Church of the Holy Sepulcher – Jerusalem, Israel

Built around what is believed to be the site of Christ’s crucifixion, burial, and resurrection, this complex church is the most important in Christendom. The first basilica here was built by the Roman emperor Constantine between 326 and 335 at the suggestion of his mother, St. Helena. It was rebuilt on a smaller scale by the Byzantine emperor Constantine Monomachus in the 1040s, following its destruction by Fatimid Sultan Hakim in 1009, but was enlarged again by the Crusaders between 1114 and 1170. A disastrous fire in 1808, and an earthquake in 1927, necessitated extensive repairs.


Inside the church, two staircases lead up to Golgotha, meaning “Place of the Skull” in Hebrew. On the left is a Greek Orthodox chapel, with its altar placed directly over the rocky out-crop on which the cross of Christ’s Crucifixion is believed to have stood (Rock of Golgotha). The crack in Golgotha, visible from the apse of the Chapel of Adam below, is believed to have been caused by the earthquake that followed Christ’s death. To the right is a Roman Catholic chapel containing a silver and bronze altar made in 1558 and donated by Cardinal Ferdinand de Medici. In between the two altars is the Stabat Mater, an altar commemorating Mary’s sorrow at the foot of the cross.


No fewer than 17 churches are represented in Jerusalem, a result of many historical schisms. The long, fierce disputes between Christian creeds over ownership of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher were largely resolved by an Ottoman decree issued in 1852. Still in force, and known as the Status Quo, it divides custody of the church among Greeks, Armenians, Copts, Roman Catholics, Ethiopians, and Syrians. Some areas are administered communally. Every day, the church is unlocked by a Muslim keyholder acting as a “neutral” intermediary. This ceremonial task has been performed by a member of the same family for generations.


For the construction of the first church, builders dug away the hillside to leave the alleged Christ’s Tomb isolated, with enough room to build a church around it. To achieve this, an old temple had to be cleared from the site, and in the process, the Rock of Golgotha, believed to be the site where Christ was nailed to the cross, was found. A succession of shrines replaced the original 4th-century one. The present shrine, with two chapels, was rebuilt in 1809-10 after a fire. The outer Chapel of the Angel has a low pilaster with a piece of the stone said to have been rolled from the mouth of Christ’s tomb by angels. A low door leads to the inner Chapel of the Holy Sepulcher, which houses the place where Christ’s body was said to have been laid.

The mosaic of roofs and domes of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

Main Entrance

This dates from the early 12th century. The right-hand door was blocked up late in the same century.

Stone of Unction


This is where the anointing and wrapping of Christ’s body after his death has been commemorated since medieval times. The present stone dates from 1810.

Crusader Bell Tower

This tower was reduced by two stories in 1719.



The most majestic part of the church, this was heavily rebuilt after the 1808 fire.

Katholikon Dome


Rebuilt after the 1927 earthquake and decorated with an image of Christ, this dome covers the central nave of the Crusader church. This part of the building is now used for Greek Orthodox services.

Seven Arches of the Virgin

These are the remains of a colonnaded courtyard built in the 11th century.

Center of the World

Jerusalem was once viewed as the spiritual center of the world, as marked by a stone basin in the katholikon.



The main entrance courtyard is flanked by chapels. The disused steps opposite the bell tower once led to the Chapel of the Franks, the Crusaders’ ceremonial entrance to Golgotha.

Christ’s Tomb


For Christians, this is the most sacred site of all. Inside the 1810 monument, a marble slab covers the rock on which Christ’s body is believed to have been laid.

Ethiopian Monastery

Living in the cluster of small buildings on the roof of the Chapel of St Helena is a community of Ethiopian monks.

Rock of Golgotha


The outcrop of rock venerated as the site of the Crucifixion can be seen through the glass around the Greek Orthodox altar.

Ethiopian Monastery

Living in the cluster of small buildings on the roof of the Chapel of St Helena is a community of Ethiopian monks.

Chapel of St. Helena


This chapel is now dedicated to St. Gregory the Illuminator, patron saint of the Armenians.


Christianity became the dominant religion in the Holy Land in the 4th century, and impressive churches were built Before then, Roman suspicion of unauthorized sects meant that Christians were forced to meet and worship in private” housechurches” called domus ecclesia.


The Orthodox Easter ceremony of the Holy Fire

On the Saturday of Orthodox Easter, all the church’s lamps are put out and the faithful stand in the dark-a symbol of the darkness at Christ’s Crucifixion. A candle is lit at Christ’s Tomb, then another and another, until the entire basilica and courtyard are ablaze with light, symbolizing the Resurrection. Legend says the fire comes from heaven.


326-35: Emperor Constantine and St. Helena have the first basilica built.
1114-70: Crusaders enlarge the building in the Romanesque style and add a bell tower.
1981: The Old City of Jerusalem joins the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.



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