It’s the holiest place in Christianity: the Holy Sepulcher’s Church (also known as The Church of Resurrection). The Church of the Holy Sepulcher is archeologically significant, holds ancient mysteries, has been witness to miracles, and has long been the subject of interdenominational disputes.
Since the fourth century, the site has been recognized as the place where Jesus was crucified, buried, and resurrected. Whether it’s the actual site has been hotly debated by scholars. There is no dispute regarding its provenance as an ancient, holy site, however. Although previous archaeological evidence dated only to the Crusader period, Samples of mortar taken during a 2016 renovation dated to about 345 AD.
A Venerated Christian Pilgrimage Site
Initially, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher became a major Christian pilgrimage destination in the fourth century. However, research findings by Professor Ken Dark of the University of Reading in England suggest that by the third century, Christians searched for the site and that as early as the mid-second century, the Christian writer Justin Martyr knew about a cave in Bethlehem said to be the location of the Nativity.
Today the Church of the Holy Sepulcher continues to be one of the holiest Christian pilgrimage sites. Although the pandemic stalled in-person visits, virtual experiences, such as those offered by Churches for Middle East Peace that feature voices from Christian, Jewish, and Muslim faith communities and both Palestinians and Israeli, are available.
Ancient Miracles and Mysteries
Jerusalem’s early Christian community appears to have held liturgical celebrations at Christ’s tomb from the time of the resurrection until the Romans took the city in 66 AD. In 135 AD, Emperor Hadrian filled in the quarry to provide a level foundation for a temple to Aphrodite.
It’s said that after seeing a vision of a cross in the sky in 312 AD, Emperor Constantine the Great converted to Christianity and commissioned churches to be built throughout the Holy Land. Construction on The Church of the Holy Sepulchre was started in 326 AD, leading Constantine’s builders to clear away Hadrian’s temple, which led to the discovery of the Rock of Golgotha.
The site is also revered as the location where St. Helena, the mother of Constantine the Great, located the True Cross of Christ’s Crucifixion. Legend says she discovered three crosses—those of the two thieves and that of Christ. The Crusaders built the Chapel of St. Helena in her honor. Below it lies the Chapel of the Finding of the True Cross, in which the relic was reportedly discovered.
Centuries of Destruction and Repair
Over the centuries Church of the Holy Sepulchre suffered from damage, desecration, and neglect, including a fire in 1808 and an earthquake in 1927 that caused extensive damage.
In 614 A.D., when the Persians captured Jerusalem, the Great Basilica, or Martyrion, was wholly or partially destroyed by fire. Still, it was rebuilt about 626 A.D. by Modestus, Superior of the Monastery of Theodosius.
In 936, and again in 969, when the Fatimite Caliphs gained possession of the city, portions of the churches were damaged by fire. In 1010 it was partially destroyed by El-Hakim, the third Fatimite Caliph. Viewed as a wild fanatic, he commenced systematic persecution of the Christians, drove them from their churches, and even attempted to destroy the Holy Sepulchre.
The city fell under Turkish rule during the last half of the eleventh century, but by 1099, the Crusaders captured Jerusalem and began to remodel the church and add new shrines. Although the church was damaged in 1187 and 1244, the buildings remained nearly unchanged since the Crusaders left them until the great fire of 1808.
Other than some restoration work, its appearance has essentially not changed since 1854. The church’s chaotic history is evident in the mix of byzantine, medieval, crusader, and modern elements in an odd mish-mash of styles.
Six denominations—Roman Catholics, Greek Orthodox, Armenians, Syrians, Ethiopians, and Copts—share the Holy Sepulcher Church. Even now, tensions can run high, occasionally prompting physical skirmishes. That sphere of control (known as the Status Quo decree) of each was closely defined, down to the last inch, during Ottoman rule in the 18th century.
Two Muslim families are responsible for unlocking and locking the church and guarding the key. Historians differ on the roots of the arrangement. One theory says disputes between the rival denominations had become so bitter that the key was entrusted to two prominent Muslim families. Another says Saladin most likely bestowed guardianship upon the two families to assert Muslim dominance over Christianity in the city. It also had financial implications, with a tax from visitors collected at the door.
The duty is handed down from father to son and continues today. Adeeb Joudeh began learning the responsibility at the age of eight and has now held the 800-year old key for 30 years. Another of the city’s oldest Muslim families, the Nusseibehs, was entrusted with the duty of opening and closing the church doors, a task they perform to this day.
Thankfully, the three primary denominations worked together to restore the Edicule, the structure inside the church that covered the entrance to an underground tomb and was in danger of collapsing. They also signed an agreement in 2019 to initiate a project to restore and rehabilitate the Holy Sepulcher Church.
Hopefully, the cooperation will continue to ensure that the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, a place of immense religious and historical significance, will be preserved.