On the top of the hill in Jerusalem known as Golgotha stands the holiest Christian shrine in the Old City, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre – the site of Christ’s crucifixion, burial and resurrection.
Despite its rather unimpressive exterior – it does seem somewhat squeezed between a variety of other buildings and edifices in the Christian Quarter of the Old City – this Church has to be on your list of Christian sites to see in the Holy Land, however seriously you take your faith.
Today the church is shared by five different Christian communities; Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Coptic, Syrian Orthodox and Armenian. This happy co-existence has been long in the making and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre has a long colorful history which you can revel in when you visit what is a powerful, spiritual and one-to-last-in-the-memory site.
So, a little bit of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre’s history
The hill where the Church of the Holy Sepulchre now stands has been a site of worship since as early as the 2nd century with the first building believed to have been a Temple dedicated to Aphrodite.
This was replaced by a Basilica at the behest of Emperor Constantine I, sometime in the mid 320s. It was during the excavations for this building that the evidence that supports the shrine today was found, namely the True Cross and the tomb. The plans were then redrawn to accommodate the finds and the new Basilica was consecrated as the church to commemorate the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
In 1009 the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was destroyed on the orders of Fatimid caliph Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah after having enjoyed 600 hundred years as a shrine protected on the order of a succession of Muslim and Moorish rulers.
There then followed a period of often violent squabbling among all arms of the Christian church which continued for centuries until the 1852 Status Quo sharing agreement. The agreement still stands today and has resulted in various parts of the Church of Holy Sepulchre being dedicated to the different sects and has also resulted in something to watch with fascination when you visit.
What to see in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher
In the late afternoon, each group with a shared ownership of the church proceeds in turn from the Calvary to the tomb. As a watching tourist you can enjoy it all; there might be a similarity in the swinging censers (incense holders) and candle carriers but there are distinct differences in the robes, chanting/incantations and hymn singing.
The authenticity of the shrine aspect of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre makes it the place of reverent gorgeousness that it is today and whether you believe or not, you can’t help yourself from feeling the power of worship of fellow Christians as you gaze upon the Stone of Unction, marking the spot where Christ’s body was prepared for burial. Don’t be surprised if the person next to you rubs something on the stone to absorb its sanctity.
As you climb the narrow steps to the Calvary you’ll find yourself in the most lavishly decorated part of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Not surprising really, as this site is regarded as the site of the crucifixion.
In this area you will find The Rock of Calvary (12th Station of the Cross) in the Greek Orthodox altar under glass, the Roman Catholic Chapel of the Nailing of the Cross (11th Station of the Cross) and towards the Eastern Orthodox chapel, a statue of Mary (the 13th Station of the Cross).
After you’ve seen the Calvary, make your way to the Rotunda under the larger of the two domes to the stunningly constructed Aedicule which contains the Holy Sepulchre itself. Note that the Aedicule has been reopened (March 2017 – it was closed for a few months prior to that) after some extensive restoration work. Visitors and pilgrims to the site can now see, for the first time, the bare stone of an ancient burial cave through a small window that has been cut in the marble walls of the shrine.
You can also see the Angel’s Stone, a fragment of the rock believed to have sealed Jesus’s burial tomb and the tomb itself.
The innermost room of the Aedicule is covered in striking medieval marble and there are some beautiful examples of iconic art. To the rear of the Aedicule you’ll find the Coptic Orthodox altar in a delightful chapel of lattice ironwork and if you’re interested in the Roman Catholic section of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher you’ll locate it on the southeastern side of the Rotunda in the Chapel of the Apparition.
There are also chapels in practically every corner of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, but there’s a few of major significance that really should be on your list of things to see, including these three:
- The Greek Chapel of St. Longinus – this Orthodox Greek chapel is dedicated to St. Longinus, a Roman soldier who according to the New Testament pierced Jesus with a spear
- Chapel of Mary Magdalene – indicating the place where Mary Magdalene met Jesus after his resurrection
- Roman Catholic Chapel of the Invention of the Holy Cross – believed to be the place where the True Cross was found.
You can also visit the Prison of Christ, although the attribution of this site is still hotly contested amongst the Franciscans, Greek Orthodox and Armenians.
The Church of the Holy Sepulcher is a working church so all the usual requisites of a Christian church can be seen as you make your way around it. You can even make your way to the roof from the courtyard of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate for stunning views of Jerusalem.
Just remember, as a tourist visiting the Church of the Holy Sepulcher you are in a place of immense religious significance, so please dress (no shorts are advised but we got in with no problem, and long trousers in the famous Israeli summers isn’t much fun) and act accordingly.
Layout of the Church
If you want to know where you’re heading within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, before you go there you might want to print this image out and take it with you.
Location and Opening Hours
Address: Suq Khan e-Zeit and Christian Quarter Rd in the Old City’s Christian Quarter.
Opening Hours: Throughout the year it opens at 05:00. It closes at 20:00 from April-September, and at 19:00 from October-March.