This is a paper I wrote half while in Israel (when I was actually able to explore inside) and then half when I got back to the U.S. about the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, it’s archaeology, history, and my thoughts.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre Sarah Reese
“There is very little as entertaining as watching monks hitching up their cassocks and laying into each other” (Cohen 2008: xi). Perhaps, this is why the holiest site in Christianity makes the news on a fairly regular basis. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre has been a center of history, tradition, worship, and dispute for generations. It is also the biggest paradox I have ever encountered. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is cherished yet neglected, brings millions together yet reminds them of their differences, and is a center of beautiful architecture compounded together to create the ultimate “ugly duckling” of churches.
While there will most likely always be debate centered around the location of Calvary, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre remains the best candidate so far for the actual tomb of Jesus. The location of the Church, topography, and archaeology support the criteria mentioned in the New Testament (Coüasnon 1974: 6). John’s description of the location of Golgotha may be the most detailed. He writes,
“And He, bearing His cross, went out to a place called the Place of a Skull, which is called in Hebrew, Golgotha, where they crucified Him, and two others with Him, one on either side, and Jesus in the center. Now Pilate wrote a title and put it on the cross. And the writing was: JESUS OF NAZARETH, THE KING OF THE JEWS. Then many of the Jews read this title, for the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city; and it was written in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin” (John, Chapter 19, Verses 17-20).
The books of Matthew (Chapter 27 Verses 39-40) and Mark (Chapter 15 Verses 29-30) mention the verbal mocking of “those who passed by” indicating that Golgotha may have been near a well-used street, path, or gate in the city. The Book of Hebrews (Chapter 13, Verse 12) says, “Therefore Jesus also, that He might sanctify the people with His own blood, suffered outside the gate.” This also establishes Calvary as being outside the city walls. The location of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was incorporated within the walls of the city sometime around AD 41-4 with the construction of the Third Wall by Herod Agrippa (see Figure 1) (Biddle, Avni, Seligman, and Winter 2000: 23; Biddle 1999: 58).
The Books of Matthew (Chapter 27, Verses 57-61), Mark (Chapter 15, Verses 42-47), Luke (Chapter 23, Verses 50-55), and John (Chapter 19, Verses 38-42) all record that Jesus was buried in a tomb owned by Joseph of Arimathea. The Gospels also collectively or individually state that the tomb was hewn out of the rock, in a garden, that it was brand-new, and that it was nearby. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre exhibits tombs dating to the time of Jesus, as well as evidence for an ancient quarry dating back to the 7’th or 8’th century B.C. (Bahat; Biddle, Avni, Seligman, and Winter 2000: 27).
This at the very least makes the area around the Church of the Holy Sepulchre a contender for the location of Jesus’ Tomb.
The general history of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is one of repeated destruction and restoration. Soon after the crucifixion around A.D. 30/33, Jerusalem builds the Third Wall around the city, and suffers destruction by the Romans in the year 70 (Biddle, Avni, Seligman, and Winter 2000: 20). In the year 135, Roman Emperor Hadrian constructs a temple to Venus (see Figure 2) over the sites of Golgotha and the tomb (Biddle, Avni, Seligman, and Winter 2000: 20). In 325-326 AD, Emperor Constantine, “orders the construction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (see Figure 3), consisting of the domed Rotunda of the Anastasis (the Resurrection) and the Edicule over the tomb, the Parvis, the court before the cross, and the basilica of the Marturion” (Biddle, Avni, Seligman, and Winter 2000: 20).
In 327-328 AD, Empress Helena (Constantine’s mother) journeys to the eastern provinces and oversees construction on the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. In the course of the work, the tomb believed to belong to Jesus and wood believed to be the remains of the True Cross are found (Biddle, Avni, Seligman, and Winter 2000: 20). In order to accommodate the church better, the rock outcropping is cut away to isolate Jesus’s tomb (see Figure 4).
The Church is sacked and looted in 614 A.D. by the Persians, but it is not until 1009 that the Church is completely demolished, “by order of Caliph al-Hakim, the Fatimid ruler of Egypt” (Biddle, Avni, Seligman, and Winter 2000: 20). In 1037-1041 A.D., “The Byzantine emperor Michael IV, the Paphlagonian, completes the rebuilding of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre” (Biddle, Avni, Seligman, and Winter 2000: 21). After the Crusaders capture and sack Jerusalem in 1099, they continue their own reconstruction (see Figure 5) until surrendering Jerusalem to Saladin in 1187.
In 1517, the Ottoman Turks capture Palestine and the Church remains unharmed until it is badly damaged by fire in 1808 and suffers an earthquake in 1927 (Biddle, Avni, Seligman, and Winter 2000: 21).
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is truly unique. “This is the only church in the world where first-century Herodian, second-century Hadrianic, fourth-century Constantinian, eleventh-century Byzantine, twelfth-century Crusader, nineteenth-century neo-Byzantine, and twentieth-century modern masonry are visible in one place” (see Figure 6) (Cohen 2008: 4).
“It is also the only church in the world where six of the most ancient Christian denominations worship side by side” (Cohen 2008: 5). As the church’s architecture gradually diversified over the years, so did the Christian faith. There are as many denominations seeking possession of the church as there are phases of architecture. The six denominations currently holding rights to the church consist of major and minor communities. “The Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Armenian Orthodox churches are known as major communities, with rights of possession and usage at the holy places. The Coptic, Ethiopian, and Syrian Orthodox churches are deemed minor communities, with rights of usage but not rights of possession at the holy places” (Cohen 2008: 5). These rights of possession were set in place with the establishment of the Status Quo of 1757, and every ruling power since has found it preferable to maintain the Status Quo than to risk the peace and enter into a complex jurisdictional war between the denominations.
Before the establishment of the Status Quo, the various denominations vied for control of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre under the provisions of Shari’a and Ottoman property law, which rules that, “a holy place of whatever religion is waqf, an inalienable religious endowment, not mulk, private property. Ownership of a shrine, such as the Church of the Resurrection, is not absolute. Those who reside in it have rights of possession, in the sense that they can hold and use it, but they do not have title and cannot dispose of the property either by sale or gift. Once a mosque, always a mosque” (Cohen 2008: 7). While the Sultan could not transfer ownership to a single party, he could grant certain privileges by means of a firman or edict (Cohen 2008: 7). “But that firman was…just the record of the grant of a privilege that could always be retracted. Indeed, throughout the Ottoman period the authorities time and again transferred rights of possession and usage at the holy places from one community to another” (Cohen 2008: 7). Control of the church continually changed hands in a never-ending, “competition for imperial decrees bestowing rights of possession and usage,” with the denominations often resorting to fabricated documents, bribes, and violence (Cohen 2008: 6). Around 1757, another series of edicts was issued in which the Greeks gained primacy, creating the Status Quo we see today. “The minor communities – Copts, Ethiopians, and Syrians – were not involved in this property arrangement,” because they were deemed assistants of the Armenians (Cohen 2008: 9). Shortly before the outbreak of the Crimean War, Sultan Abdul Mejid and the weakened Ottoman Empire faced opposing pressures from France and Russia regarding control of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. While Tsar Nicolas insisted the 1757 Status Quo be maintained, Louis Napoleon pushed for the restoration of Latin preeminence (Cohen 2008: 8). Finally, the Sultan, “faced by the threat of Russian invasion, capitulated to pressure and agreed to freeze the situation indefinitely. In a first firman of February 1852, he solemnly confirmed and consolidated Greek rights. In a second firman of May 1853, he definitely affirmed the status quo” (Cohen 2008: 8). Change could only be made if an agreement was reached by all three parties, and not so much as a painting could be moved in a common area without unanimous approval (see Figure 7).
Contrary to many assumptions, the Status Quo was not the result of a mutual “agreement” between the denominations. Only the Greek Orthodox (who took the greatest piece of the pie) were even remotely satisfied by the conditions. “The sultan’s purpose at the time was not even to prevent local conflict between the Latins and Greeks, simply to defuse the situation between the great powers by removing the question of the holy places from the realm of international politics. Nevertheless, strict enforcement of the Status Quo by the authorities became thereafter the primary tool for preserving order between the communities” Cohen 2008: 8). Even after the British take control in 1917, the Government of Jordan in 1948, and the State of Israel in 1967, the 1757 Status Quo is ultimately maintained in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (Biddle, Avni, Seligman, and Winter 2000: 21).
“The most blatant loophole in the Status Quo regime was that it did not provide a satisfactory mechanism for enabling major repairs to be carried out to contested areas of the Holy Sepulchre. The reason for this lay in two features of Turkish property law: first, payment for the repair of a structure indicated possession, and second, the owner of the covering of a building owned the building” (Cohen 2008: 11). As much as one community might want to pay for a certain repair, the other two communities would be eager to block it, for fear that the repair would indicate ownership” (Cohen 2008: 11). “Within their own chapels, the communities had substantial freedom of action, though other communities might have censing rights at specific times….. Minor repairs to common property required a consensus of all three communities and the equal sharing of expenses” (Cohen 2008: 9). Long before the earthquake of 1927 (which forced the denominations to make a few compromises) the Church was in a habitual state of neglect and disrepair as a result of the denominations’ unwillingness to share power over repairs. Only after excruciatingly long and complex negotiations (aided in part by the ruling British government), repairs to the Church began at snail’s pace and hit many snags along the way. Today, the church is structurally sound, but as loud, crowded, chaotic and eclectic as ever (see Figure 8). With no signs, labels, or directions, it is easy to get lost in the church, or find yourself in front of some monument or chapel and have absolutely no idea what it is for.
However, prepared visitors will recognize the reconstructed edicule (see Figure 9a), Crusader graffiti (see Figure 9b), and the famous ancient lock on the front door whose key has been in the possession of the same family for hundreds of years.
My first impressions of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre were not favorable. I found myself lamenting the deification of stuff and the value of a place over what happened there. Then, as I considered the reasons as to why I found myself hating the place so passionately, I realized something:
Perhaps, in the midst of all it’s hopeless politics, weird architecture, and international importance, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre ends up being the perfect monument to Calvary. It symbolizes the perfect paradox of Calvary: the viciousness and ugliness of humanity and the beauty of unconditional love and the sacrifice made to rescue it.
Bar Magazine: Biblical Archaeology Review, Bringing the Ancient World to Life 8/6/12 http://www.bib-arch.org/online-exclusives/easter-06.asp
1999 The Tomb of Christ. Pheonix Mill: Sutton Publishing Limited
Biddle, M., Avni, G., Seligman, J., Winter, T.
2000 The Church of the Holy Sepulchre. New York, NY: Rizzoli International Publications, Inc.
2008 Saving the Holy Sepulchre: How Rival Christians Came Together to Rescue Their Holiest Shrine. New York, NY: Oxford University Press
Coüasnon, C., O.P.
1974 The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. London: Oxford University Press
Figures 1, 2, 3, 5a, 5b, 6
Figures 7, 9a, 9b
My photographs of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre