Church of the Holy Sepulcher

Key Sites in Jerusalem

The Church of the Holy Sepulcher is a church in the Christian Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem. The church contains, according to traditions dating back to at least the fourth century; the two holiest sites in Christianity: First is the site where Jesus was crucified at a place known as Calvary or Golgotha. The second is Jesus’s empty tomb. Where he was buried and for the faithful also where he resurrected. Today, the tomb is enclosed by a 19th-century shrine called the Aedicula. 

Church of the Holy Sepulcher

Within the Church of the Holy Sepulcher proper are the last four (or, by some definitions, five) stations of the Via Dolorosa; representing the final episodes of the Passion of Jesus. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher has been a major Christian pilgrimage destination since its creation in the fourth century; as the traditional site of the resurrection of Christ. Thus its original Greek name, Church of the Resurrection (Anastasis). 

The Church of the Holy Sepulcher itself is shared among several Christian denominations and secular entities in complicated arrangements essentially unchanged for over 160 years, and some for much longer. The main denominations sharing property over parts of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher are the Greek Orthodox; Roman Catholic and Armenian Apostolic; and to a lesser degree the Coptic Orthodox; Syriac Orthodox and Ethiopian Orthodox.

Church of the Holy Sepulcher: Archaeological Remains in the Area

So following the siege of 70 CE during the First Jewish–Roman War; Jerusalem had been reduced to ruins. Then in 130 CE, the Roman emperor Hadrian began the building of a Roman colony; the new city of Aelia Capitolina; on the site. Circa 135 CE, he ordered that a cave containing a rock-cut tomb be filled in to create a flat foundation for a temple dedicated to Jupiter or Venus. The temple remained until the early 4th century. 

The site of the church had been a temple to Jupiter or Venus built by Hadrian before Constantine’s edifice was built. Hadrian’s temple had been located there because it was the junction of the main north-south road with one of the two main east-west roads and directly adjacent to the forum (now the location of the Muristan, which is smaller than the former forum).

As is traditional in Roman towns, the forum itself had been placed at the junction of the main north-south road with the other main east-west road (which is now El-Bazar/David Street). The temple and forum together took up the entire space between the two main east-west roads (a few above-ground remains of the east end of the temple precinct still survive in the Alexander Nevsky Church 6complex of the Russian Mission in Exile).

Extensive Excavations in the 1970s

From the archaeological excavations in the 1970s, it is clear that construction took over most of the site of the earlier temple enclosure and that the Triportico and Rotunda roughly overlapped with the temple building itself; the excavations indicate that the temple extended at least as far back as the Aedicule, and the temple enclosure would have reached back slightly further. 

Virgilio Canio Corbo, a Franciscan priest, and archaeologist; who was present at the excavations; estimated from the archaeological evidence that the western retaining wall of the temple itself would have passed extremely close to the east side of the supposed tomb; if the wall had been any further west any tomb would have been crushed under the weight of the wall (which would be immediately above it) if it had not already been destroyed when foundations for the wall were made.

Church of Saint John the Baptist


Some Controversy About Corbo’s Conclusions: 

Other archaeologists have criticized Corbo’s reconstructions. Dan Bahat, the former city archaeologist of Jerusalem; regards them as unsatisfactory, as there is no known temple of Aphrodite (Venus) matching Corbo’s design, and no archaeological evidence for Corbo’s suggestion that the temple building was on a platform raised high enough to avoid including anything sited where the Aedicule is now. Indeed Bahat notes that many temples to Aphrodite have a rotunda-like design, and argues that there is no archaeological reason to assume that the present rotunda was not based on a rotunda in the temple previously on the site.

But the question you have to ask is why did he build the Temple there and not somewhere else? So back then in the year 135 CE, Hadrian as a pagan did really disguised between those Judeo-Christians that practiced Judaism but accepted Jesus as their Messiah and the rest of the Jews. And by building there he just wanted to erase all the holy sites for Jews in the city. So when he realized that this is a holy site for some of the Jews he built there a roman temple. He did exactly the same on top of Temple Mt where the 2nd Jewish Temple used to be. 

Construction of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher(4th century)

So on his deathbed, Constantine the Great converted to Christianity. Eventually, he signed the Edict of Milan legalizing the religion and sent his mother Helena to Jerusalem to look for Christ’s tomb. With the help of Bishop of Caesarea Eusebius and Bishop of Jerusalem Macarius. Constantine ordered in about 326 that the temple to Jupiter or Venus should be replaced by the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. After the temple was torn down and its ruins removed; the soil was removed from the cave, revealing a rock-cut tomb that Helena and Macarius identified as the burial site of Jesus; around which a shrine was constructed. 

Furthermore, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher was built as separate constructs over the two holy sites: the great basilica. (the Martyrium visited by Egeria in the 380s); an enclosed colonnaded atrium (the Triportico) with the traditional site of Calvary in one corner, and across a courtyard; a rotunda called the Anastasis (“Resurrection”); where Helena and Macarius believed Jesus to have been buried. The church was consecrated on 13 September 335. 

Damage and destruction (614–1009)

This Church of the Holy Sepulcher was destroyed by a fire in May of 614 CE when the Sassanid Empire invaded Jerusalem and captured the True Cross. In 630, Emperor Heraclius rebuilt the Church of the Holy Sepulcher after recapturing the city. After Jerusalem came under Arab rule, it remained a Christian church; with the early Muslim rulers protecting the city’s Christian sites. In fact, they were prohibiting their destruction or use as living quarters.

A story reports that the Caliph Umar ibn al-Khattab visited the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and stopped to pray on the balcony; but at the time of prayer, turned away from the church and prayed outside. He feared that future generations would misinterpret this gesture; taking it as a pretext to turn the church into a mosque. Because of that just next to the church there is the famous Mosque of Omar, where according to Muslim tradition this is where he prayed. Eutychius added that Umar wrote a decree prohibiting Muslims from praying at this location. The building suffered severe damage from an earthquake in 746.

On 18 October 1009, Fatimid caliph Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah ordered the complete destruction of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher as part of a more general campaign against Christian places of worship in Palestine and Egypt. The damage was extensive; with few parts of the early church remaining, and the roof of the rock-cut tomb damaged; the original shrine was destroyed. Some partial repairs followed. Christian Europe reacted with shock and expulsions of Jews, serving as an impetus to later Crusades.

The Reconstruction of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in the 11th Century 

In wide-ranging negotiations between the Fatimids and the Byzantine Empire in 1027–28, an agreement was reached whereby the new Caliph Ali az-Zahir (Al-Hakim’s son) agreed to allow the rebuilding and redecoration of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. The rebuilding was finally completed at a huge expense by Emperor Constantine IX Monomachos and Patriarch Nicephorus of Constantinople in 1048. As a concession, the mosque in Constantinople was reopened and the khutba sermons were to be pronounced in az-Zahir’s name.

Muslim sources say a by-product of the agreement was the renunciation of Islam by many Christians who had been forced to convert under Al-Hakim’s persecutions. In addition, the Byzantines, while releasing 5,000 Muslim prisoners; made demands for the restoration of other churches destroyed by Al-Hakim and the reestablishment of a patriarch in Jerusalem. Contemporary sources credit the emperor with spending vast sums in an effort to restore the Church of the Holy Sepulcher after this agreement was made. Still; “a total replacement was far beyond available resources. The new construction was concentrated on the rotunda and its surrounding buildings: the great basilica remained in ruins.”

Large Sections of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher Still Remained in Ruins 

The rebuilt Church of the Holy Sepulcher site consisted of “a court open to the sky; with five small chapels attached to it.” The chapels were east of the court of resurrection; where the western wall of the great basilica had been. They commemorated scenes from the passion, such as the location of the prison of Christ and his flagellation, and presumably were so placed because of the difficulties of free movement among shrines in the city streets.

The dedication of these chapels indicates the importance of the pilgrims’ devotion to the suffering of Christ. They have been described as “a sort of Via Dolorosa in miniature…” since little or no rebuilding took place on the site of the great basilica. Western pilgrims to Jerusalem during the eleventh century found much of the sacred site in ruins.” Control of Jerusalem, and thereby the Church of the Holy Sepulcher; continued to change hands several times between the Fatimids and the Seljuk Turks (loyal to the Abbasid caliph in Baghdad) until the Crusaders’ arrival in 1099.

The Crusader Period 1099-1244 

Many historians maintain that the main concern of Pope Urban II when calling for the First Crusade; was the threat to Constantinople from the Turkish invasion of Asia Minor in response to the appeal of Byzantine Emperor Alexios I Komnenos. Historians agree that the fate of Jerusalem and thereby the Church of the Holy Sepulcher was also of concern; if not the immediate goal of papal policy in 1095. The idea of taking Jerusalem gained more focus as the Crusade was underway. The rebuilt church site was taken from the Fatimids (who had recently taken it from the Abbasids) by the knights of the First Crusade on 15 July 1099.

The First Crusade was envisioned as an armed pilgrimage, and no crusader could consider his journey complete unless he had prayed as a pilgrim at the Holy Sepulchre. The classical theory is that Crusader prince Godfrey of Bouillon; who became the first Crusader monarch of Jerusalem, decided not to use the title “king” during his lifetime; and declared himself “Advocatus Sancti Sepulchri” (“Protector [or Defender] of the Holy Sepulchre”).

By the Crusader period, a cistern under the former basilica was rumored to have been where Helena had found the True Cross, and began to be venerated as such; the cistern later became the “Chapel of the Invention of the Cross”, but there is no evidence of the site’s identification before the 11th century, and modern archaeological investigation has now dated the cistern to 11th-century repairs by Monomachos.

Crusader Renovation of the Church Starts in the Mid-12th Century.

William of Tyre, a chronicler of the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem; reports on the renovation of the Church in the mid-12th century. The Crusaders investigated the eastern ruins on the site, occasionally excavating through the rubble, and while attempting to reach the cistern, they discovered part of the original ground level of Hadrian’s temple enclosure; they transformed this space into a chapel dedicated to Helena, widening their original excavation tunnel into a proper staircase. The Crusaders began to refurnish the church in Romanesque style and added a bell tower. 

These renovations unified the small chapels on the site and were completed during the reign of Queen Melisende in 1149; placing all the holy places under one roof for the first time. The church became the seat of the first Latin Patriarchs and the site of the kingdom’s scriptorium. It was lost to Saladin; along with the rest of the city, in 1187; although the treaty established after the Third Crusade allowed Christian pilgrims to visit the site. 

Emperor Frederick II (r. 1220–50) regained the city and the church by treaty in the 13th century while under a ban of ex-communication; with the curious consequence that the holiest church in Christianity was laid under an interdict. The church seems to have been largely in the hands of Greek Orthodox Patriarch Athanasius II of Jerusalem; c. 1231–47; during the Latin control of Jerusalem. Both city and church were captured by the Khwarezmians in 1244.

Ottoman Period 

In 1545, the upper level of the church’s bell tower collapsed. The Franciscan friars renovated the church in 1555; as it had been neglected despite increased numbers of pilgrims. The Franciscans rebuilt the Aedicule (‘small building’); extending the structure to create an antechamber. A marble shrine commissioned by Friar Boniface of Ragusa was placed to envelop the remains of Christ’s tomb; probably to prevent pilgrims from touching the original rock or taking small pieces as souvenirs. A marble slab was placed over the limestone burial bed where Jesus’s body is believed to have lain. 

After the renovation of 1555, control of the church oscillated between the Franciscans and the Orthodox; depending on which community could obtain a favorable firman from the “Sublime Porte” at a particular time; often through outright bribery. Violent clashes were not uncommon. There was no agreement about this question, although it was discussed at the negotiations to the Treaty of Karlowitz in 1699. In 1767, weary of the squabbling, the “Porte” issued a firman that divided the church among the claimants.

A Major Fire Breaks and Damages the Church 

A fire severely damaged the structure again in 1808; causing the dome of the Rotunda to collapse and smashing the Aedicule’s exterior decoration. The Rotunda and the Aedicule’s exterior were rebuilt in 1809–10 by architect Nikolaos Ch. Komnenos of Mytilene in the contemporary Ottoman Baroque style; the shrine around the tomb was also replaced. The interior of the antechamber; now known as the Chapel of the Angel; was partly rebuilt to a square ground plan in place of the previously semicircular western end.

Another decree in 1853 from the sultan solidified the existing territorial division among the communities and solidified the Status Quo for arrangements to “remain in their present state,” causing differences of opinion about even minor changes. This is exemplified in the so-called ‘immovable ladder’ under one of the windows; it has remained in the same position since at least 1757, aside from two occasions of temporary removal. 

Chapel of St. Vartan

East of the Chapel of Saint Helena, the excavators discovered a void containing a 2nd-century drawing of a Roman ship, two low walls supporting the platform of Hadrian’s 2nd-century temple, and a higher 4th-century wall built to support Constantine’s basilica. After the excavations of the early 1970s, the Armenian authorities converted this archaeological space into the Chapel of Saint Vartan; and created an artificial walkway over the quarry on the north of the chapel; so that the new chapel could be accessed (by permission) from the Chapel of Saint Helena.

Façade and entrance

The wooden doors that compose the main entrance are the original; highly carved arched doors. Today, only the left-hand entrance is currently accessible, as the right doorway has long since been bricked up. The entrance to the church is in the south transept; through the crusader façade, in the parvis of a larger courtyard. This is found past a group of streets winding through the outer Via Dolorosa by way of a local market in Muristan. This narrow way of access to such a large structure has proven to be hazardous at times. For example, when a fire broke out in 1840, dozens of pilgrims were trampled to death.

Since the 7th century, the Muslim Nuseibeh family has been responsible for opening the door as an impartial party to the church’s denominations. In 1187; Saladin took the church from the Crusaders and entrusted the Joudeh Al-Goudia family with its key; which is made of iron and 30 centimeters (12 in) long; the Nuseibehs remain its doorkeeper.  The ‘immovable ladder’ stands beneath a window on the façade.

Calvary (Golgotha)

Just inside the church entrance is a stairway leading up to Calvary (Golgotha), traditionally regarded as the site of Jesus’ crucifixion and the most lavishly decorated part of the church. The exit is via another stairway opposite the first, leading down to the ambulatory. Golgotha and its chapels are just south of the main altar of the Catholicon.

One Hill Two Chapels 

Calvary is split into two chapels, one Greek Orthodox and one Catholic, each with its own altar. On the left (north) side; the Greek Orthodox chapel’s altar is placed over the rock of Calvary (the 12th Station of the Cross), which can be touched through a hole in the floor beneath the altar. The rock can be seen under protective glass on both sides of the altar. The softer surrounding stone was removed when the church was built. The Roman Catholic (Franciscan) Chapel of the Nailing of the Cross (11th Station of the Cross) stretches to the south. Between the Catholic and the Orthodox altar, a statue of Mary with an 18th-century bust marks the 13th Station of the Cross.

On the ground floor, just underneath the Golgotha chapel; is the Chapel of Adam. According to tradition, Jesus was crucified over the place where Adam’s skull was buried. According to a post canonical tradition, the blood of Christ ran down the cross and through the rocks to fill Adam’s skull. Through a window at the back of the 11th-century apse; the rock of Calvary can be seen with a crack traditionally held to be caused by the earthquake that followed Jesus’ death; some scholars claim it is the result of quarrying against a natural flaw in the rock.

Behind the Chapel of Adam is the Museum of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate; which holds many relics, including a 12th-century crystal mitre alleged to have once held a fragment of the Holy Cross. 

Stone of Anointing

Just inside the entrance to the church is the Stone of Anointing (also Stone of the Anointing or Stone of Unction); which tradition believes to be where Jesus’ body was prepared for burial by Joseph of Arimathea; though this tradition is only attested since the crusader era (notably by the Italian Dominican pilgrim Riccoldo da Monte di Croce in 1288), and the present stone was only added in the 1810 reconstruction.

The wall behind the stone is defined by its striking blue balconies and tau cross-bearing red banners (depicting the insignia of the Brotherhood of the Holy Sepulchre) and is decorated with lamps. The modern three-part mosaic along the wall depicts the anointing of Jesus’ body; preceded on the right by the Descent from the Cross, and succeeded on the left by the Burial of Jesus. 

Rotunda and Aedicule

So the rotunda is the building of the larger dome located on the far west side. In the center of the rotunda is a small chapel called the Kouvouklion in Greek or the Aedicula in Latin; which encloses the Holy Sepulchre. The Aedicule has two rooms, the first holding the Angel’s Stone; which is believed to be a fragment of the large stone that sealed the tomb; the second is the tomb of Jesus.

Possibly due to the fact that pilgrims laid their hands on the tomb or to prevent eager pilgrims from removing bits of the original rock as souvenirs; a marble plaque was placed in the fourteenth century on the tomb to prevent further damage to the tomb.

One Tomb: Six Different Denominations 

Under the Status Quo; the Eastern Orthodox; Roman Catholic; and Armenian Apostolic Churches all have rights to the interior of the tomb. Moreover, all three communities celebrate the Divine Liturgy or Holy Mass there daily. It is also used for other ceremonies on special occasions, such as the Holy Saturday ceremony of the Holy Fire led by the Greek Orthodox Patriarch (with the participation of the Coptic and Armenian patriarchs). To its rear; in a chapel constructed of iron latticework; lies the altar used by the Coptic Orthodox. Historically, the Georgians also retained the key to the Aedicule.

West of the Aedicule, to the rear of the Rotunda, is the Syriac Chapel with Tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, located in a Constantinian apse and containing an opening to an ancient Jewish rock-cut tomb. This chapel is where the Syriac Orthodox celebrate their Liturgy on Sundays.

To the right of the sepulcher on the northwestern edge of the Rotunda is the Chapel of the Apparition, which is reserved for Roman Catholic use.


In the central nave of the Crusader-era church, just east of the larger rotunda is the Crusader structure housing the main altar of the Church, today the Greek Orthodox catholicon. Its dome is 19.8 meters (65 ft) in diameter and sits directly over the center of the transept crossing of the choir where the compas is situated, an omphalos (“navel”) stone once thought to be the center of the Christian world and still venerated as such by Orthodox Christians (associated with the site of the Crucifixion and the Resurrection).

Since 1996 this dome is topped by the monumental Golgotha Crucifix which the Greek Patriarch Diodoros I of Jerusalem consecrated. It was at the initiative of Israeli professor, Gustav Kühnel; to erect a new crucifix at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem that would not only be worthy of the singularity of the site, but that would also become a symbol of the efforts of unity in the community of Christian faith.

The Iconostasis 

East of this is a large iconostasis demarcating the Orthodox sanctuary before which is set the throne of the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem on the south side facing the throne of the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch on the north side.

Armenian Monastery South of the Aedicule

South of the Aedicule is the “Place of the Three Mary’s”; marked by a stone canopy and a large modern wall mosaic. From here one can enter the Armenian monastery which stretches over the ground and first upper floor of the church’s southeastern part.

Syriac Chapel with Tomb of Joseph of Arimathea

The Syriac Orthodox Chapel of Saint Joseph of Arimathea and Saint Nicodemus. On Sundays and feast days it is furnished for the celebration of Mass. It is accessed from the Rotunda, by a door west of the Aedicule.

First Century Tomb 

On the far side of the chapel is the low entrance to an almost complete 1st-century Jewish tomb, initially holding six rock-cut tombs- type funeral shafts radiating from a central chamber, two of which are still exposed. Although this space was discovered relatively recently and contains no identifying marks, some believe that Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus were buried here. Since Jews always buried their dead outside the city, the presence of this tomb proves that the Holy Sepulchre site was outside the city walls at the time of the crucifixion.

Franciscan Area North of the Aedicule

  • The Franciscan Chapel of St. Mary Magdalene – The chapel, an open area, indicates the place where Mary Magdalene met Jesus after his resurrection.
  • The Franciscan Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament or Chapel of the Apparition, directly north of the above – in memory of Jesus’ meeting with his mother after the Resurrection, a non-scriptural tradition. Here stands a piece of an ancient column, allegedly part of the one Jesus was tied to during his scourging.

Prison of Christ

So on the northeast side of the complex, there is the Prison of Christ; alleged to be where Jesus was held. The Greek Orthodox are showing pilgrims yet another place where Jesus was allegedly held, the similarly named Prison of Christ in their Monastery of the Praetorium, located near the Church of Ecce Homo between the Second and Third Stations of the Via Dolorosa. The Armenians regard a recess in the Monastery of the Flagellation at the Second Station of the Via Dolorosa as the Prison of Christ.

Furthermore, a cistern among the ruins beneath the Church of St. Peter in Gallicantu on Mount Zion is also alleged to have been the Prison of Christ. In order to reconcile the traditions, some allege that Jesus was held in the Mount Zion cell in connection with his trial by the Jewish High Priest, at the Praetorium in connection with his trial by the Roman governor Pilate; and near the Golgotha before the crucifixion.


The chapels in the ambulatory are, from north to south: First the Greek Chapel of Saint Longinus. Then the Armenian Chapel of Division of Robes; the entrance to the Chapel of Saint Helena, and the Greek Chapel of the Derision.

Chapel of Saint Helena

  • Chapel of Saint Helena – between the Chapel of Division of Robes and the Greek Chapel of the Derision are stairs descending to the Chapel of Saint Helena. The Armenians, who own it, call it Chapel of St. Gregory the Illuminator, naming it after the saint who brought Christianity to the Armenians.

Chapel of Saint Vartan

  • Chapel of St Vartan (or Vardan) Mamikonian – on the north side of the Chapel of Saint Helena is an ornate wrought iron door, beyond which a raised artificial platform affords views of the quarry, and which leads to the Chapel of Saint Vartan. The latter chapel contains archaeological remains from Hadrian’s temple and Constantine’s basilica. These areas are open only on request.

Chapel of the Invention of the Holy Cross

  • Chapel of the Invention of the Holy Cross – another set of 22 stairs from the Chapel of Saint Helena leads down to the Roman Catholic of the Invention of the Holy Cross, believed to be the place where the True Cross was found.

Hi! My name is Arik Haglili, an Israeli native who decided to dedicate his life to share my knowledge about the Holy Land to those that are interested to know more about this amazing piece of land. My career as a private tour guide started at the International School For the Studying of the Holocaust and the rest is history. 

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