The Holy Sepulchre, Then and Now

The Tomb of Jesus, in the Holy Sepulchre, has undergone repair works in the recent months that were completed this week. During these works, the marble slabs that were deposited on top of the tomb about 1808-1810, after damage caused by fire, were removed. For the first time in the past two centuries, the actual place of burial was exposed: the bare limestone rock on which Jesus' body was laid was visible. To read more about it, click here. This extraordinary circumstance gives us the opportunity to look at the history of the Holy Sepulchre and what visitors can see in it today.

 

According to the New Testament, Jesus was crucified at the Golgotha, which was so called because a rock had the shape of a skull (golgolet means 'skull' in Hebrew), in a garden that was outside the city walls (of Herodian Jerusalem), on a Friday at the start of Passover holy festival in 33 CE (some say that the year was 30 CE but there is no Passover festival that starts on a Friday in that year: click here for an explanation). After the martyrdom, his body was washed on the Stone of Unction and deposited inside a cave that was purchased by Simon of Arimathea for his own burial spot: Simon donated his own burial cave for Jesus. 

 

The precinct of the Holy Sepulchre contains the last five stations (X-XIV) of the Via Dolorosa: Station X- Jesus is stripped off (the Chapel of the Franks commemorates this station), Station XI- Jesus is nailed to the cross (the Golgotha with the Latin/Catholic Calvary and the Orthodox Calvary), Station XII- Jesus dies on the cross (same location and chapels), Station XIII- Jesus' body is taken down and washed (Stone of the Unction), Station XIV- Jesus' body is laid in the tomb (Tomb of Jesus).

 

 

The location of these events is an ancient Jewish graveyard, thus just outside the city walls. How do we know this? When excavations were carried out in the basement of Church of the Redeemer nearby (Lutheran church inaugurated by Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1898) the remains of the city walls were found there, which proved that the Golgotha was indeed outside. 

 

In 132-135, when Emperor Hadrian authorized the building of a Roman city, Aelia Capitolina, on the ruins of Jerusalem (destroyed by Titus in 70 CE), a Temple of Aphrodite was erected at the location of the Golgotha. Steps leading to the podium of this temple were accessible fro the Roman Cardo (today it is Beit Habad Street in the shuk) are visible today inside the Russian Church of Alexander Nevsky. 

 

When the Roman Empire turned Christian, Emperor Constantine's mother Helena came to Jerusalem to find the traces of Jesus. She was shown the place of his martyrdom: she ordered the destruction of the pagan temple and the construction of a church instead: it was the Anastasia Church ('anastasis' means resurrection in Greek). At that time, in 335 CE, the complex was very large with two main buildings (one church above the Golgotha, and another above the Tomb) with a long colonnaded open-air structure in between the two. The entrance was on the Roman Cardo, where the Church of Alexander Nevsky is located today. The bedrock around Jesus' burial cave was cut off in order to build the new church: only the location of the tomb inside the cave remained. It was also during this building works that the True Cross was found (the Crypt of the Finding of the Cross, behind the Chapel of St Helena in the Holy Sepulchre, commemorates this event). 

 

 

The Sassanian Persians conquered Jerusalem in 614 CE, destroyed most of the churches in the Holy Land, and carry the True Cross away. But in 628, the Byzantines managed to retake the Holy Land and a peace was brokered with the Sassanians: the True Cross (heavily damaged) was returned to the Christians and taken back to Jerusalem through Armenia by Emperor Heraclius. There is no archaeological evidence of destruction of Jerusalem and of the Holy Sepulchre at the time of the Sassanian rule. 

 

But a new faith raised to  power: Islam. The successors of Muhammad, who died in 632, set themselves up to conquer and convert the world. In 634, the Persian Empire fell to their hands. By 636, after the decisive battle of the Yarmouk River (which forms the geographical border between the Hermon mountain range and the Golan Heights), all the Levant and the Holy Land was conquered except for Jerusalem and Caesarea. Jerusalem surrendered peacefully to the Caliph Omar al-Khattab two years later in 638, and Caesarea (the administrative seat of the Roman/Byzantine empire in the region) fell after a siege in 640. Concerning Jerusalem, this shows that the Holy City was not of religious importance to the Muslims in these days, as they didn't prioritize to conquer it for some two years after they took the Holy Land. When Omar entered the city, he was shown the Holy Sepulchre by the Patriarch of Jerusalem. As the Caliph wanted to pray, the Patriarch invited him to do so inside the Christian holy place, but Omar declined saying that, if he would do so, the Holy Sepulchre will be made a mosque after he will die ! It is said that Omar thus prayed on the steps leading to the Holy Sepulchre, which in this time were located facing the Roman Cardo (as explained above). Omar later built a mosque on the southern side of Temple Mount: it was described by the (Christian) Pilgrim Arculf in 679 CE as being made of wood. 

 

Soon after, there was a schism in the Muslim world occurred as a struggle for power between those Sunni and Shiite. The latter won and the next Caliph founded the Omayyad dynasty based in Damascus. This is the time when Jerusalem was turned to become "holy" to the Muslims too, out of political struggle when the Omayyad did not control Mecca and this caused the Hajj to be impossible for their supporters to do. Jerusalem became the replacement. In 691, Abdel al-Malek built the Dome of the Rock and his successor al-Wallid built the mosque of El-Aqsa in 705 at the Southern tip of the Temple Mount where Omar had erected the wooden mosque. Note that the Dome of the Rock is often wrongly called the "mosque of Omar": the Dome of the Rock is not a mosque !

 

Over the next 300 years, the Muslim empire went from crisis to crisis, from dynasty to dynasty. In year 1000 CE, the Christian world expected the return of Jesus, but it didn't occur: they blamed the fact that the Holy Land was no longer accessible to Christians. And worse, the Fatimid Caliph el-Hakim in Cairo ordered in 1009 the destruction of all the churches including the Holy Sepulchre. This outrage triggered the series of events that led to the Crusade of 1099. However, the following Caliph authorized the Christian (Eastern) Emperor, Monomachus, to rebuild the Holy Sepulchre. So in 1048, it was rebuilt in a smaller scale than the previous Byzantine one, with the entrance no longer on the Roman Cardo, which became very populated with Muslim shoppers, but on the Southern side where it is today. In the same timeframe, the walls of Jerusalem were rebuilt and these were the walls that the Crusaders had to overcome in 1099. But in 1054, the Christian world split in what was called the Great Schism. The Eastern Empire (Orthodox church) had controlled over the Holy land. Only after threats from a new Muslim empire in the East, Constantinople called the Pope for help, and this enabled the Roman Catholic to launch the Crusade to reconquer the Holy Land. 

 

The Crusaders conquered Jerusalem on 15 July 1099, which fell on the same Hebrew date of the Babylonian and Roman conquests, and massacred its population. Godfrey of Bouillon declined to be named King of of Jerusalem and accepted the title of Custodian of the Holy Sepulchre. Major works were carried out in the building by Queen Melisande in 1149: more chapels were created and the open-air colonnaded courtyard between the Basilica (with the Golgotha) and the Rotunda (with the Tomb) was roofed. Many of the Byzantine columns were augmented by Crusader columns, as visitors can see their different architecture inside the building today.

 

 

After less than 100 years, the Christians lost the control over Jerusalem to Saladin and the Ayyubid dynasty after the battle of Hattin in 1187. Following the reconquest, the Muslims built a "Mosque of Omar" facing the entrance of the Holy Sepulchre to commemorate the prayer of Omar al-Khattab when he took over Jerusalem in 638. But they didn't know that, when he prayed, it was on the steps on the Eastern entrance, not on the Southern entrance that didn't exist in his time.

 

After the Ayyubid rulers, came the Mamelukes who defeated the Mongol invaders and controlled a realm from Egypt to Syria, with two capitals, Cairo and Damascus. The Holy Land became a passage way between the two. But the Mamelukes wanted to leave their imprint in history and, since Cairo and Damascus were already quite built and developed, they dedicated their efforts on Jerusalem. There they built about 100 buildings and public structures, that can be seen to this day. As they wanted to avoid a repeat of the Crusades, they granted rights for the Christians to control their holy sites: in 1333, came the Italian Franciscans who established themselves as "Custodians of the Holy Land" (Custodia della Terra Sancta) and were the keepers of the Holy Sepulchre, the Room of the Last Supper and other sites. The number of such sites increased over the next centuries. But other Christian groups disputed the access to these sites, and this led to conflicts in the 19th century. In the 18th century, the Sultan had to establish a Status Quo between the Christian groups to avoid dealing with their quarrels. The division of the Old City between four quarters, each with detailed limits, also dates from this ruling.

 

In 1808, a fire destroyed some part of the Holy Sepulchre. It was an opportunity for the Greek Orthodox church to carry out renovation works. They then removed the tombs of the Crusaders who had been placed in the Holy Sepulchre, such as those of Godfrey of Bouillon and of the Crusader Kings. In 1853, the dispute between Catholic and Orthodox churches reached a point that triggered the Crimean War of the Western countries against Russia. Germany and Britain, which were Protestant countries but had access to the Holy Land from the 1830's, also supported the Catholic church in its claims against Orthodox Russia. The latter lost the war, and the Status Quo was enforced again, till this day to four holy sites: the Holy Sepulchre, the Chapel of the Ascension (Mount of the Olives), the Tomb of the Virgin Mary (in the Kidron Valley) and the Church of the Nativity (in Bethlehem). In the Holy Sepulchre, the most visible symbol of the Status Quo is the ladder that it located above the entrance to the church: it was put there by workers in 1853, and was not removed since: it is called the Immovable Ladder !

 

 

This Status Quo ruling meant that no single group of church can change anything in these four holy sites without the consent of the other groups. As consent is rarely achieved, this generally leads to neglect of maintenance of these buildings. And this is what happened to the Holy Tomb where works of repairs had been delayed for too long. The recent works even unveiled the need for more in-depth maintenance works to be carried out due mainly to the fire damage of 1808 and to the 1927 earthquake that weakened some of the foundation structures. 

 

Today the Holy Sepulchre is under the management of six Christian groups. The three major groups: the Franciscan (Roman Catholic), the Greek Orthodox, and the Armenian (Eastern Orthodox). And three minor groups which are the other Eastern churches: Ethiopian, Copt and Assyrian. These six bodies have control over dedicated chapels, and take turn in the service of the main places such as the Tomb of Jesus. Let's hope that these groups will once more agree to let maintenance works to be carried out otherwise there could be a time when the danger of collapse would be such that nobody would be allowed inside the Holy Sepulchre !

Albert Benhamou

Licensed Tour Guide

Albert Tours - March 2017

 

 

 

 

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