the building that is now a Greek Orthodox chapel.
Details from the dome:

As we continued to make our way around the building, I was struck by the bustle of activity. The place was fairly packed with people, and men in religious garb were everywhere. These fellows in their fancy red and gold robes and black hats, as well as the men in the plainer all-black clothing, are Greek Orthodox priests:

However, somehow I still managed to snap a few pictures on the fringes of the commotion that capture the serenity that must be here after hours:

We really enjoyed listening to this group of Armenian priests, tucked away in a corner and singing their liturgy, which echoed throughout the church, competing with the cacophony of tourism for attention.

Just past the Armenian singers is the namesake of the church: The Holy Sepulchre, which sits in a rotunda and directly under a dome known as the Anastasis, the Greek word for "resurrection." The sepulchre is the Fourteenth Station of the Cross. 

The oculus-like opening in the dome, surrounded by twelve rays, provides the majority of light for this area of the church.

As previously mentioned, Jesus's body was entombed in a cave, and during Constantine's rule, the rock surrounding the cave thought to be THE PLACE was chipped away, leaving just the shell. That stone shell is now shrouded by a marble shrine called an edicule, but the marble is deteriorating so severely that supports have been added to hold it in place:
View from the front corner
A painting near the edicule showing the entombment of Jesus's body
We waited in a line for a while for our turn to go in. Understandably, given the small size of the interior and the reverence in which it is held by so many, no photography is allowed inside the edicule.
Our wait was lengthened because we happened to arrive at the same time as the visiting Greek Orthodox Patriarch. The priests we had seen earlier came first, clearing the way and shooing onlookers to retreat behind a portable metal fence.
In the photo below, the sepulchre is on the right with the Greek Orthodox chapel facing it. We were in the long line on the left, held back by the fence.
I moved to the other side to get a better view of  the Patriarch as he entered the tomb, the train of his sweeping robe being carried by a priest:
We finally did get inside, and I think Mark Twain's description of both the exterior and interior is still pretty accurate:
Entering the great Rotunda, we stand before the most sacred locality in Christendom--the grave of Jesus. It is in the centre of the church, and immediately under the great dome. It is enclosed in a sort of little temple of yellow and white stone, of fanciful design. Within the little temple is a portion of the very stone which was rolled away from the door of the Sepulchre, and on which the angel was sitting when Mary came thither "at early dawn." Stooping low, we enter the vault--the Sepulchre itself.  It is only about six feet by seven, and the stone couch on which the dead Saviour lay extends from end to end of the apartment and occupies half its width. It is covered with a marble slab which has been much worn by the lips of pilgrims. This slab serves as an altar, now. Over it hang some fifty gold and silver lamps, which are kept always burning, and the place is otherwise scandalized by trumpery, gewgaws, and tawdry ornamentation.  (From Innocents Abroad

Directly across from the sepulchre is the Greek Orthodox chapel. Among all the competing faiths, I'm not sure how they lucked out and got this space so close to the tomb and with the beautiful Catholicon dome as a ceiling and this spectacular chandelier in the center:
Note that Orthodox chapels don't have pews. Worshipers generally stand for the service.

It was to his throne in that chapel that the Patriarch retired after visiting the sepulchre. We were able to get a fairly good view from a balcony:
I wonder what he was thinking? Hmmm, what kind of gelato should I have tonight? Or maybe, I love this red cape. It makes me feel like superman.
All joking aside, I was impressed by the serious pomp going on and was glad we got to witness it.

Forming the third point on a triangle that includes the Greek Orthodox chapel and the Holy Sepulchre is the Franciscan Chapel of Mary Magdalene. I loved the modern bas relief bronze of Jesus telling Mary, "Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father." 
After a while we continued exploring other hallways and chapels. 

We came across somee mysterious stairs leading down to  . . . ? Again, nothing was marked. Perhaps the lack of markers is a way to force tourists to pay a guide, or maybe tourists are just meant to discover the treasures of this place through personal revelation.

At the bottom of the stairs is the 12th century Armenian Chapel of St. Helena, the aged mother of Constantine famous for determining the exact location of many Biblical sites and for finding the True Cross when this site was being excavated. One thing the Church of the Holy Sepulchre does do well is chandeliers. While they sparkle and glow, they also cast a dim light that adds tremendously to the ambience:

The Chapel of St. Helena has a beautiful mosaic floor that has been restored to near perfect condition.

A cave-like room next to the Chapel of St. Helena is the Chapel of the Finding of the Cross, the cistern where Helena found three crosses buried in rubble. The "true" cross was determined by exposing a dying woman to each of the three crosses. When she touched the third one, she was miraculously healed, proving that it had been Jesus's cross.
The remains of some Crusader frescoes are protected by glass panels. Apparently this is another version of the Wailing Wall as we saw dozens of tightly folded pieces of paper that had been slipped under the glass panels. We assumed they were prayers or pleas for loved ones:

There were other paintings in much better condition in these underground chapels. 

By the time we finished our exploration and were ready to return to our hotel, it was evening and darkness had fallen like a soft blanket over the Old City.
There didn't seem to be a curfew at the church, however. There was still plenty going on.

A ramp and a lot of muscle got this bin of ? (something very heavy) up the steps and on its way. Bob watched carefully, ready to jump in and help if needed. Luckily, he wasn't, leaving his back in good shape for the next day of sightseeing.

Looking back at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre as we walked away
One of the take-aways I have from this visit is the thought Why had I never heard of this place? Clearly, it's an enormously important site for a good share of the world's Christians, of which I am one. My own faith prefers a different spot (which is a good thing, because it's far too late to get even a toehold in this church), but I am glad to have been exposed to this wonderful hodgepodge of worship.

Chalk up another benefit of travel.


  1. Interesting, but it seems kind of strange to celebrate at the place of Christ's death considering that the main thing we celebrate about Christ is that he resurrected.

    1. I wouldn't call it a celebration. It was all pretty solemn--more funereal, worshipful, grateful.

    2. They celebrate the resurrection inside as well. They cover all of the bases. One of the Catholic chapels is the non-biblical meeting of Jesus and his mother Mary after he was resurrected.

  2. Wow. Without intending to be irreverent, it does seem to be a bit of a circus of events, acts, rings and people. I'm glad you were able to see the arrival of the Patriarch, as it brings a frisson of excitement to a place that already feels chaotic. Your analogy at the beginning is spot on. I guess I prefer to imagine it, to think of it in the abstract, as it might have been. But wow.

  3. Very nicely put together. Very, very complex history. I would love to go back.

  4. I really wish I had had the opportunity to read up on this church before our visit, so that I could have appreciated what I was seeing. I read about that ladder later, for example, but I didn't see it while there. Great post.

    1. Me too, Chris. I didn't know about the ladder either, but was lucky to have a great shot of it in a picture. This was such a complicated church that I think reading ahead would have been confusing. It's hard to comprehend this place until you've seen it. Going in with an audio guide might have helped, but it also would have made the experience feel more like a museum than a church. I think the answer is seeing it, coming home and reading about it, and then going back for a second look, right?

    2. Yep, you're right-we have to go back.