The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is one of the most holy and special sites in Christianity. Located in the Christian Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem, the church is home to two of the holiest sites in Christianity – the site where Jesus was crucified, known as Calvary, and the tomb where Jesus was buried and then resurrected. Today, the tomb is enclosed by a shrine called the Aedicula. The final four Stations of the Cross, or Via Dolorosa, are also located inside the church.
history of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre
The New Testament tells that Jesus was crucified at Golgotha, “the place of the skull”, identified as an area of stone quarries outside the city’s walls at the time. Around a decade after Jesus’s crucifixion, a third wall was built to enclose the area of his execution and burial to within the city. This provides validation for the Holy Sepulchre’s location inside today’s Old City of Jerusalem.
After he had a vision of a cross in the sky in 312 AD, Constantine the Great converted to Christianity and sent his mother, Empress Helena, to Jerusalem in search of Jesus’s tomb. She found a relic of the cross near a tomb, leading her to believe she had found Calvary. In 326 AD, Constantine ordered a church built at the site. All the soil and debris that had gathered over the centuries was removed from the cave, revealing a rock-cut tomb identified as the burial site of Jesus.
The Church was thus built over the two holy sites. The great basilica or Martyrium encloses the traditional site of Calvary in one corner, and across the way, the Anastasis (“Resurrection”), encloses the cave tomb of Jesus’s burial. The church was finally consecrated on September 13, 335 AD. The wooden doors of the church’s main entrance are still the original doors from 326 AD, putting into perspective the ancient grandeur of this holy church.
getting to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre
Like with all of Israel, exploring this site solo is completely doable, and once in Jerusalem, navigating there is easy with public transport or taxi. However, with so much history and spiritual significance, the best way to take in this iconic church is with a tour. There is no match for an experienced guide taking you through and explaining all the noteworthy points.
Sites within the church
Inside the church entrance, a stairway leads up to Calvary (Golgotha), the site of Jesus’ crucifixion and the most extravagantly decorated part of the church. The exit from this site is down another stairway that leads to the ambulatory.
Stone of Anointing
Calvary is made up of two chapels, one is Greek Orthodox and the other is Catholic. The Greek Orthodox chapel’s altar is over the rock of Calvary, also the 12th Station of the Cross. The rock can be touched through a special hole in the floor beneath the altar, but be prepared to wait in a line as this is one of the main reasons people visit the church. The rock can also be viewed through protective glass on both sides of the altar. In between the Catholic and Greek altars, a statue of Mary marks the 13th Station of the Cross.
Stone of anointing
Inside the church’s entrance is the Stone of Anointing, believed to be where Jesus’s body was prepared for burial. The modern mosaic along the wall depicts the anointing of Jesus’s body. Lamps with candles and incense hang along an ornate stand over the stone.
The Crucifixion Altar
The Aedicule is a small chapel housing the Holy Sepulchre. It has two rooms – one holds the Angel’s Stone, believed to be a fragment of the stone that sealed Jesus’s tomb, the other is the tomb of Jesus. In the 14th century, a marble plaque was placed on the tomb to protect it from further damage caused by flocks of pilgrims.
The Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Armenian Apostolic all have rightful access to the interior of the tomb, and all three hold Holy Mass there daily. Between May 2016 and March 2017, the Aedicule underwent painstaking restoration and repair after the structure was declared unsafe by the Israel Antiquities Authority.
Summer (April to September): Open daily from 05:00 to 21:00. Sundays the church closes at 20:00.
Winter (October to March): Open daily from 04:00 to 19:00.
Admission to the church is free and visitors of all religions are welcome. Modest dress is highly recommended.