The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem is a sight to see, no matter if you are Christian or non-Christian. As a tour guide in Jerusalem, I’ve been to this church dozens of times, but it amazes me every single time. Usually, it’s packed with tourists and pilgrims, but if you come at the quieter hours in the morning or the evening, you’ll get a chance to explore this magnificent church, the holiest site to many Christians worldwide, with more ease.
So why is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre so important to Christians worldwide? What can you see inside? And when should you come? Here’s a complete visitor’s guide to the magnificent Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.
Why is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre important?
Thousands of Christian believers visit the church every year. According to tradition, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is where Jesus was crucified and buried. Three days afterward, he resurrected and left his tomb, which is why it is empty today. So, the church is important to Christians because it is believed to be the place of the crucifixion, burial, and resurrection of Jesus.
History of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre
In the time of Jesus (the 1st century)
Archeological excavations suggest that in the time of Jesus, this place was a rock quarry. This rock quarry operated between the 7th century BCE and the 1st century CE. Today, you can still see some remnants of this quarry on the bottommost floor of the church.
Inside the church, you will also see ancient tombs from the time of the Second Temple. These tombs suggest that there was a cemetery here. Generally, Jews do not bury their dead inside the city walls. Archeologists do not know for sure if the tombs are from the time of Jesus. If they are, it raises the chances that this location was where Jesus was crucified and buried.
A pagan temple is built
In 135 CE, when the Romans turned Jerusalem into Aelia Capitolina, a pagan temple was built on top of the quarry. The temple was dedicated to Aphrodite-Venus, the Goddess of Love.
The first church is established
After years of persecution of Christians by the Roman Empire, the Christian religion was legalized in 313 CE by the Roman emperor, Constantine the Great. Helena, the mother of Constantine, visited the Holy Land in 326 CE and searched for holy sites connected to Jesus. She asked around and understood that Jesus’ tomb should be in the location of the pagan temple. So, she decided to break down the pagan temple and, with the help of a local Jew, found the Tomb underneath the temple. A church was built around the holy site.
In 335, the church was inaugurated and named “Anastasis,” which means “resurrection.” Only when the Crusaders arrived in the 11th century, people started calling it the “Church of the Holy Sepulchre,” which means “the Church of the Holy Tomb.”
The original church was much larger than today. In the middle of the church was a large open-air garden. At the corner of the garden stood a large rock, believed to be the rock on which Jesus was crucified. Today, we call it the Golgotha or the Calvary. West to the garden was a dome protecting the empty tomb. The original entrance to the church was from the east, from one of the city’s main streets.
Here is what it might have looked like:
Destruction and rebuilding of the church
Almost 700 years passed. The Persians and the Muslims conquered Jerusalem, but the church remained relatively unharmed. This changed in 1009, when the Fatimid caliph, al-Ḥākim bi-Amr Allāh, ordered the destruction of the church. While most of the church was destroyed, you can still see some rows from the original wall inside it.
When the Christians rebuilt the church in 1048, it was much smaller than the original. The entrance to the church moved from the east to the south, where it is today.
Later, in 1099, when the Crusaders arrived as part of the Crusades, they were shocked by the looks of the church. They were expecting to see something splendid and divine but, instead, found something extremely modest. So, they decided to rebuild the compound and make significant changes. They built a huge roof and domes above the church, so the garden was no longer open to the sky.
In modern times
The church stood almost unharmed for centuries until a fire broke in it in 1808. This fire caused much damage and required comprehensive renovations. The owners of the church used the opportunity to add a few more walls to the compound. This made the church darker and more claustrophobic.
Later, in 1927, an earthquake shook Jerusalem and the church. It led to another round of renovations. Catholic archeologists used the opportunity to make excavations in the church for the first time. These excavations helped us learn a lot about the history of the holy place.
The Status Quo
In Latin, “Status quo” means “the existing state of affairs.” The property rights and liturgy rights in the Christian holy places of the Holyland have been dynamic for centuries. But they have stopped being dynamic since the mid-19th century. Following the Crimean War, several great powers signed the Paris Treaty in 1856. Amongst other things, they pledged to observe the status quo of the Christian holy places. So, they could no longer change the existing state of affairs unless all the owners agreed.
The agreement refers to only four sites in the Holy Land: The Church of Nativity in Bethlehem, Mary’s Tomb at the base of the Mount of Olives, the Chapel of Ascension on top of the mountain, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Old City of Jerusalem.
When the Status Quo started, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was divided between six Christian denominations. Those denominations are the Catholic-Franciscans, the Greek-Orthodox, the Armenians, the Copts, the Assyrians, and the Ethiopians. Each one of the denominations is responsible for different spaces in the church. Some areas are owned by two different denominations, which sometimes causes problems because both must agree if they wish to change anything in the shared space. The ownership of the different areas has stayed the same since the mid-19th century.
When is the best time to visit the church?
Usually, the church is packed during the afternoon. If you plan to enter the empty tomb, be aware that the waiting time might be very long, sometimes even more than an hour.
To avoid the crowds, try to come early in the morning or late in the evening. But keep in mind that the tomb itself opens to visitors only after the High Mass in front of the tomb ends, around 7:30 AM in summer and 6:30 AM. I advise coming around that time or after 5 PM. Also, entrance is not allowed half an hour before closing time.
The opening hours of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre are October to March from 4 AM to 7 PM and April to September from 5 AM to 9 PM. On Sundays, parts of the church might be closed alternately for the different ceremonies.
Also, if you plan to visit in April, the church might be very crowded or closed for special ceremonies. April is the month of Easter, and many events are going on in the church.
By the way, entry is free of charge!
Can you attend a mass at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre?
If you would like to attend a mass at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, it’s very much possible – and you don’t need to reserve a place in advance. The masses usually occur in the early morning, starting at 4:30 AM in winter and 5:30 AM in the summer. The Catholic masses take place in three places in the church – the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament (the Chapel of the Apparition), the Calvary, and in front of the Tomb. For the most accurate mass hours, visit the CIC’s official website.
If you’re a pilgrim and wish to stay overnight to pray, you need to come to the church on the same day and ask the monks for permission to stay overnight. Usually, it is possible.
Where is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre?
The church is located in the Christian Quarter of the Old City. To get there, you will need to walk. You can enter the city through Jaffa Gate, the New Gate, or Damascus Gate. It’s about a 5-10-minute walk from all of them.
Want to go on a guided tour of Christian Jerusalem?
I’m Lior, a certified Israeli tour guide, and I would love to take you on a private tour of the Christian sites of Jerusalem, including the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Via Dolorosa, and the Mount of Olives. Learn more about my Christian Walking Tour of Jerusalem on Israel Walking Tours. Or, you can simply contact me with your tour request.
- Take off your hat before entering the church. I have already been with someone walking around with a hat, and one of the monks asked him to take it off.
- Dress modestly. Learn more about the dress code in Jerusalem’s holy sites.
- Do not smoke in the area of the church.
- Do not eat or drink beverages in the church.
- Be respectful of the place. Try to keep as quiet as possible, and definitely do not laugh.
What to see in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre?
I think the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is one of the most magnificent churches in the world. It is enormous. There are many things to see inside. So, I won’t go over every detail, but I’ll tell you about the main things to see:
Before you enter the church, take a look at its façade. Yes, it’s quite simple, but there are some things to talk about:
You can see a short staircase on the right side of the façade. The staircase leads to a small chapel with a dome. In 1149, the Crusaders used this chapel as the direct entrance to the Golgotha, the crucifixion point. Instead of entering the church and then climbing up to the Golgotha, the pilgrims could simply climb up from here.
The Unmovable Ladder
Look below the right-hand window, and you’ll see a wooden ladder. In Wikipedia, it is called “the Unmovable Ladder.” After the Crusader period, the Christians of Jerusalem had very limited rights. They had to block part of the entrance to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and were not allowed to ring the bells. Also, the church was locked throughout the year, and they were allowed to open it only once or twice a year on important holidays. The problem was that the monks lived in the church. They had to get food. So, they climbed down the ladder to the windowsill, lowered a rope with a basket, and someone loaded it with food supplies.
In 1831, an Egyptian ruler named Ibrahim Pasha of Egypt arrived and improved the rights of the minorities. Since then, the church is open every day. The ladder was no longer needed, but for some reason stayed there. And then, in 1856, the Status Quo kicked in, and the ladder became its symbol. It shows that even the smallest detail cannot be changed. Even if they wanted to move the ladder, it would be a problem since it isn’t clear who owns it. The windowsill belongs to the Greek Orthodox, while the room behind the window belongs to the Armenians. Only the rightful owner can move it from its place.
Here’s a fun fact: The keys to the church are kept in the hands of two Muslim families. The Joudeh family is in charge of the key, while the Nuseibeh family is in charge of opening and closing the door. They claim that they got the keys in the time of Saladin, around the late 12th century. They were responsible for opening and closing the church in the mid-19th century, and it stayed that way because of the Status Quo. So, until today, they perform the opening and closing of the church every day.
If you’re lucky, you might meet the family representative on the bench inside the church.
The Stone of Anointing
When you enter the church, you first see the Stone of Anointing, also known as the Stone of Unction. If there are pilgrims, they will usually be on their knees next to the stone, touching it. Some also place small items on it for a few seconds and then take them back home. They believe that the objects absorb the holiness of Jesus because his body was laid here after being removed from the cross. Here, they believe he was prepared for burial.
Jesus was a Jew, and Jews cannot be buried during the holy day of Shabbat. According to tradition, Jesus died on Friday afternoon, at 3 PM. Some scholars believe he died on Thursday afternoon (see this article for example). But if the tradition is true, they had to prepare him fast to bury him before Shabbat enters on Friday eve. The preparation included anointment and wrapping of the body in shrouds.
Look at the wall in front of the Stone of Anointment. A modern mosaic depicts the crucifixion, the preparation for burial, and the burial itself.
From the entrance, turn right and climb several steep stairs to the second floor. Here, you can see the topmost edge of the Golgotha, believed to be the rock on which Jesus was put on the cross. Today, it is secured underneath a thick layer of glass so pilgrims won’t break a piece to take home.
The space comprises two chapels, one Catholic-Franciscan, and the other Greek-Orthodox. The first chapel you enter is the Catholic one, with beautiful modern mosaics on the walls. One of the mosaics shows the scene of the Binding of Isaac. There’s a ram, a male sheep, caught in the thickets. In the Biblical story, Abraham sacrificed it instead of Isaac. The other mosaic in the chapel shows Jesus nailed to the cross. In the background, there’s a bush, but there’s no ram caught in it. That’s because Jesus is going to be sacrificed. In this case, according to Christian belief, Jesus is like the ram for humanity. He sacrificed himself for all people.
The Greek-Orthodox chapel is where you’ll find the top of the Golgotha, about 5 meters (16 feet) tall. In the past, this area was an open garden, and you could really appreciate the height of it. But now you can only imagine. If you want to see more of the Golgotha, climb down the other set of stairs and then turn right. You’ll see another bit of the rock behind glass.
Did you know? The Golgotha is part of the Via Dolorosa and the 14 Stations of the Cross, a famous Christian route in the Old City of Jerusalem. The route follows Jesus’ steps to crucifixion and resurrection. Read more about it in my full guide >> Walking the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem.
The Chapel of the Finding of the Holy Cross
Exit the Golgotha from the other set of stairs and then turn right. Continue through the curving corridor until you see another set of stairs to your right, going down. As you climb down the stairs, notice the small crosses carved into the stone walls. This is ancient graffiti from the 12th century.
At the bottom of the stairs, you’ll reach the Chapel of Saint Helena. It’s a beautiful chapel owned by the Armenians, with many mosaics, paintings, and wall paintings.
On the right side of the chapel, you’ll find another set of stairs. They’ll lead you to the Chapel of the Finding of the Holy Cross. The chapel walls are probably part of an ancient quarry that existed here in the time of the Romans. According to tradition, this is where Saint Helena, the mother of Constantine the Great, found the True Cross. There’s a statue of Saint Helena here, holding the cross on which Jesus was crucified.
There are many legends connected to the finding of the True Cross. One tells that Helena forced a Jew to tell her where the cross was hidden. She starved him in a dry well for a week until he led her to this place. Then, he dug and revealed three crosses. One belonged to Jesus, one to the Good Thief, and one to the Bad Thief. All three were crucified together on the same day. So, which one belonged to Jesus? Luckily, a funeral passed, and Helena hurried to test the crosses on the dead body. They placed one cross on the body, and nothing happened. They placed the second cross, and nothing happened. Then, they placed the third cross, and the man returned to life.
The Holy Sepulchre
Climb back up to the corridor and walk to the other side of the church, the circular Rotunda. There, you’ll find the Holy Sepulchre, the empty tomb of Jesus. Look up to see the spectacular dome. If you come during daylight, you can see light spilling through the hole in the ceiling.
According to Christian belief, Jesus was buried here, in a burial cave originally intended for Joseph of Arimathea. Joseph was a rich man and a disciple of Jesus, and because Jesus didn’t have a burial cave, he offered his own. Three days after the burial, on Sunday, a group of women came to visit the tomb. But they found it empty. Inside, they saw an angel that told them: “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. But he has risen! He is not here!” (Mark 16:6, NIRV)
The Holy Sepulchre is found inside the Aedicule, the small structure in the middle of the Rotunda. The Aedicule is made of two rooms. In the first one, you’ll find a relic of the Angel’s Stone, believed to be part of the large stone that sealed the tomb. In the second room, you’ll find what is believed to be the rock bed on which Jesus’ body was laid for burial. When there are many tourists, entering the Aedicule could take a very long time, sometimes even more than an hour. And every visitor can only stay a few moments inside.
About the Holy Fire
One of the most important Christian ceremonies occurs in the Aedicule every year, the night before Easter Sunday. The Greek-Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem enters the Aedicule and emerges with the “Holy Fire.” Then, the fire is passed among thousands of believers who want to take some of the holiness back home.
Watch this video by the Christian Youth Channel to get a better understanding of the ceremony:
The Tomb of Joseph of Arimathea
West of the Aedicule, you’ll find a door leading to the Chapel of Joseph of Arimathea. What’s interesting here are the ancient niche tombs. There’s a small opening in the wall, and you can peek inside with a flashlight. They are typical of Jewish burials in the Second Temple period. According to a new tradition, these are the tombs of Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus. Both helped prepare Jesus for burial. Joseph of Arimathea gave him his tomb; Nicodemus brought a large mixture of myrrh and aloes to make it a royal burial.
Jewish people never buried their dead within the walls. That is why these niche tombs are important. They prove this area was outside the city walls sometime during the Second Temple period. So, it is one of the archeological proofs that this could be the place of Jesus’ crucifixion.
“The Center of the World” – the Catholicon
Get back to the Rotunda and walk to the other side of the Aedicule. Right in front of its entrance, there’s a huge hall called the Catholicon. Usually, it is closed by a rope.
The Crusaders built the Catholicon on the place of the Holy Garden. It was the central nave of the Crusader-era church. Above it is the largest Crusader-era dome in Israel.
In the hall, there’s a low, circular object made from stone called “omphalos.” According to Greek-Orthodox tradition, this omphalos symbolizes the center of the world. Jews also believe Jerusalem is the center of the world, but they say it is where the Foundation Stone is, beneath the Dome of the Rock. That is where the Holy Temple stood. In Christianity, the tradition moved to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and specifically to the Catholicon.
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