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The Church of the Holy Sepulchre

Home > Jerusalem > Architecture | Churches | Free | Places of Worship | Spirituality
by Cressida Ryan (subscribe)
Classicist and traveller
Published July 14th 2018
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre - site of pilgrimage for Christians from across the world, a place where words fail one in thinking about the immensity of what has taken place there, and the ensuing story of the place.

Around the tomb itself, rising majestically under an oculus reminiscent of the Pantheon in Rome, is an ambulatory, a walkway to allow people to walk around the tomb. Open from 4 or 5am (depending on the season), by 'normal' times of day the queue snakes right around the tomb, so if you want to get in, plan to go early (or late). Regardless of whether you enter, the sense of awe is immense. Lamps clutter the front of the tomb, with each denomination trying to pay it due respect. Hewn out of the surrounding rock, this small building has meant much to the world.

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The Holy Sepulchre itself

This, like much of the rest of the building, has changed in shape over time, but the focal point remains secure. The resting place of Jesus Christ. Tombs were standardly used for only a few years for each person, while bodies dried out, and at the side of the ambulatory are further rock-cut 'oven' tombs including one designated that of Joseph of Arimathea after he had given his to the Lord. It's dark in there, the walls oily from the lamps, but with a torch, you can creep in for an extra burst of awe.

You start your journey, however, outside in the main courtyard, navigating through Jerusalem's busy old town. Your first encounter is with the stone of anointing, a station of the cross, where people may be kneeling in veneration.

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Entering the Holy Sepulchre

There is no logical way around this building. It was originally two separate places - Golgotha, the site of the cross, and the sepulchre itself. Supposedly first built as a Christian site by Constantine in the fourth century, as two buildings, it was later destroyed (by the Fatimid caliph Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah), before being rebuilt by the Byzantines, and remodelled at various times since. The result gives us the two focal holy spots and a range of other chapels. Pligrims over the years have left their marks too, including carving these simple crosses into the walls.

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Crosses carved by pilgrims on the wall

A one-way system takes you up to Calvary, where two shrines attest to the ecumenical nature of this holy site. Up some steep stairs, you come first to the Catholic chapel honouring the site where Jesus was nailed to the cross (the 11th station).

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Jesus nailed to the cross - Catholic shrine

A statue of Mary, the stabat mater dolorosa, links the two chapels, a reminder of Jesus' earthly parentage, and the role of Mary in the Church.

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Stabat Mater

The site of the crucifixion itself is in the Greek Orthodox chapel. Lined with lamps, rich with gold, this place is heavy with intense emotion, though, and prayer. The line moves forward with those visitors who choose to do so crouching to put their hands down a hole under the altar to touch the rock itself.

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Golgotha - the stone where Jesus died

Directly below this is another small chapel, dedicated to Adam, as the first person Jesus encountered once he had died. The rock is poor quality limestone, the stone that the builders did not choose to use, and you can sense the quarry origins of the site as you explore these lower areas.

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The Chapel of Adam, below the cross

Further down the corridor and the history of the church becomes more clear, with links to the chapel of St Helena (who found the tomb), a splendid Armenian church from the 12th century, reached by going down some more stairs.

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Armenian Church of St Helena

Between Calvary and the Sepulchre has been both bare and enclosed over time, and now consists of further chapel space.
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Joining Calvary with the Holy Sepulchre

This most holy of Christian sites is a fabulous labyrinth. Architecturally it attests to many centuries of building and rebuilding. Spiritually it unites Christians, housing the final stations of the cross. Whether or not you are Christian, for its splendour, historical interest and intense beauty, it is well worth a visit.

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Inside the church

Entrance is free. Given the age and complexity of the building, it is not particularly accessible for wheelchairs and prams, and there are no 'facilities'.
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Why? The holiest of Christian sites
When: varies by season, but 05:00-21:00 summer (Sundays 20:00), 04:00-20:00 winter
Where: Jerusalem old city
Cost: free
Your Comment
A fascinating read. Thanks Cressida.
by Jenny Prior (score: 3|4244) 1446 days ago
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