The Holy Sepulchre

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Greek altar

Greek altar

As I neared the Church of The Holy Sepulchre’s crumbling portals, I noticed a wooden cross leaning against the door of a side chapel. Crucifixion had been used by the Persians as a deterrent as early as 700 BC.

And what an effective means of public persuasion it must have been! With its sole objective the torment of painful death, crucifixion makes the modern-day dictatorship seem benign by comparison. The Roman authorities had also used crucifixion. Never squeamish and governing a vast realm, they had utilised it as an instrument of capital punishment for troublesome slaves and low-class malefactors. The Caesar’s message was clear – break my law and I will break you.

The cross had been associated with religious and mystical meanings long before Christianity, and one wonders whether its use as a vehicle of death was deliberate or not. For example, the Egyptian cross – the ankh –was a symbol of eternal life.

Crucifixion occurred on three kinds of crosses: the Tau cross (a capital T), the St Anthony’s cross (a lower case †) or the St Andrew’s cross (a capital X). Christian iconography reflects a stylised tableau of the St Anthony’s version where Christ swoons romantically on the † cross.

The reality of crucifixion was harsh. For once fastened to the cross in a public place, you could take six days to die. However, if a Roman soldier decided to break your legs with a special bone-breaking club, or crucifragium, your end through lack of circulation, suffocation and heart failure would only take a few merciful minutes.

‘At the place where Jesus was crucified, there was a garden, and in the garden, a new tomb…and since the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there’.

These words in John’s Gospel (19: 41-42) are self-explanatory. But they describe a landscape that has long gone, the complaints of a gardener about his lettuces being trampled a somewhat quirky historical footnote. For what Helena discovered when she arrived in Jerusalem, after being directed to the site of the crucifixion, was a Roman Temple to Aphrodite.

Originally, the crucifixion venue had been outside the city walls. The rock of Cavalry or Golgotha – upon which Christ was hung on the cross – had overlooked a small incline and disused quarry in which there were rock-cut tombs. It was in one of these tombs that the body of Jesus was said to have been placed before his rising from the dead.

What Helena faced was the challenge of having to dismantle and demolish a temple, as well as excavating the site that had been leveled by Emperor Hadrian after the Bar Kochba revolt of CE 135. The hill, into which the ancient tomb had been carved, was dug away as was the filled-in depression 50 metres south-east towards Golgotha.

As the Byzantine diggers removed the earth, the rocky topography of Jerusalem began to reveal itself. But not before Helena had made an astounding discovery, the remnants of what, she believed, was the true cross – the very timbers upon which Christ himself had been nailed.

And these timbers, according to legends, had come from the Tree of Life whose fruit Adam had eaten in Heaven. The story goes that as Adam lies on his deathbed the Angel Michael gives Seth a seed from the tree, which he plants in his father’s mouth. This seed germinates in Adam’s grave and grows into an earthly tree.

Centuries later it is chopped down and its trunk is used to bridge a river. Queen Sheba, who is on her way to visit Solomon, arrives at this crossing. As she is about to step on the trunk, she hears a divine message that a Saviour would be crucified on a cross made from its wood.

There are commentators such as the 18th century historian, Edward Gibbon, who suggest that Helena’s archaeological find is too much of a happy co-incidence. He pointedly asks why Eusibius, Constantine’s biographer, is so silent on the matter. It is left to Sozomen, writing a century later, to fill in the curious details1.

According to Sozomen, Helena had unearthed the remains of three crosses and a piece of wood with ‘Jesus’ inscribed on it close to the tomb. Much excited by this, Constantine’s mother had faced a dilemma. Which of these crosses was the true one? It was left to the Macarius, the Bishop of Jerusalem, to find a solution.

An aristocratic lady was stricken with an incurable disease and Macarius, accompanied by Helena and his attendants, had visited her sickbed. His view was that the real cross would heal her. Two of the crosses were laid on her body to no effect. But when the third was placed on her, she had opened her eyes and jumped out of bed.

It took the Byzantines three decades to complete the monument. Twice the size of the current structure, all that remains of it today are a few columns in the present courtyard and its door, which is now part of an Old City confectionary called Zalatimo’s Sweets.

The original building consisted of two connected churches with four distinctive elements: the Cardo, the Atrium, the Martyrion and the Anastasis. The Cardo was the decorative eastern street entrance which led into the courtyard, or Atrium. To the west of the Atrium (or directly ahead) was the colonnaded basilica, the Martyrion, with its west-facing niche.

Beyond the basilica was another atrium, the inner garden, where Golgotha or the Cavalry was situated. Further west (or almost straight ahead again) was the ornate Byzantine dome, a huge structure towering over the marble edicule that housed the tomb.

In its original 4th century form, Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre must have been one of the most impressive monuments of its age. The only existing comparison I can make to the original Church of the Holy Sepulchre is with the Hagia Sofia, completed two centuries later in Constantinople.

Jerusalem became a major focus of the Christian world. There are many accounts of the Ecaenia festivals commemorating the finding of the cross, during which time the churches would be lavishly decorated. As many as fifty Bishops and their flocks would descend upon the Sepulchre from all corners of the Levant. The writings of Egeria, a Gallic lady who recorded her 4th century pilgrimage in a lengthy epistle, describe the events2.

In CE 613 a somewhat dissolute Sassanid ruler, Chosroes II, would invade Damascus before heading off to sack Jerusalem a year later. Said to have 3, 000 concubines in his court, and to have killed his opponents by having elephants trample them, he was the same king who tore up a letter that Prophet Muhammad had sent him.

In 614 Persian forces laid waste to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and carried off the true cross to Ctesiphon. In 629 the Byzantine ruler Heraclius, who also received a letter from Muhammad – but this time with a more favourable disposition – regained control over the Levant and recaptured the true cross.

By this time the Islamic realm was beginning to rise from the sands of the Hijaz. In 634 a Muslim army finally defeated the Sassanid Persians, whose empire quickly collapsed.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, particularly its large basilica and eastern portal, would never be seen again in their former proportions. The church was partially rebuilt after the Persians, but an earthquake in 808 damaged it once more.

It was renovated; but two centuries later in 1008 the erratic and irrational Fatimid ruler, Hakim, decreed that the Church be demolished. I have already written that this utterly foolish decree probably influenced Pope Urban to agitate for the Crusades. In 1099 the Crusader armies reached Jerusalem. By 1144 the Church of the Holy Sepulchre had risen from the rubble, and it is this version of the building that we visit today.

I entered the gloomy and cavernous interior of the Church. Ascending stairs to my right, I found myself at the tenth and eleventh Stations of the Cross, the Latin – or Catholic – cavalry. This was where Jesus had been stripped before being mounted on the cross. A mosaic of Jesus surrounded by mourners faced me on the altar wall. The altar itself was austere – a simple crucifix, a few candles and two small bowls of flowers.

A few steps brought me to the Greek cavalry next door. Facing the rock of Golgotha, and said to stand over the hole where the cross actually stood, this chapel was a glittering blaze of silver, bronze, beaten copper and colourful friezes. Its altar was a beige marble slab covered with a blue velvet cloth upon which rested exquisitely wrought chalices and a dazzling candelabra with seven golden ivy branches. Candles glowed in a polished brass bowl.

Two holes marked where the two thieves crucified with Jesus had stood, and to the right of the altar was a piece of rock under glass. A fissure running in the rock was said to have been caused by natural events after Jesus’ passing away. Station 13, where Jesus was removed from the cross, faced the altar.

Taking my leave of this tableau, I retreated to the stone of unction behind the Greek chapel. Situated in the entrance hall of the church, it is actually the first thing you see as you enter the building. A group of pilgrims were kneeling and praying before this stone, said to be where Jesus was anointed before his burial.

Worn smooth by millions of hands over the centuries, the stone has eight white and gold lamps hanging above it. On each side of the stone were a thicket of towering silver candelabras. I snapped a picture of the pilgrims and made my way to the Holy Sepulchre which was encircled by twelve massive columns.

As a structure it reminded me of the Dome of the Rock, but that was where the similarity ended. This was the part of the building that had managed to survive most of the Persian and Fatimid depredations.

Above me towered the dome itself, a glass opening at the apex letting in shafts of light whose shadows, if anything, only accentuated the gloom of the building. There were no friezes decorating the drum, which was stark in its stony simplicity. Inside the cupola there were twelve gold flashes, each one representing an apostle.

The edicule housing the Holy Sepulchre was about four metres high. It was dressed in orange veined marble, and golden lamps, icons, towering candelabras and curling columns jostled for space. A burly monk resembling Hagrid stood guard at its scalloped portal.

Inside was an antechamber where it was said that an Angel had foretold the Resurrection. Next was a smaller chamber, the burial cave. A marble bench indicated where Jesus was said to have rested before rising. And that was that. I had followed the symbolic footprints of the crucifixion. Dare I say it was an anti-climax? After all the hype, history and soaring metaphor, Christianity’s holiest site was but an empty room.


1 F. E Peters, Jerusalem, p 138, quotes Sozomen in detail. F.E. Peters, Jerusalem, Princeton University Press, 1985.

 2 Op. cit. p 140.

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