Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre bears little if any resemblance to the churches most visitors know from home. And that, it seems, is the best reason to visit it.
Here, where Orthodox and Catholic Christians mark the crucifixion and burial of Jesus, Christians of other denominations can explore the world of what scholars call the “historic churches.” Six denominations celebrate their rites in and around the cavernous house of worship. These communities are some of Christianity’s most ancient. Among the lesser known churches in the West, the Ethiopians, for example, trace their Christian origins back to Philip’s conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:26-34), and listening to the Syriac Orthodox praying in Aramaic might be the only chance you’ll ever have to hear the language Jesus used on a daily basis.
Some Christians prefer to relate to the crucifixion and resurrection at the Garden Tomb, where a tomb in its garden setting can still be seen. But the Church of the Holy Sepulchre can be a significant stop in understanding both contemporary Christianity and its long and complex history. At the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, you’ll need a flashlight to see the Tomb of Joseph of Aramathea, which is an original Second-Temple era cave-tomb. The tomb of Jesus, church historians say, was destroyed by the Muslim Caliph Hakim in 1009. Its surviving portions were covered up by the Edicule, a structure built in the Rotunda by the Russian Orthodox in the early nineteenth century when they wielded major influence in the church and the country.
This Church of the Holy Sepulchre is said to be one of the most complex structures in existence. The first building on this spot was, of all things, a pagan shrine built in the second century by Emperor Hadrian. To do so, he used stones from the ruined Temple as painful reminders to both Jews and Christians that the Romans were in charge of their holy places. When Constantine built the first church here in the fourth century, he placed it where his mother, Queen Helene, is said to have found a piece of the cross. That church eventually extended across the equivalent of a block or two of what is now today’s Old City.
Your visit can begin by descending a flight of stairs whose walls are covered with crosses incised by hundreds of pilgrims over hundreds of years. Deep below ground level is the Armenian chapel, abutting a First Temple-period stone quarry where tradition says Queen Helene found the cross. The centerpiece of the main floor is the Edicule. Its icons and lanterns may be unfamiliar to some, but visitors often say they feel spiritually uplifted from the moments spent in the utter silence of the tiny interior room marking the traditional tomb.
Nearby is a stone slab where tradition says the body of Jesus was prepared for burial, and where you may see pious Orthodox and Catholic Christians praying fervently. Visitors are moved by the beautiful mosaic behind the stone, which shows with sadness and hope the moments when Jesus is taken down from the cross and laid in the tomb. Up a steep flight of stairs, the site of the crucifixion itself is marked by both a Greek Orthodox and a Catholic altar, where Christians from around the world stand patiently in line waiting to touch the rock they hold sacred.
Visitors to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre find themselves steeped in the Christian history as well as experiencing living testimony to the tenacity of Christians to revere their own piece of Jerusalem from earliest times to the present.